After three seasons of using his fists, scowls, or libido to express his feelings, Liev Schreiber’s Ray Donovan found another way to show his guilt and torment in the third season finale of the eponymous Showtime series: Confessing to a priest about all the crimes he’s seen and done, this brute broke down in tears.

“Those are the scenes that actually feel cathartic,” Schreiber says. “The hardest thing to do with a character is to ramp up tension and not express it, because it’s a very subtle thing to do. It also involves creating an emotional energy inside yourself that you don’t release that’s been sat on and repressed and gets held. I think that’s the stuff that’s bad for you, mentally. That confession scene; I’m really grateful to David [Hollander, the series’ showrunner and episode’s director] and Leland [Orser, who played Father Romero] and the crew for creating the environment for Ray to get something off his chest, both literally and figuratively.”

The scene helped secure Schreiber his second lead actor Emmy nomination. And its crafting is also indicative of what several of his fellow nominees had to put themselves through for their shows.

“One thing we always talk about is modulating — we come in there and figure out what tone works for the show, and that comes from trying out a lot of different options,” says “Mr. Robot’s” first-time nominee, Rami Malek, in regards to working with the USA show’s creator, Sam Esmail.

Malek plays Elliot, a sleep-deprived cybervigilante with a mischievous smirk, an infinite inner monologue, and an imaginary relationship with his absent father.

“The hardest thing to do with a character is to ramp up tension and not express it, because it’s a very subtle thing to do.”
Liev Schreiber

“I’m really lucky to have both the support of Sam and the actors around me when we’re producing this show,” he says. “We rarely, if ever, rehearse. So much of it becomes a surprise to all of us — none of us really know what the other actor is going to do. Often, some of the first takes are the most exciting.”

“Bloodline” star Kyle Chandler, who is up for his second nomination as morally conflicted brother John Rayburn in the Netflix drama, simply reminds that “they say it’s a golden age” of TV, after all. And it’s only gotten more intense since he won the category for “Friday Night Lights” in 2011.

“Voyeurism, murder, mayhem … more butter on the popcorn please … and more great writers with a format allowing time on screen for deep character studies and very smart story telling,” he says.

These shows also incorporate dark humor into often deadly serious settings, such as the creative way FX’s “The Americans” found for Matthew Rhys’ Philip Jennings to take out a TSA agent this season. What would otherwise have been another mundane killing — something audiences have seen him execute many times in the series’ four-season run — got a jolt thanks to a recording of Soft Cell’s ’80s anthem “Tainted Love.”

“I think the heavier the drama the more welcome a moment of humor, be it dark or otherwise,” says Rhys, also a first-time Emmy nominee. “I think the types of TV dramas that are prone to this are a little too dark to allow for a broader humor or maybe would lose credibility if they veered too far from their tone. I think the Academy might appreciate a drama that isn’t one thing, but offers differing entertainment.”

That includes repeat Emmy nominee Kevin Spacey as Machiavellian president Frank Underwood on Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Spacey declined to be interviewed, but the character will take time out of his busy schedule of destroying lives and forging alliances to break the fourth wall as he throws shade at friends and foes in order to let his audience in on his master plans.

Malek says the tone of his show is ultimately what drew him to the part in the first place.

“For the show, there was so much about the script that captivated me as an actor,” he says. “Sam created such a dynamic character for me to play. The dark humor in the script is something really unexpected and unique to the role — I think it adds such a distinctive element to the storyline that I look forward to delivering those lines in the script.”

“it’s a great challenge and a great joy to see a dark, emotional scene where a character is struggling internally and then two days later be doing a scene where I’m shooting a commercial, with the character’s inspiration and joy and ego on display.”
Bob Odenkirk

Blurred lines between drama and comedy is often evident in the casting — not just the stars of the series, but even supporting and guest appearances. When asked if he ever thought he’d be nominated for an Emmy in the lead actor in a drama race, sketch comedian extraordinaire and comedy writer Bob Odenkirk replies, “Just write ‘Odenkirk laughs.’” For the record, this is his second nomination for playing the title character in AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and, of course, he originated the character of Saul Goodman (nee Jimmy McGill) as an almost comic relief element in precursor series “Breaking Bad.”

Odenkirk adds, “on the other hand, I do think that there’s something that carries over from my comedy background. What we do in comedy is about commitment, and oftentimes it’s commitment to a silly or ridiculous pursuit or scenario. But in this case, it’s not a ridiculous scenario. The character’s pursuit is for the love and respect of the people around him.”

Even though Jimmy may get a kick out of pretending to be a big-time film director when he makes commercials with a couple of college kids, his ultimate goals are to earn and/or repair bonds with his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) and his girlfriend and business partner, Kim, (Rhea Seehorn). Often, one relationship is sacrificed for the other.

Odenkirk says he loves “all these different aspects of the character” and that “it’s a great challenge and a great joy to see a dark, emotional scene where a character is struggling internally and then two days later be doing a scene where I’m shooting a commercial, with the character’s inspiration and joy and ego on display.”

But that can also wear on an actor who must hold onto these emotions for 12- to 14-hour day shooting schedules. Odenkirk says he never wants to lose the feeling from doing a comedic scene, but admits that “you have to give yourself some time to come back to the world after” playing a darker scene.

Malek agrees, explaining that his investment in his character is so strong, that “in order to keep my sanity, I have to find a way to turn Elliot off.”

Schreiber says it’s easier for him to decompress when his kids are around and that it’s “important to find a ritual for yourself to bookend yourself” between filming. He picked up meditation after seeing actress Frances Conroy do it when they worked together on a play.

And Chandler says he has enough problems in his real life to take home his character’s problems.

“Good lord, if I did, I would be writing these answers from Chumley’s Rest whilst receiving an injection of formula 977,” he says, referring to the sanitarium from “Harvey.”

With four seasons already under his belt, Rhys says he learned long ago to separate himself from the character.

“By the fifth season, there’s no problem finding an ‘off’ switch for Philip; the greater problem is finding the ‘on’ switch,” he says. “So end of day usually sees more line learning. Although a rare bike ride along the Brooklyn waterfront does wonders.”