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SAG Awards: How TV Ensembles Increase Individual Competition

While this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards saw categories dominated by multiple performers from the same show (think “Game of Thrones,” which had at least one player represented in each major drama acting category, as well as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Fleabag,” whose on-screen talent nabbed spots in almost all the comedy categories), that trend was truly started at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

The SAG Awards combine the lead and supporting performances into one acting category per gender per genre. “While we understand the desire for supporting categories in television, with a two-hour show, we just simply don’t have the on-air time for four additional supporting actor awards,” says Kathy Connell, executive producer of the SAG Awards. In order to recognize “that actors in television never work alone, we proudly created the concept of an ensemble category” separately, rather than just hand out some awards before the televised show.

This results in fewer individual performer spots overall, but still ones that are likely to be filled by performers from only a handful of shows.

“At SAG you better have a real standout role or be really well-known or respected,” Gold Derby’s Chris Beachum says regarding securing a covered individual performance nom. “With these large groups like SAG, it’s almost that there are far too many shows now, so whatever five or six [they] do watch and are passionate about, they mark every single person they can from those.”

The results of this way of voting were seen on last year’s ballot, where the female drama actor ballot saw a duo from “Ozark” up against each other (lead Laura Linney and supporting player Julia Garner). Both lost to “Killing Eve’s” Sandra Oh, who stands a strong chance at seeing a return to the ballot — potentially nominated with her co-star Jodie Comer, with whom she was nominated at the Emmys (at which Comer won in September).

“It’s competition, but in a healthy way. If Sandra’s nominated and I wasn’t, I wouldn’t feel put out by that; I would be so proud of her and support her 100%,” Comer says.

Meanwhile, last year in comedy “Barry’s” lead Bill Hader and supporting Henry Winkler shared the ballot with “The Kominsky Method” duo of supporting Alan Arkin and lead Michael Douglas; all four of them lost, though, to Tony Shalhoub, the single male performer (and notably a supporting one) on the ballot for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” For the women, both the titular “Grace and Frankie” (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) were nominated, as were “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” supporting Alex Borstein and lead Rachel Brosnahan; Brosnahan won. All are eligible again this year.

The winter awards season sees many of the same celebrated performers from the Emmys, let alone year-over-year at the SAG Awards, eligible for more accolades — from the “Game of Thrones” players’ one last awards lap, to “Maisel” and “Fleabag” on the comedy side. But a number of high-profile new and returning shows, filled with big name actors, are also in the mix. With overall submissions on track to be up this year, the pattern of selecting many performers from few shows is likely to follow.

HBO’s “Big Little Lies” first competed in the 2017 SAG Awards as a limited series, securing acting noms for Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Skarsgard (Kidman and Skarsgard went on to win). But this year it is competing as a drama since it returned with its original cast, characters and setting intact. Now, it is eligible in three categories instead of two. There is still no limited series ensemble award at SAG. Here, too, Connell cites the length of the telecast as the reason. “A longer awards telecast is generally not something the industry is asking for.”

Netflix’s “The Crown,” which scooped up drama wins for Claire Foy and John Lithgow in its first season in 2017 and Foy again just last year, is back with a third season that introduces a different cast, including Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies. Colman and Carter, in lead and supporting roles, respectively, are eligible in the same category at SAG. Also in the dramatic category, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” sees its Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd and Samira Wiley as contenders for the female drama acting category at SAG after previously being nominated (and winning) in a combination of lead, supporting and guest categories from other awards committees. (Moss has scored two consecutive solo noms, starting in 2018; the others celebrated with drama ensemble noms in the same years). And Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is back in the running after picking up individual performer noms for Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown (and an ensemble win) in 2017 and individual nominations for Brown and David Harbour (as well as drama ensemble and stunt ensemble) in 2018.

Hulu’s “The Act” scored a lead limited series/TV movie actress nom for Joey King and a supporting limited series/TV movie actress trophy for Patricia Arquette at the Emmys, but at SAG, both women are vying for spots on the same ballot.

“I can’t think of someone I’d rather be on the same ballot with,” says King. “I’m so honored to have been able to work with her, and she’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life, so I’m so proud to know her and I’m so proud to have worked with her.”

Meanwhile, Apple TV Plus has entered the awards race with a number of shows that boast big casts. While some voters may want to celebrate all the performers at once with an ensemble nom, many others may want to highlight them individually. So this new player, too, has A-list talent all vying for the same trophy. In “The Morning Show” alone female leads Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon would be up against supporting players Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Karen Pittman, Bel Powley and Marcia Gay Harden, while its male lead Steve Carell faces in-show competition from Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass, Nestor Carbonell, Desean K. Terry and Jack Davenport.

“SAG doesn’t always even recognize that a new show is on,” Beachum says. “They’re the opposite of Globes, which will abandon things that won last year to get the new stuff in. ‘Maisel’ won last year, but wasn’t even nominated in its first year; it had its first nominations in its second year. So if the Emmys had a first shot at them and they know that it’s on the map, they will nominate them.”

However, that is not to say that there cannot be exceptions. “Having real star power” can push a new series forward on a ballot such as SAG, which Beachum says aids Aniston and Witherspoon’s chances, for example. Where the wildcard comes is in the format of the ballooning nomination ballot, on which names are listed alphabetically. Connell notes that an alphabetical ballot is “really the most efficient way for our voting members to find the performers they want to vote for.”

“If you’re looking for someone’s name, you’re going to find it,” Beachum adds, “but then it’s such a big ballot, do you just get to the Ds or the Es and you’ve already marked your total amount? Some of the surprises can come at the top of the alphabet.”

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