Small-Screen Actresses Dive Into Deliciously Multi-Layered Characters

Small-screen divas dive into deliciously multi-layered characters

Olivia Colman The Night Manager Emmy
Courtesy of AMC

Emmy voters should congratulate themselves on the nominee rosters they came up with this year. That’s not an easy sentence to write; in years past, I’ve often felt compelled to rail against omissions, oversights, and lazy nominations that reflect name recognition more than anything else.

There are a few names I would have loved to see in this year’s list of Emmy nominees, but this is a solid, credible and even exciting list, full of recognition that is either much deserved or overdue. And when it comes to the actress rosters — whether we’re talking about comedy, drama or limited series — the sheer breadth of the characters is impressive.

However outsized, dramatic or colorful the role, actresses often have traditionally had to play by certain unspoken rules of likability. These days, those rules are largely going by the wayside, and actresses are taking those opportunities and running with them.

But the reality is some nominees have a more uphill climb than others. Certain shows don’t have the gigantic footprint of a “Game of Thrones,” and some actresses don’t have the growing buzz of a Kate McKinnon, who should win every award ever.

Yet even on “Game of Thrones,” there’s stiff competition. The trio of actresses nominated from the HBO juggernaut — Maisie Williams, Emilia Clarke, and Lena Headey — are all tremendously talented.

“Actresses often have traditionally had to play by certain unspoken rules of likability. These days, those rules are largely going by the wayside.”
@moryan on Twitter

But Headey stands just a head taller. A fact that might get buried in the mountains of hype about this drama is what an anchor she has been for it since the very beginning — in quite possibly its most difficult role. There are a lot of underdogs on “Game of Thrones,” and despite their missteps or murderous moments, it’s not difficult to root for Tyrion, Arya, Daenerys, or any number of others. But the same can’t be said for Cersei, and yet Headey makes it impossible to not at least be interested in her plight.

While never softening the character’s hard edges and imperious rage, Headey has illuminated Cersei’s inner life and made us understand what it’s been like to be the most underestimated Lannister of them all. Headey doesn’t request that you like Cersei, but she wants you to understand her motivations.

The performance vibrates with what Cersei has been through: The decades of rejection, condescension, patronizing, and sometimes brutal, treatment that made her who she is. Six seasons in, it’s impossible to discount her and it’s still possible to feel for her, despite everything she’s done. Much of that is thanks to Headey’s tightly focused yet impassioned work.

Meanwhile, the lead actress in a limited series or movie category is absolutely chockablock with talent, and if Sarah Paulson were to win, it would be absolutely deserved. She brought tremendously impressive nuance and memorable layers to her portrayal of Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” But to me, the ideal outcome in this category would be a tie (let me have this fantasy).

In a cast that was similarly packed with stellar performers, Kirsten Dunst was every bit as good in the second season of “Fargo” as Billy Bob Thornton was in the first. Her role may have been less flashy, but her ability to bring both pathos and comedy to almost every scene may have been even more impressive.

Finally, allow me to make a pitch for Olivia Colman, a nominee in the supporting actress in a limited series or movie category for her work in “The Night Manager.” Colman’s role wasn’t as large as the meaty ones played by Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston in this suave AMC miniseries, but Colman owned every single scene she was in.

As a deeply committed arms-control watchdog, Colman’s character was a canny and compelling adversary for Laurie’s devil-may-care billionaire. As she did in “Broadchurch,” Colman instantly made you care for her character and gave her an inner fire that fed the thriller’s dramatic momentum. It may not have been a glamorous role, but it was certainly a memorable one.