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Emmys: Guest Performers Must Make the Most of Short TV Stints

Guest stars often find themselves in a challenging position, arriving on a set to shoot just a few scenes and trying to pack a powerful performance into limited screen time. With so many strong dramatic performances on TV today, how do these actors and actresses maximize those moments to pack a punch?

For “This Is Us” guest star Gerald McRaney, who took home the dramatic guest actor Emmy last year and is nominated again this year, the key is in the writing and just trying to “stay out of my own damn way.”

With his Dr. K character appearing in just one episode this season of the NBC family drama (“The Car”), compared to five episodes in the first season, McRaney says, “it can be hard to build a character with just one or two appearances in one or two scenes.” But, he adds, on “This Is Us,” “every scene and every character is so fleshed-out that you don’t have to worry about that. If it is just one scene, it’s one really good scene.”

Fellow guest drama actor nominee F. Murray Abraham, up for the second time for his role of Dar Adal on “Homeland,” echoes the sentiment. “It’s all in the words,” he says. “I take credit for my work, because I’m a pro, but you can’t do it without the material. It’s pretty clearly a well-written part, very mysterious.”

Abraham is nominated this year for “All In,” the penultimate episode of the seventh season of Showtime’s terrorism thriller.

To others, the way to succeed as a guest actor is all about the mindset. Samira Wiley was nominated last year in the supporting actress category for playing Moira on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but is up for guest drama actress this year, after appearing in only a few episodes of Hulu’s dystopian drama’s second season. She submitted the seventh episode, “After,” which expanded upon Moira’s backstory by introducing her wife, and pushed her present-day story forward as she searched to find out what happened to her.

“I think that Moira is such a big person that in the scripts that I got, I feel like even though it wasn’t as much material, I felt the impact could still be as big,” Wiley says. Her process includes thinking of her character as the main protagonist in order to best serve her story.

“I do think that her story is an important one,” she says. “I don’t think it’s helpful for me as an actor to think of Moira as a side story. I have to think about giving as much honor and credit to her story as Elisabeth [Moss] is giving to June.”

It also helps that the actress has such a deep connection to her character, revealing that ever since she read the pilot script for for Moira’s part, “I felt like I saw her before me exactly, who this person was.”

Wiley’s “Handmaid’s Tale” co-star Kelly Jenrette is also nominated as a guest actress for her role as Annie, Luke’s estranged wife who confronts June about her relationship with Luke. Jenrette appeared for just a few minutes in a single episode in the second season (“Other Women”), but landed a nom for her impactful performance.

“I have to think about giving as much honor and credit to [Moira’s] story as Elisabeth [Moss] is giving to June.”
Samira Wiley

Jenrette says working opposite Moss helped her in the scenes, as the star “is so grounded, so present in each and every moment you can’t help but to be present in that moment, no matter what you have made up your mind what it’s going to be.”

She adds that in taking on the part of a scorned woman “the challenge is being present because as an actor we do pile on all of this backstory and wanting to make sure it is shown.” With scenes as brief as hers were, the challenge was “letting all of that go and just being in the moment.”

And then there is the character study, which Cicely Tyson, nominated for the third consecutive year for playing the mother of Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder,” swears by. She aims to always step onto set as her character, rather than herself.

“I am there for a reason, and when I start working on the script I am immediately engulfed in this character, and try to make her as true and truthful as I can possibly can,” Tyson says.

Cameron Britton, who landed a nom for portraying serial killer Edmund Kemper in “Mindhunter,” appeared in three episodes of Netflix’s true crime drama and submitted his introductory one, “Episode 2.” Working on the David Fincher-directed series meant nine months of prep, extensive rehearsals with co-stars Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany and extreme attention to detail. That lent itself to fully immersing himself in the role and allowing Ed’s presence to loom large on-set and, perhaps at times, off.

“[I spent] lot of time going to dog parks and taking Uber rides and stuff in character, just so I could make him as social as possible,” Britton says. “David Fincher being the incredibly dedicated and specific person he is would show up to my fittings [and] have me take my jeans home so I’d sleep in them so the costume would look more worn in. Every single last detail was to get it to be authentic.”

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