Road to the Emmys 2012: Guest Stars

An invite to a dinner party usually guarantees that you’ll be treated like royalty or a long-lost beloved relative. The same can’t be said about being a guest on an established series.

RZA found that out the hard way while shooting a 10-episode arc on “Californication.” David Duchovny and Evan Handler, castmates since 2007, were having an in-depth discussion about music when the Wu-Tang Clan co-founder decided to join in the fun.

Turns out the two longtime friends were talking about an older version of a band that RZA was not familiar with.

“I felt totally out of place,” says RZA, who played a hip-hop mogul on the Showtime series. “I had to take two steps back.”

Being a visitor on a hit show can lead to good things. Ask John Lithgow, who reminded people just how creepy he could be on “Dexter,” or Betty White, who kept up with the kids on “Saturday Night Live.” Both won Emmys in the guest star category.

But actors with a temporary gig never quite feel like part of the family, mainly because they’re never really sure when they’ll get their walking papers.

Ben Feldman, who played the fast-talking new copywriter on this past season of AMC’s “Mad Men,” says the cast was warm and inviting, including him on occasion to off-site events. At Christmas time, he even felt comfortable enough to contribute a wreath to star Elizabeth Moss’ holiday decorations.

“You think, OK, maybe I’m a part of this, but as soon as that happens, you’re told you’re not in the next episode,” he says. “You’re back to feeling like the foreign-exchange student.”

Justin Long has observed the process from both sides. When he was a cast member of NBC’s “Ed,” he watched thesps such as Christopher Lloyd and Michael Winslow come and go, sometimes without a whole lot of acknowledgement.

“Frank Wood was on our show right after he won a Tony Award and no one was talking to him at lunch, because nobody knew who he was,” recalls Long, who eventually went and sat with the star of “Side Man.”

This past season of “New Girl” gave Long a chance to be the guest, appearing in three episodes of the Fox comedy as Jess’ geeky boyfriend. Long instantly felt comfortable, in part because the cast of the freshman series hadn’t been together long enough to have a stockpile of inside jokes.

But Long says star Zooey Deschanel’s non-diva attitude also helped create a cozy environment.

“She’s kind of a weirdo, in the best way,” he says. “I had been a fan of her music before the show even started. I had been to her concerts and revealed that to her with as little creepiness as I could muster. Instead of acting strange about it, she started singing all of the Carpenters’ greatest hits. She’s just one of those people you instantly feel like you can joke around with.”

Neal McDonough, who’s up for supporting actor this year but has had plenty of guest appearances during a fruitful career, didn’t do a lot of joking around during his stint as giggling bad guy Robert Quarles on FX’s “Justified.” But he used that sense of alienation to his advantage.

“I didn’t hang out after school. I wanted to keep things edgy,” McDonough says. “When I did ‘Desperate Housewives,’ that was fun. This wasn’t fun. I was going for the prize. I just wanted to hit bombs out of the yard all the time.”

Related Links:
Among the contenders

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more