When Corey Stoll accepted the guest role of Pakistan station captain Sandy Bachman on Showtime’s “Homeland,” he knew his biggest challenge would be convincing the audience that Bachman was a cool, confident professional with a long career ahead of him, although that wasn’t actually true.
“It was important that the audience not think that I was going to die in the first episode,” Stoll says. “Part of what the creators wanted was for the audience to assume that I was going to be a major part of the story moving forward.”
Though Bachman did not survive that season four premiere, Stoll says he read as much as he could about the life of a spy in the short time he had to prep.
“I don’t really speak that much in the one episode I’m in, but it was important for me have a sense of a biography, a sense that there’s more going on than I’m showing,” he says.
Stoll knows it can be tough for any actor to make an impression through a guest role on a handful of episodes, but developing and portraying a fully fleshed-out character in a single episode is the real trick. And now that an actor has to appear in 50% or less of a show’s season to be considered guest, the Emmys could have more room to nominate prestige single-episode perfs from this season like those by Cicely Tyson (“How to Get Away With Murder”), Mel Brooks (“The Comedians”), Courtney B. Vance (“Scandal”), Oliver Platt (“Modern Family”) and Billy Bob Thornton (“The Big Bang Theory”).
Fitting into the timbre of the show can also be a challenge for a guest star, says Eric McCormack, who played Dr. Andrew Devlin on NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura,” which happens to star his former “Will & Grace” castmate Debra Messing.
“I really do believe that guest-starring can be some of the hardest work in the business,” he says. “You’ve got to deliver something full-fledged, and it’s not just about making sure that every take counts or you know your lines. It’s delivering something that has the same tone as the rest of the show.”
McCormack’s producer on his TNT series “Perception,” Amanda Green, also serves as an exec producer on “Mysteries,” and Green was the first one to approach him about a guest spot. Nostalgia was certainly part of the pitch.
“So she called me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you guys got together?’ And I said, ‘I’ll only do it if our characters get to make out.’ Because America has waited too long.”
Capitalizing on their previous onscreen partnership made the days on the set go smoothly for McCormack and Messing.
“Even though the characters were new, the chemistry did some of the work for us, which, often you don’t get when you bring someone into an established show and say, ‘By the way, they were lovers for 10 years,’ ” he says.
Going on to an established set can take some getting used to, particularly when it is for just one episode, but it also allows an actor to play against type or experiment in genres. For “Breaking Bad” star Dean Norris, playing the mysterious manliness expert Le Loup on Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” was an opportunity to dabble in comedy.
“Tina Fey called and says to my manager, will we do it? I’m like, ‘It’s Tina Fey, man. She can ask me to park her car, and I’d do it,’” Norris says. “(But) I made it very clear that I don’t do a lot of comedy, so you know, be kind and gentle.”
Norris’ character is charged with helping flamboyant Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) pass for straight in order to get more acting roles. He says research was not necessary for the two-day shoot in New York. “Hey, I was playing the ultimate straight guy. I just looked in the mirror,” Norris says with a laugh.
Mimi Rogers also says her “Mad Men” character Pima, a morally ambiguous designer, was well-drawn on the page before she delved into her own exploration. Though Rogers’ stylish performance makes Pima seem like a role written specifically for the actress, she says she actually auditioned.
“Matthew Weiner is very, very specific about what he’s doing, about what he wants,” she says. “The character was realized on the page, and he was looking for the actor to bring some life to his vision.”
When it comes to the right part, even Oscar winners aren’t afraid to audition. Octavia Spencer played recovering addict Regina in four episodes of “Mom” last season. Though she didn’t have to audition, she says she wouldn’t have minded. “It’s nice that people have confidence and recognize your body of work, but if there’s a role that I have any interest in doing, and it requires going in and reading for it, I just do it,” she says. “I’m interested in working. I’m interested in acting.
“I feel very blessed that I get to try my hand at half-hour, and continue to do films that have a comedic and dramatic palate as well,” Spencer says. “And getting to do it with people like Chuck Lorre who are at the top of their game — if you’re going to learn, learn from the best.”