Twelve comedy and drama series ringers reveal how they dig deep to create their characters, even if just for a few delicious scenes.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Baker has played Loreen Horvath, Hannah's (Lena Dunham) mother, throughout the series. Season four saw Loreen's marriage fall apart after her husband came out as gay. In season six and the series finale, she tries to help Hannah come to grips with being a mom herself.
FAVORITE THING ABOUT HER CHARACTER: "I've had friends whose husbands have died when they were in their 50s, or their marriages have fallen apart. I think that Loreen, right now, is still trying to figure it out. I don't think she has any easy answers at all. I've definitely grown. There's been the character-building and a lot of my own growth. What's great about the way the writers wrote this last whole season is that I don't think they wanted to tidy it up or make it neat and perfect. It's a messy series right from the beginning."
Bledel plays Ofglen, formerly Emily, a handmaid who has ties to an underground resistance movement dubbed Mayday. After being surgically altered by Gilead authorities as punishment for being gay, Ofglen steals a car in her final scene in the series.
FAVORITE SCENE THIS SEASON: "When Ofglen is standing in the square, I think the trauma that she's been through is still very much alive for her. She's still processing everything physically and emotionally. As a member of Mayday, she is a character who is always looking either for an opportunity to escape or to rebel and make some sort of statement. When she sees that car door open, I think it's just an impulse. She decides in that moment that she's going to jump in. And I don't think she knows where it's going to go from there. She drives as far as she can, and it ends up being in circles. What she ends up doing, without a plan in mind, is making a statement — both to the guards and the handmaids — saying that she can have a moment of freedom even under the oppressive Gilead. It's a form of entertainment and inspiration for the handmaids because it's something the women witnessing it are going to tell the others about. Emily's hope is that it will inspire them to wonder what else a handmaid might be capable of."
Cannavale plays a world-famous chef and TV personality (in the Anthony Bourdain vein) who is the producer of Clash of the Cupcakes, a cooking show that Dev (Aziz Ansari) hosts. But Chef Jeff turns out to be a serial sexual harasser by season's end.
HOW HE GOT THE GUEST GIG: "[Aziz] told me that he had an experience with somebody who he was kind of becoming friends with, and then he realized that the guy was kind of inappropriate and would say inappropriate things. He just had a hard time getting out of the friendship. He was like, 'I want a character like that, a character who's just a great guy, everybody loves him, but it's revealed that he's got this issue that is just terrible, just impossibly bad.' It's the kind of character that reels you in — and it's a good reveal at the end. So I thought that would be fun, and he complimented me, like, 'Everybody I know loves you; it'd be great for you to play that guy. People would be so bummed out at the end.' "
Kravitz plays the director, Mel Trueblood, on a TV series on which Pamela Adlon's Sam stars. There's chemistry between them, especially after Sam invites Mel to have dinner with her family.
HOW HE GOT THE GUEST GIG: "I was at a party in Los Angeles — actually it was an Oscar party — and Louis C.K. came up to me and said, 'Pamela Adlon would love to speak to you.' I went to high school with Pam, and I hadn't seen her since we graduated. She and I were extremely close in high school. I was in love with her. She was the most fun, vibrant, positive, always smiling and laughing person — and super talented. He gave me her phone number, and I called her. We reconnected on the phone and caught up. She told me she was doing a television show and told me what it was about, which is basically her life. She said, 'I would love for you to be on it. Would you come do it?' At the time, I was out in L.A. writing for my next record, and I was around. So I came in and did it. That's how it happened. It was really odd and kind of magical how we reconnected after so many years."
In Noah Hawley's adaptation of the Marvel comic, Dan Stevens plays a schizophrenic mutant named David. Linklater plays Clark, a government operative who interrogates David and ends up being injured by the encounter. When he returns later in the series, he has a husband and child who visit him in the hospital.
FAVORITE SCENE THIS SEASON: "In the first episode, it was nice because you kind of see Clark as a baddie, and I really liked the couple of times I've gotten to play baddies. You're like the only person in the universe who doesn't know you're a baddie. And then I got all this backstory, and it turned out I had a son and husband to defend against these potentially dangerous mutants. [In that hospital scene,] when I was all wrapped up in that gauze and my son jumps onto my chest and embraces me, I was just incredibly moved. I wasn't moved by how I was acting, but I just found the scene so moving and surprising, and I felt really lucky to have been able to be a part of it."
Longoria plays Charlotte, a Las Vegas gaming commissioner whom Lucious (Terrence Howard) tries to woo to gain approval for an Empire club in Sin City.
FAVORITE THING ABOUT HER CHARACTER: "The only way to get into Las Vegas is through me, through my character. She's a very conservative Mormon politician. She has seven kids, and she's just very uptight. The bigger twist is that [Lucious'] son Andre [Trai Byers] is successful in seducing me to undermine his dad. One of the main things that I wanted to be sure of is … a lot of times the guest star is irrelevant to the storyline and you're just there as front casting. It was really important for my role to be vital to what was happening. It had to be important. It is a really great game of chess that they're all playing around my character. I really liked that."
Shea (Lysette), a friend of Maura's (Jeffrey Tambor), finds herself in a relationship with Maura's son, Josh (Jay Duplass). During a road trip together, Shea realizes in a heartbreaking breakup scene that Josh has a bigger issue with her HIV status than the fact that she's transgender.
FAVORITE SCENE THIS SEASON: "[Showrunner] Jill [Soloway] had kind of told us what she wanted and was shouting directions in between lines. We gave the scene a couple of good runs. She let us riff and do our thing and let it be painful and ugly and real. I feel like it was really organic, but we definitely stayed within the parameters of the script. I'm just thankful that I had Jay there that day because he's such a beautiful human being, and I felt like I could be vulnerable and show my pain. A lot of that stuff came from a very real place and real situations that I've experienced in my own life and through the lives of my girlfriends who are struggling to be loved and accepted. Then you have the added layer of her disclosing her HIV status. It was something that needed to be showcased, so I'm thankful to Transparent for going there."
McRaney plays Nathan Katowski, the doctor on duty at the hospital the night Rebecca and Jack Pearson (Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia) go into labor with their triplets. He has to break the news and get the couple through their grief when one of the babies doesn't make it.
FAVORITE THING ABOUT HIS CHARACTER: "I got this as an email from a young lady that I was in school with. She was a couple of years behind me. I actually dated her sister. She got in touch with me and said, 'You're the doctor everyone wants to have.' I think that is probably what resonated with people is that when you're in that kind of distress, you want someone like him to be there to say, 'It's going to be all right. I'm the best there is. Don't you worry, I'm going to take care of you.' And then when the worst happens, your character is able to help them get through it."
In this spinoff series to The Good Wife, Perry reprises his role as slimy lawyer Mike Kresteva, a man who has a history with Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski).
FAVORITE THING ABOUT HIS CHARACTER: "He's a sociopathic lawyer — a really, really bad guy. He's running this law firm that is attacking Christine Baranski's law firm. This time [on The Good Fight], I wondered whether he was a bad guy or a good guy. But he just ends up as this smarmy guy who lies. He doesn't care that he's lying. The audience knows that he's lying. The characters that he's talking to know that he's lying. He doesn't care. That's the character. That's why he's so fun to play. It's fun to roll up my sleeves and just sink my teeth into playing a guy like this."
After Hannah (Lena Dunham) publishes a story about how sleazy author Chuck Palmer (Rhys) pressured college-age girls to have sex with him, he invites her over to discuss the story. What follows is an episode-long tete-a-tete about sexual consent.
HOW HE GOT THE GUEST GIG: "On Girls and The Americans, we shared a fantastic script supervisor, Kim Delise, who kindly put my name into the mix. I also knew [Girls co-showrunner] Jenni Konner was a fan of The Americans, so that may have played a small part in it. The only thing that [Lena] really pitched was that she wanted the sparring between the two of them to be as real as possible. The only thing she didn't want was an archetype or a caricature or a predatory male from the beginning. Hannah shouldn't come in with any sense that he is, you know, a sleazebag. We should be following his point of view as openly as hers throughout the piece. It's really only at the end that it kind of all unravels in every sense."
Based on the series of Lemony Snicket novels by Daniel Handler, this adaptation from director Barry Sonnenfeld is about the three Baudelaire children who were orphaned. Woodard plays Aunt Josephine, their distant relative, who has an obsessive fixation with the proper use of grammar.
HOW SHE GOT THE GUEST GIG: "You would have to ask [showrunner] Barry, whom I love — wacky, brilliant Barry Sonnenfeld. The reason I did the series is that I read Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events to my kids before they could read, and then when they were 7 and 8, they started reading themselves. The book doesn't pander and it doesn't coddle a young reader. It's like, 'Oh, I'm reading a real story. People think that I'm a person.' So we loved that aspect. My kids are now in their 20s, so they were excited to watch the series because they had grown up on the books. It crossed so many boundaries. I loved reading those books to them. I acted out every character."
Wright returns this season as Martha, a former FBI employee who betrayed the government for the man she believed was her husband (Matthew Rhys) at the time — after which she was smuggled to Russia for protection. KGB handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) visits her in her Moscow apartment.
FAVORITE SCENE THIS SEASON: "Martha is angry, sad and pissed off, and she has sat in that little apartment and ruminated for nine months, 24/7. In that moment of shock with Gabriel, she's going into survival mode of, 'What the f— is he doing here? What's he going to tell me? What's he going to ask of me?' It's not very reflective of her life as a whole at that point. It was just that tiny little moment with him under great duress that we see her. She is angry and depressed and devastated at the same time."