Emmys: How Fresh Faces Could Cause Upsets in Major Races

The breadth of first-time acting Emmy nominees on the ballot this year — from Jodie Comer (BBC America’s “Killing Eve”) to Benicio Del Toro (Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora”) to Stellan Skarsgård (HBO’s “Chernobyl”) — marks an awards season with a notably wide-open playing field. In an era of peak TV, the number of scripted series being produced ­— and the diversity of stories being told — means that new faces and longtime veterans alike are being recognized with their first nominations.

“There have never been as many original programs as there are now,” says awards consultant Richard Licata of Licata & Co. “So, de facto, there are more actors in them, and more first-timers who have emerged, which is very exciting for the business.”

And, he continues, the volume of “first-time front-runners may be favored this year by Academy voters.” But he thinks that is due to the “great performances,” not “the glitter of movie stardom coming to TV.”

Hugh Grant was in the middle of a plumbing emergency, his central London home “full of very charming Polish gentlemen with ladders,” when the congratulatory nomination calls started coming in. (“Half my ceiling of my living room was falling down — one of the lavatories had exploded,” he says, in a manner that echoes the charisma of his ’90s rom-com characters.) His phone was off, so it he didn’t take immediate notice of the nom — the first in his nearly four-decade-long career, for a role in Amazon Prime Video’s “A Very English Scandal” that marked his return to British television after a 25-year hiatus.

Grant may have earned a nod, but fellow marquee names Julia Roberts and George Clooney came away empty-handed. Instead, newer names such as Joey King made the ballot.

The fact that there are about 500 scripted series on TV is not lost on King, who broke through the noise and secured a nomination in the lead limited series/TV movie actress category for her work as the real-life Gypsy Rose Blanchard in Hulu’s “The Act.”

“I think that’s a part of what makes this so special,” she says. “There’s so much content for people to digest these days. They could pick anything to watch.”

King is barely 20 but has been acting for three-quarters of her life. For Asante Blackk, who portrayed the real-life Kevin Richardson in “When They See Us,” the Ava DuVernay-helmed Netflix limited series about the wrongly convicted men known in the media as the Central Park Five was his very first project. He is only 17, this year’s youngest nominee.

“It’s very encouraging, I think, for young actors who feel like they, in the past, had to toil for years and years to gain any kind of recognition, and now there’s much more of an opportunity for them to emerge,” says Licata.

Being part of a high-profile production helps bring added exposure to television newcomers, whether they’re big names in other media or not. “When They See Us” also shone light on Marsha Stephanie Blake, Aunjanue Ellis, Jharrel Jerome and Niecy Nash, all of whom were nominated for the first time in different ways: Blake, Ellis and Jerome for the first time ever, Nash for the first time in the lead category. (She was nominated twice in supporting comedy actress for her work on HBO’s “Getting On.”)
But at least for Jerome, seeing the Central Park Five being referred to as the Exonerated Five is more fulfilling than the awards acclaim.

“That was the goal; that was the point,” he says. “Now for the industry to accept it and to reward us with so many nominations — it’s incredible. It’s so deserving to everybody I’ve worked with, and it’s so deserving to those five men.”

Aside from youthful faces including King, Blackk and Jerome, Emmy voters bequeathed praise in the form of a nomination on several acting veterans for the first time. In addition to Del Toro and Grant, the Television Academy also honored Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams with lead limited series/TV movie actor and actress nods for FX’s “Fosse/Verdon”; Amy Adams nabbed a lead limited series/TV movie nom for HBO’s “Sharp Objects”; and Stephen Root received a tip of the hat in the supporting comedy actor category for HBO’s “Barry.”

Root credits the writers on “Barry” for his Emmy success, noting that “besides Jimmy James,” his “NewsRadio” character, and the voice work he has performed on “King of the Hill,” his role on the hit-man-turned-actor comedy is “the longest really well-written character I’ve really done.”

Mandy Moore also has picked up her first Emmy nom for her work as the matriarch in the third season of NBC’s “This Is Us.” She remembers that just four years ago, she was having trouble booking a pilot. “It’s just a testament to this industry that [if] you stick it out long enough, the ship finds a way of righting itself,” she says.

Meanwhile, premium cable juggernaut “Game of Thrones” from HBO racked up a record total of 32 nominations this year, with its final-season basket including first-time nods for supporting performers Gwendoline Christie, Alfie Allen and Sophie Turner.

“It’s amazing to see so many first-timers,” says Turner. “I don’t know what it is, but I think there is a sense of openness.”

She also notes the number of supporting actors and actresses who gave “incredibly nuanced, gorgeous performances” that are finally getting accolades, including Christie. For her part, Christie is heartened and grateful that a “40-year-old unconventional woman” like herself is being recognized for her work playing an unconventional female character.

“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve felt some parallels between the character [of Brienne of Tarth] and I,” she says. “For that reason, it has been enormously personal, and for that character to be given airtime, for that character to be embraced, and now for that character to be recognized is a huge honor.”

While in many ways inclusiveness in the acting categories declined from the previous year, notably with categories including lead comedy actress and supporting drama actress seeing only white nominees, there were nods to performers not historically included on the ballot: Tony winner Billy Porter, receiving his first Emmy nom for FX’s “Pose,” is the first openly gay black man to be nominated by the Academy, while fellow rookie Anthony Carrigan, notable for his cheery, scene-stealing mobster NoHo Hank in “Barry,” happens to have alopecia.

“I can’t help but think about what a funny, weird journey it’s been, to go from being told I was never going to work again to getting nominated for an Emmy – it’s incredible,” Carrigan says.

The embrace of a wider spectrum of casts and stories may be reflective of the changing demographic of the Television Academy’s 24,000 members; Licata says that its constituents used to be “much older.” But the Academy notably doesn’t make its data available to the public, so it is anyone’s guess as to how progressive the voters have become.

Either way, Porter sees his nomination as “proof positive that authenticity always wins.”

“I think that the world is demanding that everybody’s stories be told,” Porter says. “The people are demanding that. And I do feel like as a result, there has been a cracking open of this space, that many of us on the outside — many of us marginalized groups — we’re pushing through, because it’s time.”

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