How to define the difference between a lead role versus a supporting role has always been a tricky question for everyone involved, including the actors in those roles and the organizations that unite every year to award the greatest achievers. Controversies ranging from “is that actress actually in more of the show than the supposed star?” and “is just one scene enough to merit an award?” have led, over the years, to ever-changing rules defining just how much screen time defines such a performance.
But this year, it’s more complicated than usual when it comes to the Golden Globes’ television races. There, the supporting actor and actress categories have always been extremely competitive, largely because they blend together all the major genres — drama, comedy and limited series and TV movie — into just two gender-defined races. And now the increase in episodic anthology series (think Amazon Prime Video’s “Modern Love,” Netflix’s “Black Mirror” and CBS All Access’s “The Twilight Zone”) adds even more names to the mix.
High-profile performers such as Anne Hathaway, Cristin Milioti and Andrew Scott all have lead roles in only one episode of “Modern Love” each. But because the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. rules dictate that in order to enter into a lead category, a performer must be on-screen for 50% of the season overall, these three contenders (among many others) are pushed into the supporting category alongside players who are crafting arcs over multiple episodes, and often several seasons. (To enter into the supporting race, a performer only has to be on-screen 5% of the time.)
With so many different kinds and lengths of performances up against each other, these category submissions are ballooning at an exponential rate.
Ask actors, and they’ll have a range of opinions about whether there’s a difference between these roles of different lengths. Toni Collette, who is entering into the supporting race with her role of Detective Grace Rasmussen in Netflix’s limited series “Unbelievable,” says, “I never think about characters in those terms. I just think about making the part entirely truthful.”
And despite the increased number of performances on which voters have to keep an eye, publicist and awards strategist Michele Robertson says nomination strategy really shouldn’t be any different this year.
“Ultimately, you’re looking at the best performance within the context of that story, whether that happens to be the one episode from an anthology, or over a season,” she says. And, “if you’re just trying to define what a great performance is, you can do that without having to put a time limit on it or how many episodes it is. A great performance is a great performance.”
Milioti, who stars in the “Modern Love” installment “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man,” says: “It’s a little bit like comparing apples and oranges. I think awards categories can be tricky because sometimes the things we make defy categorization. What we’re creating is always evolving. So I would have to assume [the awards] would evolve too.”
Thus far, though, the Golden Globes have opted to keep the categories combined, citing the need to keep the length of the show concise for broadcast.
Things get even more complicated for performers in multiple projects. Take Scott, who is eligible in the supporting category for four: in the aforementioned “Modern Love,” the “Black Mirror” episode “Smithereens,” HBO’s “His Dark Materials” and Amazon’s “Fleabag.”
In choosing these, Scott says he was just looking for “really strong voices — because I think that they’re always the most act-able.” But he admits that playing the lead character in anything, even an episode of an anthology series, “comes down to stamina.” This is because, he says, leading an anthology episode with a short production schedule means “a different challenge, when you’re on a set every single day. You don’t have as much opportunity to think.”
With character arcs that develop over multiple episodes, if not seasons, there is a slower build for performers. In that case, there is also more opportunity for writers to get to know nuances of their cast members and begin writing them into future scripts, making the character more of a true collaboration in the end.
Bradley Whitford started as a guest star in the second season of Hulu’s dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale” and was elevated to series regular status for Season 3, for which he is eligible in the supporting category now. Despite recently winning the guest drama actor Emmy for that second season, though, he puts importance on the work, rather than any potential accolades.
“It’s like at the end of the dog show when somebody comes out and says the schnauzer is better than the poodle,” he says of the awards process. “Clearly, they’re all good dogs. And some of the best dogs didn’t even get to be in the show.”