Claire Danes, Hank Azaria and 11 More Guest Stars on Making the Most of Limited Screen Time

9:30 AM 6/14/2016

by Anna Lisa Raya

"You walk on, you get a laugh (hopefully), and then you are outta there," says Amy Sedaris as she and other scene-stealing performers divulge how they scored their roles and what they learned from being "interlopers on someone else’s little culture."

Courtesy of Netflix; Courtesy of HBO

  • Claire Danes

    Master of None (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Danes played married food critic Nina Stanton, who tempts Dev (Aziz Ansari) into a liaison even though her bully husband (Noah Emmerich) looms nearby

    "I was sick in bed and watched Aziz's Madison Square Garden Netflix special. I thought it was hilarious and wrote him an email to tell him so. We shared a mutual friend and sorta, kinda knew each other, so this didn't seem like too bold or a weird thing. He then emailed me a couple of weeks later saying he was making a new series and had a role I might be right for. The greatest surprise working on the show was lunch: There wasn't conventional catering, and everyone went out to eat wherever they liked on the break. Aziz and his crew are all hard-core foodies, so we went to a great restaurant. This was the way to make a TV show! It was slightly odd — and not in an unwelcome way — to be an interloper on someone else's little culture. Everyone was super-lovely and welcoming, but I had to scramble a bit to make sense of the world Aziz and his team had put together. This was the first job I had outside of Homeland in four years, so it was an exciting jolt. It was such fun to be in a lighter world and to have such modest responsibility. So nice to not be saving the world for a second."

  • Hank Azaria

    Ray Donovan (Showtime)

    Courtesy of Showtime

    Azaria plays Ray Donovan's archenemy Ed Cochran, a corrupt and sociopathic high-ranking FBI agent

    "I got a call one day asking if I wanted to be on the show. I hadn't seen it yet, but I binged the entire first season and decided I was in. It's the first time I've experienced enjoying a show that existed without me and then jumping into the world and becoming part of it, which kind of affected how I played [my character] a little bit. My character got to try to wrangle Ray Donovan in ways no one was able to do before, and I felt like I had the benefit of seeing how Ray operated for the entire first season and then figured out the best way to get under his skin. I feel like whether I have a long scene in an episode or a series of short scenes, I'm just trying to honestly accomplish what I need to do in that crazy, violent Ray Donovan world. And interestingly enough, in that world you could die at any moment — or you could find out the next day that you're a series regular. What has really surprised me the most is that they thought of me for this role to begin with. It's not the kind of thing I normally play, though I felt that I've wanted to do — and was ready to do — this kind of thing for a long time."

  • Corey Stoll

    Girls (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    Stoll plays Dill Harcourt, a newscaster who starts a relationship with Elijah

    "Lena [Dunham] called me to talk about the role before I had a chance to read anything. We spent some time trading war stories about our mutual alma mater, Oberlin College, then she started to sell me hard on playing Dill. I think she thought I'd be frightened by the material and pass. She was right that it was frightening — one of the original scenes was an orgy in a Jacuzzi — but it was the scary nature of the role that made it impossible to turn down. What's extraordinary and unique about Girls is that all of the sex scenes are actually scenes. In most film and TV, the plot and the character development stops the second people take off their clothes. It's the opposite on Girls: The sex scenes are where you learn who these characters are. It's definitely harder to play a supporting role than a lead; the smaller the role, the more information you have to convey to the audience per second. The more colors and contradictions you can embody, the more surprising and, in the end, more human the performance will be. That's where smart, dynamic writing is such a gift. The first scene we shot was in the middle of Times Square: Elijah [Andrew Rannells] and Dill are ending a great date, and Dill, who is ostensibly in the closet, grabs Elijah and kisses him passionately. We had a bare-bones crew and a handful of extras, but I think most of the people around us thought it was a reality show. The kiss elicited a big gasp and applause — it was like the finale of the all-male The Bachelor."

  • Octavia Spencer

    Mom (CBS)

    Courtesy of CBS

    Spencer plays Regina Thompkins, a fellow AA attendee who befriends Anna Faris’ Christy

    "I went to the pilot taping with a group of friends to support Allison Janney. After the show I barreled through the crowd, bear-hugged Chuck Lorre and wouldn’t let him go until he promised to find something for me to do. A few weeks later I got the call to go in and meet with him, where he told me about Regina. The way I see it, I get to be part of an amazing ensemble of comedic women: Anna, Allison, Mimi Kennedy and Jaime Pressly. It’s not the amount of screen time that matters, it’s the camaraderie with these women that translates onscreen."

  • BD Wong

    Mr. Robot (USA)

    Courtesy of USA Network

    Wong plays Whiterose, a member of a Chinese hacker group

    "I got a call from my manager: 'Sam [Esmail] is introducing this game-changing character everybody's talking about. Incidentally, she's trans. Am I interested?' I wasn't into playing a trans character. There are some really good trans actors — their truth is valid, and opportunities for them are scarce. When I got Sam on the phone to grill him, and he clarified she wasn't a man disguised as a woman but a trans woman disguised as a man, that's when he got my attention. I feel like I 'cashed in a chip' as an Asian-American actor with limited opportunities and took that opportunity from a trans actor in the natural order of the Horrible Hollywood Food Chain, which of course makes me part of the problem. I hope to pay this forward somehow. [Limited screen time] is a bitch! But a fun bitch. Like a fun, drunk bitch you meet at a party who actually is super-interesting and asks you about you. I was most surprised how absolutely dependent I am on backstory and how essential that is to building a character. At the time, Sam didn't provide much information to [people] who were not entrenched in the plot to keep stuff from leaking out to the public, but this was excruciating and disorienting to me."

  • Amy Sedaris

    Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Sedaris plays Mimi Kanassis, a wealthy friend of Jane Krakowski's Jacqueline Voorhees who's desperate to regain her social status after a divorce

    "I met with [Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt] writer Meredith Scardino, and she mentioned she was writing a character they were interested in me playing. Then my agent called and said they made me an offer. I love playing Mimi. I'm a fast talker, and so is Jane Krakowski, so when we are in scenes together, we sound like two chipmunks on Adderall — I have to try and talk slower. I love limited screen time. I am happy with small roles and always have been: You walk on, you get a laugh (hopefully), and then you are outta there. I also love physical humor, and the writers write in a lot of that for Mimi. Getting a laugh without saying a word is No. 1 in my book. In one scene I was supposed to be passed out on the couch during a Christmas party. I really did fall asleep. I wrapped a movie the night before at 2:30 a.m. and got picked up for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt at 4:30 a.m. I slept all day on that couch — they had to wake me up to say they were moving the cameras. We shoot in the summer, so I really work on getting my golfer's tan. I love how big my hair can get for the part. The wardrobe is really fancy — lots of designer clothing — but we can't buy any of it. The show is tightly written — every joke is in its place, and the writer of the episode is usually on set. Everybody helps everybody. I'm really happy to be part of the show. Mimi Kanassis spinoff is what I say!"

  • Kathleen Turner

    The Path (Hulu)

    Courtesy of Hulu

    Turner played Cal Roberts' (Hugh Dancy) estranged mother, whom he puts in an assisted-living facility

    "I spent several hours with Hugh and his lovely wife [Claire Danes] and their son on the train on our way to the [2015 White House] Correspondents' Dinner. We had a good time, and I think when I was suggested for the role, he knew we'd work well together. We shot the scenes consecutively, and each one brought more development and depth. The most surprising thing on set was the lady dribbling Jell-O in the nursing home — she could hardly walk by without laughing."

  • Patti LuPone

    Penny Dreadful (Showtime)

    Jonathan Hession/Showtime

    LuPone starred as Joan Clayton, aka "The Cut Wife," who teaches Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) about the dark arts in this flashback episode.

    "[Creator] John Logan emailed me, 'What are you doing the month of October?' I replied, 'Nothing.' He wrote back saying, 'It's your part if you want it,' and he sent me the script. I read it, and there was no way I was going to turn it down. The entire episode was essentially two actors, so I never even thought of limited screen time working with Eva Green. The scenes were so well-written, it read and felt like a complete play. The chemistry with Eva was instantaneous."

  • Jenny Slate

    Girls (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    Slate played Hannah Horvath's (Lena Dunham) overachieving college friend Tally

    "This was actually the return of Tally — I played her in one episode in the first season of Girls. Lena initially wrote the character and told me she was creating something 'mischievous' for me. If I only have a few days or even just one day to get a role right, I think it becomes an exercise in humility — because you're coming into someone else's daily routine and sort of family space, you're an actual guest — so you need an open-minded confidence you're bringing choices to something that's already in motion. I guess the way it affects me and my performance is that because it's such a brief encounter, I want to only show what is essential — I want to fit perfectly into my seat at the table. It's silly, but I was incredibly scared to ride a bike in NYC, over a bridge and in a dress — like way, way, way too scared. But once Lena and I got on the bikes, I was pleased by the combination of joy I felt for the simple act of riding a bike with a friend and playing someone who has no fear about something I'm actually really afraid of. It's always wonderful when your work and personal growth are integrated and feed each other."

  • Alicia Witt

    The Walking Dead (AMC)

    Courtesy of AMC

    Witt portrayed Paula, a follower of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and a calculating villain

    "I got a message from [Walking Dead showrunner] Scott Gimple, whom I'd never met. He said he was listening to a podcast I was on and liked my music and my work for a number of years and was a big fan. I was a huge fan of The Walking Dead since the beginning. He made my night. Five days later the audition came along: I went in for the casting director, did the scene once, and the next night I got a call at dinner that I got the part and was heading to film it in Atlanta the next day. I didn't have the script and didn't know if it was one scene — but I didn't care because I was so excited to be on the show. The episode was filmed in chronological order, which is so rare. Because of the volume of material, it was great for me because I didn't have any time beyond being on the plane and absorbing what I was going to do. I didn't stop being Paula until the scene where she died. One thing that really surprised me from getting to know the cast after the fact was that you have so much darkness on the show — the whole world in which the show takes place has very limited sparks of levity. Lunchtime on that set is the most raucous, joyous great big family meal. It's nothing like I've ever experienced on any set in my life. We had tears rolling down our faces we laughed so hard — and that was normal."

  • Blair Underwood

    The Good Wife (CBS)

    Courtesy of CBS

    Underwood played grieving father Harry Dargis, a motel owner

    "I've been a fan of the show for years because of the caliber of actors and writing. I was hoping to one day be fortunate enough to play in their sandbox. The process of how I got the guest spot was pretty unremarkable in that it came by way of an invitation. My approach [in any role] is always the same: Keep it real, keep it honest, and keep it movin'. I was pleasantly surprised at how nostalgic I felt sitting in a courtroom — it reminded me of a law show set in Los Angeles that I absolutely loved."

  • Aubrey Plaza

    Criminal Minds (CBS)

    Courtesy of CBS

    Plaza played seductive hitwoman Catherine 'Cat' Adams, who happens to be a serial killer

    "Matthew Gray Gubler is a friend of mine, and we had worked on a film a few years prior. He called me up and told me he had received a very special script for Criminal Minds, and would I take a look? The entire episode took place in a restaurant booth between his character and a hitwoman from the deep web — it almost read like a play. I loved it and became obsessed with the idea of playing Catherine Adams. It's hard to find juicy roles like this for myself in movies, so I figured why not do it on network TV? I found it very challenging to move at the pace these hourlong dramas are required to move, but I treated it and prepared for it like a film. Because of the time constraints, I tried to focus on the relationship I had with Spencer Reid [Gubler] and the moments of real human interaction we could play. This show has been on the air for years, and being an outsider I just knew I had to honor the show and its words but also attempt to create a person the audience would care about in such limited screen time. I was just so taken by the writer and producer of the episode, Breen Frazier: He has worked on the show for so many years, but he still cares about the characters. I assumed people working on a show for 10 years would become apathetic, but this was not the case."

  • Eliza Coupe

    Casual (Hulu)

    Courtesy of Hulu

    Coupe played free-loving Emmy, who dates Tommy Dewey's Alex but also has a fling with his sister (Michaela Watkins)

    "I went in for the amazing cowboy, [casting director] John Papsidera. He read with me and we had a great time, and I didn't hear anything for a while after the audition. As usual, I let it go — I just assume everything I go out for will go to Malin Akerman. A few weeks went by, and I got the call that, 'Congrats, you're gonna be naked on the internet!' In every part I play, I treat my scenes and my character like the most important character. Perhaps that's a classic narcissistic actor thing to say, but whatever. I was very naked in this role — all the sex scenes and nudity in Casual are done with great taste and are not at all gratuitous. My character is a free-spirited woman comfortable in her sexuality and in her body. I, Eliza Coupe, ain't that girl. I admire the hell out of women who are free in their bodies. Unfortunately, most women are not embracing their femininity but rather exploiting it. So the surprising thing for me with this role was getting a bigger realization of how I want to use my position in the public eye as a way of empowering women in the media."

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