Emmy Race a Return to Form for Lead Actress Contenders

So many factors go into Emmy voting, nostalgia could easily be considered one of them. How great was it to see Claire Danes step into the leading role on “Homeland” after adoring her as a teen on “My So-Called Life?” When voters cast their ballots for Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Veep,” they likely have fond memories of her time as Elaine Benes on “Seinfeld” — or maybe they appreciated her recent appearance as herself on “Inside Amy Schumer.” The same could be said of “Nurse Jackie” star Edie Falco, who won three Emmys for playing Carmela Soprano, or “The Comeback” queen Lisa Kudrow, who won in 1998 for “Friends.” Once you’re in the winner’s circle, you stand a better chance of being invited back.

And the smallscreen has long been a great place for actors, particularly women. If “new golden era” is becoming a tired phrase to describe the current TV landscape, consider the lead actresses in the limited series or movie category, all of whom are former Oscar contenders. However many times it has been said, the golden era is now —and the leading actresses know and embrace it.

Emma Thompson’s brilliant performance in PBS’ live staged version of “Sweeney Todd” earned her a fourth nom in the telepic category. “I cannot believe the (stuff) on my cinema pages now,” she says with disdain. “The utter s–t that’s being served up over and over again — rehashing everything — nobody’s being brave, and that’s a great shame and it’s a great loss. But cinema’s loss is television’s gain. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in this category.”

While Thompson gave an electrifying performance, the award could likely go to HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” star Frances McDormand, who will hopefully reprise her awards-show deadpan stare. Queen Latifah is a serious contender for her depiction of blues singer Bessie Smith in the HBO telefilm “Bessie,” as is Maggie Gyllenhaal in SundanceTV’s political spy-thriller “The Honorable Woman.”

“Can you imagine any film company taking the risk of making something like ‘The Honorable Woman’? No way,” Thompson says of her competitor.
Jessica Lange’s iconic status as an Oscar winner sure didn’t hurt her last year or in 2012 when she won for FX’s “American Horror Story”; she also won in 2009 for “Grey Gardens.”

Lange says the show has been an enormous opportunity to play new and exciting big characters each season due to its serialized nature. “It’s kind of an amazing time right now for everyone, but certainly for women in television,” she says. “I don’t know where I could have played, over the past couple of years, the four characters that they wrote for me in this show. They were so huge, and they were so varied, and they gave me so much to do each year.”

Nominee Felicity Huffman, a previous winner for “Desperate Housewives,” was welcomed back to the nominees’ table with ABC’s “American Crime,” which she says has elevated expectations for risks among broadcast networks. “It used to be just the purview of the cable channels,” she says. “But I think that ABC has ovaries of steel, and they went, ‘Yeah, we really are going to step into that world.’ It’s a challenge to everyone, you know? They’ve slapped you and thrown the gloves on. The challenge is on.”

In the comedy lead actress category, newcomer Amy Schumer (Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer”) joins a star-studded list of Emmy vets — and it probably doesn’t hurt that she currently has a hit movie in theaters. If the “Trainwreck” star takes the prize, it would be reminiscent of Melissa McCarthy’s win for “Mike and Molly” in 2011, the same year “Bridesmaids” was in theaters.

But Schumer is up against the beloved Louis-Dreyfus, who has amassed 18 total nominations since 1992 and for the past three consecutive years has been named winner in the category. She says since her start on “Seinfeld” she has watched TV blow up with incredible characters.

“They’re not just funny ladies, or fish out of water,” she says. “It’s not the standard fare of comedy. It’s gotten wider, it’s gotten flawed, it’s gotten nasty and it’s gotten better as a result.” And with “Veep’s” fourth season on HBO firing on all cylinders, Louis-Dreyfus is certainly a front-runner to take a fourth straight trip to the podium.

“Grace and Frankie” (Netflix) star Lily Tomlin, another nominee, agrees. “Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a huge competitor and she’s wonderful in that series,” she says, adding that she thinks the comedy category represents a wide range of performances that are difficult to compare. “Amy Schumer is a relative newcomer, and she’s also wonderful and they do different kinds of things, but they’re embraced in that one category.”

For Amy Poehler (NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”) and Falco, the 2015 awards are the last year their respective shows will be considered — a factor that could influence voters. Both actresses have been consistently nominated for their leading roles, but apart from Falco’s win in 2010, they have mostly been overlooked. Falco says this year feels different. “It’s the end of a very long and lovely chapter, so there’s a different kind of feeling this year rather than just one of celebration — there’s a little bit of sadness involved,” she says.

But while some actors are processing the five stages of TV series grief, others such as 11-time Emmy nominee Kudrow, feel accomplished just for pulling off the show. “I was nervous the first day and then it was nothing but thrilling. We got fast,” she says, noting that her performance in HBO’s “The Comeback” is particularly difficult in that some days they record 15 pages of script. “I was proud that I was even able to remember my lines.”
Along with Schumer, drama contenders Viola Davis, Tatiana Maslany and Taraji P. Henson are also first-time nominees as series leads. (Schumer was previously nommed for writing, and Henson as the star of 2011 telepic “Taken From Me.”) Maslany says she is thrilled just to be invited to the party. For two years running the actress, who plays multiple clones on BBC America’s “Orphan Black,” was left out of the Emmy noms, eliciting social-media outrage.

“For us, the snub was actually really great publicity for our show,” she says. “But it’s definitely exciting and definitely something that will open doors for me. Just even the nomination itself.”

Davis and Henson are among front-runners in the category for their performances in ABC’s Shonda Rhimes-produced “How to Get Away With Murder” and the Fox hit “Empire,” respectively.

“I just feel that it’s our time,” Davis says, referring to the fact that for the first time two black women have been nominated in a leading actress category in the same year. “I really do. When we put in the work, I think that it becomes undeniable. It’s our time to be included in the narrative. We’re as much a part of this world and this life as anyone else, and our world and our story and our images, they need to be put out there.”

Davis, Henson and Maslany join previous nominees in the category Robin Wright, who plays first lady Claire Underwood in Netflix’s “House of Cards”; Claire Danes, who portrays bipolar CIA officer Carrie Mathison in Showtime’s “Homeland”; and Elisabeth Moss as career-driven copywriter Peggy Olson in AMC’s “Mad Men.”

“The roles that we all play are so different,” says Maslany, referring to the entire category. “And the stories we are telling are so unique. I don’t think it has always been that way, especially for women.”

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