From ‘The Act’ to ‘True Detective,’ Supporting Roles Come With Multiple Layers

Television can be quick to define its female characters, ushering them under such umbrella terms as “powerful, “flawed,” “quirky” or “love interest.” But thanks to an increase in series that expand timelines and can cover decades on-screen, there’s finally a fuller picture when it comes to supporting female characters.

“Women go through this really transformative life passage over different periods of their lives and to get to explore that on-screen really allows you to bring to life the whole woman, a fully fledged, fully actualized woman,” says Carmen Ejogo of “True Detective.” “That’s something that actresses have had to work very hard to earn the right to bring to the screen. So it’s always alluring when that kind of role comes your way.”

Ejogo played Amelia in multiple timelines on the third season of the HBO limited series, which allowed both the actress and the audience to go deeper with her. “There’s a sensuality to Amelia in the 1980s that she doesn’t really own, but by the 1990s she’s just that much more confident about her own sensuality,” she says.

Seasoned actresses such as Patricia Arquette in Hulu’s “The Act” and Mireille Enos of Amazon’s “Hanna” admit they haven’t necessarily seen an increase in these types of opportunities, but they agree the format gives them a fuller picture when conceptualizing their characters and allows them to move beyond what might otherwise be a one-dimensional “villain” role.

In “The Act,” Arquette was able to dig more into character Dee Dee Blanchard’s hereditary history of mental illness via flashbacks, while the coming-of-age nature of “Hanna” allowed Enos to delve further into her character’s motivations.

“These roles add another color to the human experience,” Arquette says. “There are experiences in our lives that do inform us. It’s a fascinating thing to see who someone thought they’d be or what they thought their life would be like when they were younger and then who they become when they’re older. Which aspects have changed, which aspects remain. How has life treated them, what’s their perception of how life has treated them. I don’t think there should be a formula to anything or everything. It would be a real drag if everything had to have the same kind of formula. We go in cycles with things.”

Enos says while the draw of such characters is often how layered they are, being able to put together the puzzle of who they are from various permutations of personality traits becomes about “finding the most interesting and nuanced path that makes that person as multidimensional as possible and as human as possible.”

For Enos, whose “Hanna” role was something of an antagonist for much of the story, the fun came from dissecting what was behind her character’s actions.

“A lot of times the villains have their own reasons why and they have their own past wounds that they’re protecting,” she says.

On network television, roles containing multiple versions of one character is also a way to keep things fresh season after season — not just for viewers, but also for the actresses playing them. On NBC’s “The Good Place,” D’Arcy Carden digs into various versions of the Alexa-style information source Janet, who is rebooted, imitates other characters and basically invokes skills to help solve a variety of problems. Then there are the “Neutral” Janet and the “Bad” Janet characters, which are entirely different versions of the role.

“It’s so much fun and it never gets boring. It feels like the writers never tire of writing weird new things for Janet,” Carden says. She points to the third season’s “Janet(s)” episode, in which she played five of the show’s six main characters while also introducing Neutral Janet.

Meanwhile in “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” Billie Lourd admits her dual role of Mallory, who appeared to be a quiet, put-upon assistant in one timeline but an extremely powerful witch in another, was equally challenging to keep track of while block-shooting, and that she had to do homework every day to ensure she was really getting into the right character’s frame of mind. She also put her own spin on co-star Sarah Paulson’s trick of lighting a different scented candle for each character and changed up her scent when preparing for a scene.

“You don’t realize how much scent and smell affect the way you act,” she says. “I got to grow with Mallory. In the beginning I didn’t know I was going to be a Supreme so it was all really exciting and a surprise for me. I basically got to play two characters, which you never really get to do. That was so much fun and so rewarding. It was like having two jobs at once. By the end of the season I kind of became Mallory, who is so overly empathetic, and I could cry on a dime. I’d get in my car and my boyfriend would tell me about his day and I would start crying for him because he stubbed his toe or something. You kind of lose yourself in the process, which is a beautiful thing.”

Costumes and prosthetics also help actors to get into their roles. “It’s a small thing, but there was something very helpful about the costumes,” she adds. “I normally wear this purple costume but I had different shades of the costume and the all-white costume, and those really do help me get into the character. My brain needed to see my costume on my body to even understand what I was doing. It was kind of discombobulating.”

But as characters age and experience the passing of time on-screen, other production elements become integral as well. “Technology now — it makes people look younger and it can make people look older and there are so many special effects. It’s kind of a wild time in the world,” says Arquette.

Seeing “the evidence of the life lived literally etched in your face” is always helpful, adds Ejogo.

“I don’t see the characters as different personalities, all sides of the coin are in existence in a person at any given point. It’s just which parts are most prominent and being displayed most loudly or obviously,” she says.

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