This is how quickly things can change for an actor. One year ago, Connor Jessup had wrapped up a five-season run on the U.S. alien-invasion TV series Falling Skies. He had moved back to Toronto, where he hadn't lived since he was 16, which, on one hand, was nice: His family is here, and so are many of his friends in the independent film community. Still, he couldn't escape the idea that he'd just gotten lucky, that "one audition went well, and I had five years of work," and that it would all be downhill from there.
He was 20 years old.
"There was a few months of pretty black dread, where I suspected very strongly that [getting cast in Falling Skies] was pure luck and chance – I had a fun run and that was that," he says, sitting in a Leslieville café one recent morning.
He may be overstating his woes: By that point in his career, he had already shot three films as a lead actor, including Closet Monster, an impressive coming-of-age tale that ended up winning the best Canadian feature award at TIFF this past fall. The film, in which Jessup plays Oscar Madly, a gay teenager growing up in Newfoundland who is battling with his emotionally abusive father, opens Friday in Toronto and is scheduled to roll out across the country through the summer. Still, Jessup's nagging self-doubt – that feeling of being cast out, or, worse, of never having truly belonged in the first place – was genuine.
And then, suddenly last summer, he landed a part in ABC's American Crime, a gut-wrenching 10-part anthology drama that traced the fallout from a teen party in which Jessup's character, a financial aid student at an elite private school, was sexually assaulted by a member of the basketball team. Jessup's Taylor Blaine was a roiling, barely contained mass of shame and rage. Like some of Jessup's other characters – including his role in the 2012 indie drama Blackbird as Sean, a goth teen whose online revenge fantasies get him thrown in jail – Taylor is intensely self-conscious of his outsider status.
The role thrust Jessup sharply back into the spotlight, and prompted ABC to champion him for an Emmy Award. (In the run-up to Thursday's nominations, where he failed to land a nod, numerous critics praised his performance but predicted he would be snubbed.)
"Connor possesses an interesting kind of darkness in his performances," notes Stephen Dunn, who wrote and directed Closet Monster. "He has a very classic, and dare I say mainstream Hollywood-Matt Damon kind of look, but he tends to gravitate towards roles of outsiders, people who don't necessarily fit into society but can also access that world."
Jessup acknowledges there is a commonality among some of his characters, but he demurs at the label of outsider. "Maybe if you'd asked me when I was 14 or 15, I would have said yes – in an obnoxious way. Like, when you're reading [Camus's] The Outsider. But to be honest, to label yourself like that, especially when you come from – " He pauses, explains: "I have a very privileged background, I have a lot of opportunity, I have a very stable life. It would be an enormous affectation."
Still, he notes that he has an ambivalent relationship with the in-crowd. We've met for mid-morning coffee at The Remarkable Bean, a relaxed spot on Queen Street East, partly because it's a block from his house and partly because at some other, more aggressively fashionable places in the neighbourhood, "you go there and you just feel like you're a sardine in a can of hipness," he says.
"I feel a compulsion toward it," he adds. "It's incredibly appealing to me, and I get suspicious when something appeals to a part of me that doesn't seem so fun. Which is the reason why, in a different context, I don't like Los Angeles, for example."
Jessup began acting when he was 10 years old, and at age 13 landed on the Australian-Canadian kids TV show The Saddle Club for one season. By 15, he was on Falling Skies. But while that show was a great training ground – "It gave me this five-year-long playground to fail in, with very little consequence," says Jessup – he was never one for professional training, so he hasn't developed any formal method for building his characters: His acting is essentially self-taught.
Dunn says that, as a result, Jessup "scares himself into being extremely prepared."
"My main motivation in acting is fear, absolutely," says Jessup. "Fear of looking like an idiot. I do have those dreams all the time, where I show up onstage – even though I don't work onstage, I don't know why it's always onstage – having no idea what my lines are, where I'm supposed to be standing, surrounded by people who know way more about what's going on. Incredibly intimidating. Horrible feeling."
"When you start the shoot, every day you come home and you're like, 'I can't believe that went so badly!'" he says, gripping his head in mock disbelief. "'I have to make sure it doesn't go that badly tomorrow.' And that propels you through, and then eventually you're at the end, and you're like, 'Oh. I guess that's that!'" He slumps a little. "Yeah."
Still, he must be doing something right: During the 2012 edition of TIFF, the festival named him one of its rising stars, alongside Tatiana Maslany (who had not yet scored a little show called Orphan Black).
TIFF's Lightbox theatre, says Jessup, is practically his second home. He developed a love of world cinema, and an impressive knowledge of it, while shooting Falling Skies out in Vancouver. ("Sitting there alone every night, what else was I going to do?" he says.) And though we are only scheduled to talk for about an hour, time opens up at the end, and he speaks passionately about some of his favourite filmmakers. He mourned the recent death of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose Taste of Cherry bowled him over and whose The Wind Will Carry Us "had me blubbering."
Jessup is an aspiring director. He has made a number of short films already, including Boy, a ghost story about a boy killed in a bicycle accident, which premiered at last year's TIFF and continues to play the festival circuit. This fall, he is set to shoot another short which he hopes will be a sort of proof-of-concept for a feature he aims to film next summer.
While the shorts are tough to find, his most recent directorial work was just posted online last weekend: a music video for his brother, a rapper who goes by the name of ElJay. ("He's 19. He's very good, actually," says Jessup. "Weirdly good for a white kid from Leaside.") The video, an assured bit of Kodachrome-tinted whimsy called Smile in which passersby in Toronto's Mirvish Village are asked their happiest memories, is a beguiling bit of summer haze.
Jessup says he's struggling less these days with his right to tell stories: To stand in, as a privileged kid from North Toronto, for others such as American Crime's Taylor Blaine or even Closet Monster's Oscar Madly, who is going through sometimes horrifying turmoil. "You realize, as long as you have a little bit of empathy – " Jessup pauses: He's worried about his words being taken the wrong way.
"What did Roger Ebert say the movies are, a machine for creating empathy? That's what I hope it is. I feel like I'm a person, and that gives me a right to be involved in these stories, whether I've lived through the specifics or not. Maybe that sounds privileged, but that's all I have."