The first Black female self-made millionaire. A successful doctor also dealing with a full house. An artist who steps in to take care of a friend’s kids when she thinks she’s going to jail. A Satmar woman secretly educating herself and eventually breaking out on her own. This year’s lead actress nominees portray a breadth of complicated characters, and mark the TV industry’s continual edging away from ageist tropes to create meaty roles for women across all generations.
“When I first started in this business, I remember thinking that roles after 40 were so scarce that you had to be in a certain category to even be offered those roles because there were so few,” says Linda Cardellini, who’s nominated in the lead comedy actress category for Netflix’s “Dead to Me.”
“In the ’90s, it might’ve been, ‘You’re gone over 30!’” echoes “Black-ish’s” Tracee Ellis Ross, also nominated in the lead comedy actress category.
In the pantheon of sitcom moms, Ross’ Dr. Rainbow Johnson in the ABC comedy is a real leap from the ’50s-style June Cleavers and the ’90s-era exasperated “having it all” working mothers. Her portrayal of the sweet, sharp, funny Bow has earned Ross her fourth nomination at a time in her life in which she feels the most at ease in her own skin.
“I not only play a woman who’s over 40, I actually am a woman who’s over 40 — almost 50, for the love of God,” says Ross with a laugh.
“I have found that I feel the most compassionate, the most wise I’ve ever felt, the most knowledgeable — so aware of where my limitations are, so aware of where my limits of my knowledge are, and so willing to remain curious and open. I feel the sexiest I’ve ever felt. I feel the most comfortable in my skin I’ve ever felt — and what a wonderful thing to put on the screen to share with the world. I wish, growing up, I had more images of [that].”
For Cardellini’s part, she says roles like Judy Hale, a woman who will do anything for her new best friend — including help bury the body of her ex — on “Dead to Me” don’t come around often.
“[Judy is] somebody who still maintains a buoyancy even though there’s this great drama and tragedy to her, and there’s a comedy within that — that feels very real,” she says. “I think when you are going through some of the worst times you still have to manage to find the flip side of that or it swallows you whole. So I think Judy is a rare creation.”
Dissecting the state of women on TV is a perennial topic of conversation. But Octavia Spencer — who received her first Emmy nomination (lead limited series/TV movie actress) for playing the titular real-life hair-care entrepreneur in Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” — says discussing the breadth of messy, complex female characters is a dated conversation, “and that’s exciting.”
“Look at all the women and all the performances that are being celebrated and all the female-led projects,” she says. “You’ve got to credit Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Viola [Davis]. All of these women and these wonderfully written female characters. I’m glad that that’s sort of feeling a little outmoded right now.”
Ross, meanwhile, points to fellow lead comedy actress nominee Christina Applegate (“Dead To Me”) as “one of the templates” for capturing “grounded, character-driven, comedic humanity” and notes Applegate and Cardellini together are “brilliant.”
“It is wonderful,” adds Ross. “These are grown women whose faces remind me of mine. I find that not only incredibly comforting, but [also] incredibly encouraging for what the possibility is for our lives. Thank God there’s an evolution and I wish it could move faster.”
Creating more roles for women of all ages goes hand in hand with a drive to generate greater representation in TV storytelling.
For Spencer, the most thrilling part of starring in “Self Made,” which she also executive produced, was getting to make it at all.
“Before ‘Hidden Figures,’ it was real hard,” she says of the 2016 film that earned her a second Oscar nomination. “I had gone around with 1492 [Pictures] to try to get people excited about the Fannie Lou Hamer story,” but there were “no takers.”
“That was seven or eight years ago. And then after ‘Hidden Figures,’ it’s like we realized why these stories are important,” she continues. “I bet you if we were going around town now trying to sell her story, it would be easily snapped up.”
Shira Haas, who also picked up her first Emmy nomination this year (lead limited series/TV movie actress for Netflix’s “Unorthodox”), started acting as a teenager, a decade ago. Now, “I really feel like something’s been changing,” she says of the industry’s approach to female characters. A relative newcomer to Hollywood, Haas and “Euphoria” lead (and lead drama actress nominee) Zendaya belong to the next generation of women on screen.
For her next project, Haas is looking for the “urge” she felt while reading the script for “Unorthodox” — for a strong character that isn’t a stereotypical “tough lady.” Her Esty in that four-part limited series has been sheltered and oppressed by her community, which makes her naïve in some respects — but she also has an internal fierceness that helps her start a new life.
“She’s so soft and vulnerable and scared, but she is strong because she still wants to have her freedom, and she doesn’t give up until she has it,” Haas says of the character. “I’m looking just for versatile and different kinds of strong characters — not the one-sided characters that might have been, in previous years, of women on screen. That’s what I’m really most interested in, and it can come in so many different shapes.”
And she feels confident these roles will continue to come, in part because of the female directors and producers paving the way for more nuanced work for women on screen. Haas says she feels lucky to have already worked with some of them, including Maria Schrader, Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman.
“By seeing them break walls I feel like I can do it as well,” she says. “It’s definitely inspiring.”