Fresh Faces Like Rachel Bloom, Ellie Kemper Could Populate Emmy Comedy Actress Nominations

Emmys Lead Actress Race
Jeffrey Everett/Rockets Are Red for Variety

Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” goes the old adage. But that doesn’t take into account the added burden of being a comedic actress these days, let alone a newcomer trying to find some Emmy love that is usually reserved for perennial favorites including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Lisa Kudrow and Edie Falco.

But there is some good news. With three of last year’s nominees  — Poehler, Kudrow and Falco — not eligible this year, the comedy actress field is a lot more wide open. And while usual suspects Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”), Amy Schumer (“Inside Amy Schumer”), Melissa McCarthy (“Mike & Molly”) and Lena Dunham (“Girls”) have shots at nominations, 2016 could be the year when acclaimed fresh faces, including Aya Cash (“You’re the Worst”),  Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Ellie Kemper (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”), get some well-deserved attention.

It’s been a particularly good year for Rodriguez, who won her first Golden Globe in 2015 and was again nominated this year for her charming turn as a smart, ambitious young woman who has no intention of allowing men — or a tragi-comic unplanned pregnancy (she was accidentally artificially inseminated with her boss’ sperm during a routine checkup) — derail her career and life.

“There’s a lot of me in Jane, especially that we have this dual identity.” – Gina Rodriguez
Courtesy of The CW

“My goal is to create art that helps change the perceptions of Latinas, and with all the talk about [the need for] more diversity in both TV and movies, Jane is a very big deal,” the actress says. “These stories need to be created and told. [Creator] Jennie Urman has this very authentic voice. And they’re culturally important because there are still so few Latinas on TV.” Rodriguez also has a vested interest in seeing her TV alter ego grapple with “diversity issues” and succeed. “There’s a lot of me in Jane, especially that we have this dual identity. Jane is Venezuelan and American, and I’m Puerto Rican-American, with two very different cultures that go into who I am. I was raised in the American culture, but I also have my beautiful brown skin, which also defines me. And let’s face it, that’s the majority of this country — a mix of things.”

The actress says she also shares other attributes, including Jane’s “fearlessness and willingness to go after things that aren’t so popular, the controversial things in life. She’s like a role model to me.”

It’s also been a standout year for Wu, whose sparkling comic turn as the no-nonsense Jessica on “Fresh Off the Boat” has netted her two Critics’ Choice noms and a TCA nomination. Like Rodriguez, she sees her role as “one of the few Asians on TV” as “culturally significant” — as well as inspirational and personally significant. The historical ramifications of the show and her role in it also loom large.

“When a woman of color does well, it’s touted as proof of change in the system, but the mere fact that it’s a news story shows that there really isn’t that much change.”
constance wu

“It’s one of the great things of doing this show, dealing with Asian-American characters and stories,” she says. “And it’s made me far more aware of my own origins and the need for more diversity [in shows] — things which, naively, I’d never considered much before. I hadn’t realized that it’d been two decades since the last network Asian-American sitcom, ‘All-American Girl’ with Margaret Cho, and that lasted just one season. So there’s been a lot of pressure on us.”

But while Wu welcomes “the attention and discussion all these issues are now getting,” she also notes, “when a woman of color does well, it’s touted as proof of change in the system, but the mere fact that it’s a news story shows that there really isn’t that much change. It just underscores the extreme whiteness of the status quo.”

Even so, Wu looks forward to a time “when women of all colors are writing, acting, directing and producing. It should be common and the norm, not some rare event everyone comments about.”

While other possible contenders, including Kemper and Cash, may not face the complex challenges that accompany any program grappling with diversity issues, they still have to bring the funny as their characters develop and grow. Kemper’s Kimmy, along with three other women, were held in a bunker for 15 years by a madman called the Reverend (played by Jon Hamm) before being freed; Kimmy then embarked on a comically supercharged new life in the show’s first episode.

“What’s very cool about Kimmy in season two is that she does some serious introspective work for the very first time,” Kemper says. “When season one ended and Kimmy put the Reverend in jail, she assumed that all of her troubles were over. This season, Kimmy learns that life marches on. There is a depth to her that is complicated, and she gives serious thought to it throughout this season’s arc. She begins to understand that certain things are beyond her control. I’ve always known that Kimmy possesses a certain wisdom beyond her years, but she grew light years this season. Her ability to accept what she cannot change is inspiring; this was enormous, because Kimmy has an innate desire to fix things. I am so excited to see where she goes from here. She brings me energy.”

From left: Constance Wu, Aya Cash and Ellie Kemper could be first-time nominees.
Courtesy of ABC/FX/Netflix

Originally made for NBC, the move to Netflix has given Kemper more freedom to stretch and take advantage of a medium whose 2016 norms bear no resemblance to the recent TV past. “As an actor, I feel hugely at ease knowing that I can now remove my pants at any time,” she jokes. “Should I feel this is something my character might do.”
For Cash, who plays a self-destructive woman navigating a relationship, both comedy and drama are also inextricably intertwined in her character’s complicated and confounding DNA. “Gretchen is narcissistic, cynical and destructive — both of herself and others,” she says. “And that makes her so much fun to play, as she’s not simply a straightforward comedic character.”

The actress ties it in to an overall trend in comedy; “We’re starting season three soon, and when I first met Gretchen, there were very few characters like her. But I think there’s a demand now for more interesting, complicated characters, and she’s no longer the only flawed character out there, and fans really respond to that.”
Will Emmy follow suit?