Since late October, Abigail Spencer has been in that special “zone” actors rarely enter, where they’re starring in two series airing simultaneously. On NBC’s Timeless, she plays Lucy Preston, a history professor enlisted for a series of daring trips through time, while on Sundance’s Rectify, she plays Amantha, a onetime murder suspect’s sister, who’s been on a wild journey of her own.
With Timeless about to unspool its final two episodes of the fall (Mondays at 10/9c, before breaking until Jan. 16) and Rectify entering its final two weeks ever, TVLine spoke with Spencer about her very distinct, yet equally ambitious, series.
TVLINE | On Monday nights, you’re time traveling, and on Wednesdays, you’re doing the intense family drama thing. This must be like actor Nirvana.
I mean, it’s pretty amazing. Also, I feel that if you were to watch Rectify and watch Timeless you wouldn’t necessarily be like, “Oh, that’s the same actress,” and that’s the goal, to completely inhabit people who are so wildly different, not being limited to certain tones, or types. That’s the dream for me anyway, and that was what drew me to Timeless, that it was so different than Rectify. Also, various time periods are of a great interest to me — I love going back and exploring the past — and from a purely aesthetic point of view I love putting on the clothes and the hair and the makeup, being able to transform… Just now, have people put together all the roles that they’ve seen me play before, and it’s so interesting when I do interviews or go on talk shows, I feel like, “This is your life, Abigail!”
TVLINE | Did you have any concerns about Lucy when the Timeless pilot first came to you?
So many. Yes, I always start with deep concern [Laughs], that’s where I operate from — a place of a million questions, and I think that’s what makes me very protective of my characters. I wanted Lucy to be someone who had somewhere to go. Yes, she’s very good at history, but she’s kind of a fish out of water with time traveling, so she brings a lot of the comedic elements. I wanted her to be a klutz. I want her to grow into something else, and I would say that was probably my biggest concern, and how to just navigate this new world week after week.
TVLINE | Flynn, in recent weeks, has finally started to give us some hints about where he’s coming from, what his agenda is. But in the early episodes, were you on set like, “Why don’t I just ask him in this scene…?” Because I was kind of screaming at the TV, “Ask him why he’s not the bad guy.”
I know. That’s part of the “parsing it out,” and it’s interesting because with [showrunners] Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, we’re in discussions about that all the time — dropping the information at the time when the characters and the story are ready for it. Also, we were finding the show and learning how you balance these characters who have really full interesting lives, because they are really what bring people week after week. It’s fun to explore time periods, but how do we also serve everyone’s character arc?
TVLINE | Just look at the “Stranded” episode, where there was no mission, per se, and yet it was fascinating just seeing the characters bounce off each other, watching Rufus offer to die with his friends and such.
Again, you’re experimenting with what your show is becoming, and if you get enough episodes, and enough time, and enough support from the network to keep exploring, you can keep discovering things. What I loved about that episode was that it showed that characters are enough, and I believe that about television — if you love and are interested in the characters, you’ll go on any journey with them.
That episode showed that that really is the heart of the show and everything else is just an incredible, amazing world to support it, because, I will say, this is the most difficult show I’ve ever been a part of, and also seen or been on, because it is completely ambitious. I have no idea how the crew and the creative team are doing it. I mean, to create brand new sets, costumes, characters, makeup…. I’ve never seen it done and done in the way that we’re doing it, because the show isn’t doing it on the cheap either. It looks like a movie, so kudos to every single creative and department head we have.
TVLINE | In which era do you think you look best so far? When have you been in the makeup trailer and you’re like, “I like this…”?
[Laughs] “I look goooood.” It’s so funny because I feel like that every episode. We don’t do camera, makeup, and hair tests ahead of time, but our makeup, hair and costume departments know me so well now that literally on the first day we find [the right look]. And so the first day of a new episode I come to set and everyone’s like, “Whoa. This is your era. I thought it was that one, but no, this is the one you should live in.” I got to the ’40s and I was like, “Oh, this is Katherine Hepburn. Yeah, this is my era,” and then when we got to the ‘70s I was like, “No, this is my era. Super Ali McGraw.” And then we went to ’69, and I’m like, “No, no, this is the one, guys,” and then we went back to 1893 and I’m like, “OK, we found it”….
TVLINE | Did you have any flashbacks to your Mad Men arc when you were in ’69, because I was thinking that it was only a few years off from school teacher Suzanne….
It was. But what was interesting about [Mad Men] is that I didn’t wear any makeup, my hair was my natural curl. Suzanne was a very progressive character for the show at that time. So, what I didn’t get from the Mad Men experience that everyone else got was the makeup, and hair, and the undergarments, all of that. It’s funny because Jon Hamm saw a [Timeless] promo and wrote me, like, “Whoa, the ’60s. I wonder how you prepared for that role….” I was like, “I had a very good teacher.”
TVLINE | It sounds like in the next two episodes — involving Bonnie and Clyde and then Benedict Arnold — things get very tense for the “time team.”
Yeah, a lot more is just going to be revealed, as we get closer [to the winter break]. As with any good action-adventure storyline, you keep learning more truth, and the tensions keep rising.
TVLINE | A synopsis says the three of you form a “dubious pact.”
I feel like every week we form a dubious pact. [Laughs] In the Bonnie and Clyde episode, you’re going to learn a lot more about Wyatt and Lucy, and they’re going to develop a relationship with Bonnie and Clyde, which was great. We also learn more about what Flynn’s after. And then [the Benedict Arnold episode aka] our midseason finale, I can’t wait to see how that one comes together. A lot comes out in that, as well.
TVLINE | Have Eric and Shawn given you any hint about the season finale?
No, and I keep trying to get hints! That’ll be my Christmas present from them, I guess. I’m so curious to see what we keep doing with Lucy, and where they keep taking her….
TVLINE | I like how she, or Rufus, will find moments to have their say, even if it’s a throwaway line like, “You’re a rocket scientist, you can figure out how to make coffee,” Lucy may not to cause a huge ripple effect in 1969, but she’s going to get in her zinger if she can.
What’s great about the sci-fi element of the show is that you can speak to a larger scale of what’s going on in the world in this fictional world. It’s like, Lucy doesn’t want to change any history, so far, because her belief system is preserving that, but every episode it gets chipped away at, because, “What alternate reality is she coming home to every episode? And what historical timeline is she protecting?” Those questions are starting to rumble to the surface. At that particular moment [at NASA], that man doesn’t know that he’s doing anything wrong. He’s just being of the era. And the women, even though they feel something deeper, that they don’t like it, they’re just acting of that era as well. So it’s a delicate balance of Lucy being from the future — how much she can say, and how much can she not control.
TVLINE | Switching gears to Rectify: With only two episodes left in the series, Daniel’s sister Amantha now knows that Jon is digging up new clues in Hannah’s murder, “Trey went back” and all that. What are these last episodes going to be like, and how’s the finale going to leave us?
Oh, God. The last episodes are going to be very emotional. We actually got more time, so they’re going to be a bit longer than we’ve had before, which I think was really lovely of Sundance and AMC to do. And they’re going to be appropriately Rectify. They’re going to be hopeful, but they’re not going to not honor real life, and real life does not always end happily. But I think the journey of the show is maybe finding some of the characters at peace.
TVLINE | Peace, not so much perfect happiness.
Exactly, because I don’t know if happiness is always attainable, But peace is different, and sometimes happiness can come out of peace. Just making the last two episodes… it was so hard. The last scene that I shot, I’ll never forget it. Aden [Young, who plays Daniel] was so sweet, he came for my last scene and it was just a beautiful, heart-wrenching, satisfying-unsatisfying adventure. It’ll be really interesting where you see Amantha go in the next two episodes — and there’ll be something really visceral where you’ll remember where she started. Amantha is a different person from the human that we met, not because of huge changes but small little shifts over this nine-month period that the show takes place over. I just had dinner with [series creator] Ray [McKinnon] the other night, and he’s done — they turned in the last episode, and there was a real peace within him, and satisfaction.
TVLINE | I remember when we interviewed for Season 1, you sensed Rectify would be something very different for TV.
What’s interesting about Rectify, for me, is if I weren’t on the show it would my favorite show on television. I love watching it, and everybody’s work, and the writing is so my taste.
TVLINE | We just gave Clayne Crawford an honorable mention for the episode where Ted Jr. asks Tawney for a divorce….
When I read that episode, I was bawling my eyes out, just knowing what Clayne would bring. What he’s done with Ted Jr., I’ve never seen anything like it. I remember at our first table read in Season 1…
TVLINE | Oh, I hated Ted. Jr. at the start.
I know, and that’s the beautiful thing — I remember when I saw what he was doing with [the role], I was like, “Something’s going on over there. He’s not playing the archetype, he’s going to do something with this,” and when it all came together and we saw the first two episodes at the Sundance Film Festival, with an audience, we couldn’t believe that we were a part of something like this. Clayne and I, we’ve both been working a really long time very under the radar. A lot of people haven’t known who we are/were, and then we get the chance to be given these roles where we feel seen, and that we could fully inhabit…. It really touched both of us in a different way than, maybe, some of the jobs that we had done before.