×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Screen writer Beau WillimonMary Queen of

    Beau Willimon Re-Elected as President of Writers Guild of America East

    Beau Willimon, the playwright and showrunner who launched Netflix’s “House of Cards,” has been re-elected without opposition to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America East. Willimon also ran unopposed in 2017 to succeed Michael Winship. Kathy McGee was elected to the vice president slot over Phil Pilato. Secretary-treasurer Bob Schneider [...]

  • Dickinson First Look Teaser

    TV News: Apple Drops New 'Dickinson' Trailer With Hailee Steinfeld (Watch)

    In today’s roundup, Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson” series released a new trailer and Netflix released the trailer for the fifth season of “Peaky Blinders.” DATES The “Cash Cab” revival will come to Bravo on Oct. 7. The game show takes place inside a New York cab, where unsuspecting passengers become contestants in a game of [...]

  • Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team

    Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team for Medical Drama in Development at CBS

    CBS is developing a medical drama that hails from writer Katie Wech, Variety has learned. Currently titled “Good Sam,” the series follows a talented yet stifled surgeon who embraces her leadership role after her renowned and pompous boss falls into a coma. When he awakens and wants to resume surgery, however, it falls to her to [...]

  • Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent,

    Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent, Dies at 88

    Jack Gilardi, a longtime ICM Partners agent who represented such stars as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Lewis, Charlton Heston and Shirley MacLaine, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88. Gilardi was known for his gentlemanly style, love of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his skill at representing top actors. He [...]

  • Will Gluck

    Will Gluck Sets TV Overall Deal at eOne (EXCLUSIVE)

    Will Gluck has signed a two-year overall television deal with Entertainment One (eOne), Variety has learned exclusively. Under the deal, Richard Schwartz will continue to oversee all television projects for Gluck’s Olive Bridge Entertainment, with eOne set to serve as studio on all projects under the partnership. “The choice for us was clear given their impeccable [...]

  • Katie Hockmeyer

    NBC Entertainment Names Katie Hockmeyer Exec VP of Late Night Programming

    Katie Hockmeyer has been named executive vice president of late night programming at NBC Entertainment She will report to NBC Entertainment co-chairmen George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy, where she will work on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Saturday Night Live” and newly launched late-night addition, “A Little Late with [...]

  • Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton

    Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton to Head Programming

    Nexstar Media Group has become the nation’s largest owner of TV stations after completing its $4.1 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. The deal creates a broadcasting colossus with more than 200 stations serving more than 100 markets, although a number of stations will be divested to keep Nexstar in compliance with FCC ownership limits. Nexstar, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content