Today’s television showrunners must throw the best dinner parties. Or at least they sure do know how to make a good guest list. From Alison Wright on FX’s “The Americans” and Hank Azaria on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” who are returning to series in roles where they had become fan favorites, to Matthew Rhys and Riz Ahmed, who each had standout work on HBO’s “Girls,” this year’s four Emmy categories for guest talent are stocked with nominees whose work has set the Twittersphere ablaze. The nominations also show that when voters like a show, they really like it, either giving blocks of nominations to actors from series such as “Saturday Night Live” and “This Is Us,” or recognizing an outstanding newcomer like Shannon Purser as part of the 18 nominations freshman series “Stranger Things” received.
“It’s human to want to be liked and seek affirmation,” says Wright, who saw much fan support for her dowdy, trusting FBI secretary (#PoorMartha) before she was shepherded off to Cold War-era Russia in the dead of night last year. The Emmy voters love the acting on “The Americans” — Margo Martindale has been nominated in this category for three consecutive years and won the last two, and leads Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys just scored their second consecutive noms. This season, fans were ecstatic when the show confirmed that Martha was still alive, just having a hard time adjusting to the Motherland’s produce selection and harboring a grudge against Gabriel (Frank Langella), the KGB handler now overseeing her predicament.
Wright adds that she’s grateful she got such a fulfilling storyline, and that “it makes me so very happy that people care about her, are concerned for her and truly worried about her future.”
But Martha’s not the only character to get a sense of resurrection this year. There’s also Ben Mendelsohn, whose Danny Rayburn was the victim of fratricide in the Netflix drama’s first season. And Ann Dowd, who is nominated in the guest actress in a drama category for playing she-who-will-not-be-ignored, the obsessive Patti Levin, who died in the first season of HBO’s “The Leftovers.”
Voters fell hard for Dowd, who also is enjoying a nomination in the supporting actress in a drama race for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The actress found out she’d be returning to “Leftovers” when series co-creator Damon Lindelof included her in a group email for season three actors. She says she figured this was a mistake until she remembered, “Damon doesn’t make mistakes” like that.
“Patti is one of my favorite experiences of my whole life, hands down,” Dowd says of a character whose arc has gone from domestic abuse victim to cult leader to, this year, a manifestation in the mind of lead Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey that represents his own thoughts on what he needs to accept about himself. “Justin and I described it as a love story,” says Dowd. “In the third season, she comes back with one purpose — to help him blow up the places he goes to hide so that he lives his life in a genuine way. I think that’s the most beautiful evolution of a human being and a relationship.”
|“She comes back with one purpose — to help him blow up the places he goes to hide so that he lives his life in a genuine way.”|
Although she is haunting Kevin in a way, Dowd argues that Patti is by no means out for harm because “a villain perpetuates suffering for her own purpose and Patti did none of that.”
And, honestly, sometimes these hard truths are best heard from someone the audience and the recurring characters aren’t accustomed to seeing spouting weekly advice. Denis O’Hare, Gerald McRaney and Brian Tyree Henry were each tasked with these kinds of scenes when they guest starred on “This Is Us” at various points throughout the NBC drama’s freshman season — and were rewarded with Emmy nominations for their endeavors. (The show itself took in 11 total noms.)
Those moments weren’t always uplifting or without their own baggage; particularly for O’Hare, who played Jessie, a recovering alcoholic desperately attempting to hold onto some semblance of a relationship while he his ailing partner, William (Ron Cephas Jones), fought to push him away. O’Hare says he shot the scene where Jessie learns of William’s passing the day after an intense time on the set of his upcoming film about his sister’s suicide, “The Parting Glass.”
O’Hare is also glad the part has resonated so well with viewers, especially since so much of his TV work is associated with horror and fantasy like HBO’s “True Blood” or his Emmy-nominated turns on FX’s “American Horror Story” — roles in which, he says, he’s “a monster or a killer or someone with my face burned off or my tongue cut up.”
This is all par for the course for character actors, says McRaney. While he now plays Dr. K, the kind-hearted voice of reason with a sob story of his own on “This Is Us,” he recently spent several seasons as Raymond Tusk, a frequent thorn in the side of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood on Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Gen-Xers and older millennials grew up watching him as the hard-nosed titular “Major Dad” on that late ’80s-early ’90s CBS sitcom.
“I am comfortable in any sort of television show provided it is good,” McRaney says. “Family, adult, drama, comedy — it’s all acting. Nothing will replace the feeling I had on ‘Major Dad’ and nothing will ever replace ‘This Is Us.’ The important thing is the writing and the ensemble. And by ensemble I mean everyone: cast, crew, everyone.”
For Henry, this has been a banner year. The Yale School of Drama graduate (and best friend of “This Is Us” star Sterling K. Brown) has carved out a nice niche for himself as the go-to anytime a script calls for a musically talented cousin. Not only does he play Ricky, William’s estranged kin on “This Is Us,” but he also received raves as Donald Glover’s rapping relative, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, on the new FX comedy “Atlanta.” He’s accepted his fate, though, saying “sometimes your cousins have to remind you of where you come from and I’ll be that vessel.”
|Double nominee Ann Dowd with co-star and Justin Theroux in “The Leftovers.”
Courtesy of HBO
Henry enjoyed the workings of the show’s reputable hair and makeup teams, which turned him into a 77-year-old man, which happened to be the age of his own father. “I kind of cried sometimes when I looked in the mirror and the laughed sometimes,” he says, accepting that “all right, this is my future.”
Henry’s not the only breakout star in the guest categories who has had to deal with typecasting. Online fans so emphasized with the wise-beyond-her-years outcast, Barb, on Netflix’s sci-fi drama “Stranger Things,” that they demanded the Emmy nomination actress Shannon Purser received for the part was #JusticeForBarb.
Purser says “the overwhelming love for Barb completely blindsided me and I’m so grateful to the fans.” But, as someone who grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy stories, she’s also thrilled that this genre has gotten some respect this year, both through her show and HBO’s “Westworld,” which landed 22 nominations, tying with “SNL” for the most.
“I think there’s this misconception about sci-fi and fantasy being lesser genres because they’re ‘unrealistic’ or ‘not founded in truth,’” she says. “My life has been changed for the better in so many ways because of those genres and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.”
Sometimes, you’re blessed with two nominations and each role resonated with viewers in different ways.
Rhys, who is nominated for lead actor in a drama for his work as the conscious-laden ace undercover spy Philip Jennings in FX’s “The Americans” also received recognition (and quite a few think pieces) for guest starring as Chuck Palmer, a potentially sociopathic best-selling writer, in the final season of HBO’s “Girls.”
“I never try to approach any character as horrible and I found Chuck to be incredibly interesting to play,” Rhys says. “I’m more interested in how these people turn out or how they arrive at the point when we see them. Chuck’s journey up to this point has clearly been in few dark in places. But the difference in playing both was a fun change.”
As to whether fans (and voters) will have a hard time separating the roles? Rhys doubts it.
Besides, he says, it should be easy: “one has a real beard and the other doesn’t.”