Johnny Ray Gill Breathes Life Into Rectify Character
By Nancy Dunham
The unfolding scene seemed innocent enough. Two guys walked down a Los Angeles street shooting some footage for a small film, before they put the gear in their bags and began to walk toward their cars.
Everything changed when five police cars screeched to a halt near the men and officers sprang from the cars, demanding the would-be filmmakers submit to a search and questioning. “It was an interesting experience,” said actor Johnny Ray Gill, who with his friend was the subject of the police scrutiny. “They were yelling for us to ‘Get against the wall’ and I just kept saying ‘I haven’t given you permission to do this. You can’t violate my civil liberties. Did I commit a crime?’” Police released Gill and his friend, later saying that they were alarmed the two had
taken photos of police security at a nearby station. Gill and his friend maintain they didn’t even know such a station was nearby.
For the actor—who portrays prison inmate Kerwin Whitman in Rectify on the Sundance Channel, the incident underscored why he is passionate about acting, especially on this series. “I want to give [Whitman] a unique sense of humanity,” he said of the character,
which he likens to the “spiritual best friend” of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) the show’s main character, a Georgia man released from prison after 20 years on Death Row. “African American men and Latino men are always portrayed as cardboard, interchangeable images,” said Gill, whose past acting work includes roles on television series including True Blood, Bones, and Harry’s Law. “It’s my job as an artist to replace that stereotype, to give the character humanity and breathe life and depth into him, to make him human.”
In Rectify, Gill’s character is seen in flashbacks. That’s something of an irony considering Gill said his cousin, imprisoned for 25 years to life, flashed through his own mind when he contemplated the role of Whitman. “It popped in my mind,” said Gill. “Being part of a family unit, I grew up with that. It’s definitely negative folklore [in our family].”
But other images—negative folklore if you will—also flashed through his mind including what he calls ‘ancestral memories’ of everything from slavery to life under Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation in the southern United States and states of the former Confederacy. Gill’s role, which included scenes in which he wore handcuffs and ankle chains, strengthened the mental images. “I kept them on for the entire production,” he said. “I felt the weight and could [envision] that situation that would have brought me to them. I had cuts on my wrists and ankles. That’s the beauty of working on Rectify.
You’re not dealing with one-dimensional characters. You see how people are incarcerated and that impacts crimes of the past, present and future. That allows people to connect to a fictionalized world.” And the real world that often includes police harassment of black and Latino men.
Gill talks about the culture that prepares members of such ethnic groups for that kind of scrutiny. “I went through a lot of programs when I was in high school [and beyond] about how African American men should deal with police, conduct themselves in stressful situations, so they don’t become the next Trayvon Martin,” he said of the unarmed teenager who was fatally shot last year by a neighborhood watch member. “Every ethnicity has it’s own type of challenges. That’s one reason [a series such as this] spoke to me. It’s almost Shakespearean how such tragedies unfold. A character like Kerwin provides a bit of a teaching moment on why you won’t want to get yourself into such situations. It really is a beautiful message.”
Editors’ Note: Rectify follows the fictional story of Daniel Holden (played by Aden Young). After spending 10 years on Death Roy for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Holden’s conviction is vacated due to new DNA evidence. The drama is shown on Sundance Channel. Check local listings for more details.