Emmys: In Praise of Supporting Actors Who Stand Out From the Crowd

Connor Jessup Bokeem Woodbine Sterling Brown
ABC/FX

Showtime recently announced its remake of “Twin Peaks” will include a cast of 217 actors. I pity whoever has to assemble that call sheet.

It’s hard enough these days for shows to stand out from the pack. Best of luck to the actors. The larger the cast, the harder it is for an actor to get any attention. And this year’s supporting actor and actress races are shaping up to be even more competitive than many of the lead races.

With A-list talent flocking to TV, the rise of the star-studded ensemble has certainly benefited TV fans, who get to see an incredible caliber of talent in choice roles. But what’s even more satisfying — and surprising — are the breakout performances from those names you might never have heard of before.

Take FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” It’s one of the best-reviewed shows of the season with a stellar cast — topped by lead actors Sarah Paulson [as Marcia Clark] and Courtney B. Vance [Johnnie Cochran]. Executive producer Ryan Murphy put his famous casting gifts to work in filling that call sheet with a blinding array of star power, from John Travolta to Nathan Lane to David Schwimmer. But one of the most-talked about performances came from someone who admittedly wasn’t a household name before the show’s premiere.

Sterling K. Brown, who embodied Chris Darden brilliantly, said he knew he had a challenge to keep up with his co-stars. “Every day I was well aware I had to step it up or else these people are going to act me off the screen,” he says. I’ve lost count of the number of actors I’ve met who’ve called out his performance to me, impressed with his ability to go toe-to-toe with Vance in the final climactic episode.

And then there’s “Fargo,” also on FX. The second season of exec producer Noah Hawley’s dark drama boasted a star-studded lineup, from Ted Danson to Kirsten Dunst to Jesse Plemons to Jean Smart. Impressive, nomination-worthy performances, one and all. But one actor broke out in the role of Mike Milligan, the mob enforcer. True, Bokeem Woodbine has had a long career with roles on “Saving Grace” and “Southland,” but his trademark delivery of that brilliant dialogue jumped off the screen. Try watching without smiling, even in the grimmest of scenes.

It would be a crime for Emmy voters to ignore ABC’s “American Crime.” [Sorry, couldn’t resist.] Regina King took home the trophy for her work last year, and she’s a worthy contender again this year. [And a plea to voters: Please, please watch her face-off with Carrie Coon in HBO’s “The Leftovers.” It’s a true master class in acting, as the two mothers confront each other about loss and family. Simply heartbreaking.]

But the second season of executive producer John Ridley’s searing drama not only featured prominent talent such as Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor, Ridley also cast a lineup of fresh-faced, teen actors — and the storyline, which focused on the fallout of a rape accusation at a high school, demanded much of them. Connor Jessup, in particular, stood out, especially in a haunting scene that had him hallucinating in a drug-induced haze. “That’s the scary thing going into a show like this,” Ridley acknowledged. “[But] they took the subject matter seriously, and delivered performances that were equal to the best of the best.”

And then there’s “Game of Thrones.” The HBO juggernaut boasts the largest cast on television — standing out in that crowd is an impressive feat indeed. Reigning Emmy champ Peter Dinklage is a force to reckoned with once again, with more than his fair share of witty one-liners (and a memorable, if ill-fated attempt to train a dragon). And Emilia Clarke has mastered her dragons — not to mention literally burning the house down. But the talk of this season has been all about Kit Harington. I can see the Emmy campaign now: He died for this part.

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