Emmys: How Television Continues to Attract Big Name Actors

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Courtesy of BBC One/Showtime

It may still be called the small screen, but television is increasingly attracting big-name, big-screen (and stage) talent, as evidenced by this year’s list of impressive lead actor nominees, including Michael Douglas, Hugh Grant, Sam Rockwell, Benicio Del Toro, Mahershala Ali, Don Cheadle, Eugene Levy and Billy Porter.

So what do these nominees, some of whom are seeing their first-ever TV roles and Emmy accolades, feel they get from this medium’s experience that is missing from film?

For Grant, who scored his first-ever Emmy nom in the lead limited series/TV movie actor category for his nuanced performance as British Member of Parliament Jeremy Thorpe in Amazon Prime Video’s “A Very English Scandal,” it’s “all about the writing. You just tend to get the best writing in telly these days, with human beings talking to human beings, and recognizable human behavior,” he says, “while cinema now seems to be more and more about superheroes, monsters and avatars.”

Admittedly for Grant, the draw also included having a script by Russell T. Davies, Stephen Frears onboard as director, “brilliant” source material, and “having more time” to explore with those people and in that world. “Although it was a fairly modest series — just three one-hour episodes, it’s still twice as long as you’d get in a movie, and you’re able to do so much more in terms of dealing with a two-decade span, which this does,” he says. “So I was probably able to get deeper into the role and the man than I have with any part before. And when you play a real-life person, there’s tons of research you can do, and I had nine months to prepare where I read every book, watched every interview and went through the script with a fine-tooth comb. And all that really helped.”

In the past, the actor has happily admitted to being “a movie snob,” clinging “to the notion of glamour in movies,” but says he is over it now because it “really is a golden age for TV.”

Veteran Tony Award-winning theater actor Porter, whose turn as ballroom emcee Pray Tell in FX’s barrier-busting “Pose” earned him his first-ever Emmy nom, too (for lead drama actor), also credits the writing and longer arcs of the small screen for drawing him into the project.

“It gives you the opportunity to create a complex character that can really grow over time,” he says. “Instead of two hours, you get a whole season or more to delve into the psyche of the person. As they grow, as they live, as they face all of life’s challenges.”

Currently finishing the second season, Porter is already looking ahead: “I love the idea of the show going on for years, like watching life unfold.”

But more important to Porter is the chance to shine a light on underserved people and bring their stories to the forefront. “I’ve very rarely seen anyone like myself ever portrayed in this way, so it’s a very special time,” he says. “Art has the power to transform hearts and minds, and to change people. We create empathy, and empathy creates love.”

Oscar-winner Del Toro earned his first Emmy nom (lead limited series/TV movie actor) for his role as real-life convicted murderer Richard Matt in Ben Stiller’s seven-part prison-set limited series, “Escape at Dannemora” for Showtime. Although the actor hasn’t worked in the medium in a while, he says when he read the first draft of the first episode, he was “immediately hooked.”

“It was 60, 70 pages of character study that really took its time to examine and penetrate these people and their lives and motives,” he explains.

Despite having only seven episodes to tell the story of “Escape at Dannemora,” its slow-burn approach hooked Del Toro “because that pace also allowed it to explore minor characters, who in a movie would just get one scene.” Here, he says, they added “so many layers to the story and so much resonance that gradually builds and builds.” In some cases, this occurred with flashbacks — in fact, an entire episode is devoted to getting peeks into characters’ pasts — “something you could never do in a film, as you just don’t have the time,” he says. “But then, a film is closer to a short story or novella, while a series like this is far closer to a novel.”

For “Schitt’s Creek” co-creator and lead actor Levy, who has seen variety writing Emmys in the past, it’s “the familiarity of a long-running TV series that’s so appealing.” Now nominated in the lead comedy actor category for the fifth season of the show, Levy points out that with audiences getting to see the same characters every week, if a show is working, viewers have an investment in them and form a strong emotional bond.

“I’ve done a lot of films, but the big difference is, a good movie is still a one-time experience,” Levy says. “You’re there for two hours, then it’s gone.”

Ironically, notes Levy, “TV comedy is now far more cinematic than it used to be. The old approach was the very presentational, three-camera sitcom, but today with the great scripts, production values and mushrooming outlets, it’s attracting more and more top film actors — because it’s just so good and so funny. Personally, I love great character comedy, but with streaming and all the new platforms, there’s room for all kinds of comedy.”

Eight-time Emmy nominee Cheadle, up again in the lead comedy actor category for Showtime’s “Black Monday,” has always bounced back and forth between film and television. Like other nominees, he stresses that “longer story arcs and more time [in terms of TV schedules] really allow you as an actor to dig deeper into a character, and to really develop them. You get to have a second, third, fourth bite of the apple, and us actors love that.”

At the end of “Black Monday’s” first season, the period comedy leaves Cheadle’s Mo Monroe “in complete disarray,” he notes. “And the next season will open with the consequences of all that, and for his partner, played by Regina Hall, that he’s left behind. So TV also gives you that cliff-hanger ending that can springboard you to the next season, which hopefully will come to a satisfying conclusion.”