‘Transparent,’ ‘Happyish’ Actors Reap the Benefits of Shorter Seasons

Emmy Awards Race Short Seasons
Karolis Strautniekas for Variety

If Showtime’s “Happyish” had a bigger episode order, Steve Coogan says he’d probably be working on something else right now.

“I wouldn’t have done this series had it been a long series because I’ve got too many passion projects I’m pursuing here in the U.K., movies and finishing up other TV stuff,” he says. “It would drive me a little crazy just doing the same thing over and over again. I mean 10 seemed like a lot to me, being British.”

Though Coogan usually spends more time on projects he’s written himself — he has two Oscar nominations for 2013’s “Philomena” — he immediately identified with Shalom Auslander’s advertising executive lead, Thom Payne. And being able to focus solely on the acting felt like a break.

“I didn’t have control, but neither did I have to worry about responsibility, so I was very happy,” he says. “Had the series not been picked up, I would have just carried on with my other bits and bobs I’m developing and writing.”

Of course Coogan isn’t the only lead actor enjoying the flexibility of an eight- or 10-episode season. The theory is that it requires less of a time commitment, giving actors the flexibility to take other parts during breaks.

However, shorter seasons can make it a challenge to get back into character. Or when a show like AMC’s “Mad Men” shoots an entire season long before it airs, actors have to be careful to not give away any plot details in interim interviews.

For Will Forte, who spent the first season of Fox’s “Last Man on Earth” as writer, star and showrunner, his break between seasons is more about catching up than worrying about finding other projects. “A shorter order is more time you can spend really making them,” Forte says. “I would’ve done even less if we could, but it seems like 13 was the least that we would be allowed to do. From an acting standpoint, the only important thing is that the scripts are good and that the storylines all make sense. So whatever it takes to keep the ideas fresh is what’s best for the acting, too.”

Like Forte, “House of Lies” star Don Cheadle is an exec producer on his Showtime series, so he has the benefit of easing back into his character in pre-production. But he says it still can be tricky finding the character of Marty Kaan again each season.

“I know that every year there’s a moment where I feel like it clicks in,” Cheadle says. “There will be a gesture, or be some head movement, or a way that you put on a jacket or the shoes, and you go, ‘Oh, there he is.’ It usually feels physical for me. It’s a muscle-memory kind of a thing.”

With a longer episode order, Cheadle also wouldn’t have had the time to write, direct and star in “Miles Ahead,” in which he plays master jazz musician Miles Davis.

“It wasn’t ideal the way I did it,” says the actor, who just finished post on his passion project. “So it would be much less than ideal if I had to work six months out of the year. It probably wouldn’t have been possible.”

For “Rectify” star Aden Young, who plays a man recently released from prison, the storytelling on the Sundance Channel series leaves him wanting more at the end of a 10-episode season.

“I would’ve been happy doing 24, but because the workload is so intense, you’d be dead at the end of it,” says Young, who adds that his character Daniel Holden never really leaves between seasons. “He’s somebody extremely difficult to shake. He’s always lurking in the darkness. I open the fridge and he’ll be there ready to talk to me and I’ll have to close it very quickly to get away from him — and that can be two months after we finish shooting.”

Leaving his character behind between seasons is not in the cards for “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a transgender woman on the Amazon series.

“I do love her so much that I just can’t wait to reunite,” Tambor says. “I don’t mean to sound all actor-y, but indeed Maura is my good friend, so we walk together.”

“Transparent” is Tambor’s second streaming series— he also worked on Netflix’s “Arrested Development” revival — and he says a 10-episode season feels more like a long narrative because of the way the show is written.

“In streaming, you don’t have to write to the act break; you don’t have to write to the commercial,” Tambor says. “You get to take more of a novelistic approach, and then the actor side gets to live with this character a little more. It’s wonderful work, but it’s immersive.”

“Outlander” star Sam Heughan knows all too well how immersive a role can be, particularly when shooting on location in Scotland.

“I mean, 16 episodes felt like a lot,” he says “(The first season), I was on for about a year and a half, really. So by the end of 16 episodes, we (had) a very long, grueling process. It’s important that the actor gets to live with his character, and the longer you get to live with them and work with them each day, you understand them more. (But) I don’t think we felt that the season was too short.”