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How Stylized Worlds Help Lead Actors Create Emmy-Worthy Performances

The richer the world a character inhabits, the more material actors have to help inform those characters. From highly stylized shot design to specific time periods that beget unique costumes and hair/makeup design, production elements help craft captivating leading man performances across genres.

“Homecoming’s” Stephan James, who portrayed a soldier back from war but enrolled in an experimental treatment plan for PTSD, had the benefit of a fully immersive environment built out by director Sam Esmail and production designer Anastasia White for the Amazon drama. The facility at which his character was living in the show was a full-scale, multi-floor space on a soundstage to aid to the realism.

“You are certainly conscious of what happens in your personal space when you’re working on a project,” James says.

Hugh Grant took on the role of Parliament leader Jeremy Thorpe for Amazon’s “A Very English Scandal,” in a world not only steeped in very specific politics and geography but also time period — the 1960s and ’70s.

“Everywhere I look I see things set pre-internet, or certainly pre-smartphones, and it’s almost like we’re thirsty for that life, because that life was better,” Grant says. “It was more interesting. You weren’t just an adjunct to a SIM card — you actually existed and skullduggery could happen; people could have secrets. It was a feeling of more life per hour. Life’s been f—ed since 2007.”

In order to fully understand the man whom Grant considers “wicked in many ways, ruthlessly ambitious but also tragic,” he spent almost half a year “going through the script like an archaeologist, asking questions and reading everything there was written” about Thorpe and the scandal in which he was embroiled.

Attention to detail is integral in any world that is highly stylized, in order to properly capture the nuances, Grant says. He spent months trying to learn a virtuoso piece for one scene in which Thorpe was playing the violin. “I didn’t want to just be a superficial voice and a look,” he says. “I have [become] a bit more method in my later years.”

The details that surround a specific time period have also aided actors such as Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia in their work on NBC drama “This Is Us,” in which they play their characters in multiple decades. Ventimiglia has spent the most time with his Jack Pearson as a husband and father of three in his later years. But the third season dug deeper into who he was when he enlisted in the Army and served in the Vietnam War.

While physical touches such as wardrobe, hairstyle and facial hair have aided in getting “wrapped up in his skin,” Ventimiglia says, so too did the location shoots for the Vietnam segments, which took the show’s production to various spots in California as well as overseas to Ho Chi Minh City.

For Cody Fern, stepping into the post-apocalyptic world of “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” as the Antichrist was most informed by the large personae of many of those around him, as opposed to the details of opulent sets or costumes (although those were important to the storytelling overall).

“I walked in as this guy who is supposed to have the most amount of power, and I’m standing across from Sarah Paulson — who has the most amount of power. Sarah and I shared a look that was akin to, ‘OK kid we’re going to have some fun,’” Fern says.

He found how to play his character of Michael Langdon working alongside “powerhouse women” such as Paulson, Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, he says.

Similarly, James learned a lot about, and became more personally connected to, his character through Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who played the mother.

“Walter is Haitian and his mother speaks in a Haitian accent. I’m Jamaican in real life, and my mom will still have moments where she’s speaking to me in this thick Jamaican accent — and she’s been in North America for 25 years. But it’s when you’re speaking to someone you know so well, you talk in almost a different sort of dialect,” he says. “That reminded me of home.”

Ramy Youssef was able to bring to life a character in a world not often explored on television by depicting his experience as a Muslim American in “Ramy” for Hulu.

In Youssef’s self-titled and semi-autobiographical comedy that he created, wrote, directed and starred in, the line between “wanting to go to Mecca, but also wanting to go to Burning Man” was a source of constant story.

“It’s kind of awkward because you don’t often see someone going to the mosque, and there’s often a weirdness of, ‘Oh you pray?’ but then the Christchurch stuff happened and suddenly going to the mosque became bad-ass,” he says. “I wanted to show this world and all of the inherent guilt that often comes with it, but also break down the stereotypes.”

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