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TV Supporting Actors Shine in Colorful Ensembles Like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Silicon Valley’

The set of every TV series is like a family, or so we’ve been told, but come awards time, not every supporting cast member in an ensemble series family will make the cut for an Emmy nomination. And for some actors, that’s OK.

“It’s the old saying that it’s about supporting each other telling the story as best as you can,” says Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne on “Game of Thrones.”

But is it harder to get recognition in an ensemble series? “This way madness lies,” Christie says. “I could never think, ‘Oh, I’m competing against someone else,’ because the reason I do this job is to investigate and illuminate humanity, and if I’m able to have a good time doing that, then I’ve enjoyed my job and hopefully done it well.”

“I learned a long time ago if you think about awards, then you’re going to start thinking about awards all the time and it’s not healthy.”

Judith Light, playing in the lauded “Transparent” ensemble, agrees it’s wise to banish the notion of competition. “This is a celebration, not a competition,” she notes. “We are so knee-jerk trained to have it be competitive and it’s very hard for people to pull away from that.”

“Better Call Saul” actor Michael McKean echoes such sentiments. “I learned a long time ago if you think about awards, then you’re going to start thinking about awards all the time and it’s not healthy,” he says, recalling his Oscar nomination for songwriting with wife Annette O’Toole for “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from 2003’s “A Mighty Wind.” “We had a great time, but you do the work for the work, for the sense of story you’re telling at the behest of the people who write and direct.”

For some actors who have been a lead and also co-starred in an ensemble series, there are benefits to being part of a crowd. “The pressure is a lot less on my ego when it’s not built around me. That’s a good thing,” says Mayim Bialik, a four-time nominee for “The Big Bang Theory”, who previously played the title character on the 1990s NBC sitcom “Blossom.” “And as a mom of two kids, I love not having all my mental energy on a show riding on my being in every scene. It gives my brain more breathing room and it allows me to see my career for what is: It’s a career.”

Actress Maura Tierney, who won a Golden Globe this year for “The Affair,” notes there’s an ineffable quality to Emmy nominations. “There are a million reasons somebody gets nominated for the award, not all of them having to do with the work,” she says. “Some of it is — I don’t want to say whimsical — but it just factors in how some people get noticed one year but not another year and the work doesn’t really change.”

Tierney adds that sometimes there’s a symbiotic relationship between an actor and the show’s writers. “Maybe one season the chemistry is there and another season it’s less so there,” she says. “But when the writing and acting are truly communicating and understanding each other, I think that sometimes can shed light on certain performers.”

Team Effort: From left: “The Big Bang Theory,” “Game of Thrones” “Silicon Valley” and “The Affair,” ensemble casts help tell the story of their shows.

Realistically, the story will often dictate how big and/or flashy a role each actor has per season.

“Some people get more things to do in a season than other people,” Light says. “Sometimes there are things that pull the audience toward a particular character more than another.”

Attempting to stand out in an ensemble isn’t the right approach either. “If you’re doing your work right, you don’t think about standing out,” says Nick Offerman, recently seen in season two of FX’s “Fargo” limited series. “You just think about playing the truth of the show’s story, which presumably means you’re trying not to stand out, you’re trying to appear as naturally as possible in whatever reality you’re portraying. I suppose, thereby, if you exceed expectations in that effort, then perhaps you can stand out for your ability to disappear.”

And when you’re in an ensemble, there are many ways to disappear. “Orange Is the New Black” actress Taryn Manning says she keeps herself in check by considering what a scene would look like without her or other actors in the scene.
“In the ensemble world and the prison world, you could be written out of the show really quickly and nobody would blink an eye,” she says. “A lead on a show probably feels invincible, but in an ensemble, you’re kind of like, ‘Hmm, what’s gonna happen?’ That’s the good ol’ world of acting and life’s uncertainties.”

On the flip side of the female-driven “Orange” is “Silicon Valley,” and actor Zach Woods admits he was initially wary of starring in a testosterone-heavy ensemble. “I was sort of apprehensive about it because I thought, this is a bunch of young comedy guys and it could be competitive and macho, and feel like this shark-feeding frenzy,” he says. “So I was delighted and relieved that [‘Silicon Valley’ has] been the least like that of pretty much anything I’ve worked on.”

He and his co-stars have talked about awards and agreed they’d most like to win a Screen Actors Guild Award for the entire ensemble. Woods says he’s not indifferent to the business considerations of awards campaigining, but he’s also wary of going down a self-aggrandizing path.

“In the ensemble world and the prison world, you could be written out of the show really quickly and nobody would blink an eye.”

“When you meet people in Hollywood who seem slightly unhinged, it’s because often their whole world seems to be about them,” Woods says. “They’re totally absorbed into some sort of narcissistic panic and I think that’s a lonely and frightening feeling even if you’re winning a bunch of Oscars. I’ve never won any awards, but I get to feel like I’m part of something bigger and that’s more comforting than a statue would be. No one wants a sundae that’s just a bunch of cherries.”

Offerman says his interest in awards is relatively limited. “I care about awards to the extent that they’re good for business,” he says. “I’m very grateful my delivery of Noah Hawley’s dialogue [on ‘Fargo’] has elicited some favorable attention. But I’ll tell you, I’ve been invited to be part of some group photo for publications as part of ‘this year’s class of Emmy hopeful’ jackasses and the thought of spending half a day getting all dolled up and going to get my picture taken with a bunch of great actors, I find about as appealing as going to the DMV. I’m sitting here in my workshop, writing a book about woodworking, and when we get off the phone, I’ll get back to talking about maple.”

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