Supporting Actor Emmys Race Features Veterans Who Love the Work

They’ve enjoyed long, successful careers. They’ve been honored with multiple awards for their work. They have money, fame and all the peer respect they could desire.

But at an age when most other people are contemplating retirement — or have long since called it quits — many veteran actors seem to be working harder than ever. They include Tony winner Andrea Martin, who appears in NBC’s new comedy “Great News,” and John Lithgow, who did supporting turns on both Netflix’s “The Crown” and NBC’s “Trial & Error” this year. Not to mention actors on continuing Showtime shows such as Jon Voight (“Ray Donovan”) and Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”), who have already been Emmy-nominated for their work, and Laurence Fishburne (ABC’s “Black-ish”) and Gary Cole (HBO’s “Veep,”) who are familiar faces audiences love to see.

So what drives them and keeps them coming back for more?

For Jonathan Banks, who’s excelled at playing heavies in movies and TV for over four decades, and earned three supporting actor Emmy nominations for playing crime-scene fixer Mike Ehrmantraut in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” its prequel, “Better Call Saul,” it’s the artist’s imperative. “I told myself a long time ago I couldn’t live without it, and as an artist, you never give up, whether successful or not,” he says. “And that’s the appeal of playing a character like Mike for nearly eight years. He’s so flawed, like all of us, and older and tortured, but he keeps on going. He never gives up, mentally, physically — just like an actor.”

Banks also cites the appeal of working in a TV world “that’s so different now, with so many shows playing out like great novels, with these long, complex story arcs. It’s like something out of Dickens.”

But now 70, he also admits that the demands of the job “do wear on you, with all the traveling and being away from your family for months. I’d never retire, but I do understand why someone like Gene Hackman would quietly walk away and just paint.”

For Blair Brown, Emmy-nominated five times for “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” it’s a similar “need to work, otherwise I don’t feel quite whole as a person if I’m not involved in a project, whether it’s thinking about it or rehearsing or whatever. It’s somehow the way I participate in our society. So I have to work, even if it’s not for money. It helps me make sense of the world, and your antennae are up and you’re connected, and I just like my life better when I’m working.”

“That’s the appeal of playing someone like Mike for nearly eight years. He’s so flawed, like all of us, and older and tortured, but he keeps on going.”
Jonathan Banks

She’s quick to stress that “there’s not much of me in Judy [King],” the imperious TV personality she plays in Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Brown says the role has been “so much fun to do, and while you couldn’t call her a feminist, she is this cheerful self-made woman whose M.O. is, ‘If it’s good for me, then it’s bound to be good for you,’ which is a wonderful new take on selfishness.”

At 71, Brown notes that longevity in the business pays dividends, “because when you’re young and female, there’s a lot of work for you as ‘the girl,’ but that work is not very interesting. You’re not doing too much of anything, except be likable and look good, all that stuff. But as you get older, the parts certainly get a lot better, and once you get past all the usual tropes — the cougar, the bossy woman — or take them and spin them around and make it all far less predictable, it’s so much fun. So I’ll keep working till I drop.”

Carol Kane, 64, who stars as the colorful landlord Lillian Kaushtupper in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” won two Emmys for her work in “Taxi” back in the early ’80s, and says that “nothing’s changed” in terms of her long “love affair” with acting and working.

“The big thing is the quality of the writing, and my love affair with TV started with Jim Brooks, and now it’s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock,” she says. “I can trust them to make the characters very rich, and while I bring a lot of me to Lillian, they’ve given me this wonderful role full of challenges to play, and I’m always frightened that I won’t be able to fulfill it. So it’s the high quality and demands of their writing that keeps acting fresh for me. It takes a lot to fulfill it, and that never gets old.”

What is new for Kane, who got her SAG card “back in ’66,” is the current TV landscape. “When I started, you just had the three main networks, and now it’s a whole new world of working and watching, and I don’t quite understand it yet,” she admits. “But I love working for Netflix and I’ve binge-watched a few of their shows and enjoyed it. And as someone who loves to work, it’s very exciting that there are all these new outlets and formats.”

Ron Cephas Jones says he’s “still plugging away” and that it’s his “love of acting and the craft” that keeps him working. “I grew up in New York with an intense appreciation for the art form, in all its splendors.”

The journeyman actor, now 60, is enjoying one of the biggest hits of his career with NBC’s “This Is Us.” “It’s taken a while to get to this point,” he says. “Over the past few years, things started to come together in TV and film, what with a lot of new studios opening up in New York and doing a lot of cable shows, and I was able to do a lot of auditions on tape and reach further for shows like ‘Luke Cage’ and ‘The Get Down.’”

It was one of those audition tapes that caught the eye of “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman. “He didn’t go after stars and names so much as the right actors for the roles, and I was surprisingly pleased to land the part,” he says. “Initially I didn’t think I’d book it, as I look too young for the role, but Dan later told me he knew I was his William the moment he looked at the tape. And that’s opened up everything for me this year, in terms of exposure and offers.”

Does Jones consider himself a late bloomer? “I don’t feel like that, though it looks like that. I’ve been blooming for a long time. But so much of this is about timing. Often, work goes unseen because of various factors outside of your control.”
Would he ever consider retiring? “I’m certainly not at that point where I’m financially able to retire, although I wish it was that way,” he says with a laugh.
“Over the past few years, because of the work, my financial status has been raised, but I’m still looking for that retirement gig.”

At 64, Mary Steenburgen is busier than ever, and says she enjoys the work “as much as when I started out. I quite like that it’s hard and full of challenges, and I still feel I’m learning all the time, and can’t rest on my laurels.”

Like Brown, the Emmy nominated star notes that “I never thought I’d be getting such great parts in my 60s, like Gail in [Fox’s] ‘The Last Man on Earth,’ who’s just perfect for me. She’s such a specific gift, with my kind of humor — and I get to play the accordion.”

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