Viola Davis, Constance Wu and 9 Other Actresses on Their Most Challenging Moments and Unexpected Milestones

6:25 AM 6/10/2016

by Gregory Ellwood

From Rachel Bloom’s balancing act of song and drama in 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' to Kirsten Dunst’s brilliant turn as a Midwestern housewife in 'Fargo,' THR spoke with 11 lead and supporting Emmy contenders about the scenes, arcs and growing pains that have challenged them.

Courtesy of ABC; Courtesy of FX

Ask a panel of critics to name their top five performances in any medium in the past year and chances are many of their selections would be by actresses working in TV. From Rachel Bloom's balancing act of song and drama in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, to Kirsten Dunst's brilliant turn as a Midwestern housewife in Fargo, to Regina King's incredible twofer — as a small-town doctor in The Leftovers and an upper-crust professional in American Crime — there's plenty for Emmy voters to consider leading up to decision time. THR spoke with 11 lead and supporting contenders about the scenes, arcs and growing pains that have challenged them.

  • Viola Davis

    How to Get Away With Murder (ABC)

    Nicole Wilder/ABC

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    Davis won the lead drama actress Emmy in 2015 for her first season playing criminal law professor Annalise Keating.

    "When I do the homecoming — the burial scene — for the baby with Ms. Cecily Tyson in the finale epi­sode. I think it resonated for me because it's not something that I would normally see in a one-hour drama, especially a one-hour drama that was filled with, OMG, really sexy and salacious moments. There was something about that scene that for me was very cinematic. The depth of it I enjoyed. I enjoyed the fact that I got to play it with Ms. Tyson and the fact that she was playing my mother. Just the concept of that scene I felt was very thoughtful and very heart-rending. It wasn't gimmicky at all. It was a beautiful journey that I felt I took with my mom, considering how our relationship played out in the first season. The other thing that I loved about that scene was that when I signed up to play Annalise Keating, [she started out as] this mysterious, sexualized law professor, and for me, this character has taken me on a journey that has been quite unexpected but somehow feels right. I realize in my 50 years that you can never put a finger on someone. Ever. They have experiences in their lives that you cannot even imagine, and what you get is the final byproduct of that. I feel like she's very vast."

  • Constance Zimmer

    UnREAL (Lifetime)

    James Dittiger/Lifetime Television

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    Zimmer stepped into the role of Quinn, a tough-as-nails producer of a Bachelor-like reality program, after the series' original pilot was scrapped.

    "There is a scene where I have to grab Rachel [Shiri Appleby] by the chin. I have to really grab her so hard that it's actually pushing her face and pushing her lips together as I'm talking to her. And as I'm talking to her, she is also crying and I am doing everything I can not to cry. That was definitely the hardest scene I shot because you're grabbing someone's face — how do you do that and have it feel real? It's also because of the relationship between these two characters — they love each other so much, but this was such an aggressive way to speak to another woman."

  • Caitriona Balfe

    Outlander (Starz)

    Courtesy of Starz

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    Balfe's character, Claire — a 20th century Scotswoman who is thrown back in time 200 years — had to deliver a stillborn child in the drama.

    "The thing with filming something like this is it's so self-generating. You really don't have another partner in the scene. Acting is so much about reacting, and when you have someone else in a scene, you know that so much work is going to be what they are going to provoke out of you. But when you have something that is just one person's personal journey, there are benefits to that because you can do so much work on your own and you know exactly where you want to go. I think those days are always the ones I'm most nervous about. You can only do so much preparation, and then you just have to let what happens in the moment organically come. That kind of stepping into the unknown can be very scary. What if it doesn't come and everyone is sitting there waiting for you? It's very challenging, but I feel like it's such a beautiful storyline and it was so important to the character. It's a subject matter that is very humbling, and I know so many people who are touched by something like this. It's bigger than you. For Claire, I really just wanted to be able to hold a space for her grief and to allow that to come forth."

  • Kerry Washington

    Scandal (ABC), Confirmation (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    In addition to her role as crisis manager Olivia Pope on Scandal, Washington also produced and starred in the retelling of Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings, playing the role of Anita Hill.

    "That scene [in Confirmation] at the end where I'm reading the letters — that was never written to be a moment that included an emotional break. It just happened based on the story we were telling and stepping into what [Hill] would have been feeling and my understanding of the impact that the public response had on her in terms of breaking her isolation. I think that was a scene that I didn't focus on, like, 'Oh, I have to get this scene right.' I didn't actually know what the scene was going to be until we were doing it. Once we shot it, all the producers and the writers and myself were all like, 'Whoa. That's the moment. We don't have to worry about another one. That's it. We found it.' "

  • Regina King

    American Crime (ABC), The Leftovers (HBO)

    Ryan Green/ABC

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    King shot a significant portion of the second seasons of The Leftovers and American Crime at the same time.

    "In The Leftovers, I wanted more than anything to have a great scene with Ann Dowd and Carrie Coon. Those were the two. They are powerhouses to me. Apparently, Carrie felt the same way, which neither of us knew until afterward. When we got a script and saw that it was an eight-page scene, just the two of us, then it was really like, 'You know what? If there was gonna be an eight-page scene with anybody on this show, I want it to be with you.' Then the day came. Carrie's a very lighthearted person, and she's witty and not walking around as [her character] Nora Durst all year round. Some actors do have to do that, they kind of have to be that person all the time to deliver a performance that they need to or want to deliver. I'm not quite like that, and neither is Carrie. It was great to have that intensity but then in between takes be talking about, 'So, what do you think about the Lakers?' "

  • Anna Chlumsky

    Veep (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    How would you describe your character’s arc this season?

    Chlumsky's Amy, unable to break free from Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), finds herself thrown into the middle of the president's campaign to break an unprecedented electoral college tie.

    "I call this season, 'Amy's Back From Rehab.' This job is an addiction for her. Last season, her going away was her first opportunity to know what life could be like without it. I think she kind of found some sanity there. Now that she's back, kind of hanging around the old environment, the question becomes, 'Can she stay out of it while keeping one foot in?' I think she likes to fool herself into thinking she can, but, yeah, she gets pretty swept away."

  • Taraji P. Henson

    Empire (Fox)

    Chuck Hodes/FOX

    How would you describe your character’s arc this season?

    In season two, Henson's Cookie Lyon witnessed one son get shot, another aggressively take control of the family record label, an unborn grandchild die and the ex-husband she still loves marry someone else to protect the family business.

    "We got off to a rough start because at the beginning it became about, 'Who's gonna be on the show?' We lost focus of the family. So, I was more like, 'Let's not make [season two] about who is going to be on the show.' In the first season, the stars just happened. Courtney Love just happened to be on the show. It wasn't just about, 'Hire this person or this big name.' I was like, 'We have to stay focused on the family.' That's what people fell in love with. The world is able to tap into all different aspects and problems that this one family goes through. It doesn't matter what color your skin is. I was more focused on that and continuing Cookie's struggles to keep this family together in this crazy world we created. That's where she started. That is what her 17 years was about: her family."

  • Constance Wu

    Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)

    Michael Ansell/ABC

    What episode are you most proud of this season?

    Wu plays Jessica Huang, a tough-love mom to her three kids in this multi-camera family sitcom.

    "In [the episode] 'Rent Day,' Jessica messes up and she has to admit that she messed up and admit how embarrassing it is for her to mess up. She spends the whole episode trying to cover her tracks. That's a really big deal because I think for people who don't actually watch the show, they think it's just the tiger mom stereotype. Even if she does [display that] behavior, that particular episode showcases a real human fear of using success as a determining factor for your self-worth and why that then manifests in often tiger mom-ish behavior. Then it goes deeper and elevates that trope by showing the vulnerability that happens when things don't go her way, when she's embarrassed that she didn't succeed. I think it really also shows that Jessica grows after, when she realizes her friends are OK with it and that she doesn't have to live up to those standards. That's real progress in terms of what some people think of when they look at the show versus what it actually is."

  • Kirsten Dunst

    Fargo (FX)

    How difficult was it to map out your character not knowing where she’d end up at the end of the season?

    In this limited series, Dunst plays Peggy Blumquist, a woman whose attempt to cover up a deadly car accident throws her life upside down.

    "When I work with [a filmmaker], I want as much information as possible. We had the first four episodes to begin with and then we got a script every two weeks after that — sometimes two, sometimes one. Then I worked continuously as I got each episode. With the way I work, it almost felt like I did five supporting roles in a movie. And certain movies took two weeks for me to work on, but then I was done. And for this I had my bible of everything that I needed to play this role. But this, it is sometimes a little daunting like, 'Oh, I had no idea that was coming,' or 'Wow, I have a lot to play in this, I better get to work.' There was no time not to work, basically. And it's a lot easier doing film. It's a lot [easier] to me."

  • Edie Falco

    Horace and Pete (LouisCK.net)

    Courtesy of Pig Newton

    Were there any unexpected moments on set that made a scene better than it was on the page?

    Falco portrayed Horace's (Louis C.K.) sister Sylvia, who was diagnosed with cancer and wants to sell the family bar to help cover her medical bills.

    "The scene where [Louis] is with that woman who is the one-night stand. He said the day we were shooting it, 'I think you should come in at the end and tell me you don't have cancer.' And I said, 'OK.' He just gave me the line and said to do that. And then whatever her line was, she's supposed to get up and leave. Anyway, I just made something up, and we shot it a bunch of different ways and with different lines. You never get an opportunity like that. There is so much fear around making things. People want to know exactly what is going to happen. I love that he was trusting enough just to see what would happen with each scene. I loved it, and each take was very different."

  • Rachel Bloom

    Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)

    Courtesy of CW

    What’s more difficult to shoot on a weekly basis: the dramatic scenes or the musical moments?

    Bloom co-created and stars as Rebecca in this one-hour comedy/musical hybrid. She also co-wrote every song and sings in nearly every episode.

    "The music stuff is almost easier because it's what I've been doing for the past five years — making and producing my own videos. So when I get to the music video sets, it's not physically taxing. That's just my sweet spot. That's my wheelhouse. I think I get the most, 'OK, I really need to zone in,' for the super-dramatic scenes because, first of all, that's what earns all the musical numbers. I want it to be real. When it comes to the emotion of the piece in the scenes where [Rebecca is] upset and depressed, I need to really feel it for those scenes. That's the time where I'm in my office and I need five minutes, as opposed to — I could be on set and talking about publicity for the show or the edit and then be like, 'All right, shoot the music video? Done.' There is a certain actor prep and emotional preparation that I do for dramatic scenes. I want to give it the weight that it deserves."

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