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For TV Drama Actresses, Roles Excite

Top thesps revel in arrival of more challenging roles

Life after 40 is good, and getting better, for leading actresses in TV. The women they portray are more independent, flawed and complex than ever. They’re getting love from audiences, critics and Emmy voters — winning the lead drama actress category four out of the past five years.

The latest groundbreaking character comes from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma and Louise, Callie Khouri, who made the jump from film to TV to create ABC drama Nashville, built around Connie Britton as a
fortysomething country music superstar with real-life problems.

Britton, lauded for her portrayal of everywoman Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights, explains how Nashville is part of the change for the better in female leads.

“Rayna Jaymes is a self-made woman,” Britton says. “She walked away from her father’s money. She created a support system of men around her. So often in TV the story was the woman being the support to the man — always being loving, being the shrink, being perfect. We weren’t given the screen time or the room to be real.”

Says Khouri: “We keep it as grounded in reality as we can, just in a world that’s in a realm outside a lot of peoples’ experience.”

Another unfamiliar realm for most is the White House, but as Vice President Selina Meyer on HBO comedy Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a heightened version of every woman’s worklife: prey to insecurity, vanity and ego, yet doggedly getting her job done.

“There are more interesting gigs out there for television than in film,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “There are a lot of opportunities in television as this landscape widens.”

For a time it was shrinking. In the ’90s, casting director Cami Patton saw roles for women over 40 dip. “We were hearing younger, younger, younger,” she says, before cable turned things around.

“Audiences got a taste for interesting, deeper characters and that impacted roles for women,” Patton adds. “You had women playing their age. Women who were flawed, whole people, complex. It snowballed.”

Showtime was key, launching a golden age of critically acclaimed series anchored by 40-plus femmes: Weeds, Nurse Jackie, The Big C.

“One of the great freedoms we have without advertiser concerns is to be able to show human behavior with its reality and flaws,” says Showtime exec veep of original programming Gary Levine. “That’s always been a bigger taboo with women than men.

“We reached for some of the best actresses at the stage of their careers where they were fearless and willing to take on characters where likeability was not one of the first 10 considerations.”

The courage to be unlikeable was something Laura Dern took on as Amy Jellicoe in HBO’s Enlightened, as an idealist sometimes blind to her effect on others.

“That came out of Laura’s incredible bravery to just really be raw and exposed in the way she is capable of doing,” says Patton, who cast the show co-created by Dern and Mike White.

But the surest way to risk being unlikeable on TV is to portray motherhood in a complex new way, as Martha Plimpton does in two roles — one as 40-plus mom and blue-collar housekeeper Virginia Chance on Fox comedy Raising Hope.

“I felt like I hadn’t seen that character on TV,” Plimpton says. “Virginia loves her family. She’s fierce and loyal. So we’re seeing on TV that a woman can be a mothering, loving figure — and not be totally martyred. She can still be a wise-ass and have no patience for nonsense, and still have her own personality.”

In addition, Plimpton won a guest actress Emmy last year as not-so-beloved lawyer Patti Nyholm, who plays up her late-in-life motherhood to win cases on CBS drama The Good Wife, a show anchored by yet another over-40 Emmy winner, Julianna Margulies.

“We want to critique women on their life choices, and Patti doesn’t allow us to do that,” Plimpton says. “She says, ‘Well you may critique me, but I’m still at the top of my game and I don’t really care what you think unless it helps me win a case.’”

Another aspect of The Good Wife is the deeply realized sex lives of the female characters. Nashville, too, doesn’t shy away from showing a woman’s desire and passion — and doesn’t telegraph if the objects of desire are acceptable Mr. Rights.

“I want all the characters I play to have a fully realized sexuality,” Britton says. “I was adamant on Friday Night Lights that I never wanted to play the ‘Honey, I have a headache’ moment because that’s not my reality, that’s not the reality of the women I know.”

Interesting as these characters are, Khouri wants more of them. “You just don’t see that many great roles,” she says. “Women have to fight harder for longevity than male artists.”

Still, even a multiple Emmy winner like Louis-Dreyfus, when asked if she felt any trepidation as she neared 40 about good roles being available, admits concern. “Sure. It’s not like you can pluck good ideas out of trees,” she says. “You have to have a gut feeling for things, which I did for Veep.”

The industry’s instinct is to create more options for over-40 actresses. Levine says Showtime has dramas in development with these women in more muscular leading roles, such as authority figures, and Patton sees casting going in a direction that will be bring even fresher, more inventive parts for women over 40.

“In the big picture, all roles have gotten deeper and more complex,” Patton says. “There’s an expectation for TV to be more real. I’m seeing more and more respect for casting real. That excites me.”

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