Lead Actor Emmy Contenders Like Riz Ahmed, Sterling K. Brown Juggle Busy Schedules

With more content comes more opportunity and for some actors a busier schedule than ever.

Lead actor nominees Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) and Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of”) also scored guest actor Emmy nominations for roles in HBO’s “Girls” this Emmy season.

Nominated in the limited series category, Ahmed describes himself as a workaholic who prefers to keep busy. That helps explain his parts in multiple projects released in 2016, including “The OA,” “Jason Bourne” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

“If I’m not shooting something I will be writing a script or recording music,” he says. “I love to be in the thick of the creative process. It’s addictive.”

Sterling K. Brown, last year’s supporting actor in a limited series winner for FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” has also stayed busy. He’s nominated for lead actor in a drama series for NBC’s “This Is Us,” and he also has the movie “Marshall,” about Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, in theaters in October. Brown filmed roles in three films on his recent hiatus from the NBC hit: “Marvel’s Black Panther,” alien-horror franchise sequel “The Predator” and futuristic thriller “Hotel Artemis.”

“I’ve spent so much of my career working intermittently, being busy and then with large swaths of time off that it became the norm,” says Brown. “And now, over the past couple of years, there’s been a new norm and I’m adjusting.”

Brown says he works with his wife and two children to make sure everyone gets the time they need. “I like working. I think being on set is one of my favorite places in the world,” he says. “The work of acting in and of itself is something that is infinitely enjoyable.”

Getting accustomed to the publicity, promotion and news media efforts on behalf of those projects is a newer element of his work life, though.

“The totality of it accumulates. It’s nice to be in a position where people want to speak to me and hear about what I have to say. But right now I’m taking a walk to the grocery story so I can get in a little exercise and give my son something to occupy his brain.”

Sometimes release schedules make actors appear to be especially busy, as well. Ahmed says there was decent spacing between most of his 2016 projects — with a few exceptions.

“It was just ‘Bourne’ and ‘Rogue One’ which were simultaneous, so I was grateful Lucasfilm gave me time off to go and shoot that in the middle of ‘Rogue One,’” he says. “It was more the promo and release that got stacked up on each other – that was more intense than the shooting!”

Geoffrey Rush, nominated for lead actor in a limited series for playing Albert Einstein in National Geographic’s “Genius,” says his seemingly busy schedule “could be that it’s smoke and mirrors because between projects I always try to have appropriate down time to be home.”

Rush filmed the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie in 2015 and it just happened to get released as “Genius” was airing on TV. But that’s not to say he hasn’t been busy. His schedule almost did not allow him to star in “Genius” even though the part appealed to him.

“I have to go by some kind of gut feeling and also, ‘Am I the right kind of actor for this?’ It’s a combination of things with who else is on the team and how’s the script looking,” Rush says of picking roles. “But when you’re a dyed-in-the-wool character actor in your 60s and they say, ‘We want you to be the older Albert Einstein,’ it was pretty inevitable I would say yes, but at first I had a commitment.”

After being away from his Australian home to film “Pirates,” Rush had committed to act as script editor on a 10-part series written by his wife, Jane Menelaus.

“Ron Howard called and said, ‘Look, we can rejigger it and shoot old Einstein in November,’ and I went, ‘You’re on!’” Rush says.

If Rush seems jet-lagged on Emmy night, there’s good reason. He’ll shoot “Storm Boy” in South Australia through Sept. 8, return home briefly “to rethink my summer wardrobe for Los Angeles” and fly the next day, arriving in L.A. for the Emmys only after a trip to the Toronto Film Festival for a screening of “Final Portrait” in which Rush plays Swiss painter-sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

William H. Macy, nominated for lead actor in a comedy for Showtime’s “Shameless,” describes his working-to-not-working balance as schizophrenic.

“I like to work,” Macy says. “I just feel more at peace when I’m working because then everything is set out in front of you and you know what the task is, especially with acting .They tell you where to show up and you have all these people handling you and you can be a little bit mindless and concentrate on the task right in front of you.”

But when Macy directs, and he currently has two films he directed and acted in awaiting release, it’s a different sensation.

“It’s such a stressful way to make a living and I’d find myself going back to ‘Shameless’ completely knackered,” he says. “After directing my first film, it was like, ‘Oh my God, do I love acting.’”

For Ahmed, music serves as an important, alternate creative outlet.

“It’s a part of who I am, and always has been since I was a teenager emceeing on pirate radio stations or at small raves,” he says.

“It’s a way for me to put my authentic voice out into the world in an unfiltered way, so it’s really important to me. Exercising that muscle, tapping into what you really feel and exposing yourself to the world without a script or character to hide behind, makes me a better actor. And vice versa. I think if you pursue your creative passions they will all enhance each other, if you give them all the time and effort they deserve. It just means that you need to be prepared to sacrifice any lazy weekends and a social life when it comes down to it.”

Busy as he is, Brown has no regrets about signing onto a series so soon after “People v. O.J. Simpson.”

“If I were younger and single, then maybe the opportunity to bounce from film to film was something that would have been incredibly welcoming,” he says. “But because I have a kid going into first grade and a little boy who’s almost 2 and a wife in this industry as well, having a show in my hometown that allows me to do work of this caliber and still be with my family, that’s a dream come true.”

And because “This Is Us” shoots just 18 episodes instead of the traditional broadcast 22, the longer hiatus allows more opportunities for outside work. He started on “Black Panther” before “This Is Us” ended.

“Our producers have been incredibly accommodating,” he says. “They recognized ‘Black Panther’ was something important to me and of historical significance as well. I feel like when you’re with the right people and you all champion each other’s success, everybody does everything to make sure all opportunities can be fulfilled.”


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