A long time ago in another TV galaxy — we’re talking eight, even 10 years ago — the “guest star” appearance was a pretty well-defined event; the famous Hollywood actor or Broadway actress would turn up on an episode of a hit show, interact briefly with the well-oiled cast, toss off a few bon-mots, and depart, never to be seen again.
That’s all changed. Today, series creators, writers and showrunners carefully craft stories and arcs for “guest” spots, as evidenced by such varied turns as Jane Fonda’s in HBO’s “The Newsroom,” Nathan Lane’s in “Modern Family,” Joe Morton’s in “Scandal,” Diana Rigg’s in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Beau Bridges in Showtime’s “Master of Sex,” Bob Newhart’s in CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” and Paul Giamatti’s in PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” all Emmy nominees.
For Lane, who just earned his third nomination on ABC’s “Modern Family” for playing flamboyant event-planner Pepper Saltzman, the role is “the gift that keeps on giving — all thanks to the writers and the show’s creators Christopher Lloyd and Steve Levitan. They created this wonderful character for me, and I love being able to come and go.”
Similarly, Rigg’s recurring role as Lady Olenna Tyrell — which just earned her a second Emmy nomination in the guest category — was specially crafted for her by show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. “Roles like this don’t come along that often,” she says. “And then to be part of a huge hit like this? It’s the kind of thing all actors dream about.”
Morton, also nominated this year for his arc on ABC’s “Scandal,” notes his role “is far more than your usual ‘guest’ appearance — it really helps drive the whole plot, which is why it was so appealing to me. Shonda (Rhimes, the creator) writes these great, crazy characters, and you just run with it.”
Casting and writing for guest spots on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” was also a crucial element for show creator Jenji Kohan, who saw three actresses nominated in the guest category — Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox and Natasha Lyonne. Kohan says Aduba didn’t initially come out for the role of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren.
“She had originally auditioned for another role, but she wasn’t right for it. I just fell in love with her face and her performance and her energy and I remember calling Jen Euston, our casting director, and saying, ‘She’s going to be in the show. I love this girl and I’m not sure what it is yet, but she’s got a role in this show,’” says Kohan. “I remember she said that her approach to Crazy Eyes was that she’s like a child — if children were scary. She brought this child-like sensibility, mixed with menace, and it was so disarming. “The way she has inhabited that character has definitely inspired all of us.”
For Mike Marcus, head of management at Echo Lake, which handles more than 40 writers and directors on staff at various TV shows, it was the arrival of serialized shows such as “The Sopranos” that changed the landscape. “Before, on all the procedurals like ‘Law & Order,’ you had a new case every week, with your regular cast and no recurring guests,” he notes. “All the medical dramas, cop and lawyer shows had beginnings, middles and ends every episode. They were all self-contained. But with the big new shows like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ if you miss an episode, you’re lost because of the continuing story lines, and those allow for recurring guest spots for a few shows, or even over many years.”
Marcus cites Sean Bean’s role in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” as “a perfect example” of this new approach. “He was ostensibly the lead, and then he’s dead by the end of the very first season, which you never expect,” he says. “But in some cases, like Jane Fonda in ‘The Newsroom,’ that’s more of a recurring character who’s there for a few episodes, disappears, then comes back. And that’s a nice way to be in a hit show for many actors.”
When Reg E. Cathey was cast on “House of Cards,” his small recurring role suited his prolific work schedule perfectly, allowing him to do a play in New York, a tour and album of a soul opera and two other shows during the first season. Creator and showrunner Beau Willimon and star Kevin Spacey, with whom he has key scenes, worked around his busy schedule, “so it was perfect,” he says. A bigger role in the second season led to an Emmy nom and means greater visibility but less time and availability for other projects.
Summing up, Marcus sees the trend as “indicative of the way programming itself is going today. There are a lot of shows on cable and pay cable that are serialized now, and that’s probably just going to expand guest spots even more.”