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Emmys: How Supporting Nominees Stand Out Within Big Ensembles

Veteran British actor Jim Carter may have a beloved supporting role on the hit PBS series “Downton Abbey” as traditionalist butler Mr. Carson, for which he’s been recognized with a second Emmy nomination. As part of a big ensemble, however, sometimes he’s the guy serving dinner when the others get to talk.

“I’m going to write a book called ‘Trousers in the Background,’” Carter jokes about such scenes. “But I’m lucky, because a butler is an iconic role. He’s the person who spans the upstairs and downstairs. He’s almost a Greek chorus through which everything is passed.”

But when something goes wrong at dinner — and it invariably does — a reaction shot of Mr. Carter isn’t far behind.

“And one picture is worth a thousand words,” he says. “So I’m happy with that. He has a quiet opinion on everything.”

This year’s supporting actor/actress Emmy nominees are to a large extent a referendum on standing out in a large, talent-rich cast. Their emergence comes in decidedly different ways.

“I think probably vividness or pungency is the thing that makes a person stand out,” says Vogue television critic John Powers. Though that can often mean getting the best lines, or a death scene, or a character-centric episode that can sway Emmy voters, it can also mean a kind of ever-present, likeable sturdiness, as in Carter’s case.

Says Powers: “He’s this solid thing, in some ways the least changing person. But from the very beginning, he’s been a very touching actor.”

For “Veep” nominee Anna Chlumsky, the damage-control chaos of each episode gives the whole cast — which includes fellow nominees Julia Louis-Dreyfus (for lead) and Tony Hale — a chance to play off each other to the benefit of everyone.

“Our craft is about reaction; it’s about relationships,” says Chlumsky. “That’s what tells the story the best.”

That said, her chief of staff character did get an uncharacteristically profane tirade directed at a news producer this year.

“The neat thing about playing Amy is a lot of the time I’m not allowed to press the release valve for her,” Chlumsky says. “So yeah, that scene was super fun to play.”

Then there’s the “Modern Family” cast, whose adult regulars are routinely recognized at Emmy time (Eric Stonestreet’s snub this year being an anomaly). In four years, the show has 22 supporting noms.

The simplest explanation? A great ensemble given equal time per episode adds up to an equal distribution of Emmy love. To casting director Patrick Rush, the nominations are simple evidence of the cast’s depth.

“You can see where other shows write away from characters who are weak links,” Rush says, “and maybe ‘Modern Family’ works because they’re a united front.”

“Game of Thrones,” meanwhile, is replete with memorable performances, but the cast is infinitely larger, and often confined to separate story strands. Favorite characters necessarily make their mark. Three-time nominee (and 2011 winner) Peter Dinklage’s wise, compassionate underdog Tyrion Lannister has always been a show standout, but Emilia Clarke’s emergence as a first-time nominee this year for playing Daenerys reps a case of steady character growth reaping rewards. The confused pawn of season one has become a dragon-nurturing, slave-vanquishing leader this year, and voters took notice.

“She’s just been growing and growing. There are a few moments in season three where Dany really got an opportunity to give people a taste of how strong she can be,” Clarke says, quipping, “And I do think the dragons and wig really help!”

Say showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in an email: “Emilia made that transformation seem so effortless, you barely notice it happening week after week. But the timid little girl is gone, and Daenerys Stormborn reigns.”

As for Sarah Paulson, her supporting actress nomination is in the movie/mini category, but bringing her “American Horror Story: Asylum” character to the finish line after 13 grueling episodes was a series-like achievement.

“I think she stood out because she became the hero,” says Paulson of her character, intrepid reporter Lana Winters, who endures a litany of abuses on her way to exposing an asylum’s hidden evils.

“And it wasn’t expected in the beginning. When we watch something like that, we like to believe that could be us, that if those horrible things were happening to us, we would still make it out.”

Paulson is bullish on the life of a supporting actor. “I feel like some of the really extraordinary stuff can happen to supporting and character actors. You get to go along, do your thing, and then all of a sudden, you get up to bat and hopefully hit it out of the park.”

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