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How ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Modern Family’ Supporting Actors Stand Out in Ensemble

Once the Emmy announcement comes out pundits and insiders alike contemplate why one actor gets the nom while another does not. With so many ensemble shows, there’s an endless pool of talent being considered, particularly in the supporting actor categories. The “Angry Obama” social media blitz might have led Keegan-Michael Key to get nominated while his equal billing comedy partner Jordan Peele did not. Questions remain on why “American Horror Story” casts get multiple nominations, while “Girls” or “Getting On” have just one actor chosen from the talented herd.

There’s no doubt that being part of a high-profile ensemble series boosts the chances of getting noticed. This year alone, the buzzy “Game of Thrones” fills three slots with Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey. But that pales in comparison to the whopping five supporters nominated from “American Horror Story: Freak Show” with last year’s winner Kathy Bates back in the mix, along with Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, Denis O’Hare and Finn Wittrock.

Wittrock, who played the spoiled and sadistic Dandy, says the series allows the troupe to take on different personas each season so voters can see the range of the actors.  “I think we also have an ensemble cast that could be considered leads, and more screen time helps,” Wittrock says. “When no one is the lead, everyone is the lead.”

On the comedy side  “Modern Family” has dominated with the supporting award given to either Eric Stonestreet or Ty Burrell every year since the series 2010 debut with only one interruption; this year’s contender Tony Hale (“Veep”) took the gold in 2013, the same year he returned to a much-anticipated “Arrested Development” solo season.

Likewise, having your character resurrected from the dead doesn’t hurt either. “House of Cards” character Doug Stamper was left barely breathing at the end of season two before embarking on his recuperation from traumatic brain injury.

“In previous seasons, I’ve had one note: Don’t emote,” says Michael Kelly. “So people wanted to know, what’s up with this guy? Then (Stamper) turns into this entirely different character. I have never been more scared as an actor.”

That kind of meaty material is often rewarded, while more subtle character changes frequently are not.

Since 2010, Christine Hendricks’ nuanced performance earned six consecutive Emmy nominations and, in keeping with the “Mad Men” actors Emmy curse, zero wins.  The series has four Emmys for drama series and 116 nominations, taking home a mere 15 Emmys and not a single one for the actors. But her character Joan’s slow-simmering development might finally be recognized in this final round.

“For the first several seasons, she knew the restrictions on women and the social expectations,” Hendricks says. “But as she started rising in the ranks, she realized I’m good at these things and I could do more.”
All of this came to a head in the final season. “I’ve been lucky with Joan, and I could have made playing her my forever job,” Henricks says. “I think this season we got to see a lot of her and allowed a wrap-up of unresolved things.”

Each year, there are a few smaller shows squeaking into the mix. Voters might be rewarding Niecy Nash’s (“Getting On”) strong performance in “Selma,” or her growth as a comedic actress in plucking her from the crowd. “I’m usually the actress they call when they need more hair, more eyelashes, more cleavage, but this role is not glamorous, she’s not over the top or anything I’ve made a living doing up to this point,” Nash says. “We have so many deserving people in the cast that it’s a real honor to be nominated.”

Few ensemble players get the luxury of an episode that centers almost completely on their character. Reaching back to a moment in “Breaking Bad” proved a powerful payback to viewers in a Mike Erhmantrout-centric episode of AMC’s prequel “Better Call Saul.”  Jonathan Banks’ Emmy shot might be further enhanced by his 2012 loss for his last appearance on “Breaking Bad” when he died at the hands of  partner-in-crime Walter White.  It was a critically acclaimed, emotionally charged sendoff, yet Bobby Cannavale (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) pulled off the upset win with his fiery speech in which his crazy mobster character railed against God in a church in a combustible moment that sealed his win.

“When I vote, I look for a performance that moves me, and reveals something new about the character,” Banks says. In the episode “Five-0,” viewers  go on the journey that reveals how this hard case former cop turned into the hired killer.  The episode also has a haunting grabber line when Mike admits: “I broke my boy.”

Snagging attention as one of many talented performers in a series isn’t easy, but having a good personal story often helps. Richard Cabral not only turned in a memorable performance in “American Crime,” but he also gained attention as a real former gang member who served time before turning his life around.

“Initially, you see in the pilot the depth of my character Hector in the hospital scene,” Cabral says. “He’s a bad person, but you eventually see the other side of him as a father and husband who loves and cries. As someone who knows this life and is a father of three, this hits home for me.”
In the end, Cabral and the other nominees all voice the same opinion: “I’m honored just to be here and I’ve already won because I could never imagine being here. I’m just enjoying the journey.”

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