As the divide between film and TV becomes increasingly difficult to discern, it’s far less uncommon to see well-known TV actors playing juicy roles on the big screen. And now that TV is no longer the death knell it once was for performers hoping for a film career, some of the industry’s best talent is emanating from TV. It’s also the medium actors are most frequently recognized for. As frontrunner supporting actor nominee J.K. Simmons told Variety last year before “Whiplash,” with his breakthrough role, opened, “It’s rather sobering to realize more people have seen my Farmers Insurance commercials than everything put together.”
Among the year’s acting Oscar nominees, several are known for their series work, including Steve Carell (NBC’s “The Office”), Benedict Cumberbatch (PBS’ “Sherlock”), J.K. Simmons (TNT’s “The Closer,” NBC’s “Growing Up Fisher”), and Laura Dern (HBO’s “Enlightened”). Patricia Arquette won an Emmy for NBC’s “Medium,” and will return to TV with CBS’ “CSI: Cyber” shortly after the Oscars. Reaching way back, even Julianne Moore started out on “As the World Turns” when it wasn’t fashionable, a job she referenced in her SAG Awards acceptance speech.
“As studios began making fewer and fewer films and there were more and more outlets in television, a lot of the film people started doing all this amazing work in television. So that wall crumbled pretty quickly,” says Gotham Group partner and literary department head Lindsay Williams. “There’s so much great television being made right now, that if an actor pops on a ‘Breaking Bad’ or a ‘Mad Men,’ then they’re more interesting to successive directors on the film side.”
But when Helen Hunt won lead actress for 1997’s “As Good as It Gets,” it was still relatively unheard-of for a TV actor in a current series to earn Oscar attention. At the time, Hunt starred in NBC’s “Mad About You” and shot the James L. Brooks comedy during hiatus.
Hunt’s win was the first for a major TV actor, but these days Oscar winners move with ease between film and TV, notably 2012 supporting actress winner Octavia Spencer, who appears in Fox’s “Red Band Society” and also stars opposite Kevin Costner in “Black & White.”
With series like HBO’s “True Detective” (starring an Oscar winner and a two-time nominee) and FX’s “Fargo” offering dark character dramas that play out like extended movies, it’s no wonder that actors in search of meaty roles come running.
“Some of the most interesting scripts I’m being sent are TV pilots these days,” says “The Imitation Game” directing nominee Morten Tyldum. “Especially if you’re looking for strong characters. We all have the demons; that’s what humanizes us. You want characters that are dealing with that because that is what is interesting.”
While the amount of quality material for the smallscreen continues to increase, actors also cite smaller episode orders as appealing. But, more than anything, TV has ubiquity on its side.
“Only the biggest films can match the power of television,” “Shameless” star William H. Macy told Variety shortly after his Emmy nomination in July. “You do a successful independent film, maybe a million people will see it. Well, 3 million people see ‘Shameless’ a night.”
That level of visibility comes into play during an Oscar campaign, particularly now that TV isn’t stigmatized.
“It definitely helps with visibility, but it obviously comes down to the movie,” Williams says. “(Voters) certainly knew Steve Carell because he started in ‘The Office’ and then crossed over to film. But ‘Foxcatcher’ was such a departure that I think it’s much more like, ‘He’s a serious actor, and we have to include him in the serious actor category.’ I don’t see that as an easy link between TV and awards.”
Appearing in both film and TV also gives an actor the ability to show multiple facets to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences largest branch, actors.
“I love getting to revisit the character (in TV),” Macy explained. “Almost every actor walks away from almost every job saying, ‘I wish I’d done something a little different. What I wouldn’t give for another shot at that scene.’ But getting to go back and give it another shot is just a joy.”