There comes a point in an actor’s career where sometimes it’s worth taking a detour down a slightly different road. Over the past few years, many actors who have traditionally thrived in leading roles have taken supporting ones in television series, proving it is not the number of lines that matter but what those lines, and their characters, say.
Michael Sheen has toplined TV series such as “Masters of Sex” and, this same Emmy season, “Good Omens,” but when he was presented with playing a supporting role in CBS All Access’s “The Good Fight,” he found the character of Roland Blum simply too good to pass up.
“It had everything, including the kitchen sink, thrown at it on the page,” Sheen says.
Already a fan of the Robert King and Michelle King series, the Emmy nominee sank his teeth into portraying a lawyer whose outrageous behavior in and out of the courtroom — Sheen describes him as a cross between Roy Cohn and Gore Vidal — is tolerated in the current political climate.
“I just found it really exciting to play a character that seemed to be expressing so much of what the show was fighting against,” Sheen says. “To inhabit that and personify a lot of those things, and to feel like you’re going into work every day and doing something that is about what you’re actually seeing around you everywhere when you’re not at work, that’s a rare thing — to feel like you’re actually part of the conversation.”
George Clooney joined the ensemble of “Catch-22,” Hulu’s limited series adaptation of Joseph Heller’s seminal World War II novel, which he also directed and executive produced. He has been focused on the big screen for the majority of his career and admits when first he got the call for this, he said no. But what changed his mind was that the opportunity to take a classic novel and “go more in-depth into these long, interesting character studies” felt “worthwhile.”
Clooney took on the character of Scheisskopf, a career officer who somehow keeps rising in rank thanks to his obsession with precise military parades. It’s the sort of character role Clooney usually only portrays in Coen brothers movies.
“It’s fun to play characters that are really mad, really crazy,” Clooney says. “He’s just a raging, screaming madman. In terms of my performance, it’s just one where we go, ‘How far should we go with this?’”
Last year Henry Winkler won the Emmy for supporting comedy actor for his part as the often clueless acting coach Gene Cousineau on “Barry.” The HBO series came back for a second season with Gene trying to recover from the shocking murder of his girlfriend Janice (Paula Newsome), a police officer investigating the titular character’s (played by Bill Hader) murderous actions. After the first table read the TV veteran knew he was in for an even darker arc this season, but that’s what he’d come to expect from such an “incredibly rich” character.
“He is so much fun to play,” Winkler says. “In one episode this season I went through this cathartic, emotional experience with Bill in my living room, and then asked him to wait for a moment because private classes are in a different ledger and ‘I’m just going to go get that and write it down.’ That is Gene to a T.”
One actor who had an emotional reaction to his subject matter this season is Michael K. Williams. The two-time Emmy nominee was born and raised in New York City, so when Ava DuVernay offered him a role in “When They See Us,” her limited series chronicling the case of the Central Park Five, it resonated deeply with him.
Williams took the role of Bobby McCray, the father of one of the accused, Antron McCray (played by Caleel Harris in the first two episodes and Jovan Adepo as the older version in the last two episodes). Bobby, a former convict himself, essentially abandoned his son during the trial and then became very sick while his son was imprisoned and did not visit him. That role gave Williams psychologically complex motivations to portray, but he also found himself identifying with the younger characters, enriching the experience
“I was a young boy myself when that happened, and I remember the immense feeling that that could have easily been me,” Williams says. “Those feelings came right back to me the minute I found that I was even being considered for the project.”