In ancient Greece, the masks worn by actors and chorus, signifying comedy or tragedy, made it crystal clear to audiences what was transpiring on stage. Some 2,500 years later, the line between comedy and drama is far more blurred, as evidenced by roles inhabited by countless Emmy contenders.
Bill Hader may be best known as a comedic actor — he won an Emmy last year as lead actor in his comedy series “Barry” — but, as he notes, “there’s a lot of drama” in HBO’s dark comedy about a hit man trying to get out of the murder business and into acting. Hader co-created “Barry” with Alec Berg and says they “try to make the character as real and relatable as possible.”
“We write it very straight, so the scripts are more dramatic than comedy,” Hader says. “Obviously the guy is very damaged and an anti-hero, and I’d say the way I play it and all the different emotions involved is very instinctual. You’re constantly trying to find where you and the character overlap, and I really get the idea of wanting to belong to a community, such as a theater, but fearing that you’re not good enough.”
Such issues of self-worth and masculinity in changing times also inform the role, he says. “I think perceptions of all that — what makes a man a man — started changing a lot in the ’70s, and to be honest, Alec and I are not very manly guys, so it’s nice to be able to make fun of some aspects of that in the show.”
For Christopher Abbott, playing Captain John Yossarian in the Hulu limited series “Catch-22,” “was quite challenging, as it pretty much touches all the bases emotionally.” The series tells the story in a more linear fashion from the novel, but “it has the same feeling and the same jarring juxtapositions, often within the same scene,” Abbott says. It led to performance questions of “Do I laugh at this, or do I cry? It’s satirical, but also moving and heartbreaking. And it becomes such a fever dream that you have to laugh at it, but maybe with a tear in your eye.”
To deal with the role’s demands Abbott “didn’t think too far ahead,” finding that if he “committed to playing it as seriously as possible, then all the absurd comedy just flowed more naturally, and it was much funnier.”
Death, honesty, and a mix of comedy and drama are touchstones for Abbott, but also for Ricky Gervais in his role as grieving widower Tony Johnson in Netflix’s ultra-black comedy “After Life.”
“I think comedy at its best is dark,” says the show’s creator, director and star. “In dramas we quickly wash over the hero’s faults, but in comedy we celebrate them and make them real, so it’s no coincidence that comedians love to focus on death, illness and pain.”
Gervais adds that he has always leaned into “honesty and realism with my characters, even if they’re silly.” His goal is to “always make the ordinary extraordinary, so whatever job you’re in, however mundane, that is your life.”
Since his “After Life” character’s life is a mess, that lends itself to the blurring of emotions. “Comedy’s only good when there’s drama,” Gervais says.
As Bigger “Big” Thomas in HBO’s searing racial TV movie “Native Son,” Ashton Sanders had to navigate “a multi-layered character who’s constantly dealing with a wide range of shifting emotions, and someone who’s very unconventional. There are so many different types of black lives, but we tend to only portray one type — a stereotype. And here’s a black man who’s not into hip-hop or sports. He has green hair and wears a leather jacket. He’s his own person.”
Sanders notes that the non-conformist hero, who becomes a chauffeur for a wealthy businessman, “is a serious person, but though it’s a heavy drama, there’s also lighter moments and humor, as life isn’t always dramatic. So it took a lot of time to really dissect him and the transitions he makes in the story.”
That story is a modern reworking of Richard Wright’s groundbreaking 1940 novel, “that is still so relevant and timely today,” says the actor. “It deals with such important issues — race relations, ideas about black identity and black masculinity — and while we’ve made progress, some stuff hasn’t changed.”
Unlike the other leading roles, Ricky Whittle’s performance as Shadow Moon in Starz’s fantasy epic “American Gods” is overtly all-drama, a multi-layered turn, in which “you have to keep most of it hidden at first, but you gradually reveal it,” he says. “In Season 1 he was devoid of emotion, totally broken down, and I had to empty him out of everything I was desperate to put in — like humor and personality. And being a Brit and a goofball at heart, that was very tough for me.”
In the second season, though, Shadow “is still pretty stony-faced, but whereas before he was afraid he was losing his mind, now he’s learning and watching and listening all the time. And the big challenge is that I see so much opportunity for comedy in all this drama, but I have to pull back as it’s literally just 20 days since his release from prison and his wife dying. So he has to earn those lighter moments.”