Interview: Michael O'Neill Talks 'Rectify', Playing Senator Roland Foulkes, Justice Vs. Political Ambition & More – TVWise

After a prolonged delay, SundanceTV’s original series Rectify is finally crossing the Atlantic courtesy of AMC UK, which only recently launched exclusively on the BT TV platform.
The series originally debuted in 2013 and has been a hit with both viewers and critics. The creation of Ray McKinnon, Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden who, after serving 19 years on death row in solitary confinement, is released from prison when new DNA evidence throws the conviction into question.
Rectify features some strong talent both behind & in-front of the camera and boasts a cast that includes Aden Young (The Code), Abigail Spencer (True Detective), J. Smith Cameron (True Blood), Luke Kirby (Show Me A Hero), Clayne Crawford (NCIS: New Orleans), Adelaide Clemens (Parade’s End), Bruce McKinnon (Outlaw Country) and Jake Austin Walker (House Of Bones).
Veteran character actor Michael O’Neill – who has enjoyed turns on The West Wing, 24 and Extant – also has an integral role on the series, playing Roland Foulkes, a State Senator who was instrumental in sending Daniel to prison back in the 1990s when he served as the district attorney.
In the below interview, TVWise speaks to Michael O’Neill about Rectify, his character Senator Roland Foulkes, if he is on the past of justice or blind political ambition, what attracted Michael to the role and what else is on the horizon for the character actor.
TVWise: Let’s talk Rectify….
Michael O’Neill: It’s a small quiet, little story with huge waves that roll out from it. The plot of the story is that Daniel Holden is convicted of a rape and murder as an adolescent in this small town in Georgia and he’s put on death row for 19 years in virtual isolation. And then DNA evidence comes along – a tool that was not available back then – and vacates the sentence, but does not exonerate and that’s an important distinction. It vacates the sentence which means he’s released from prison but it’s certainly possible for him to be re-tried. So you have the impact of this person who doesn’t know the world, certainly not the modern wild, returning to his family, to his little town and to the country and trying to reabsorb and be reabsorbed. It’s so character driven and it’s so willing to take time – it’s so authentic about that.
TVWise: You play Senator Roland Foulkes. In the opening episode he comes across as something of a shady character, what can you tell us about him?
Michael O’Neill: Well I don’t think he started as shady. He was the prosecutor, he prosecuted the case and there’s a tremendous pressure, momentum, desire for closure any time there’s a murder in a small town. There’s a great need to find a culprit, to have a villain, so that the town can get back to balance and I think my character was driven in his better nature to help resolve that. What tends to happen sometimes in the justice system is a kind of group think, where the need for closure is so great that you begin to narrow the focus in such a way that you exclude things and sometimes adjust things. I think this character is certainly capable of making the adjustments that he thinks are necessary to bring closure and therein lies his moral dilemma. To complicate matters, Foulkes has gone on to run for state politics and become a very powerful player in the state political machinery with aspirations for the governorship. I made my political bones prosecuting this case, so the notion that it’s being vacated on some new-fangled evidence doesn’t sit well with me and I need for my own purposes to get him back in jail. I have a reputation to uphold and an ambitious career to take care of. I have my own agenda where [Daniel] is concerned.
TVWise: Foulkes is not remotely swayed by the new DNA evidence, why is he so convinced of Daniel’s guilt?
Michael O’Neill: Without revealing too much, I believe that I made the right choice in my pursuit of his conviction based on the evidence that was available to me, where he was found and his oddness. He’s an odd character, he sees the world differently and there is something existential about him, so in a small town he would stick out like a sore thumb. In a way he’s easy prey. It would be easy to use that oddness to say ‘Yes, he’s capable and culpable’. So I believe very very strongly that he was the doer and am intent on doing what I have to do to bring that to conclusion.
TVWise: Is this more a case of a sense of justice or is Foulkes more concerned with protecting his legacy and future political career?
Michael O’Neill: They’re very connected. Whether he would admit it or not, it’s the latter – his political career and what he feels he can contribute. I based [my performance] on characters I know, because there is this desire when one enters public service to genuinely do that, be a public servant, and it’s co-opted over time into being a private servant often times for one’s own gratification and satisfaction and I think the Senator has fallen prey to that a bit. I think his initial instincts to take care of his community, to serve the public, to prosecute the guilty, to solve these crimes and serve and protect – he was genuine in his embrace of those things. I just think that over a period of time, the ego gets stroked, and with the back-slapping, the power – there’s a bit of decay that goes with it and sometimes it’s one’s principles that gets compromised and I don’t think the old Senator is beyond that.
TVWise: Is there a line he wouldn’t cross?
Michael O’Neill: Let’s put it this way, I think there is some dotted lines where he would step through the spaces. But a hard bold line? I don’t think he’s been that compromised. I think what he believe is ‘I’m right. I’m right. The murder was committed, I caught the young man who did it and I appropriately put him away’.
TVWise: Last we spoke, we talked about how across your career you’ve typically played good guys, but more and more you’ve been getting these darker characters like Nick Ford on Bates Motel and Alan Sparks on Extant. Where do you think the Senator sits on that scale?
Michael O’Neill: Well it’s the only hate mail I’ve ever gotten [laughs]. Rather enthusiastic hate mail at that. You know, what I love about this piece is that the audience is in the same position that the characters in the town are in. You have to interpret the information that you get and make your own conclusion about this man’s guilt or innocence. My point of view is laced with what I think is right for the community, what I think is right for me and what I think is right for state politics. I think of Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof saying “mendacity” [laughs] and I think there is some of that in the Senator.
The truest character we have is this kid that comes out of solitary confinement on death row after nineteen years, he’s like been dropped into another planet. Here’s a kid who grew up drinking from water hoses and now he walks into a convenience store and they sell bottled water – when did that happen?! So I don’t blame people for reading [Foulkes] in the way that he presents and certainly is to some degree. He has his own appetites – he wants what he wants when he want it – and I kind of take what I want. I consider the hate mail as a compliment in that I’m doing my job well, but I’ll be honest I have no idea why the older I get, the more despicable they make my characters!
TVWise: Talking of Foulke’s appetites, there’s a somewhat unexpected sex scene involving the Senator and the waitress from the diner. I have to ask, what crossed your mind when you got that script?
Michael O’Neill: Oh boy! [Laughs] You get the girl! You know I laughed. I couldn’t help it, I did laugh because you don’t get many of those scenes at my age. I thought it was absolutely true to the character, a wonderful reveal about who this man is and again that appetite – he likes to devour – and I thought that scene was certainly in keeping with that. Even his inability to conclude that scene in an appropriate way, he didn’t know how to get out of the room! [Laughs]. I felt great joy at Ray [McKinnon, series creator] including that scene and was surprised and laughed and was nervous and all the things that go with it.
TVWise: This is fairly unique character, what was it that led you to the role? Did the fact that you’re from the South have any influence?
Michael O’Neill: Tremendous influence. I’ve watched a lot of shows about the South written by people who never lived here. There’s so many subtleties to the culture here and rhythms of the culture and what’s significant… I had an incredible matriarchal figure in my Aunt. When she was telling a story, when she stopped rocking in her rocking chair, that’s when you leaned forward because something was about to happen. And I find that true in the nature of this storytelling, there are moments when the chair stops moving and you lean forward. So I know something about it, I was thrilled to see it portrayed truthfully and authentically with all its foibles and some of it’s really lovely assets. It’s a depiction of honest, hard-working people who are put in a situation that is almost unfathomable. How do they navigate that? Not flawlessly, but with great humanity and I think that’s what appealed to me so much. Even if I couldn’t be one of the good guys in it!
TVWise: There is some really great talent attached to Rectify both in front and behind the camera, what’s it like working alongside some of these people?
Michael O’Neill: It’s just so rich, you just look forward to going to work so much. You know that you have Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein supporting you, you’ve been place in a creative bubble that’s not like any other bubble you’ve ever been in, Ray’s writing is just so good. And then you walk on set and you’re playing with this class of wonderful character actors. Their homework has been so good, their ability to share and play and be supportive is just so rich. I can’t tell you as an actor, at this stage in my career I’ve had some wonderful experiences but I just adore this company – it just is different.
TVWise: What else is on the horizon for you?
Michael O’Neill: Another cable show called Manhattan, about the Manhattan Project in World War Two, which is being shot out in New Mexico and I went out there working on that playing a psychiatrist. And I just got back from Toronto shortly ago, where I was working on a miniseries called 11/22/63. It’s predicated on a Steven King novel and the device is that in the present day they learn how to manipulate time and they send someone back to try to prevent the [JFK] assassination. I tell you, it’s going to be very well done, it’s a crack team working on it. So I’m very excited about that.
Rectify premieres on AMC UK on Tuesday September 1st at 9pm