Guest-starring roles aren’t what they used to be.
A guest actor’s job has morphed from the standard “one-and-done” assignment, moving from an era of stunt casting and more recently pushing into extended arcs developed to propel the story in the current complex age of television. These days, nabbing a coveted recurring role is a chance not only to break typecasting and land a longer gig, but also to break convention and explore characters more fully realized than ever.
Look no further than this year’s crop of Emmy nominees across drama and comedy, where arcs aren’t simply designed to service the leads. Time-bending shows including NBC’s “This Is Us” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” explore a person’s whole life; complicated world-building comedies such as HBO’s “Veep” and Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” allow colorful characters to leap off the page; and such shows as Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and AMC’s “Better Call Saul” are welcoming back awards favorites in new and meaningful ways.
“‘Orange’ is different because a lot of people who did not have contracts as series regulars got backstories and got to be humanized in ways that most of us had never gotten an opportunity to do before,” says nominee Laverne Cox. “No one story is more valuable than anyone else’s. I’m still heavily associated with the show, in part because early on I got this great backstory written by Sian Heder and directed by Jodie Foster that connected people to Sophia. I don’t think most guest actors get to have that kind of literally life-changing material.”
“This Is Us” nominee Michael Angarano’s character Nicky was featured prominently in the show’s third-season Vietnam storyline. “One of the hardest things to do is to come to a couple of days of work and have, like, one line — you obsess about that one line over and over,” he says. “I would rather have a monologue or 10 pages of dialogue as opposed to one line. Having four or five months and working intensively was very conducive to this specific role because it was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.”
Not all guest-starring roles come with such strongly promoted arcs, but in a TV climate where side stories can be fleshed out and vantage points switch, two or three episodes can lead to more work. “Maisel” nominee Jane Lynch will return in the third season in a full-time capacity following two seasons as a guest star, fellow nominee and “Maisel” guest player Luke Kirby has resurfaced several times as Lenny Bruce despite auditioning for what he believed to be a one-off, and Bradley Whitford’s character on “The Handmaid’s Tale” was promoted to series regular following his two episodes in the second season, for which he is nominated now.
Says Lynch: “I did a lot of guest-starring roles when I first started out in this business, which used to support the story with a one-and-done. I jumped up and down and was thrilled every time I got one, but you’re very rarely under the hope that it will turn into more. But it is different now. They’re creating these really terrific roles that aren’t just a utilitarian service that guest actors are performing anymore. They’re getting really great roles where they get to shine along with the regular cast members.”
According to “Veep” nominee Peter MacNicol, these roles aren’t only an opportunity to tell compelling side stories; they also lead to collaboration on set. He says Jeff Kane wasn’t originally the profanity-spewing “Tasmanian Devil” character he eventually became; he was born out of an ad-lib during a debate-prep scene.
“At one point I asked showrunner Dave Mandel how to move the scene along since they were just talking to each other, and he told me to just say, ‘Shut up,’” he recalls. “I ad-libbed, ‘Shut the f— up.’ And it became not just a line that worked for that scene, but it became some kind of defining trait that took over. In a sense, Uncle Jeff was born that day.”
Now, thanks to flashbacks, dream sequences and jumping timelines, even the death of a character doesn’t necessarily signify the end. Last year’s guest drama actor winner (and repeat nominee) Ron Cephas Jones has repeatedly popped up in the “This Is Us” universe following William’s first-season death, and although he admits that while waiting to see where writers may squeeze his character in next can be tough, the material is worth the wait.
“Better Call Saul” nominee Michael McKean, whose own deceased character, Chuck, resurfaced in flashback in the fourth-season finale, landing him among this year’s nominees, believes these roles are coming about in part because programmers are willing to take more creative chances than in the past.
“We’ve always been able to go deep, but there were people telling us that it wasn’t commercial,” he says. “There were a lot of shows that really kind of went for it, but they didn’t run very long because people viewed TV as something that was trivial entertainment.”
Adds Whitford: “There is this newer cultural hunger for immersion in these sprawling stories, and it’s because of that landscape that a guest shot has its own potential arc and can become a really important part of the story and not an ancillary one. The opportunities for guest stars are expanding in quality, and deepening.”
One-and-done roles will never go away, but even when an actor signs up for a one-off, the allure of being able to play someone complex and memorable is always a draw. Nominee Phylicia Rashad says she’s never seen — let alone participated in — an episode spanning time with as much material as her installment of “This Is Us” last season.
And Rufus Sewell, who considers himself a character actor, was swayed to tackle his nominated “Maisel” role for two reasons: Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino wanted to write to his comedic strengths, which she’d seen onstage, and more importantly, the role was a one-off.
“I’ve always been wary of anything that was an ongoing commitment, no matter how attractive it may seem on the page,” he says. “I’ve always considered myself to be a character actor, and I’ve tried in my own way to smuggle that into the opportunities I’ve had. So the fact that this role was finite was scary but very attractive. Now of course that I’ve done it, I’d be delighted to return.”