Robert De Niro, Riz Ahmed, More Top Actors Reveal Which TV Show They'd Want Their Character to Join

10:58 AM 8/18/2017

by THR Staff

17 Emmy-nominated stars also share the methods behind their acting madness, from playing dueling brothers ("Sometimes I'll ask myself if I'm a masochist," says Zach Galifianakis) to battling storylines that hit close to home in the Trump era.

Robert De Niro, Riz Ahmed, Anthony Anderson
Robert De Niro, Riz Ahmed, Anthony Anderson
Courtesy of HBO; Ron Tom/ABC

A handful of Emmy newbies join two past Oscar winners (Robert DeNiro, Geoffrey Rush) and two past Emmy winners (Sterling K. Brown, Jeffrey Tambor) in three separate but equally tough-to-call lead actor races. Two guys each played dueling brothers (Zach Galifianakis, Ewan McGregor), while Brown and Milo Ventimiglia — This Is Us' lovable son-father duo — will duel against each other in the drama actor race. 

Who will come out on top when the Primetime Emmys are doled out on Sept.17 is anyone's guess, but these 15 nominees discuss challenging scenes, misconceptions about their characters and crazy fan interactions, like the time McGregor was mistaken for a porn star.

Written by Aaron Couch, Daniel J. Fienberg, Mia Galuppo, Lesley Goldberg, Brian Porreca, Bryn Elise Sandberg, Kate Stanhope and Jackie Strause

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Anthony Anderson

    'Black-ish' (ABC)

    Anthony Anderson
    Anthony Anderson
    Richard Cartwright/ABC

    YOU OFTEN JOKE WITH SHOWRUNNER KENYA BARRIS ABOUT WANTING TO BE IN THE WRITERS ROOM. AS EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?

    I don't need to know specifics, but we are partners in this, and he comes to me. We joke about me not being in the room. I don't have time to be in the room! And I don't think they want me there. It would probably hinder the process.

    BLACK-ISH HAS BEEN EMMY RECOGNIZED SINCE ITS INCEPTION. WHAT ABOUT SEASON THREE STUCK WITH AUDIENCES AND ACADEMY VOTERS?

    It all boils down to what we've been doing since the beginning and the authenticity of the show and the specificity in which we deal with certain subject matters and issues. As long as we continue to do that, I believe we're always going to resonate with an audience.

    ANY HINTS ABOUT SEASON FOUR?

    We're dealing with something that affects a lot of mothers: postpartum depression.

    WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER DRE?

    A big misconception is that Dre is a loudmouth who doesn't really know much. What makes Dre smart is that he knows what he doesn't know and is willing to seek out that knowledge when he needs to and wants to. He's a gentle giant, and he means well; it's just that he's unapologetic in the way that he goes about doing things.

    Click here to read Anderson's full Q&A.

  • Riz Ahmed

    'The Night Of' (HBO)

    Riz Ahmed
    Riz Ahmed
    Courtesy of HBO

    WHAT WAS THE MOST CHALLENGING SCENE TO PLAY?

    It was the moment of deciding against a plea bargain. [My character] Nasir is being pulled in different directions by his lawyers, prison inmates and his family. It's the moment his own sense of agency truly emerges and does so at great risk.

    HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?

    It's a tough thug to inhabit since the stakes are so astronomical; it's hard to relate to. Thankfully I had interviewed lots of defense attorneys and prison inmates, as well as attended courtroom sessions, so I got a feel for what's going through people's minds. Ultimately, we make our biggest decisions with our gut, not our brains. With Naz I felt that this desire to break out into the world with his own voice was his greatest desire — it's what drove him to study so hard at college and to go to that fateful party. He's someone tired of being a spectator. Though he has lived a sheltered life, deep down he wants to get in the game and be his own man, almost at any cost.

    WHAT ABOUT THE NIGHT OF WOULD SURPRISE VIEWERS?

    We filmed in real prisons. We would have to stop filming to let inmates pass through the corridor. It all felt very real.

    WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT NASIR?

    The misconceptions go two ways. Either he's too naive for getting into that mess, or he's calculating and he killed [the character Andrea Cornish]. That's what makes The Night Of special is that no one is that two-dimensional. The characters are complex, they are contradictory in their actions and thoughts — but I believe each of us has the capacity to be anyone in a given set of circumstances. We see different sides to the characters that sometimes shock us. But it has always been there, it just hasn't had a chance to emerge.

    IF NASIR COULD JOIN ANOTHER SHOW OR FILM, WHICH WOULD IT BE?

    Breaking Bad. Nasir really does break bad.

  • Aziz Ansari

    'Master of None' (Netflix)

    Aziz Ansari
    Aziz Ansari
    Courtesy of Netflix

    HOW WOULD YOU SAY YOUR CHARACTER DEV HAS EVOLVED SINCE SEASON ONE?

    That depends on how you interpret the ending. I don't want to give away my take on the ending because I want people to watch and have their own take, but to me, the first season felt like it was about Dev not knowing what he wants, and season two is about wanting what he can't have. I hope that is the question that character is grappling with at the end: Do I really want this stuff that I'm pining for, or am I wanting it because I don't have it?

    YOU ALSO DIRECT ON THE SHOW. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF AS AN ACTOR WHEN YOU GOT THE OPPORTUNITY TO DIRECT YOURSELF?

    You're just worried about so many things as a director that the last thing you worry about is your own acting. I'm so familiar with the material, because I'm a writer on the show, so that is almost not as tricky to me. I know what I'm trying to accomplish. I'm pretty aware of what I'm going for. What's fun is that you're always surprised by what happens when you're in the moment, playing off of someone like Alessandra [Mastronardi, who plays Dev's love interest]. You adjust to those things and how they feel on the fly, and that's the fun part.

    Click here to read Ansari's full Q&A.

  • Sterling K. Brown

    'This is Us' (NBC)

    Sterling K. Brown
    Sterling K. Brown
    Ron Batzdorff/NBC

    WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?

    People see Randall pretty clearly. He is very much a nerd. He's socially awkward. The pursuit of perfection is something he has control of. He's learning how to recognize that perfection isn't something he can achieve and is gaining control over the fact that the journey is what's most important. To a certain point in his life, this desire for everything to be perfect wasn't really something that he put on himself. It's a direct result of having been abandoned, being adopted, feeling like a fish out of water by virtue of being African-American in an all-white family and feeling like you have to work just a little bit harder in order to receive love.

    IF YOU COULD SWITCH ROLES WITH ANOTHER EMMY NOMINEE, WHO WOULD IT BE?

    I would switch places with Elisabeth Moss because she absolutely murdered the game [in The Handmaid's Tale]. I know I probably couldn't play it as well as she could, but I'd try because her part is awesome! (Laughs.)

    WHAT'S THE MOST INTERESTING FAN INTERACTION YOU'VE HAD?

    Susan [Kelechi Watson] and I were working downtown and a young man came up to us and said, "I know you're working right now, and I don't want to take too much of your time, but I want you to know that you saved my brother's life, and I'm going to give you a hug." He gave me a hug and said, "Keep doing what you're doing," and was on his way. That was powerful.

  • Robert De Niro

    'The Wizard of Lies' (HBO)

    Robert De Niro
    Robert De Niro
    Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

    THIS IS YOUR FIRST EMMY NOMINATION. HOW DOES IT FEEL?

    It feels good. It doesn't feel bad. (Laughs.)

    WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT BERNIE MADOFF?

    Well, maybe one misconception was that [his] kids were involved [with Madoff's Ponzi scheme]. I don't think the kids were involved at all, and I don't think his wife [Ruth] was. I don't think they knew about it. I always felt that even before I was involved in the project.

    WAS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT PLAYING MADOFF THAT SURPRISED YOU?

    No, I wish there was. I didn't meet him. We were talking about [meeting] but it might have been difficult, I understood, because other people that met with him had real limited access, so I didn't know how productive it would be. It's always productive for me to meet the person I'm playing, there's no doubt about that. But we didn't get to that point. I met relatives and family. I read books and talked to people who knew him, like his in-laws.

    YOU ORIGINALLY WERE THINKING ABOUT THIS PROJECT AS A THEATRICAL FILM BEFORE ULTIMATELY OPTING TO GO TO HBO. WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST BENEFIT OF GOING THAT ROUTE?

    HBO has a more assured, built-in audience. That would have been a plus, just to make sure it's seen. In the movies, especially these days, people will see it, but it doesn't quite have the staying power that it does on HBO, where it can be shown again and again.

    Click here to read De Niro's full Q&A.

  • Zach Galifianakis

    'Baskets' (FX)

    Zach Galifianakis
    Zach Galifianakis
    Courtesy of FX

    IS IT GRATIFYING TO BE NOMINATED IN THE SECOND SEASON AFTER BEING OVERLOOKED FOR THE FIRST?

    The fact that the show's getting seen and people are liking it … It doesn't make any difference to me that it came in the first or second season. I'm just kind of flabbergasted at the nomination, to be honest with you. And that's not even false modesty. I mean, you've seen Baskets?

    ARE YOU SURPRISED THAT BASKETS HAS A FOLLOWING, HOWEVER SMALL?

    It kind of reminds me of when I was doing stand-up [comedy], and I had this kind of small, built-in crowd that would come out to see me sometimes. It feels like that, and that can be really rewarding. There's a lot of reward in the smaller numbers, I think. I've cast wider nets before, and sometimes when you cast a wider net, the comedy has to be cast wider, and I kind of wanted to rein that wide net in a bit with this.

    THE TWO BROTHERS YOU PLAY HAD A FIGHT SCENE. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

    I say, "We never need to do that again," after every day of work. There's just a lot of changing back and forth in clothes and hair and makeup. Sometimes I'll drive home from work and ask myself if I'm a masochist.

    Click here to read Galifianakis' full Q&A.

  • Ewan McGregor

    'Fargo' (FX)

    Ewan McGregor
    Ewan McGregor
    Courtesy of Chris Large/FX

    YOU'VE PLAYED TWO CHARACTERS IN A PRODUCTION BEFORE. WHAT STOOD OUT ABOUT FARGO?

    It was very well-handled in advance in terms of the shots and how we would shoot it. And I had two different stand-ins, two different actors, that I played the scenes with. Where Emmit and Ray were in the same scene, they got two guys — Ray and Steve — and it was great. When I've done it before, I just had the same actor, and then we would swap sides and we would swap roles. This time they had specific actors for the specific role, and it went really well.

    DID PEOPLE TREAT YOU DIFFERENTLY WHEN YOU WERE IN YOUR RAY MAKEUP?

    The crew was very different. People were much friendlier when I was Ray, or found me to be more friendly. People were a bit more standoffish when I was Emmit. I absolutely felt that on set. Makeup designer Gail Kennedy said that she was slightly intimidated by me when I was playing Emmit and not at all when I was playing Ray. So, there was definitely a difference.

    WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST INTERESTING FAN INTERACTION YOU'VE HAD TO ANY OF YOUR ROLES?

    When I was on a motorcycle trip in Russia, somebody recognized me and asked if I was an actor or if I made movies. And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "You make erotic movies, right?" He thought I was a porn star. I told him some of my early work was a bit like that.

    Click here to read McGregor's full Q&A.

  • Bob Odenkirk

    'Better Call Saul' (AMC)

    Bob Odenkirk
    Bob Odenkirk
    Courtesy of AMC

    WE ARE STARTING TO SEE MORE OF SAUL GOODMAN'S NATURE COME OUT IN JIMMY. HOW ARE YOU PREPARING FOR THAT?

    I miss Jimmy McGill already, because he's becoming Saul. And I genuinely mean that. I feel kind of sad for this guy going away. The depth of the character is, at least for a time, turning into the less dimensional Saul Goodman, who I don't like personally. And I have to say goodbye to Jimmy in the course of this story that we've committed to tell.

    WHAT HAVE THE FAN INTERACTIONS BEEN TO YOUR CHARACTER IN BETTER CALL SAUL?

    There's a lot of sympathy for Jimmy. People like Jimmy. I love that I'm playing a character that people feel a lot of emotion for and root for because they're very kind to you if you are playing that kind of character. Poor Michael McKean. As wonderful as he was [as Jimmy's brother Chuck], he played a guy who was just torturing Jimmy, and I think he heard about that from fans.

    Click here to read Odenkirk's full Q&A.

  • Matthew Rhys

    'The Americans' (FX)

    Matthew Rhys
    Matthew Rhys
    Courtesy of FX

    WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF TODAY'S POLITICAL PARALLELS TO SOME OF WHAT'S IN THE AMERICANS?

    I would far rather that the current political climate had taken a different turn of events than be saying, "Look at the relevance of our show." However, on a more petty note, to the journalist who asked me rather snarkily whether Russian interest in America was relevant anymore, I can now say quite annoyingly … "Yes."

    WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?

    That he enjoys wearing wigs and does so even when he doesn't have to. Or that he's weak. The conflict is greater in him.

    WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST INTERESTING FAN INTERACTION?

    Someone — I'm not sure "fan" is an accurate description — approached me once and asked how they made my head look so big on television.

    IF YOUR CHARACTER COULD JOIN ANOTHER SHOW, WHICH WOULD IT BE?

    Philip would like to join Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul … just so he could stare longingly at him.

  • William H. Macy

    'Shameless' (Showtime)

    William H. Macy
    William H. Macy
    Courtesy of Showtime

    WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?

    People think he's a bad guy. He's not; he's just misunderstood. The world is out of step in many instances and Frank tries to fix it, and what he gets for his efforts is scorn. People just don't understand.

    IF YOUR CHARACTER COULD JOIN ANOTHER SHOW, WHICH WOULD IT BE?

    He would be on House of Cards. They are so serious on that show. I'd like to see Frank as a senator or vice president.

  • Geoffrey Rush

    'Genius' (National Geographic)

    Geoffrey Rush
    Geoffrey Rush
    Courtesy of Dusan Martincek/National Geographic

    WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT ALBERT EINSTEIN?

    Well, in a funny sort of way, it was the anonymity of his identity. Most people would say, "Yeah, he's the guy with the big halo, as they called it, of hair," and 99.99 percent of the public had no idea of his mathematical brilliance and the revolution — he overturned Newton's well-accepted theories. So really the bottom line for all of us was to try and humanize things so he didn't become just a waxwork. The more we researched it — from the great 19th century scientific explosion, which was really a golden age in Europe, right through two major world wars, Einstein's journey to America and [his investigation by] J. Edgar Hoover — we had to look closely at, "What was going on in Einstein's mind apart from the headlines?"

    WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH RON HOWARD ON THIS PROJECT?

    There was phenomenal momentum because it was one of Nat Geo's first scripted dramas, so there was a lot of energy around it and a lot of expectation. Ron and Brian [Grazer] from Imagine [Entertainment] really moved it along. I only heard about it in June. I think Ron had only come on board in March and saw maybe the first episode [script] and the synopsis for the other nine and went, "Let's do it!" — in a kind of enigmatic Ron Howard way.

    WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES IN COMMITTING TO THIS PROJECT?

    We had a very agile team in all kinds of production, from the makeup artists to the hair people and costuming and the cinematographers to showcase years of this guy's life. This one, of course, had the profile of a very iconic figure.

    Click here to read Rush's full Q&A.

  • Liev Schreiber

    'Ray Donovan' (Showtime)

    Liev Schreiber
    Liev Schreiber
    Courtesy of SHOWTIME

    WHERE DO YOU WANT YOUR CHARACTER TO GO NEXT SEASON?

    What I want for Ray is not really conducive for a television show. I want peace for Ray! But this season we push anything but peace. Things are worse this season in a dramatic way that I can't give away. But more than anything, what I wanted was a coherent arc throughout the whole season that would feel satisfying to the audience and to us as actors, filmmakers and writers to deliver.

    WHAT ABOUT RAY IN SEASON FOUR DO YOU THINK RESONATED WITH VOTERS?

    I wish I knew! (Laughs.) There's a sense of solitude and loneliness that everyone has on some level. Ray is a study in that. He also has a deep personal pain, and the way he lashes out sometimes in response to it is what people identify with. Given the way our celebrity- obsessed culture has gone in the past five years, I can understand why America likes this guy from Boston walking down Hollywood Boulevard with a baseball bat.

    Click here to read Schreiber's full Q&A.

  • Jeffrey Tambor

    'Transparent' (Amazon)

    Jeffrey Tambor
    Jeffrey Tambor
    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    HOW DID THIS YEAR'S EMMY NOMINATION FEEL DIFFERENT, GIVEN THE CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE AS IT APPLIES TO TRANS PEOPLE?

    As an actor, I feel like we have a mission statement every day we go to work. I don't think comedy and satire have ever been more important. Comedy sheds light on issues, and satire makes people learn, and our show is all about that. What I love about playing Maura is that we get to live these wonderful lives as these people, and we don't wag our fingers as a lecture and say, "Listen here, listen here." We're the family that laughs at funerals and cries when we're eating coleslaw. What I get from people who come up to me — and this is just a field test from me going to the market and people taking me aside and saying how much they really appreciate the show — is that there's always a "thank you" in there. So I think we've graduated above, "Hey, I love your work," to something that I always thought acting would be. I've always thought of comedy to be much more than just a bunch of yuks.

    WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?

    She is in a way a teenager, I think. I have not talked about this, but I just see her as someone who is learning stuff. And that's the joy. So you have the old part of her, which is in years, and then you have this young, new spirit that is just trying to find home base and where the love is. She's trying to find her authenticity.

    WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST INTERESTING FAN INTERACTION?

    I had someone in an elevator say, "How's Raymond?" I couldn't convince that guy I was not the actor on Everybody Loves Raymond. We still have some work to do.

    Click here to read Tambor's full Q&A.

  • John Turturro

    'The Night Of' (HBO)

    John Turturro
    John Turturro
    Courtesy of HBO

    WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN PLAYING YOUR CHARACTER, PUBLIC DEFENDER JOHN STONE?

    There are so many obstacles that the guy has. I think that's really bold for an actor — they wrote a character who is very, very capable but obviously didn't want to hold someone's life in his hands. And then he had his own personal problems and physical problems. It reminded me of lots of people in this [legal] profession who have tremendous ability and then sometimes don't have the stomach for it. And then there are people who are successful because they know how to play the game. I thought it was a very rich character who I had a lot of time to think about, which is always a big blessing.

    WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?

    Someone can be designated as a loser or as a night crawler, and actually they're tremendously competent. Another thing I thought was interesting was, there are all of these people who are cynical on the outside and say all these things, but down deep they're still idealistic, they still have a portion of themselves that hasn't gotten bitter. He appears jaded, but he actually isn't, and I think people — all of us — put on faces in life and armor to protect ourselves or to get through the day. I thought it was really interesting to see that within [John]. It was endlessly fascinating and it was also endlessly challenging. (Laughs.)

    WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MORE INTERESTING REACTIONS TO YOUR CHARACTER'S ECZEMA?

    I used to walk around on the street and sometimes I had [the eczema makeup] on my face, and people look at you and look away. It was interesting just having to deal with that, and I think it really made me compassionate to people [who have eczema].

    YOU HAD A LOT OF SCENES WITH A CAT. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

    I'm allergic to cats, so I can't be [around one] for a long time. I actually even did some second unit directing the cat to help out. Bam Bam — that was the cat's name — was excellent. It was a big deal to get him to do certain things, like opening the door or rolling over. With the cat, the eczema and the prison stuff, it was a lot of obstacles. That's what you look for as an actor in a role. That was a lot of fun.

    ANY NEWS ON A POTENTIAL SECOND SEASON OF THE NIGHT OF?

    We've been talking, so we'll see. I would be very interested because I felt that character offered something really rich. I'm hoping that will come to fruition. 

    Click here to read Turturro's full Q&A.

  • Milo Ventimiglia

    'This Is Us' (NBC)

    Milo Ventimiglia
    Milo Ventimiglia
    Ron Batzdorff/NBC

    WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?

    That he's perfect. Jack is far from perfect. When we dive deeper into the imperfections, we'll know just how rounded of a human being he is, and that's where his greatness lies: in his mistakes and shortcomings and being able to face them.

    WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST INTERESTING FAN INTERACTION?

    I've had everything from fainting spells to marriage proposals to the wildest offers. But the things that touch me the most are when a fan will approach me talking about not the popular shows, but the obscure work that I do. Then I know every single job matters, because there's always an audience.

    IF YOUR CHARACTER COULD JOIN ANOTHER SHOW, WHICH WOULD IT BE?

    Jack would do well on Stranger Things. He's got the era down and he'd be there to advise some people: "Don't go in that tree!"

    IF YOU COULD SWITCH ROLES WITH ANOTHER EMMY NOMINEE, WHO WOULD IT BE?

    Anthony Hopkins. I'd really love to see how the man experiences life, from the role she has played to the men he has lived as. It would just be amazing to see the world through his eyes. 

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