An epic saga that centers on the “mythic conflict and bloody struggle between big money and the downtrodden, God and greed, charlatans, and prophets.” Sounds like reading today’s newspaper, doesn’t it? That's actually the description of USA’s new period drama, Damnation, and it’s full of strikebreakers, Depression-era drama, and strong women, best exemplified by Sarah Jones’ Amelia Davenport. It may take place some 80 years ago, but it’s hard to deny that the haves-and-have-nots story isn’t relevant in today’s culture. Damnation will resonate with today’s audiences, according to Jones, though her main inspiration for her character comes straight out of American history.
“I think the show can be interpreted in different ways. For me, I think it tells the story about community, the power of it,” Jones says over the phone, ahead of the series premiere. “And, the power of, not only educating yourself and making yourself aware of what’s going on around you, but doing something about it if you really want to create change.” The actor, whose previous credits include stints on Sons of Anarchy and The Path, sees the similarities in the change the show addresses and the change that pushed populism to America’s forefront in the last election.
"First of all, there were a lot of women that were making things happen and getting things done. Now, whether history decided to mention them is an entirely different subject."
“I think that was what last year’s election was all about — I think that there’s been… not to sound like a politician here, but we are seeing the middle class shrinking. And we as a country have been our most prosperous when the majority of us are in a stable place," she says. "It doesn’t mean that we don't have more work to do, but you know, when we see that middle class decline, we see our country sort of fall apart.”
But before you fall into visions of poor farmers and robber barons, Jones stresses that it’s not all that simple on Damnation.
“There aren’t really… there’s not villains, really, in [the main cast of this] story. They’re conflicted human beings that sometimes make decisions for the greater good, or [those decisions] are selfish, or they’re, you know, they are pure evil or ignorant in nature," Jones says.
Jones' character, Amelia Davenport, is helping her husband, Seth, the local preacher, in prayer circles and sermons and handing out warm meals, but she wants more out of her husband’s religious revival. And most importantly, Amelia seems to know how to get it. That definitely makes her a woman of her time, according to Jones.
“Something that I’ve found really interesting of that time period, and of other time periods as well — first of all, there were a lot of women that were making things happen and getting things done,” Jones says. “Now, whether history decided to mention them is an entirely different subject. But there were plenty. And the common thread that I seem to pull out of some of the women that I researched and read about… was that they sort of preyed on the prejudice. Meaning that, they took what people wanted to see them as — as a woman, as wherever their place in society, whatever that was — and used it to their advantage. They used the prejudice against them as an advantage to move their cause forward.”
Amelia, Jones says, fits perfectly in that category when it comes to getting what she and Seth want. “Amelia has never not been who she is, but her behavior and the way she dresses and the way she executes her plans or thinks about how to further the cause that Seth and Amelia have created together, would not necessarily… match. That’s not because Amelia isn’t who she is — that’s because Amelia isn’t who [the people in town] perceive her to be. She’s certainly not malicious, but she is five steps ahead of everyone at all times. She sees the trajectory that [Seth and Amelia] are on, and if she has to adjust to keep them on that, she’ll do it. But it all does come from a very pure place and a very compassionate place, and a place from a person that is fed up.”
And speaking of fed up, Jones took a great deal of inspiration for her character from another woman who was fed up with the status quo in America in the 19th century.
“I really honed in on Mary Harris Jones, also known as Mother Jones," the actor says. "Mary Harris Jones was a bit before Amelia’s time, but she was one of, if not the most influential leader to bring some reformation into labor laws and child labor laws, not only in the United States but in Canada and Mexico,” Jones says. “She certainly used her look and her demeanor, because when she started her activism, she was older. And she sort of played up this sort of, grandmotherly image in the way that she dressed and spoke, but she knew when to use it. She knew when to be nurturing, she knew when to lecture, she knew when to rile the people up when she needed to and pull back when she needed to. She was certainly one of the women that I looked to for Amelia.”
If Amelia Davenport is following the lead of women like Mother Jones, the rest of Holden County better watch out. She’s a woman who will get what she wants, no matter what.
Editor's note: This article has been edited for clarity.