Critics and viewers agree these ladies from this season’s rookie or first-time eligible series proved they can carry the lead or offer generous support whenever it’s needed.
Call it fate, but Jane Adams first read the script for HBO’s “Hung” as the economy started to crater and the idea of playing a pimp named Tanya to Thomas Jane’s prostitute, Ray, just seemed to resonate for her.
“At the time I read the script, it was the only thing really talking about what was going on out there,” says Adams. “People were starting to lose their jobs and their homes, and it wasn’t that unbelievable to me that someone would do something like this — become a prostitute or a pimp — in order to get by and feed their family.”
Adams was drawn into the story by the role reversal as well. She liked that the male lead was the sex object and that her character was set upon exploiting his particular set of qualifications.
“There was a scene where Ray was naked in the bathtub while Tanya was talking to him, so on our show he is the blond attractive one and I’m there trying to be his business partner and help sell what he has,” she explains.
Even with the show’s cheeky title, Adams also had an idea the show would appeal to more people than some might think, based on her readthrough prior to auditioning for the role of Tanya.
“I was running lines with my mom in Seattle, and she was reading the part of Ray,” remembers Adams. “She thought the lines were so funny and kept laughing through the whole thing.”
— Karen Idelson
In just one episode of “Treme,” Khandi Alexander’s character, LaDonna, grabs more scene-stealing opportunities than most actors get in an entire season.
She switches from a tough girl dealing with a dawdling contractor to honey-toned gentlewoman wheedling a favor from a relative. She also puts all the aggression she feels for her stubborn mother in a wordless moment of snatching a piece of bacon off mom’s plate and angrily chewing it down.
“This is closer to theater than you generally get when working in television,” says Alexander. “This character is a woman who has clawed her way up to the middle class.”
And “Treme” comes with added pressure not found in most series.
“We are working in a city with people who have survived and thrived in the aftermath of Katrina. I want to honor that,” Alexander says. “It’s a delicate balance between entertainment and maintaining respect for the real people by making sure the representation is true.”
LaDonna tries to stay close to her New Orleans roots, which include a charged but sometimes humorous relationship with her ex-husband, Antoine (Wendell Pierce). LaDonna’s now married to a successful dentist in nearby Baton Rouge. Yet she clings to the New Orleans bar she owns.
“As actors, this is the kind of meat you love sinking your teeth into, and you just pray for this kind of material that allows you to disappear and become completely the character,” Alexander says. “I’m not sure if that translates for an award, but I know it is deeply satisfying for an actor.”
How to play Anna, leader of the suspiciously friendly alien Visitors on ABC’s “V,” became clear to actress Morena Baccarin when she realized the character doesn’t think of herself as a villain and should appear as human as possible.
“As soon as I had these two pieces of information, it sort of came naturally to me,” says Baccarin.
The political take on Anna is a significant departure from the 1983 original’s guinea pig-eating Diana. “I thought it was more interesting to make her somewhat of a political figure, and that’s how I approached it,” Baccarin says.
The actress says she watched real politicians to find ways to make Anna a convincing leader: “They’re a lot like her in the sense that she needs to gain people’s trust really quickly. It’s really telling people what they want to hear.”
Anna already has become a sci-fi icon thanks to her streamlined wardrobe and a short hairstyle that Baccarin says predates her audition.
“It’s very different, but at the same time it’s not weird,” she says. “But there is something about her that you sort of see that doesn’t seem exactly human.”
Showing the alien side of Anna is a great challenge. “The mating scene in the first episode was something that I had a lot of fun coming up with. (I was) trying to figure out how to make it seem more business-like and animal at the same time,” she says.
Baccarin says she hasn’t had to swallow any rodents, but with the show just renewed for a second season that may change.
“I’ve been told to brace myself, but it hasn’t happened yet,” she says.
After a brief run playing a tabloid editor in FX’s “Dirt,” Courteney Cox wanted to get back to what she does best — comedy. She called Bill Lawrence, who had been a writer on the first season of “Friends,” and asked if he’d be interested in developing something together.
“I was looking for an ensemble show where the characters were more my age,” Cox says. “There aren’t many of those on TV these days.”
Lawrence and writing partner Kevin Biegel spent a few days hanging out with Cox, observing her goofiness and self-deprecating humor and drew up “Cougar Town,” with Cox playing Jules, a newly divorced woman who tried to figure out (mid)life by dating a conga line of younger men.
Over the course of the season, “Cougar Town” focused less on Jules’ dating escapades and more on her relationships with the show’s other characters. By season’s end, Jules had even settled down, dating next-door-neighbor bartender Grayson (Josh Hopkins).
“Don’t get me wrong, the whole dating-younger-men thing was fun,” Cox says, “but it made more sense to focus on the regular cast. Jules is still trying to figure life out. She’s just not trying to figure it out with younger men.”
Cox says the character is a composite of her, Lawrence and Christa Miller, her co-star on the show and Lawrence’s wife off the show.
“Bill will come to my house on a Sunday and watch me do something. I’ll read about it on Tuesday,” Cox says. “He’s got a good eye for detail, though we sometimes dispute how accurate it is.”
Edie Falco admits she doesn’t completely understand the mysterious process that turns one human being into another, in an acting sense.
She just goes with it.
“I don’t know how the whole thing works,” says Falco, who once wowed cable viewers as the spirited Carmela in HBO’s “The Sopranos,” and now sparkles in a less bejeweled role as the title character in “Nurse Jackie” on Showtime.
“I don’t know why I was drawn to this character,” she explains. “All I know is, when I read the script, I wanted to read more. I was curious to see what would happen to her next. I wanted to come back to her again and again.”
Obviously Falco has mastered the methodology — even if it is not always completely fathomable — because the results are uniformly top drawer. Last year she received a Golden Globe nom for “Nurse Jackie” after a run in “The Sopranos” during which she nabbed two wins and six other nominations. As Carmela, she also won three Emmys and four other noms.
Falco has also distinguished herself on stage, in a long-running, on-again, off-again stint in Warren Leight’s “Side Man” and most recently off Broadway in “This Wide Night” by Chloe Moss.
And she will get the chance to delve into Jackie when cameras again roll later this year, since the dark comedy was renewed for a third season.
“As far as her personality is concerned, she’s great fun to step into,” Falco explains. “She’s so different than me, so it’s a real release to be there in the moment and say what she means.
“It really is great fun.”
Lorelai Gilmore and Sarah Braverman have two things in common: They’re both single mothers played by Lauren Graham.
But after seven seasons as the unsinkable Lorelai, the veteran actress now finds herself working her way up from the bottom as Sarah, the first-born daughter of the Braverman clan in the NBC family drama “Parenthood.”
“I’ve played a mother with a lot of nobility,” Graham says. “I really wanted to explore someone who is flawed and for whom things do not come easily.”
Divorced from her rock musician husband, Sarah is broke, unemployed and is forced to move back into her childhood home with two teenagers — a mostly defiant Amber (Mae Whitman) and a withdrawn Drew (Miles Heizer).
“I’ve tried to find the truth of what that situation is,” Graham says. “What would it feel like to live in your parents’ house at an inappropriate age and to have had really — except for your kids — none of your childhood dreams come true? Sarah’s sort of in a mid-life crisis, which we don’t see a lot of in women. We’ve seen the guys in their 40s who act out in some stereotypical ways, and this is more the female version of that.”
Sarah is anxious for her situation to improve, but change won’t happen overnight.
“She has got to have some kind of step up,” she says, “but it’s life, and it’s going to take awhile.”
The last thing on Patricia Heaton’s mind was tackling another mom role.
“I had trepidation. I’d done the mom for nine years and thought I should do a lawyer, a detective, anything but a mom,” says Heaton, whose role on “Everybody Loves Raymond” brought seven Emmy noms and two wins.
With a series close in tone to “The Honeymooners” or “Roseanne,” Heaton fell for Midwestern mom Frankie, who juggles a low-paying job and a challenging family as the main character on “The Middle.”
“In most sitcoms, there’s the idiot husband and the long-suffering wife. On this show, we lack discipline and parenting skills in equal measure,” Heaton says of the couple. “I love the broad comedy I’m allowed to do. We don’t really have jokes, just humor about a regular couple having average normal kids who aren’t superstars.”
Shooting a single-camera comedy versus the multicamera approach of “Raymond” also has presented some challenges for the actress.
“Doing a multicamera, you did the show, took your applause and went home,” Heaton says. “With single, you don’t have a full picture of what it will look like at the end, so there’s no closure and that took a long time to get used to.”
Tech aside, Heaton says she’s glad to be on a series that connects on a personal level.
“In the end, the only thing that lasts is your family. Networks went away from that, and I think (ABC topper) Steve McPherson was smart in taking a two-hour chunk of time to get back to families,” Heaton says.
“Everything in my life has been a series of happy accidents,” says “Glee” actress Jane Lynch of her career. “I knew from the get-go that I wanted to be in comedy and on TV and movies. I was completely taken by the theater and watching the lights go on. I remember the intoxication of being part of a group. I remember the high and the thrill and the joy.”
Nowhere is that joy more apparent than in Lynch’s performance as Sue Sylvester, the ballsy, ribald, take-no-prisoners cheerleading coach on Fox’s hit.
“She’s a warrior,” says the Illinois native of her character’s feisty determination to keep the Cheerios squad atop the William McKinley High popularity totem pole. “If there is no enemy, she will create one. She is alive when she is fighting for her life. She wants to rule over the most powerful group at school.”
Lynch, who earned an MFA in Theatre Arts from Cornell, believes viewers young and old relate to the show’s heated rivalries and the way both students and teachers combat their insecurities through dance and music.
“‘Glee’ is about people coming together for one reason,” says Lynch, “and that is to create a beautiful sound. It’s about being a part of something, whereby you’re given the love you don’t get in the outside world.”
Lynch, nominated for a Golden Globe for her “Glee” role, is getting big-time love from critics and fans. But it’s the craft, she asserts, not the kudos, that truly matters.
“I’m in it,” declares Lynch of her acting career. “I’m in it for the ups and the downs and everything in between.”
Sofia Vergara admits she was initially worried about the character of Gloria when “Modern Family” first made its way to her.
“I thought nobody’s going to like her, that she’s a gold digger — another young woman with an older guy and an immigrant woman with a kid,” says Vergara, who plays opposite Ed O’Neill’s gruff patriarch Jay Dunphy. “But once you see the episodes, you totally understand why they are perfect for each other. Now I love it. Gloria’s very into her son, and that’s fantastic.”
The Barranquilla, Colombia native, who has been acting for 20 years, is especially proud that she’s representing her heritage on a hit show. She’s even done her fair share of culture-correcting.
“One time, we were shooting Gloria’s wedding, and I arrived on the set to see a bunch of men dressed like Mexican mariachis! It was hilarious,” she explains. “I had to say, ‘Guys, Colombians don’t dress like that!’ ”
Vergara says fans on the street are sometimes surprised her Spanish accent is real. However, she admits she played it up for her audition.
“I realized it was funnier when I would say ‘yoo’ instead of ‘you,’ and now I don’t even know which one is my real accent,” she says, laughing. “My son says I’m the only human in the history of America who, after 16 years in a country, their accent gets worse.”