As the volume of original scripted series has continued to grow, the number of central characters, often embodied by big name talent, has increased as well. This is causing an influx of co-stars seeing their names alongside each other’s on the lead acting nomination ballots at the Emmys.
“The volume of original programming now and the volume of actors doing really, really terrific work now and speaking the words of great writers probably has never been better in the history of television,” says television communications and awards executive Richard Licata of Licata & Co. “And that’s why you’re seeing so many movie stars come over to television, too. They’re hungry for great roles.”
Licata notes that in the more than three decades he has been in the business, he has often had to get on the phone with talent’s reps to say that a particular actor would be put into the supporting category. Often, he says, “they would be steadfast in saying no — because what they were trying to do was get him or her into lead roles, so they couldn’t have them getting nominated as a supporting player. Basically, in some cases, they increased the competition and sacrificed actually winning because of a bigger career move.”
However, nowadays, campaigning politics take a different bent. As the Television Academy’s rules and regulations are better known within the industry and beyond, Licata says the Academy is “looking much more forensically” at the guidelines, such as the number of lines one has in a show, in order to filter them into the right category.
Debra Birnbaum, Amazon Prime Video’s director of awards, acknowledges that the “school of thought that two great performances cancel each other out” or split the vote still exists for some voters. However, voters may also be overwhelmed with the sheer volume of choice this awards season. Therefore, she believes, a show with two strong performances, even if they are competitive ones, could have an edge because it is asking voters to look at it — only one piece of content — for more than one contender.
“With 500 shows on the air there’s a lot of competition out there in every category,” Birnbaum says. “What is it going to take for a show to break out? A lot of factors go into that: It’s awards history, it’s the level of recognition with voters, and certainly timing. Historically we’ve seen co-stars get nominated. A strong performance is a strong performance. More times than not they elevate each other.”
Netflix comedy “Grace and Frankie” is named for its lead characters, so it should not have surprised anyone when the show began submitting stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin for the same category after the show launched in 2015. Tomlin managed to make it onto the ballot immediately and has been nominated every year since, while Fonda has only one nomination to date (in 2017). Meanwhile, over on the drama side, “Billions” and “This Is Us” both launched in 2016 with two leading men submitted opposite each other. Neither “Billions” star, Paul Giamatti nor Damian Lewis, have seen a nomination thus far, but “This Is Us’ ” Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia have both been on the ballot two years in a row.
“The light is shone on either of us, but I look at it as a reflection of [the show] in its entirety,” Ventimiglia says. “We’re both confident that we’re satisfied with our jobs, and we’re really putting our hearts into our jobs. I know he works on the craft of acting a lot. But it’s not just Milo and Sterling; it’s Milo, Sterling, Dan Fogelman, Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger, all of our writers, hair and makeup and our cast and our crew.”
Second season series such as Starz’s “Vida” and BBC America’s “Killing Eve” are submitting both of their leading ladies (Melissa Barrera and Mishel Prada, and Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, respectively) opposite each other. Netflix’s freshman comedy “Dead to Me” is submitting Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, Spectrum’s drama “L.A.’s Finest” has leading ladies Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union, and Amazon limited series “Good Omens” will pit its Archangel (Michael Sheen) against its demon (David Tennant).
“It’s always a difficult conversation. I think you want to be strategic about it; you want to support your best candidates,” Birnbaum says. “You don’t want to do a campaign just for ego’s sake; that’s not serving anybody. Looking at the shows, I think it comes down to the chemistry between the two leads. You have to make some tough calls — you have to have some tough conversations — but I think you have to look at the slate holistically [and] competitively.”
In the case of “Billions,” Showtime Networks’ co-president of entertainment Gary Levine points out that one of the draws was always that the show crafted “two such formidable characters that demand two world-class actors” and that from episode to episode, and now season to season, the audience’s “allegiance swings wildly” between them. While this creates a complexity of story and performance, Levine says it also can create a complexity for voters.
“Sometimes you can have discussions about if there is some way to put them on different ballots, but in this case it’s undeniable that both of them are leading actors, and we just embraced the monster and went forward,” he says. “We give the voters credit to be able to see two brilliant performances and embrace them both.”
Newer series, such as “Good Omens,” which centers on the unlikely alliance between an Archangel and a demon, and “Dead to Me,” which focuses on the new friendship between grieving widow Jen (Applegate) and the woman who knows the truth about Jen’s husband’s death but befriends her anyway (Cardellini), are also true two-handers whose creative teams are equally excited about them being shared efforts.
“One of the things that drew me to the project was that it was two women who, even though they’re co-dependent in a lot of ways, they’re completely different. They were completely drawn and fleshed out and they had beautiful arcs,” Cardellini says. If one of them were pushed into a supporting category instead, she thinks it would “diminish the work.”
“I wouldn’t want to diminish the work because it’s a beautiful thing that there are two strong leads. I don’t look at it as competing at all. I also feel what you hope for is that it can be considered some form of art, and I don’t know that there is a ‘best’ in art,” she says.