Aden Young plays Daniel Holden, a man recently released from prison after… (Sundance Channel )
In a grassy backyard in the small town of Griffin, Ga., about 25 miles south of Atlanta, actor Aden Young is rehearsing a fight scene for the upcoming Sundance Channel series “Rectify.”
It’s early August, and the steam heat has crew and onlookers grappling for the scant amount of shade available. But Young is practicing a series of complicated stunt punches and undercuts.
Later in the air-conditioned lunch trailer, the only respite from the suffocating heat, the actor makes light of his working conditions.
“There are some days when you think, 'What’s the point walking from the makeup trailer to the set? My face is now around my navel?' '' he says with a laugh.
Young plays Daniel Holden, who at 18 was accused of raping and murdering his 16-year-old girlfriend. But after 19 years of solitary confinement on death row, he is released after new DNA evidence undermines his conviction.
The six-part series, which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday, follows Holden’s first week of release back in the insulated Georgia town that was rocked by the crime. He is unprepared for what awaits him: a family struggling to come to terms with his return, a community still skeptical of his innocence and a wormhole of technological and social change.
From “Breaking Bad” producers Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, “Rectify” has its explosive moments, but really it's more a slow burn, almost meditative in its languid Southern pace.
It “just grabbed us by the scruff of the neck,” said Sarah Barnett, president and general manager of Sundance Channel. “We thought it was one of the best pilot scripts we ever read.”
Originally developed at AMC, “Rectify” moved to sister network Sundance as that network was ramping up its original programming slate with co-productions like “Carlos” and Jane Campion's “Top of the Lake.” But “Rectify” is the channel’s first fully owned original series.
The series was created by Ray McKinnon, an actor who is probably best known for his work on “Sons of Anarchy” and “Deadwood.” He was inspired to write the series after a spate of headline-grabbing DNA death sentence exonerations in Illinois more than a decade ago.
"A number of inmates were released after long periods of incarceration, and I wondered what that first day of freedom must be like for someone who has existed in a 6-by-9 box for more than half of his life, what kind of Pandora's box that would open," said McKinnon.
As the series opens, Holden is like a dead man walking, pale and motionless and dressed in an ill-fitting suit. His family awkwardly greets him until a sister rushes over to hug him. He is so unused to human contact he almost recoils at her touch.
“Ray has a way of humanizing the experience,” said Abigail Spencer, who plays Daniel’s headstrong and feisty younger sister Amantha, who’s determination helped release him. “He has a way of looking into private lives where the mundane becomes extraordinary.”
“It’s very much the story of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” said Young. “Daniel is an odd man, made odder by 20 years of prison. He is the stranger who comes to town, but it’s a town he has defined and now doesn’t know how to live in it.”
The 40-year-old Toronto-born, Australian actor brings an intensity, intelligence and danger to Holden’s complicated and secretive personality. He was an eleventh-hour find for the role, auditioning via the Internet while shooting a film in Thailand.
“When Aden’s audition appeared one night at 2 a.m. on my computer,” said McKinnon, “I must have watched it over 10 times. I was riveted by his portrayal.”
Young says growing up in Australia was an advantage to playing the character, particularly in scenes where Daniel is almost childlike as he absorbs modern culture.
“In many ways my experience mirrored Daniel's arriving from foreign soil. You forget how big American supermarkets are and how you are confronted with 20 different choices of iced tea or coconut water,” Young said with a laugh. “We are similar in so many ways, but we are also worlds apart.”
McKinnon realizes the slower pace of the story may be a challenge for some viewers.
“We don’t give out too quickly who these people are,” he said. “If you can accept that this is a character-driven show rather than a plot-driven show, I think audiences will stick around to see what happens.”