Emmy hopefuls in the supporting actor and actress categories face a unique challenge: They must paint characters in intriguing enough colors to attract an audience’s attention and make them want more, but they must also ensure that the growth in their characters doesn’t overshadow the central players.
“Part of my conversation with Vince Gilligan coming into ‘Better Call Saul’ was that we had an opportunity to look into Gus’ background or see where he came from,” says two-time Emmy nominee Giancarlo Esposito, who was first nominated for his role of Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad” in 2012 and is returning to the ballot for its prequel. “But I can’t forget that the show is ‘Better Call Saul,’ and it’s about Saul.”
Where this leaves Esposito is with the responsibility “to do the fine-tuned work that I do, and always make my presence felt, and have those moments of dialogue be dynamic,” he says. But he also has to remember Gus’ place in this story, as well as in the one that preceded it.
“It certainly is a challenge to honor the overall symphony that’s been written,” Esposito says. “But the greatest advice is to not feel as if you don’t have a contribution. So many actors feel like they have to just go by the script. But the script is informing inspiration, and the inspiration informs me. And when I start to hear the music of the overall song, I can figure out how to be in harmony with all the others.”
As seven-time Emmy nominee and last year’s winner in the supporting comedy actor category Henry Winkler puts it, acting is a job “you cannot do by yourself.” Nominated for the second consecutive year for his role as acting coach Gene Cousineau on HBO’s hit-man-turned-actor comedy “Barry,” Winkler is on the ballot alongside his co-stars Anthony Carrigan and Stephen Root; Sarah Goldberg scored a nom in the supporting comedy actress category, and Bill Hader is back in the lead comedy actor race.
“The painter can sit by himself and paint, the musician can compose in a silent room, the writer can sit at the computer and muse — but the actor is only half the circle,” Winkler says. “In the same way, if Gene is good, he’s good because the classroom is filled with extraordinary young actors who only have to use their imagination.”
Goldberg, who plays the show’s vibrantly needy, mercurial Sally, says the key to her ability to do her best work is collaborating in an environment that facilitates reciprocity with the rest of the cast. This was especially essential in the second season, when she was tasked with diving into tales of domestic abuse.
“I was thrilled at the idea of going darker and going to an honest place and [exploring] where this woman comes from,” she says, “but I was also nervous because obviously these are tricky and scary times. We were pretty vigilant about how to approach it and how to try to keep true to who she is as a character, but also be delicate with that subject.”
While Goldberg dug deeper, Carrigan could have easily leaned into the “bigness” of his NoHo Hank, a fussy, affable Chechen mafioso who runs his criminal organization like a summer camp. The character was a breakout pretty much immediately — even becoming an internet meme — but he, too, wanted to show off a range of emotions, rather than return to the same well. “Nothing kills a scene more than when someone comes up and tells you what worked in it. You have to just chuck it out the window and find something new,” he says.
That said, finding an opportunity to stand out is a familiar and fun part of the acting process for four-time Emmy nominee (and former winner) John Leguizamo. But the veteran performer abandoned those instincts while shooting Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” a retelling of the true-life story of the 1989 Central Park jogger case that the cast and crew recognized was too important to jeopardize with showboating.
“Usually the modus operandi is to shine, but this was very different,” Leguizamo says. “Everybody felt like they were there to be of service — there was a painstaking effort made for things to be right so we could take people on this journey so that maybe these stories could change things in America.”
While “When They See Us” captures a cultural moment — and movement — in a heartbreaking, incendiary way, shows such as Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” touch on similar topics more obliquely. Basking in her first-ever nomination after playing Midge’s conflicted mother, Rose, for two seasons, Marin Hinkle says she attempted to build her own character’s feminist journey around the main character’s. The showrunners encouraged her to explore how Rose not only influenced, but also was influenced by her on-screen daughter.
“I watched with such admiration what they were doing with Rachel [Brosnahan]’s and Alex [Borstein]’s characters [in the first season] and never thought for a second that would be a trajectory Rose would go through,” she says. “So, it felt like a backwards archeological dig where I got to discover, ‘Well then, if that’s the way Miriam is, then maybe Rose is partially that, too.’”
Coming into the hugely anticipated final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” two-time nominee Nikolaj Coster-Waldau discovered that the most effective tactic to maintain your bearings was to work closely with your scene partner while keeping a close eye on the bigger picture.
“There’s so many characters, and there are so many storylines that are all connected. They can stand on their own, but they all support the same story: the battle for this Iron Throne,” he says.
Such thinking certainly paid off for the rest of the “Thrones” cast: Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke scored lead drama nods, and the supporting categories are stacked with even more players from the fantasy epic. Besides Coster-Waldau, last year’s winner in the category, Peter Dinklage, is back on the supporting drama actor ballot, as is Alfie Allen. And Gwendoline Christie, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams all scored supporting drama actress nods.
Similar to “Game of Thrones,” the responsibility of “carrying the show” on Netflix’s 1980s wrestling comedy “GLOW” is shared evenly among the ensemble of more than a dozen characters, despite the contract hierarchy. (Thus far, though, only Betty Gilpin has received Emmy accolades.)
“The worst thing that you can do is think about where you are on the call sheet while you’re at work,” Gilpin says. “Our ensemble is so big and varied and that each person in our show treats it as if they’re the main character — as they should, because that makes the work better.”