Hollywood once considered television the venue for film actors to make an occasional guest spot or all-star movie-of-the-week.
But that’s changed, as demonstrated by this year’s lead actress Emmy nominee class, half of whom — including Patricia Arquette, Minnie Driver, Sally Field, Mary-Louise Parker and Kyra Sedgwick — have shown their versatility by taking on demanding roles on critically hailed series.
This continued willingness of so many film actors to do television work suggests a melting away of the biases that have long kept the most in-demand actors confined to movie sets.
To put it in perspective, Glenn Close has more nominations for Emmy than Oscar.
“Top television today, in terms of performance, is as good as anything award winning in film,” says director-producer Harold Becker, an industry vet with more than 35 years of film credits. “I think that the prejudices of years ago are no longer there.”
Driver, who earned her first Emmy nom for playing Dahlia, an Irish Traveler mom, on FX’s “The Riches,” finds nothing unusual in this evolution.
“It has to start first and foremost with the part,” says Driver, who doesn’t consider herself limited to any one medium. “This is the best part I’ve ever been offered.”
Although “Weeds” nominee Parker established her reputation on the stage, she has demonstrated her willingness to take creative risks with television roles — a gamble that already has won her an Emmy, in 2004 for HBO’s “Angels in America.” But like Driver, Parker says she’s never hesitated to take on challenging offstage parts, whether in film or TV.
“I think of myself ultimately as a theater actress. Beyond that, I’ve just gone wherever the parts were the best,” Parker says.
The turning point for attracting Oscar-caliber actors to television work may have been HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which paved the way for edgier television marked by richer writing and deeper characters.
“The show was this colossus masterwork that happened to be done in television. It ranks up there with ‘The Godfather’ in film,” Becker says. “It opened the door to the realization that both media could reach those kind of heights.”
As television programs became more complex and roles got smarter than those offered by the average sitcom, TV producers were able to lure film actors like this year’s nominees to episodic work, says longtime casting director Mary Vernieu.
“All these actresses are so good, and television has provided them an opportunity to showcase their talents,” Vernieu says. “They’re not losing anything by being on TV. They’re gaining by being able to play complex lead characters and go through all these different arcs.”
Working for cable series that shoot 11 to 13 episodes a season has been a perfect compromise for Driver and Parker, both of whom say they look forward to capitalizing on longer hiatuses than their network counterparts enjoy.
“The only thing that was scary for me about doing a television show was about the freedom. It seemed like I would be closed off to doing theater or a film if I wanted to,” says Parker, who has done a feature film and TV movie on every break so far. “But it turns out I have a television show that shoots four months out of the year, so I can be flexible and do other projects. I can’t do a yearlong run, but I can still do a play and travel.”
Driver, who released her second singer-songwriter album, “Seastories,” on July 17, says she had to turn down four film roles to go on concert tour this hiatus, but she anticipates having ample time after each season wraps to take on films, provided the roles are interesting enough.
“Those are good problems to have,” she says. “Yes, I would love to go make a film. However, when the quality of the work that you’re doing is high, the idea of doing a huge movie for a lot of money for a thankless female role doesn’t appeal to me.”
Today, a TV role, if sufficiently buzzworthy, can actually make actors even more desirable for film roles, especially if the actors are respected film veterans such as Parker and her fellow nominees. “These actresses come up all the time for parts. It’s just a matter if they’re available to do them,” Vernieu says.
Despite the scheduling conflicts that come up for actors juggling primetime and feature gigs, Parker says she’s open to doing a five-season run of “Weeds.”
“I just finished season three, and if there are two more years, great. There’s more to dig up for my character. I could keep digging for a couple more years.”