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Ensemble TV Actors Shine in Smaller Roles

Let’s be honest: While it’s great to win an Emmy — any Emmy — almost every actor would prefer a leading role to a supporting one.

That said, some of today’s top movie stars got their start in a supporting TV role. Woody Harrelson first came to fame playing the dim but sweet Woody on “Cheers,” a role for which he was nominated for six Emmys and won once (Harrelson also was nominated in 2012 for playing Steve Schmidt in HBO’s “Game Change”). Two-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper was once Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) best friend on J.J. Abrams’ “Alias.” And even Leonardo DiCaprio got his start playing foster child Luke Brower on “Growing Pains.”

So it’s not all bad playing second fiddle. After all, Lupita Nyong’o made quite a splash as the stylish newcomer and ultimately Oscar’s supporting actress.

Still, it can be hard to break out of a supporting-role perception. This season, Sean Hayes, famous for playing the flamboyant Jack on NBC’s “Will & Grace,” tried to lead a sitcom on NBC’s “Sean Saves the World” but in the end, NBC couldn’t save the show.

But that also goes to show how sometimes a supporting role can feature just the right amount of a character; Hayes and Megan Mullally won Emmys for “Will & Grace” but would anyone want to watch a show called “Jack & Karen”? Ken Jeong is used sparingly on “Community” to great effect, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to watch an entire show about Senor Chang.

“When you are casting any show, you are always looking for the best person for the job,” says Keli Lee, ABC’s executive VP of casting. “There are so many actors who play supporting characters, and when they find the right role, they really break out.”

That’s certainly been true for the previously lesser-known members of the “Modern Family” cast, including two-time Emmy winner Eric Stonestreet and one-time winner Ty Burrell. “Girls”’ Adam Driver started out playing Hannah Horvath’s (Lena Dunham) douche-bag hook-up, but went on to become one of the cast’s key members. Driver also has landed plum roles in several movies, including the villain in Abrams’ upcoming addition to the “Star Wars” saga and the baby brother in the upcoming “This Is Where I Leave You.”

The supporting actor in a comedy category has been full of “Modern Family” men since the show premiered in 2009. Last year, however, “Veep” thesp Tony Hale managed to upset, finally snatching the trophy away from the “Modern Family” monopoly.

This year, Hale is expected to be back, along with Driver and the “Modern Family” trio of Burrell, Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Stonestreet and Ferguson just came off a strong season-long arc in which their two characters, Cam and Mitchell, got married.

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” supporting player Andre Braugher could also enter the category after the show’s surprise Golden Globe win last January.

“Modern Family” also stacks the distaff deck, with both Julie Bowen and Sofia Vergara consistent nominees and Bowen taking home the trophy in 2011 and 2012. Last year, “Nurse Jackie” star Merritt Wever came in from cable for the steal. This season, all three of those women are expected to be back, along with two of last year’s other nominees, “Veep” actress Anna Chlumsky and Mayim Bialik of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Still, the category is ripe for change, and Allison Janney of “Mom” or Margo Martindale of “The Millers” — both previous Emmy winners — might just be the women to do it. Or Bialik’s co-stars Melissa Rauch and Kaley Cuoco could land their first noms for “The Big Bang Theory.”

Dramas continue to flourish across the TV landscape, and there are several supporting actor nominations that are all but guaranteed: two-time winner Aaron Paul in his final performance as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad” and Peter Dinklage, who continues to shine as Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones.” The man who plays his brother, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, could also credibly argue for a nod. Also look for Jon Voight, who stole scene after scene on the Showtime drama “Ray Donovan.”

Last year’s winner, Bobby Cannavale — who was Emmy nominated in 2013 both for his performance on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” — won’t be back, but another “Boardwalk Empire” cast member, Jeffrey Wright, is being eyed as a potential nominee.

Other possibilities include Mandy Patinkin of “Homeland,” Noah Emmerich on “The Americans,” Peter Sarsgaard of “The Killing” and Mads Mikkelsen of “Hannibal.” Some shows could offer more than one nominee, such as “The Good Wife” actors Josh Charles and Alan Cumming and Paul’s “Breaking Bad” co-star Dean Norris, whose tragic death in the final season was a heartbreaking moment.

For the women, Anna Gunn of “Breaking Bad” is widely expected to repeat her win in this category. Other names being mentioned include perennial “Downton Abbey” favorite Maggie Smith, as well as Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi of “The Good Wife” and Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones.”

Two men who won’t be found among the supporting actor nominees: “True Detective’s” Matthew McConaughey and the aforementioned Harrelson. While McConaughey is expected to give “Breaking Bad’s” three-time winner Bryan Cranston a run for his money in the lead actor category, Harrelson also is being submitted as lead actor in a drama.

Whether the two stars will split the Academy’s vote remains to be seen, but McConaughey’s was the showier role, and thus the bigger Emmy bait. The choice begs the question: would they be better off to submit McConaughey as lead and Harrelson as supporting and go for two?

Last year, Emmy and HBO saw a similar situation with two movie stars — Michael Douglas and Matt Damon — submitted as leads in a movie or mini-series for “Behind the Candelabra.” Douglas, who played Liberace, swept most of the awards while Damon graciously cheered him on.

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