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

by Valentina I. Valentini 6:20 AM PDT, September 15, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

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.