TIFF: Breakout Star Connor Jessup on 'American Crime' and Teen Sexuality

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In Closet Monster,
the feature directorial debut from director Stephen Dunn, Connor Jessup plays a
teenager struggling with his sexual identity and reeling from childhood traumas
of an alcoholic, abusive father and an absentee mother. In this timely story,
which premiered Sunday at Toronto International Film Festival, Jessup manages a
vulnerable performance that has the marks of an actor much older than 21 years
old.

Equally as impressive is his passion for filmmaking -- the
process, the history, the technicality. His second short film, Boy, which he wrote, directed and
produced, and managed to shoot on Kodak film, also premiered here at TIFF.

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The Canadian actor, who appeared in the post-apocalyptic TNT
drama Falling Skies, will add to the
buzz generated at TIFF with a role on ABC’s American
Crime
when the Emmy-nominated series returns in the spring.

ETonline sat down with Jessup to discuss his teenage
struggles with identity, filmmaking and Buffy, the talking hamster.

ETonline: Let’s start somewhere important: Buffy the
hamster.

Connor Jessup: It's
a testament to the strength of the script that a movie with a talking hamster
is actually good… because it sounds scary. The idea is that it represents a
part of his psychology and it fits into the tone of the film, which has these
little bursts of imagination. Weirdly, the talking hamster, I don't think it
feels out of place. It didn't feel out of place in the script.

The weird thing is, in the script the voice is described as
like "robotic,” sort of Siri-like. Then they made the decision to use
Isabella Rossellini for the voiceover. It was this entirely new element of
warmth and humor, a gentle comfort to the character that wasn't there in the
script, just because that's who Isabella is. I think it works well. I’d had
this really elaborate idea that they should set up a mirror in front of me so
that I could have eye-line with myself and could talk to myself. On a Freudian
level, that made sense to me, that this is a conversation I’m having with myself.
Of course, on the day of shooting, time and circumstances didn’t allow for it.

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Have you had much
experience in your own life with closeted teens?

No direct experiences in the sense of stories I could tell. Stephen
and I talked about it a lot during and before shooting the film, which is that
we never really thought about it so much as a coming out story. We always saw
Oscar’s sexuality as a part of him. The struggle with his identity is partly
the struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, but there are a lot of other
parts of his identity as well. To me, that is one thing I like about the movie,
that it shows how everyone struggles
with identity at that age, no matter your sexuality. Everyone struggles with
their family, their community, with where they are, who they are, who they want
to be. If you can't relate to that on a fundamental level, then I don't know
who you are.

You’re still early on
in your career, but you’ve had some meaty roles. How do you go about picking
them?

It's only in the last year that I've had the ability to be
even minutely selective, and even then it's within such a narrow capacity. To
be honest, I've just been really lucky. The things I've happened to get and the
people I've happened to work with have been really great experiences. It wasn't
like I looked through 10 scripts and picked Closet
Monster
out of them -- I wish that had been the case and I like to think
that I would have picked it if it had been -- but I guess I was in the right
place at the right time. I think that if you work with good people, then you
meet a lot of other good people, and hopefully, it has a certain amount of
momentum to it.

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So you’re young,
you’re handsome and a talented actor -- that’s obvious. What people don’t realize
is that you’re a filmmaker as well, a writer, director and producer.

Really the only thing I know anything about in the world, because
I certainly am socially awkward and I'm definitely a mess in almost every other
aspect of my life, but movies -- I know something about those, and they’re what I
really love. Anything I can do to make them, I will. Acting is a very different
thing. Acting, you're a part of a movie, and hopefully, with someone like
Stephen, you're part of a vision you genuinely believe in, but that's rare.
You're an instrument, and that can be a lot of fun, but sometimes it's fun to
be on the other side of the instrument.

Speaking of being a
part of something, you’re a part of the next season of American Crime. How does it feel to be a spoke in that wheel?

It feels really good. That's one I'm really excited about. I’d
been having this weird dichotomy in my head where I was like, "I'm going
to do big bad things or little good things." I didn't think I was going to
end up being able to do a big good thing so soon, so it's really exciting. The
show is a John Ridley show, who wrote 12
Years a Slave
, and despite it being a big network show, the amount of
centralization and control that he has is incredible. Every detail goes through
him. In that sense, it feels like a very long-term entity. It's really a single
person's vision, so that's incredibly exciting to be a part of.

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What is your role
like as Taylor Blaine?

The season takes place in Indianapolis and revolves around
an elite prep school and a sexual assault that happens at one of the school's
parties. It deals with the ripples that these accusations create in the
community and the victims. The first season explored race and faith, this
season is focusing on class, sexual identity, issues of consent. It's very
dramatic. I play the victim, the person who goes to one of these parties and
accuses a few players from the basketball team of assaulting me. 

Quite a serious
subject. And close to what you deal with in Closet
Monster
, yes?

Tonally different, dramatically somewhat similar. With Closet Monster, despite having the furnishings
of a coming of age story and the structure within that, that Stephen’s
sensibility within that body was this great beating heart of real imagination,
excitement and enthusiasm.

American Crime returns for a second season in 2016.