Femmes push themselves with out-of-comfort-zone roles

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Actress

After five seasons as Tami Taylor on “Friday Night Lights,” Connie Britton had no idea what she wanted to do next.

“I had a little bit of a struggle within myself thinking, ‘Where do I go from here?’ ” she says. “The answer just came back to me: I wanted to do things that basically scare the shit out of me.”

So she accepted the risque role as Vivien Harmon in FX’s miniseries “American Horror Story.”

“I scared the hell out of myself just thinking about having sex with a man in a rubber suit,” she says. Turns out, as far as professional fears go, Rubber Man was nothing compared to what Britton was about to face.

This fall she takes on the role as country singer Rayna James in the ABC show “Nashville,” which means she has to, well, sing.

“Man, I have never been more scared in my life,” she says. “When I was having to record the song, I was just begging for Rubber Man to come along.”

Britton isn’t just looking for an adrenaline rush. As an actress, she’s found that fear propels her to new places.

“When you’re taking a huge risk, the fear is real,'” she says. “I get really raw, and I think that’s an interesting place to be. If we as actors are challenging ourselves and allowing ourselves to be more vulnerable, you can’t get stale.”

After years of playing a role on television, a fear that many actors face is falling into familiar habits and developing too much of a comfort zone. For Kaley Cuoco, who spent her formative years on sitcoms, it’s now so easy to slip into the role of Penny in “The Big Bang Theory” that the bubbly blonde tries to use her spare time playing against type. The problem, Cuoco finds, is persuading others she can do it.

“My agent called casting for Lifetime’s ‘Drew Peterson: Untouchable’ and said, ‘I think Kaley would be really great for this.’ They responded with ‘This is not a comedy. We don’t see Kaley in serious stuff,'” says Cuoco.

She proved them wrong and landed the part of Stacy Peterson. “That’s why I really wanted to do it. I didn’t think anyone thought I could, so it meant a lot to me to be able to play that role.”

She recently found herself exhilarated by another audition where she cried hysterically, mascara running down her face.

“I need to keep pushing myself because it’s easy to get stuck,” she says, pointing out that it’s her job on “Big Bang” that affords her that luxury. “You want to be a well-rounded actor at the end of the day.”

To Kristen Bell it has always been important to explore a variety of characters, but after landing the role of ethically challenged Jeannie on “House of Lies,” her need to show diversity has now turned into a desire to just enjoy her work.

“Years ago, I was looking forward to playing someone like Jeannie, and now that I can, I don’t necessarily feel a need to show another side of myself in the off-season,” says Bell, whose upcoming films include “Hit and Run” with fiance Dax Shepard and Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s).”

“I probably will still wake up in the middle of the night with the sweats, thinking ‘I’m not only this. I need a new role.’ But at this moment, I feel like I’ve been able to explore things that I’m really enjoying, and I want to continue to do that.”

And cramming in a hiatus project after wrapping a full season, no matter how professionally stimulating, can be exhausting. Just ask Martha Plimpton, who after her first season of “Raising Hope” immediately threw herself into a live production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”

“We had 10 days to put it together. It was an insane, outrageous project,” she says. “When it was over I wanted to sleep for a month.”

This summer hiatus she is doing just that, after discovering that what brings the most energy to her full-time role as Virginia Chance is rest.

“Work is tiring. It takes energy, focus, presence and availability. I’m not complaining. I enjoy it and it’s always energizing in the moment. But when it’s done, I need to take a nap,” she says. “If I don’t have that recharging time, then I start to resent getting up at 3:30 in the morning, and I don’t ever want to resent having a job.”

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