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Emmy-Nominated Limited Series and Movie Actresses Portray Real Life

Emmy Nominated Limited Series Actresses Playing
Michael Byers for Variety

To paraphrase George Orwell, while all acting may be equally hard, some roles are harder than others. Emmy voters took that philosophy to heart this year, particularly in the lead actress in a limited series or a movie category, nominating a group of women for their challenging, gritty roles: Kerry Washington (“Confirmation”), Sarah Paulson (“The People v. O.J. Simpson”), Audra McDonald (“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”), Felicity Huffman and Lili Taylor (“American Crime”), and Kirsten Dunst (“Fargo”).

Washington and Paulson have both stated that playing Anita Hill and Marcia Clark, respectively, have been their toughest roles ever, and both stress the responsibility of portraying living, still-active people. “You don’t have that freedom you get when playing invented characters, especially when you’ve met the real person ­— as I did, towards the end of the shoot,” notes Paulson. “And I had to battle against my own preconceptions about Marcia. I also knew she’d been so tortured and misrepresented in the media, and I knew I had to try and get it right.”

Similarly, Washington also met with the real Hill and “researched and studied everything I could about Anita and the hearings.” The actress, who also produced the HBO film, says she benefited from “the tons of available material — all the recordings and press conferences, as I really wanted to capture her rhythms, her cadences, the way she moved and her emotional and physical posture.”

Washington not only faced the pressure to, like Paulson, “get the character right,” but also to escape the shadow of her “Scandal” alter ego, iconic D.C. insider, Olivia Pope. “I knew it was crucial that the characters be totally distinct, and that there was no hint of Olivia in this role, because the contexts were so similar.” Smartly underplaying the role, the star was also helped by Hill’s “natural quietness and dignity. She’s so composed in real life, and while I wanted to show the high levels of anxiety and stress always bubbling underneath, the main thing was to always be true to that composure — and that was a tricky balance.”

“I knew it was crucial that the characters be totally distinct, and that there was no hint of Olivia [Pope] in this role, because the contexts were so similar.”
Kerry Washington

For Washington, her toughest scene was near the end of the film, when Hill returns to work and finds letters of support. “She’s so composed and dignified, and we kept wondering when we’d reach that moment of emotional breakdown,” she recalls. “It turned out to be when she returns to the University of Oklahoma and reads those letters. I didn’t know it’d be so hard to do, but the scene became this whole big thing, and it wasn’t written that way. It just took on a life of its own.”

She goes on to note that “Confirmation” “couldn’t be more timely,” raising as it does issues of sexual harassment, race, and power dynamics in high places. “But I wish it wasn’t so timely. I wish we weren’t still struggling over race and gender so much, but look at what just happened with Roger Ailes at Fox, and Justice Scalia dying and the fight over replacing him. It seems more polarized than ever, in some ways.”

The same issues factor heavily in FX’s “O.J. Simpson” limited series. “Obviously racism was front-and-center to the story, but how Marcia was treated as a woman — all the sexism and gender discrimination that was very much a part of the trial — wasn’t part of the real conversation back then, even with other women lawyers or women covering the trial,” Paulson says. “It’s only come about now.”

With that in mind, she says, “every scene was tough and heightened, and I had a deep appreciation of what she’d gone through, and I had a deep commitment to making sure I honored that. She got a terrible bum rap, was raked through the coals, and didn’t deserve it.”

Taylor’s Emmy nom, for her role as Anne Blaine on “American Crime,” is her third, following guest bids for “Six Feet Under” and “The X-Files.” Huffman’s for playing Leslie Graham, is her fourth; she was also nominated for playing Barb in the show last year. “It’s such a great ensemble cast, and wonderful to work with people like Felicity who always give it their all,” Taylor says. She says the show’s “high drama” quotient means that it’s “like flexing acting muscles for me, or even real muscles, in a sense. It feels like working out, or training for a marathon. And it’s challenging. Every scene is tough and I usually feel exhausted at the end of the day — but I love to work hard and so does [creator] John Ridley. We’re kindred souls.”

Taylor, is front-and-center as a working-class mom confronted by her son’s shocking claim of sexual assault at an exclusive private school. She says the show has offered her a lot of tough but really juicy scenes. “In fact, I can’t believe we’re on ABC, because the show deals with such dark content,” she says. “It takes some real risks, and I take my hat off to the network. But the fact is, people like complex characters, relationships and stories, and shows like this are giving them that. As they say, TV’s the new film. It may be a cliché, but it’s true.”

It’s certainly true for Dunst, who’d done very little TV before signing on as “Fargo’s” Peggy Blomquist, the small-town hairdresser with bouffant-sized dreams. “TV’s so creative and edgy now, and I think [showrunner] Noah Hawley’s done an amazing job. [Peggy] is so much fun to play, and such a master-manipulator,” she says. “She’d make a brilliant cult motivational speaker, as she’s one of those people where it’s her way or no way.”

“You go to a place you never go to in your real life, and it was very intense.”
Kirsten Dunst

But adapting to TV has been somewhat challenging, she admits. “The way I work, it takes a long time for me to break down each episode, so it was a lot more work than I expected. For a movie, it takes me a couple of weeks, but this was a continuous thing. You’re never not working on something — plot, character, whatever.”

For Dunst, the toughest scene came in the last episode. “I remember being locked in the freezer, and I’d come out wielding the knife, and the whole scene was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she says. “You go to a place you never go to in your real life, and it was very intense.”

With her career receiving a strong boost thanks to the nom, the actress says she’s “more open” to doing TV now. “Committing to a long series scares me a bit, but if it was the right thing, like ‘Fargo,’ I’d definitely do it.”

Audra McDonald made Broadway history in 2014 when she won her sixth Tony award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” and the multiple-Emmy nominee — and last year’s winner for “Live From Lincoln Center” — got more Emmy love for the filmed version. “It isn’t the same as the Broadway stage show,” she notes. “We shot for three nights in a café in New Orleans, but it was a single performance each time, so one big challenge was just keeping up my stamina, and holding onto the character as she disintegrates in front of the audience.”

As with Washington and Paulson, McDonald also faced the challenge of playing a well-known real person and “such an iconic figure and singer,” albeit one who died in 1959. “There’s so much material out there and historical record, and people know exactly what she sounded like and how she spoke and looked, that you’re held to a very high and specific standard if you go out there and play her. So I had to really study it all — from the way she sang and spoke to the way she moved.” As a soprano, McDonald also had to alter her natural range and sing as an alto, “and alter the tone and also my speaking voice — and sound like she did when she was drunk and then not drunk. And then when she was high was a whole other thing.”

While McDonald already knew the role inside and out, there was the added challenge of translating it to the screen. “For stage, it has to be big enough to reach the live audience, but on film you don’t want to make it so big it becomes grotesque. So it was this continual balancing act to make it read well on film, although we shot in front of a small live audience of about 50. Ultimately, it was about making it as authentic as possible.”