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Emmys: How Supporting Players Stand Out in Stacked Categories

Among the 41 performers nominated for supporting roles, more than a third of the contenders (15) are in the unenviable position of competing directly with their co-stars. For the first time since 2016, every single supporting category — actor and actress in a comedy series, actor and actress in a drama series, and actor and actress in a limited series/movie — has colleagues going head-to-head to take home gold at the 70th annual ceremony on Sept. 17.

“There may be a ‘split the vote’ sort of thing there,” says David Harbour, who is nominated for the second consecutive time for his role as police chief Hopper on Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” “But I don’t really know what goes through people’s minds when they vote for these things. And if you look at years when ‘West Wing’ or ‘L.A. Law’ was all the rage, the double and sometimes triple nominees from those years easily won.”

Over the past five years, competing directly against a co-star has had mixed results: of the 22 times at least one show has been nominated multiple times in a supporting category, seven have produced a winner. The 2017 awards were responsible nearly half of those, with all three supporting actress victors coming from multi-nominated shows — “Saturday Night Live” (comedy), “Big Little Lies” (limited series/movie) and “The Handmaid’s Tale” (drama).

On the flip side, being a sole nominee in the category still allows light to be shined on everyone in the project, believes “Homeland’s” Mandy Patinkin.

“No matter what category any of us are nominated in, we carry the whole team with us,” he says. “We’re simply nothing without everyone — and I mean everyone — so we’re representing the whole gang.”

Adds “The Looming Tower’s” Michael Stuhlbarg: “One of the largest benefits of the awards to begin with is it makes people aware a show was on and that if people felt strongly enough to nominate it for an award [it could be worth their time].”

Competing against a co-star is far from the only element that makes the supporting categories particularly tight. Adding to the competition is the increase in contenders for each award.

The Academy rules shifted in 2015, allowing up to eight nominees in the supporting performer categories if the seventh or eighth place vote-getter is within 2% of votes from the sixth place nominee. This year, the supporting comedy actress race has eight women up for the trophy, while the supporting limited series/movie actor race, supporting drama actress and supporting comedy actor race both have seven nominees. The supporting drama actor and supporting limited series/movie actress races have six nominees in each category.

The expanded nominee pool allows for a wider range of talent to be recognized. “I have to applaud the diversity in my category,” says “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” Tituss Burgess. “Three of us are men of color, and that is very exciting to me.”

Tony Shalhoub, who earned eight lead comedy actor noms (winning three times) for his work on “Monk” between 2003 and 2010, is now up for his first supporting comedy actor Emmy for his role as Abe on Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He recalls that when he was nominated for “Monk,” “there were always only five people in the category.” Now with seven nominees, he notes “already, your odds are severely diminished.”

But standing out in the crowded field is not an easy feat. In order to try to garner as much attention as possible, “Atlanta’s” Brian Tyree Henry chose a showcase episode in which his character Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles struggled on the anniversary of his mother’s death — a topic that was close to the actor, who lost his own mom shortly after the first season of the FX comedy wrapped.

”[‘The Woods’] was very personal, it was very revealing,” Henry says of the episode. “I wanted to make sure I could expose that part of myself. I felt people needed that from Alfred — needed to know a bit more about Alfred’s life.”

Attention on “The Crown’s” Matt Smith may have been aided by the real-life British royal family being in the international spotlight this year, thanks to the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But Smith still had to independently capture the humanity behind Prince Philip in the Netflix historical drama.

“It felt like there were some truths [in the show] about this family we all thought we knew so well,” he says. “But once you get to know them and [see] behind the veil, they’re far more interesting than we give them credit for.”

For many, the focus is solely on the work itself and not the accolades that may come after. “I’m a character actor,” says Alex Borstein, who is up for supporting comedy actress for her role as Susie in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” as well as character voice-over performance for her role as Lois in Fox’s “Family Guy.” “My kind don’t get into this business with the expectation of being gifted with prizes or even recognized on the street. We’re aiming for longevity and a chameleon-like invisibility. This is like stepping into an alternate universe.”

Rather than getting too bogged down with the idea of competition, many nominees are choosing to celebrate the moment of quality television and talent.

Adina Porter, who earned her first Emmy nomination for supporting limited series/movie actress for portraying reporter Beverly Hope in “American Horror Story: Cult,” is the only cast member from that FX anthology series in the running this year. But she is up against Penelope Cruz and Judith Light from the network’s (and producer Ryan Murphy) other anthology series, “American Crime Story.”

“It’s a great honor to be a part of Ryan Murphy’s world, and be part of [this group of] three [nominees],” she says. “The other nominees from the FX world are Oscar-nominees and Emmy-award winning people and Tony award-winning people. … I can’t mess with that. It’ll mess with my head. All I can do is do my work and be in the game.”

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