Confirmed: Series creator John Ridley definitely returned to direct for a reason. (Warning, major American Crime spoilers ahead.)
While it's only February, it's hard to imagine any other TV episode this year having the same impact as American Crime's Wednesday, Feb. 17 episode, which left me nauseous, unsettled and completely riveted. It was an uncommon visceral experience for me after covering television professionally for over five years; sure, I watch a lot of TV shows, but I don't feel them the way I felt "Season Two: Episode Seven," which ended with Taylor (Connor Jessup), the high school student at the center of the male-on-male alleged assault, shooting Wes (Michael Seitz), one of the boys who attacked him in last week's episode, when he went to Leyland Academy with a gun and the intention to kill Leslie (Felicity Huffman), the school's headmaster.
It was, as executive producer Michael J. McDonald called it, "a volcanic explosion" of everything we'd seen in the six episodes prior; the devastating result of all the tension that's been building. Sadly, in the world we currently live in—where schools, malls, and movie theaters are no longer considered safe spaces—I can't say I didn't see it coming, but that doesn't mean I wasn't still left completely gutted by the hour.
After watching—and recovering from—the episode last week, I spent over 30 minutes on the phone with Connor Jessup, 21, discussing the game-changing episode, including when he learned what Taylor would do and the pressure of living up to such an important subject matter.
Oh my gosh, watching that episode—I am not exaggerating when I say I was on the verge of throwing up almost the entire time and was unsettled the rest of the day—in the best way. It stuck with me.
[Laughs.] That's what we like to hear.
I mean, have you seen it yet? I know you had previously said you were almost dreading watching this episode, so I'm curious to know if you've watched it.
I saw it only this week though. I'd been—I don't want to say dreading it because that makes it sound bad, but I had been anxious about it. So it was nice to see it. In retrospect, of course, I shouldn't have been because it's John, but there were certainly a lot of elements in that episode that I was not sure how'd they turn out, so it was nice to see them turn out.
Was there any scene or moment in particular that you were especially anxious to watch?
I'm always anxious. I'm just a perpetually anxious person, but the scene where I'm by myself in the forest…it was the one I was most curious to watch because, as you could probably tell from the way it was edited, it was really fragmented. We just shot a lot of different stuff, and John went off and shot a lot of different stuff, and he used childhood videos of mine. He just collected an enormous amount of stuff, and he explained it to me, but that's a hard thing to explain.
When we spoke at aTVfest in Atlanta before episode six aired, you teased that the real crime of American Crime happens in episode seven...
Now you see what I mean.
Yes, totally. But ultimately, do you think the real crime is Taylor shooting Wes or how this school system has failed this one student? Obviously, Taylor bringing the gun to the school, writing the hit list and the actual shooting is completely wrong—and, yes, a crime—but what do you think is the real crime?
That one line—"the real crime of American Crime"— it's more for effect than anything. In the context of what actually happens, it does sound a little flip. It's not so much that there wasn't a crime before and you finally discovered one, it's more that the crime in Crime, which was this alleged assault, and then like you said, this systemic, institutional behavior that maybe might not be legally criminal, but is certainly morally reprehensible, has been piled on top of it and has been building towards this point. So it's less about a new crime appearing out of the woodwork and more a culmination of all the tension and everyone's behavior up until this point. Taylor certainly does not exist in a vacuum.
When did you know that this was ultimately going to end up happening with Taylor? Did you know when you signed on for the role or when you received the script for this episode?
Oh no. This is really an episode-by-episode kind of thing. John is very protective of plots. He's very open about character and he'll talk to you anytime at any length if you have a question about motivation or backstory. But he's very tight-lipped when it comes to plot developments, so around episode two or three, everyone started getting word that something was happening in episode seven, but no one knew what it was. There were rumors going around and they ranged from the absurd to the close. But no one knew. I didn't know until the script for the episode came out.
Did you read that and just go, "Oh s--t." I mean, watching the episode…even just when Taylor walked into the woods, my stomach immediately dropped and I thought, "Oh no, he's going to kill himself." I was anxious the entire episode, so I can only imagine what it was like for you.
The other thing was also that once I read the script, by that point in the season, the scripts were redacted, so all the actors only got their scenes. So even after the script for seven came out, it was really just me and Lili [Taylor] to a certain degree who had any idea what was going on, in terms of that storyline. I had no idea what anyone else was up to. So I watched the scene where Eric was in the car and he gets into the fight with the guy, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea this happened!'
I have to tell you I was almost physically sick watching that scene.
Yeah, I was disgusted—so really by that point in the season you were working in a complete bubble, which is of course by design. But it did create for some interesting beating around the bush in conversations. [Laughs.]
I can imagine. So what was your immediate reaction then when you read this script?
My immediate reaction, because it is such an extreme change or turn in the events, was to immediately go back and read all the previous scripts and scenes I was in and think, maybe there's something here I did by accident that plants this? Maybe this connects to that? Trying to make sure it had the foundation in my performance, not the scripts, that it felt like it needed. But that's a very self-destructive road to go down, so I stopped that pretty quickly. My second reaction was overwhelming relief that John was the one directing the episode because I felt like I was in good hands.
For me, I'm really interested to see the response on Twitter and social media to this episode. I recently talked to the showrunner of Degrassi after they did an episode where a student brought a gun to school, and she said that when they aired a school shooting episode years ago, in 2004, no one expected it, but this time, people were predicting it would happen on social media. She noted it was very indicative of the changes in our society, so what are you expecting the reaction to be to this episode? I'm very anxious to see it and I'm sure you are, too.
This isn't just a bulls--t actor-y PR response. I honestly have no idea. I was very happy with the way the episode turned out. I breathed a big sigh of relief. You can probably speak to this better than I can, I think it feels different than the rest of the season. It feels like a singular episode in a good way. I think it's really effective. What I admire so much about what John does, in this episode in particular, is there are so many easy pitfalls around every corner that he could quickly fall into in how things are portrayed and how things are executed, and he just walks right up to the edge of it and never falls in. You get this constant feeling of anxiety and tension but, at least for me, it never descends into an eye-roll. That's really rare and really hard to pull off and I think it's one of his greatest abilities. So I don't know. I hope people react well. I hope people react like you did. I hope people want to throw their remote at the TV and feel sick and need to watch a comedy before they go to bed. I hope it has an effect on people. The worst thing that would happen would people going, ‘Oh, OK, it lost me.' But I don't think that that is the case.
And I know this is a very broad question, but what do you hope people take away from this episode?
What do I hope people take away from it? I don't know, it's a question I should be able to answer—
You know what, that's a different question I have for you. Taking on a role like this with such an intense subject matter, do you feel a lot of pressure as the actor portraying it to say the right thing when you are talking to someone like me—that your answers mean more in a way, if that makes sense?
Absolutely. It's something you have to think about. During prep for the show, before we started shooting, it really did keep me up. You feel like you're about to be walking on egg shells. You don't want to misrepresent something because this is obviously a really, really, really important real issue. And people are going to be watching who have been through this, or something like this, so you really don't want to do anything that harms the conversation. But there's a point where I found that became unsustainable, like I couldn't keep worrying about that because there's nothing I could do about that. I could just hope that if I did my job and John and his writers did their job and Taylor's circumstances felt truthful, that would be enough. So there's a point where I had to keep my head down and not just worry about that and leave that to other people. That's why I hesitate in answering that question, because it's still something I think I've cornered my mind away from—thinking about the impact of something. I hope that on an emotional level that people react like you did; that they are affected, that it surprises people, that it works as a piece of storytelling, first and foremost. Beyond that, I hope what Taylor does feels earned and comes from a legitimate place and comes from the character that you know.
To hear more from Connor Jessup about what's in store for Taylor in the final three episodes of the season, check back with us next Wednesday, Feb. 28, ahead of "Season Two: Episode Eight."
American Crime airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.