Many Emmy Supporting Actor Contenders Compete Against Themselves

Supporting Actor Actress Emmy Race
Ryan Inzana for Variety

Matthew Goode spent season six of CBS’ “The Good Wife” playing Finn Polmar, a charming potential love interest for the show’s leading lady, Julianna Margulies. In March, he appeared in a guest spot on PBS’ “Downton Abbey” as Henry Talbot, a charming potential love interest for the show’s leading lady, Michelle Dockery. The roles are actually very different, set almost 100 years apart, but the series both have a fantastic ensemble of actors.

“The sheer unadulterated delight of being present in two such beloved shows is the wealth of experienced and delightful actors I have had the chance to work with on both sides of the Atlantic,” says Goode. “One day it’s Christine Baranski and Nathan Lane, the next it’s Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton. Lucky? Without question!”

Playing two characters with nothing in common has been fun for Mary Steenburgen, who is a mysterious widow on FX’s “Justified” and an apocalypse survivor in Fox’s “The Last Man on Earth.” While she says dropping in and out of the characters is just part of the skills necessary for the job, it can get hectic when she’s shooting simultaneously.

“Sometimes, I get in my car and I’m like, ‘Wait, where am I going?’” says Steenburgen, who also worked in a guest role on HBO’s “Togetherness” and will appear on the new season of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix. “We go to work at 5 in the morning and for both (shows) you head north on the 405, so I get to the exit and (I think) do I take the Ronald Reagan Highway or do I keep going to Santa Clarita? That was the hardest part. I sound like I’m from (‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch) ‘The Californians.’ ”

Goode and Steenburgen are among dozens of actors who are playing multiple roles, sometimes in different cities, lured by shorter episode commitments and greater prestige. From Denis O’Hare (FX’s “American Horror Story,” “The Comedians”) to Kathryn Hahn (Showtime’s “Happyish,” Amazon’s “Transparent” and NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”) to Craig T. Nelson (NBC’s “Parenthood,” Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie”), actors are often doing double- and triple-duty in roles, plus finding time to work in features.

Rachel Brosnahan knows all too well the challenge from working on a supporting role on WGN’s “Manhattan,” her guest role on Netflix’s “House of Cards” and the feature “Louder Than Bombs,” which premiered at Cannes last month.

“I finished ‘Manhattan’ and within a couple of days was on a plane back to New York to shoot ‘Louder Than Bombs,’ ” Brosnahan recalls. “It worked out perfectly, but it was so tight. There’s always that moment of, what if we run over on ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Louder Than Bombs’ starts to go early?”

Gaby Hoffmann says she was lucky that the producers on Amazon’s “Transparent” and HBO’s “Girls” were able to work around her pregnancy during production. “I was seven months’ pregnant last summer when we were shooting ‘Transparent,’ so I didn’t want to fly back and forth,” Hoffmann says. “‘Girls’ very generously shot me out before I went and when I came back. All the people on both those shows are so great; they make it work for me like that.”

Traveling to sets in different cities is the norm for “Scandal’s” Joe Morton, who’s competing in the supporting category after winning a guest star Emmy last season for playing Olivia Pope’s malevolent father, Rowan. Recently, he found himself shuttling between “Scandal’s” L.A. set for ABC and shooting TNT’s summer supernatural medical series “Proof” in Vancouver. He also worked in a guest role on Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” before the two series ramped up.

“It’s difficult just because you’re travelling back and forth, which is not a long trip, but nevertheless a trip. I enjoy doing Rowan, so it feels good. There are always these very long, very complicated, very delicious monologues,” Morton says. “To shift away from that to ‘Proof’ was a welcomed gear change, simply because it gives me another challenge, something else to look at.”

General dexterity is key to balancing multiple roles, says Jenny Slate, who has a supporting role on FX’s “Married” and had multiple guest roles this season, including on Showtime’s “House of Lies.”

“I try to focus on (being) able to gracefully slip into the character,” she says. “That’s one of the tools that you need, and to have social agility, because you’re usually coming into a group of people that’s really tight-knit and you don’t want to disrupt their vibe. You just want to be able to seamlessly come in and come out, and add something to the community.”

Although Tobias Menzies didn’t have any scheduling overlap with playing Nathaniel in Sundance Channel’s “The Honorable Woman” and Frank and Jack Randall in Starz’s “Outlander,” he says playing multiple smaller roles gives him a lot of flexibility.

“For ‘The Honorable Woman,’ I mostly played within the first three episodes of an eight-episode miniseries. If I’d been involved in all of those, I wouldn’t have then been able to do ‘Outlander.’ That’s an example of diving in and doing multiple shows rather than being the lead in just one. In effect, for the same period of time, I’m doing three characters rather than one.”

January Jones didn’t find it difficult to move from AMC’s “Mad Men” character Betty Draper to other roles, like playing opposite Steenburgen on “Last Man.” (The double duty makers her eligible for supporting actress accolades in both the comedy and drama categories this year.) She says the real challenge was coming back to Betty after a long hiatus.

“I don’t ever bring any character home with me, so that part wasn’t difficult,” she says. “I enjoy going from one to the other. It was almost harder to go back to ‘Mad Men’ and try to remember Betty’s voice after a long break. My anxiety came from just remembering her voice, her characteristics, and then trying to grapple with whatever was going on with her.”

“Better Call Saul’s” Jonathan Banks is familiar with the pitfalls of being closely associated with the character types he plays, but he relishes the benefits. In addition to reprising Mike Ehrmantraut from AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Banks also appears in Lifetime’s “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles.”

“I’ve been lucky enough to pay the rent as I’ve gone through these years, but it’s not like there weren’t worries,” he says. “You get to breathe a little easier when that series is going on. And you certainly get to be a great deal more selective about what you do. There have been many things I would have passed on.”

Taking on multiple roles makes for a busy Emmy season, but Morton says kudos attention is one way to secure even more parts in the future. “I suppose for everyone the hope is that, if you manage to win a couple of these things, you afford yourself more opportunity — not necessarily the reality, but the hope,” he says.