SHADES OF GRAY
American Crime’s Connor Jessup: What It’s Like Playing a School Shooter on TV
American Crime star Connor Jessup talks about the show’s revolutionary depiction of gay teens, playing a school shooter, and what to expect from Wednesday’s season finale.
American Crime is nothing if not ambitious.
Over the course of its second season, which ends Wednesday night, the series tackled teenage bullying, homophobia, male rape, sexual identity, privilege, economic disparity, mental health, school shootings, education reform, and racism—a flood of weighty topics that should have drowned the series under a swell of patronizing didacticism and lack of focus.
Instead American Crime confronted issues through a lens in which liars aren’t always bad people, victims aren’t always virtuous, gays aren’t always saints, homophobes aren’t always cruel, racists aren’t always malicious, and even a school shooter isn’t necessarily a monster. It’s a rare depiction of the real world, which is frustratingly shaded in gray and absent of binaries, even if mass media demands that we think of it in such stark terms.
It’s no wonder that acting powerhouses like Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Timothy Hutton, Hope Davis, and Lili Taylor flocked to the series.
At the center of the troupe is 21-year-old actor Connor Jessup, whose journey through playing what amounts to the role of a lifetime has been unusual for one very big reason. Before filming, “I was aware of almost nothing,” he says.
John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), who created American Crime, is so top secret about the show that cast members receive redacted scripts that show only their scenes—and only when it’s time to begin production on that episode. Plots, arcs, storylines, and twists are completely unknown to the actors until it’s time to stage them, so that the actors only know as much as their character does in a certain scene.
That means—here’s where SPOILERS begin—that when Jessup’s character, high schooler Taylor Blaine, shoots a classmate on campus at school, Blaine had no idea that would happen until he read that week’s script.
“I knew nothing,” Jessup reiterates. “I literally, really knew nothing. The audition, there was no breakdown. No, ‘This is what the plot is about and here is your character’s place in it.’”
In other words, Jessup had no idea that he was about to play the most interesting, distressing, vital, and tragic role in what would be one of the most critically respected TV shows of the year.
He had no idea that Taylor Blaine, his character on American Crime, would end up where we see him ahead of Wednesday night’s finale: in jail after killing a classmate, awaiting his own fate.
Here’s how he got there.
In the premiere of American Crime Season 2, incriminating photos of Taylor incapacitated at a party circulate the fancy prep school he attends on scholarship, where he is bullied for being “W.T.”—white trash. When the school suspends him for violating the behavior code, he tells his mother (played by Lili Taylor) that he was drugged and raped by a male member of the school’s basketball team, which hosted the party.
Quickly we learn that things are, as in real life, not that cut and dry.
Taylor and the boy, it turns out, had been sexting before the party, which the school and law enforcement says discredits Taylor’s claim. The boy, Eric (played by Joey Pollari), is ostracized by his friends and family after they learn he’s gay, which leads him to attempt suicide. Eric’s basketball teammates jump and attack Taylor in retaliation, blaming him for the dark cloud that has settled above their charmed lives.
At rock bottom—the rape accuser no one will believe, now physically bruised and beaten—Taylor takes drugs, steals a gun, and, while veering in and out of hallucination, makes a hit list. He heads back to the prep school and encounters the student who orchestrated the violent attack. Taylor shoots him.
On Wednesday night we will find out what fate will befall Taylor, now in jail and ready to take responsibility for his actions, and get one last glimpse at the ripple effects of the entire community’s actions—the ways they failed their children in a frenzied panic of scapegoating.
Before it airs, we spoke with Jessup about what to expect, playing a character with this many twists, the power of Taylor’s sexual identity, humanizing a school shooting, and the cathartically traumatic experience of watching American Crime.
How much did you know about where Taylor was going when you signed on?
I was aware of almost nothing. None of us knew anything that was going to happen. We didn’t even know what had happened, really. He never sat me down and said this is really what went down at the party. It was a lot of operating in the dark, which is both scary and, in a weird way, kind of liberating.
There weren’t even details about things like his sexuality?
No. But if you think about the show, it’s not something that’s revealed or really explored in the show at all until Episode 4, I think. So no, I had no idea.
Playing a gay character or playing a school shooter are kinds of roles that many actors have conversations about before deciding that they’re willing to take them on and humanize them. Yet you had no idea about either going in.
Yes. I guess that’s true. That always surprises me still. You hear of—not just for this, but other things I’ve been in—actors turning down auditions for things because of stuff like that. It’s never really made a lot of sense to me. I would turn it down if it was bad. That’s one thing. But this show was a proven product. And it was John, and Felicity and Tim and Lili, I had no doubt that no matter what they did and how they did it that it was going to be done with dignity and class and thoroughly and well. That never crossed my mind. And I’m not just saying it. It really didn’t. There were a lot of other things that crossed my mind, like quivering fear.
When I did find out what happened in 7 [the shooting episode], when I read the script, it was less like, “Is this something I want to be approaching?” It was, “I need to go back and look back at the scripts and lists of scenes to see if I’ve done enough to lay the ground for that.” You don’t want to be the character who plays that scene with that shift and everyone goes, “Oh now he’s lost me.” Is there enough so that it seems solid? That was the main concern. That had nothing to do with the actual questionability of the content of it or anything.
Did finding out information down the line, like that he is gay, change your performance at all?
No. I don’t think so. I never assumed that he was straight. I’m trying to think back—it’s weird because I remember very specifically when I found out about the shooting plot. That’s when I read the script for 7. But I have no memory of any moment when I found out about sexuality. I don’t remember any moment or script. It just happened. I don’t have a strong memory one way or another.
This is a rare depiction of gay teens. They aren’t sainted or celebrated. It’s not as rah-rah about acceptance as we’ve, in a very good way, become used to in TV. These characters are messy, complicated, and really struggle with their sexual identity.
There are quite a few gay characters on TV right now, but the tone is generally very reverential. They are always the cleanest, most spotless. It’s a weird canonization of it, as a way to avoid of stepping on fragile territory or walking on egg shells. There’s obviously value in that. There’s been a lot to open the conversation. What I appreciate or admire about what John’s done is that people who are gay, straight, or anything in between are people. And people are fucked up. He’s able to pull it back into that space, that’s walking a tightrope. I thought he walked that tightrope with extreme assurance through the whole season.
There’s also the different ways the community reacts to the news that these two students are gay. The spectrum from bigotry to skeptical acceptance that isn’t as black-and-white as we’re used to seeing on TV.
Like with every issue in that show, it’s looked through a lot of different eyes. It’s a multifaceted and very accurate look. It’s very easy when you spend your time in East Coast or West Coast cities surrounded by arty, liberal friends to get an image of how people react to it, which is a non-reaction. The truth—it’s changing—but it’s not like that everywhere. Cities in the Midwest and cities in the South and cities in flyover countries have a very different approach to things. There are a lot of different types of people who react in a lot of different types of ways.
The other huge thing is the school shooting. How did you react when you found out that’s where they were taking Taylor?
My first, immediate reaction was fear. That’s a twist. That’s a turn. You want to make sure when it’s something like that that it is solid. That it has a foundation. That when you’re watching it, it doesn’t feel like they pulled it out of thin air and handed it to him. That was my first thought: How can I build this into what I’ve been doing and does it work and can I keep a sense of continuity?
Did John Ridley have a conversation with you about why he went this way with Taylor, to the point that he would shoot someone?
He didn’t really. He doesn’t have to, of course, justify his choices to me or to anyone. I have my own theories and my own opinions on it. I think it’s a story of someone who’s backed into a corner over and over and over again and hit rock bottom. I think something has to happen. That’s a very extreme thing to happen. Those things might not be the normal experience, but things do happen. I do think he is also invested in the challenge of taking something so terrible and attempting to humanize it.
It’s a really bold thing to do. We spent that whole season getting to know and root for Taylor and knowing he’s not a monster. When he shoots someone, it forces us to re-evaluate the way we’ve been conditioned to think about school shooters.
Obviously if you watched the first season you know that John enjoys playing with expectations. You see Eric, who’s closeted and struggles with identity, and John presents him as kind of an asshole. Then there’s Taylor, who all season has been playing the victim and is the most sympathetic character, I think. If you know John and you see a character who’s been that sympathetic for that long, watch out. I think he has more eloquent reasons. But I think even from a dramatic and a narrative standpoint, he enjoys that rhythm.
Going into the finale, what is Taylor’s mindset? He seems resigned.
It’s not very good. He’s sort of defeated in a way that is even different than before. Before it wasn’t so much defeated as it was avoiding. He kept trying to avoid it. “I just want it to be over. I want it to be done. Move away from it. Stop talking about it.” He just kept trying to duck and dodge it. And then obviously in 7 he tried to confront it and that failed miserably. Well, failed tragically. And since then it’s like all the air is sucked out of it, I think. He is now stuck on the idea of taking responsibility and trying to reassert himself, but he doesn’t really know what that means. He’s sort of out of breath and left grasping.
So what should we expect from the finale, then?
I think what a lot of the finale is about, and what the show is about, in general, is choice. All season long—and with Eric and a lot of the characters—you’ve seen Taylor struggling to find any way, any part of his life, in which he has a choice. It seems like things keep happening to him. Horrible things just happen to him and he has to react, or not react. He tries to make a choice in episode 7 and you see what happens. So I think thefinale is about trying to find a way and a place and an avenue through which Taylor can make choice again, even if it’s a choice between two terrible things. If it’s some way to recapture volition and power and control, that’s where Taylor is going.
I’m sensing there’s not exactly going to be a Happily Ever After.
If you’re familiar with American Crime, I don’t think anyone is going to be like, “Oh, they dropped the case against you! Let’s go party!” It’s not going to be riding off into the sunset, everything is good, it’s all a dream. He’s part of a system now, and within that system there’s different roads and some of them are more positive than others. The finale is trying to decide which one of them is the best.
What about what happened at that party? I can’t even decide if I want to find out what really happened, to be honest. I don’t know if it would be satisfying.
I don’t think you should expect it (laughs). Let’s be realistic. The show lives so much in ambiguity and in conflicting stories. To suddenly in the end say this person’s story was true and this person’s wasn’t would sort of be defeating the strength and primus of the show. It might be giving you a moment of relief and satisfaction. But it wouldn’t be worth it.