“Gena Is Not a Victim”: ‘True Detective’ Star Abigail Spencer on Playing a Survivor and Rooting for Ray Velcoro

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It is a great time to be Abigail Spencer.

The 33-year-old actress is appearing in two prominent TV shows this summer: She plays the pivotal role of Gena, the ex-wife of Colin Farrell’s character Ray Velcoro, on True Detective and stars as Amantha Holden, the aimless, codependent sister of a former death-row inmate, on Rectify, which was just renewed for a fourth season on SundanceTV. “I’m so excited!” Spencer joked in response to the news. “We get to put ourselves through that pain again!”

But if you don’t already know her from these dramas, you probably recognize her as Don Draper’s Season 3 conquest, Sally’s teacher Suzanne Farrell on Mad Men. (Spencer’s prediction for what eventually happened to her nighttime-jogging character? “I think she maybe gave her life to service on some level, like the Peace Corps. She probably ended up traveling a lot. She was a bit of a nomad anyways.”)

During the first of our two interviews, Spencer had recently returned from a France/Monaco jaunt that she still couldn’t believe had actually happened. All in the same trip, she met Prince Albert II of Monaco at the Monte Carlo TV Festival – “I called him ‘Buddy,'” Spencer admitted, “which was not appropriate” – by sheer coincidence ended up at the world premiere of the Daft Punk documentary Daft Punk Unchained in Paris, recorded poetry with her Rectify co-star Aden Young at a Parisian studio (“We went through, like, ten bottles of rosé, which is my favorite”), and received an invitation to check out David Lynch’s Parisian club Silencio. “It was wild,” said Spencer of her first-ever visit to Paris. “And none of it was planned – you can’t plan that!”

From the way Spencer describes her life over the past several months, it sounds like her European trip was a well-deserved reward for her hard work. The actress was “booked” nonstop from November until about a month ago, simultaneously shooting True Detective and Rectify on opposite ends of the country, and then jumping head-first into The Sweet Life, an upcoming film costarring Chris Messina. But despite all the fun Spencer had in France, the job still took precedence: “The first thing I did when I got to Paris, was ADR for True Detective,” she said, bemused. “Can you believe that?”

While much of the action in True Detective is reserved for the main characters played by Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch, Spencer has been putting in a quietly powerful performance of her own. One of the many standout facets of her work in the HBO series is how she presents Gena as a rape survivor: “[TD creator Nic Pizzolatto] and I were very clear together that Gena is someone who is helping other rape victims,” said Spencer of her character. “She is not a victim. She has really worked through this, and is very empowered by what happened. But she’s not pretending it’s not awful.”

In this past Sunday’s episode, the rift between Gena and Ray reached a critical point when – SPOILER ALERT – it was revealed that the man Ray ostensibly killed was not Gena’s rapist, Gena had known this fact for several weeks before Ray found out, and she demanded a paternity test to prove that their son, Chad, is not Ray’s biological child. “He feels just as betrayed as she does,” said Spencer of the estranged couple. “But for totally different things. Ray never told Gena about [the gangster he works for, Vaughn’s character] Frank.”

Still, for all of Ray’s questionable behavior throughout their relationship, and their equally ambiguous future, Spencer remains on Team Velcoro: “It’s been really interesting to see Ray’s story progress over the season,” she said. “You feel so divided, and yet I am rooting for Ray to prevail.”

Abigail Spencer as Amantha Holden on Rectify

Spencer’s affinity for the troubled character is understandable, considering that she purposely approached her performance as Gena from the optimistic side – a real challenge in a bummer of a show like True Detective. The actress recalled that she and Pizzolatto discussed the characters’ history “for hours” in order to hit all the right notes whenever Gena makes her sporadic – but no less essential – appearances. “Nic knows everybody’s backstory inside and out, so that was such a gift,” said Spencer. “I really focused on a lot of the positive in [Gena and Ray’s] life before. Because the show is exploring so much of the negative. I really do think they were the love of each other’s life. I think they’re both devastated that they lost each other.”

Gena seems to have put her life together, despite incredible odds. The same cannot be said for Spencer’s Rectify character, Amantha, who, two episodes into the third season, is still stuck in a dead-end job at Thrifty Town, and remains her brother Daniel’s (Young) unwitting keeper. Having devoted most of her adult life to securing Daniel’s release from death row, Amantha doesn’t know how to move on, voluntarily staying put in her sleepy hometown of Paulie, Georgia. “[Codependent] is the word,” said Spencer of her Rectify character. “I think Amantha is discovering that she is totally codependent on Daniel, and she’s really waking up to that. That’s part of why she’s breaking up with Jon [Stern, Daniel’s attorney], that’s part of why she can’t deal with Daniel. She doesn’t have her own life, and it’s very interesting to play someone who is so empowered, who is so strong, who is intelligent, who is so vulnerable, and is totally codependent.”

But Spencer had some promising words for Rectify fans who want to see Amantha pull herself out of her Thrifty Town rut: “I think Season 3 will be the beginning of finding her path. You really meet who Amantha is outside of Daniel for the first time.” In fact, Spencer teased that this Thursday’s episode (airing at 10 PM on SundanceTV) is “a great Amantha episode.”