In the new Hulu neo-noir revenge drama Reprisal, Abigail Spencer plays a femme fatale the likes of which you’ve never seen. The actress recently described the role as "if David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino had a baby," and while that may sound like an odd clash of genres, Spencer of all people is uniquely qualified to inhabit them.
Throughout her 20-year career, she’s demonstrated a impressive range, taking on projects big and small across the film and TV landscape. Recurring roles in critically acclaimed dramas, out-there comedy ventures, and network procedurals ensure that you've almost certainly seen her in something.
So what have you seen her in? After making her debut on the ABC soap All My Children in 1998, Spencer went on to the usual array of CSI and Bones guest appearances, with a short stop headlining the Lifetime series Angela’s Eyes (in which she played a human lie detector -- no lie). But it's over the last ten years where you've almost certainly stumbled into her work. Here's an overview:
No one can deny that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has a type. In the earlier seasons, his go-to preference for illicit hookups was anyone who didn’t resemble his wife. Brunette women with an ache matching his own ticked all his horny (and sad) boxes. In Season 3, as Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) teacher Suzanne Farell, Spencer imbued a sense of loneliness that appealed to Don’s sense of self (it didn’t hurt that she was also very attractive). Wise to his cheating spouse game, she knew how this relationship would end but succumbed regardless. Entering into this with her eyes open, she soon resorted to clingy declarations, giving Spencer the chance to reveal Suzanne’s less free-spirited side: "I just wanted more than I thought I would want." Luckily for Don, she doesn’t go full Fatal Attraction, instead showing the kind of empathy that attracted him to her in the first place.
Comedy may not be what most viewers associate with the Spencer, but she's proven on numerous occasions that she can go toe-to-toe with some of TV’s most beloved comic actors in a trio of procedural spoofs. Riffing on the Bachelor, Spencer played girl-next-door Annie on Burning Love in which she ticked the saccharine kindergarten teacher boxes. Annie was "too perfect," professing a love of sports while remaining incredibly girlish: she is the contemporary version of Suzanne Farell without the nuance.
Introduced midway through the first season, Spencer's Dana "Scottie" Scott was both a senior partner and love interest. Mixing business with pleasure is never wise, but Spencer recurred throughout the long-running legal USA show: a benefit of a legal procedural is a deep bench of guest stars. She also attended one of the TV events of 2018, thanks to a friendship formed while working on Suits. That’s right, Spencer was one of the Hollywood attendees at the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry nuptials.
If Mad Men was Spencer’s first foray into a definitive drama of this particular era of television, then Sundance TV’s Rectify underscored why she's someone audiences should pay attention to. Nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award in 2013 for her performance as Amantha Holden, the younger sister of the recently exonerated Daniel (Aden Young), Spencer shined as a woman fueled by her belief in her brother’s innocence. Daniel spent 19 years on Death Row, but his sister continued to be his savior even after he was free. It is an impassioned and nuanced turn from Spencer, in a role that highlights the impact of a wrongful conviction.
Playing the ex-wife of Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farell) in the critically maligned second season of the HBO anthology series was a bit of a thankless task. Gena Brune is embroiled in a custody battle with her ex, a complex situation made more fraught by questions surrounding Chad’s (Trevor Larcom) paternity. A test later reveals that Ray is his dad, but there was a chance his biological father could be the man who raped Gena. All Chad wanted to do was watch Friends and eat pizza with his dad; however, Gena and her son are there to service Ray’s personal struggles. Despite the clunkiness of this narrative, Spencer balanced vulnerability and strength in her delivery of some tough dialogue.
Lucy Preston was the heart of NBC's Timeless, having suffered a huge personal loss (her sister is wiped from history) after the team’s first trip back in time. As the historical expert, Lucy was the brains of the operation, which utilized Spencer’s versatility in both contemporary and period settings. She looked just as at home in a 1950s poodle skirt as she did in luxurious knits pouring over a textbook. At a party in ‘40s Hollywood, Lucy had to perform an impromptu version of "You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)," revealing yet another skill in Spencer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, not enough people tuned in to watch the charming adventures: NBC canceled the series after one season, before reversing the decision (it was canceled a second time after Season 2, with a TV movie wrapping things up).
Spencer would have made an excellent resident or junior doctor on ER if Cook County was still in business on NBC. Instead, she got the next best thing with a drama-filled turn on Grey’s Anatomy. In a role originally played by Bridget Regan, Spencer turned her signature brunette hair red as Dr. Owen Hunt’s (Kevin McKidd) previously MIA sister, Dr. Megan Hunt. In true Grey’s style, there was a lot of baggage and drama: Megan was a trauma surgeon in the army who had been missing for 10 years after an incident in a war zone.
And that's not all: after Reprisal, Spencer is trying something new in the Blumhouse TV adaptation of horror podcast The Horror of Dolores Roach. Details are light as to who she will be playing, but the Sweeney Todd-inspired story will also star Bobby Cannavale and Richard Kind.
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.