Supporting Actor Emmy Nominations Offer Breakthroughs for New and Longtime Roles

Emmy Supporting Actors Nominees
Courtesy of FX/HBO/Showtime/Lifetime

Every year there’s talk about the need for new blood. But this was the year Emmy voters did something about it, and there were several notable breakthroughs in the supporting race. Riding the “Game of Thrones” wave, Maisie Williams and Kit Harington scored their first noms after six seasons. Meanwhile Matt Walsh was recognized in season five, and Maura Tierney and Judith Light landed noms in their sophomore seasons. Louie Anderson and Constance Zimmer were nominated for the first time for new roles, in shows that — compared to “Game of Thrones” — had pretty low profiles.

After winning a Golden Globe in January for “The Affair,” in which she plays a woman divorcing her cheating husband, Tierney was a welcome Emmy breakthrough this year. She was last Emmy-nominated back in 2001 for “ER.” She says she’s “just thrilled to still be around,” and notes that this time, the nod feels different. “ ‘ER’ was an amazing show, but I joined in season seven, whereas I’ve been on ‘The Affair’ since the very start, and been through all the emotional turmoil that Helen’s gone through,” she says. “And while the material is so serious and the show’s so fraught, it’s a great collaborative cast with great writing from creator Sarah Treem, and we’re all so goofy on set.”

Tierney goes on to stress that while she may apparently have little in common with her character, “I’m not a single mother, we’re very different sorts of people,” she sees Helen as “this very strong person, and not a victim, because she’s so self-aware, of both her own shit and everyone else’s. And that’s what I relate to; not that I’m so super-enlightened, but I can bring that to her. She’s the character that bullshits herself the least, and that’s something I can definitely play.”

The star, who’s about to start season three, feels that many Emmy voters may have been swayed by Helen’s plight. “When we saw her POV, we see just how confused and in-over-her-head she is. She’s fronting, and people relate. If you’re in a lot of pain, you don’t want to walk around showing everyone. So when we got to see her perspective, we got to see a lot more of that hidden fear, insecurity, and sadness.”

Another big surprise was the first-ever nom for Zimmer whose in-your-face alter ego is reality TV show producer Quinn King on Lifetime’s “UnReal.” Although beloved by critics, the show has largely been under the radar, “so it was totally unexpected,” says the actress, who’s built a career playing no-nonsense, caustic characters in such shows as “Entourage” and “House of Cards.”

“But Quinn’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” she adds. “She’s almost 5-D. Even though I’ve played a lot of tough, very opinionated women, it’s never been like Quinn where you get to see her from every possible angle — and how she’s either incredibly affected by other people, or incredibly unaffected. There’s not a whole lot of women like her on TV or film, so it’s very interesting for me to be able to get to explore her with every new episode, and see what crazy stuff happens next.”

The June debut of season two didn’t disappoint, as Quinn quickly acquired a tattoo, lavished cocaine on some execs, and schemed to turn racism into impressive ratings. Zimmer, who’s enjoying her first true regular role — “I was just recurring on ‘Entourage’ and those other shows, albeit for many seasons” — promises “way more bad behavior, for sure. We’ll be even worse than in the first season, as we’ve been let off our leashes. (Fellow producer) Rachel and Quinn are both vying for the same job now, which is causing a huge rift. And it’s making us both very, very mean, and sinking to levels I never thought they’d be capable of.” All of which, adds Zimmer, “is so much fun to play!”

Matt Walsh landed his first nom for his role as Mike McLintock after five seasons on “Veep,” and even he has no idea what made this season different. “I’m not sure why the Emmy voters went for it this year, but I think the show grew again this past season, the stakes are higher, and it tracked in a bigger way with the public,” he says. “And of course, politics is the big story this year.”

The actor and comedian sees his character as the moral compass of the whole group, in many ways. “He has a dark cloud that follows him, he has good luck, but then inevitably, bad luck is lurking around the corner,” says Walsh. “But he has a happy life outside work, and he’s not as shrewd and cutthroat as some of the others. He’s soft and sympathetic, and not nearly as narcissistic, and maybe all that appealed to voters.”

For veteran actress Judith Light, who was previously Emmy-nominated in 2007, for guesting on “Ugly Betty,” scoring a nomination as the neurotic Shelly Pfefferman on Amazon’s “Transparent” is particularly important. “It says so much about Jill Soloway, her creation, her team of writers and everyone involved,” she says. “And the fact that [co-star] Gaby Hoffmann also got nominated tells you so much about the extremely high quality of the show, plus I get to work with great actors I love and adore, like Jeffrey [Tambor]. We began in repertory theater together, so there’s so much history there too.”

After two seasons, Light views Shelly as completely unique. “And I don’t know that anyone other than Jill could have imagined me playing her — and known that I could do it. Shelly’s so very specific in many ways, but also incredibly universal in the way she’s longing for connection and desperate to find it — and at a loss as to how to make a connection with someone. Everyone knows someone like that, which is what makes it so powerful.” And appealing to both viewers and Emmy voters.

And timely, notes Light, who’s always been a fierce champion of LGBT rights. “It’s especially gratifying and a dream come true, because of that. When I first talked to Jill, we spent 45 minutes discussing our advocacy, and how she wanted to bring the transgender community out of the shadows — and she’s done exactly that, and more.”

Light’s co-star unwittingly inspired Anderson’s acclaimed turn as Zach Galifianakis’ mother, Christine Baskets, in FX’s quirky comedy, “Baskets” — which he plays in a similarly nuanced and sensitive way. “I watched ‘Transparent’ before I did this, and I loved the way Jeffrey Tambor played it so straight,” says the comedian. “It’s not broad or cartoony at all, and I took the same approach. And I was able to make Louie Anderson disappear because I believed I was Zach Galifianakis’s mother. I was a woman, not a man pretending to be one.”

To pull this off, Anderson went back to the real-life family experiences he mined so successfully in his Emmy-nommed toon “Life With Louie.” “I relied largely on my mom, who I’ve played in my act for a long time. So I used a lot of her mannerisms and looks, and was able to create this offshoot of her and me, and make it believable as a real human being. And I embraced all the humanity in myself and the character.”

In turn, Emmy voters embraced Anderson.