“I am, in so many ways, a fundamentally different person now” says Connor Jessup as we chat via webcam (watch above) about his breakthrough role on “American Crime.” In the second season of this acclaimed anthology series by Oscar-winning writer John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), Jessup plays Taylor Blaine, a troubled teenager attending the exclusive Leyland Academy on a scholarship. He alleges being drugged and raped by another student (Joey Pollari) and this triggers a tragic series of events. As the season unfolds over 10 episodes, we see this story from different perspectives; Taylor and his mother (Lili Taylor), the school’s headmaster (Felicity Huffman) and basketball coach (Timothy Hutton), and his fellow students and their families.
The actor readily admits it was a challenge to do the story justice, and says he was grateful for Ridley’s guidance. “When it is in John’s hands, you feel this immense relief, because when you stay up at night and you think oh God, how do I fit in to a thematic narrative about sexual assault, or sexual assault in America, or sexuality in America, you start to get sweaty.” But, as he explains, “You knew, that whatever you did, there was a rock solid foundation below you and that is an incredible safety net. It’s terrifying, but it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Jessup says the the show was a master class in acting, especially when it came to scenes with Taylor. “Watching Lili work was a wellspring of inspiration” he says. “There’s a lot of crutches and easy techniques and tics that you can fall back on as an actor because ninety-five percent of the time they do the job. But watching Lili use none of those, and refuse to milk a moment and just completely commit to this woman’s internal dignity and forward momentum, it changed the way I felt about acting.”
He also appreciated the unique structure of the show, which many critics have praised as a highlight. “It breaks a lot of rules,” the actor says. “You can be in a scene for three minutes and never be on camera. Or you can be in a scene for three minutes and its only this,” he says, framing his face with his hands in the kind of close-up shot that has become typical of the show. “Because you don’t know how its going to be cut together, you can’t think about it anymore.” However he says that, “despite the claustrophobia of it, it really is very liberating. It’s really a show about listening, for the characters and the audience. It’s about listening to the way people use language, what they’re feeling when they’re not speaking, how they’re reacting.”
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