While it’s become a bit of a cliche for nominees to say it’s a thrill just to be included, this year’s slate included 25 newbies, including stars like Matthew McConaughey, Mark Ruffalo and Billy Bob Thornton, who might actually mean it.
And thanks to the success of “Orange Is the New Black,” time served at Litchfield Correctional Facility has indeed been life-changing for the cast.
“On the day that I got this job, I had quit acting,” says Uzo Aduba, whose portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the Netflix dramedy earned her a guest actress nod. “I had gone to an audition that I was sure I wasn’t going to get. I left the audition and I cried from the casting station all the way to the train.” That night Aduba started plotting her options — she knew going to law school would please her Nigerian parents. “Then my phone rang with my agent telling me I got ‘Orange Is the New Black.’ ”
Aduba wasn’t the only cast member at an impasse. “I was in a very similar place,” admits the show’s lead, Taylor Schilling. “I was feeling disappointed in my career. I didn’t want to read scripts.” Her agent insisted she take a look at Jenji Kohan’s pilot based on Piper Kerman’s book about her prison stint. “I was really moved by the story,” Schilling says. “What was intriguing to me was that sliding doors syndrome. What if I went left instead of right?”
Ironically, as her character Piper Chapman finds out what happens when a wrong turn makes you lose everything you think matters, Schilling is experiencing the exact opposite — suddenly having everything she wanted. “It’s such an overwhelming moment,” says the actress. “It’s an incredible thing to be playing this character as this moment is happening in my life.”
Co-star Laverne Cox is making history as the first openly transgender nominee in Emmy history, but before she landed the role of Sophia Burset, Cox had resigned herself to playing nothing but sex workers. “On a good day I would have four auditions in one day. Every single part that I auditioned for was a prostitute,” she says. “So I was like, ‘How can I make each prostitute different?’ These are people, too.”
Today her career highlight is making Jodie Foster cry. Recalls Cox, “We were shooting Sophia’s flashback episode and the scene where my wife on the show is teaching me how to dress like a grown-up lady. I just felt the love that these two women had for each other and how complicated it was. Jodie Foster was directing and her eyes were filled with tears. I was just like, ‘Oh my God, Jodie Foster’s crying!’ This was the moment I’d been training for. It’s what you dream about.”
Even for Kate Mulgrew, who has worked steadily for nearly four decades, playing Galina “Red” Reznikov is a career high. “The minute I read it I understood that this was going to be something so original, so unorthodox and so brilliant that I had to do it,” says the nominee for guest actress. “The fact that I get to play Reznikov is what wins the day for me. But make no mistake about it, when my boyfriend woke me up and said, ‘You might want to get your ass out of bed. You were just nominated for an Emmy,’ don’t think I didn’t fly. I did.”
On the opposite side of the law is Allison Tolman, who plays Deputy Molly Solverson on FX’s “Fargo.” “Honestly, the whole last year feels kind of like a dream that I haven’t fully processed,” Tolman says. “The first time I got into a police car, and the person who crawled behind me was Martin Freeman, I was like, ‘What is happening?’ ”
Ask Tolman about her Emmy nod and the Texas-born actress, who was moments away from throwing in the towel on her acting career before landing the role on “Fargo,” just chuckles. “I mean, it seems sort of disrespectful, but I just can’t help but laugh. It’s hilarious. Who does this happen to? It’s insane.”
Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor — who portrayed 1930s jazz musician Louis Lester on Starz’s “Dancing on the Edge” — says the Emmy nod is validation that the most important aspect of a job for an actor is telling a compelling story, not where that story is told.
“I’ve always been somebody who’s attempted to work in all different media — film, television and theater,” he says. “Getting some recognition in each of those areas is very meaningful to me. It means that we, as actors, are allowed to focus on the stories and not rely on the medium.”
Joe Mantello couldn’t agree more. The actor, who portrayed Ned Weeks in “The Normal Heart” on Broadway and Mickey Marcus in the HBO adaptation, discovered that his own experience was surprisingly similar both on stage and screen. “There was a real sense, both in the Broadway revival and on the film, of camaraderie among the actors,” says Mantello. “Everyone checked their ego and came together to tell a story of a very terrible time when we abandoned one another and the heroic actions of the few people who took this on.”
But the fact that Mantello is nominated alongside co-stars Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Alfred Molina (Julia Roberts is nominated in the supporting actress category and Mark Ruffalo as lead actor) is what truly matters to him. “To be in a category with three colleagues from the same project is just an incredible achievement. We’re going to go have an incredible night.”