‘American Crime’ Star Connor Jessup Discusses Season 2, ‘Staggering’ Scope of Male Sexual Assault

American Crime male rape
Courtesy of ABC

John Ridley’s “American Crime” returns to ABC with its second season Wednesday night, bringing in a new storyline, new characters and new stars.

“Falling Skies” alum Connor Jessup is one of the fresh faces in “Crime’s” new installment, which revolves around a high school male rape accusation, centering around Jessup’s lower-class victim Taylor who’s ridiculed by privileged student athletes at his elite prep school where he’s a complete outsider. The trouble starts right away in the premiere episode when photos of a passed-out Taylor surface, causing an uproar at the school.

Along with the return of Felicity Huffman, who plays the private school’s headmistress, and Timothy Hutton, who plays the basketball coach, Jessup takes a star-turn in the drama, holding his own among the powerful cast (his mother is played by Lili Taylor).

“The thing that appealed to me most was just John and the actors and the pedigree of the show,” Jessup tells Variety of his initial interest in the show, which he calls the “best experience of my career.”

Below, Jessup tells Variety about working with Ridley, dealing with tough subject matter and what’s to come in the twisty-turny case — is he truly the victim?

How did you get the part?
It was a pretty unexciting story — I auditioned for it. I self-taped for it in July and a week later, I was in L.A. testing, and a week later, I was in Austin ready to shoot. When I had auditioned for it, there was no script, it was just a few scenes. There was very little to go on. I knew that it was a story about sexual assault, I knew the dynamic of the public school and private school that becomes a driving force as the series goes and on, and I knew that I was the one making these allegations. That was, more or less, all that I knew. And then as I read more and more, it became clear that this season is, I think, maybe even better than last season.

Had you watched the first season when you auditioned?
I had not. I had heard of it, and I heard nothing but good things about it. I binged it after the audition.

Even if you had watched the first season, it’s a totally new show, being an anthology. Was that appealing to you?
It’s a very unusual situation. I’ve never done something like this. To have a new character on a new story — more or less a new show — but to have that product behind you that’s already proven. It’s not like a pilot. It’s sort of the best of both worlds. It was a really, really good thing for me. It really helps having that shape to it.

Now that you’ve watched season one, how does it compare to season two?
What I like is that last season before it even starts, there’s a murder. When you pick up with everyone, you’re kind of seeing them at the worst time of their lives from the get. This season, it’s a slower burn and it takes longer to seep into the families. In the first episode, you see happy couples and moments. I think it really helps for later in the season for when the s–t really hits the fan to have this beginning — you’re seeing people before they fall apart. I think it really helps with the whole season.

And how exactly will s–t hit the fan?
Basically, in this first episode, these allegations aren’t really out there yet. They’re just forming. But over the next few episodes, they become public and they pull all the characters in and it completely changes the course of these characters’ lives for completely different reasons and in very different ways, but there’s a rolling series of revelations and relationships, beyond what happened in this first episode. This first episode is just placing the dominos and the rest of the season is watching them fall. Right now, you don’t know who I’m accusing, you don’t know the specifics of the allegations, you don’t really know much. Over the next few episodes, you learn all of that and clear sides start to form and it becomes a really interesting battle between different forces.

We don’t really know much about your character, even after the premiere episode. Is he truly just the victim or is there more to the story?
We don’t have the whole story from him yet. There are things that he’s not saying, there are secrets that he has that don’t get revealed until considerably later into the series. You learn more about his relationship with his mother, more about their past, his relationship with a couple members of the basketball team. There are certainly more sides to this than there seems to be at first.

Do you think people will root for Taylor?
Whether or not people will be rooting for him, I don’t know. I hope so.

How did you go about your research on sexual assault?
The show was very helpful. I met with a few therapists and counselors who specialize in trauma and some specifically who specialize in male sexual assault — peer-on-peer rape. There are a couple books on the phenomenon of male sexual assault. The statistics are staggering. And then on top of that, a lot of reading. Despite the fact that it’s not really an issue that is widely discussed in popular culture, there’s quite a bit of academic and journalistic stuff out there, and it’s really difficult and really fascinating. The scope of the issue was what immediately shocked me.

As an actor, I’m sure it’s exciting to tackle such a complex issue, but besides the challenge, do you also hope to send out some sort of social message or educate viewers?
The show really is at its best when it’s focusing on people. Despite being called “American Crime,” the show is really not about crime. It’s really about the ramifications that things have on all the people who are involved — on the victims, on the perpetrators, on the families, on the communities. So for me, and the way that John [Ridley] talks about it, we’re not looking at it as representative of something larger, but just hopefully that Taylor is convincing in some way as a person who will speak to a larger thing. But anytime I start to think about that, it makes my head hurt and I get a little sweaty because trauma is different for everyone. Everyone goes through their own struggle with it. Hopefully if there’s something true in the statistics of Taylor’s struggle, that will speak to something larger.

“American Crime” has been credited with feeling like a cable show with all of its risk-taking on a broadcast network. Do you feel it’s pushing the boundaries?
Not to say anything about the rest of network programming, but it really does feel unusual and exceptional for where it is. To get the chance to be on something that crosses into both worlds and gets the best of both, I feel like I landed on a rainbow or something. If you had said to me, “Actually this is an HBO or FX show,” I would believe you. On set, you don’t feel like it’s a big corporation. ABC is so great, and it really is John’s show.

What have you learned from working with John?
Obviously he’s a brilliant writer and director and just a really great man. His stamina is just incredible. I don’t know how he functions. I don’t think he sleeps, I’ve never seen him eat. He exercises an enormous amount of very centralized control over almost every element of the show. Every part of the show feels so stylistically and thematically consistent all the way through. He knows how to work with his writers, he knows how to work with his directors, and the result is something that feels incredibly cohesive. Aside from his specific talent as a writer and director, his ability to manage something so large is amazing. I’ve never seen someone treat a crew as nicely as he does. One day, there were masseuses coming in for the crew.

What have you learned from working with Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton?
To be honest, I don’t really work with them. It’s such an ensemble show that people really do work in pods. There are moments where the pods overlap, but for the most part, you’re in your own pod. I don’t have a great amount of on-set time with them, but we spent a lot of time with them just as a cast. I think Felicity’s performance last year was one of the best performances ever on TV and I think her performance this year is the exact opposite and just as good. And I can say the same about Timothy. They carry the show — they really do. They’re two of the best leads on TV.

If there was a third season, have you and John talked at all about if you would return or is this a one-season run for you?
If the show is going to get picked up for a third season, I don’t know what John is planning, so I don’t know what kind of characters he would want or need for a third season. This season revolves around a school so it’s conducive to having younger characters, but who knows going forward? But if he would have me — dear god, I’d play security guard No. 6! I’m perfectly content if they do go on without me, but if they do want me back, I’m there.

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  1. Rosalie Barsky says:

    I think this young man has an excellent future as an actor. I watched him on Falling Skies and found him impressive but this role, on American Crime, is a home run. He shows amazing depth of character and I believe him. As I former psychotherapist, I believe his victimhood.

  2. Joel says:

    Connor is amazing -His vulnerability is so real and so haunting

  3. Bill B. says:

    I’ve never seen this show, or a lot of others as there are so many series from so many sources that I seem to be overwhelmed trying to make a choice sometimes, but this sounds interesting and Jessup was the most interesting thing on the disappointing Falling Skies which came to an end long after I thought it was already gone.

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