Emmys: Tatiana Maslany, Jeffrey Tambor and Other Nominees Recall Life-Changing (and Often Mortifying) First Gigs

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
Odenkirk (right) with 'Saturday Night Live' creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels in a 1990s sketch.

Long before they hit it big, these nominees humbly started as extras, did local cable ads and fielded awful requests: "No, I'm not taking off my shirt!"

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Khandi Alexander
Guest actress in a drama series, Scandal (ABC)

"Choreographer Brad Jeffries hired me to be the 'colt' in a Colt 45 TV commercial that a new visionary director named David Fincher was shooting. I wore a skin-tight cat suit and was surrounded by great lighting effects. I ask Brad, 'When are hair and makeup showing up?' He runs out of the room while looking over his shoulder. So I ask Fincher the same question. At that very moment, I notice a PA walking toward me holding a horse head. As I danced around while wearing the horse head, in tears, I did my best Scarlett O'Hara: 'As God as my witness, I will never dance again.' So I went to acting class."

Hank Azaria
Character voiceover performance, The Simpsons (Fox)

"My first TV job, which got me my SAG card, was a couple of lines on a show called Joe Bash, starring Peter Boyle. I was so excited that I told everyone I knew (and many people I didn't know) to tune in. I was unaware of this thing called editing, where they can cut your entire performance out of a show. Which is what they did. You ended up seeing half my face in one shot in the background. There were extras who had a bigger part than I did."

Brody (bottom right) in PBS’ 1988 TV movie 'Home at Last.'

Beau Bridges
Guest actor in a drama series, Masters of Sex (Showtime)

"My first gig was a guest part on my dad's [Lloyd Bridges] series Sea Hunt in the late 1950s. I basically went to work in my father's shop, so to speak. I played a young thief who escapes the police by going down a storm drain. I become trapped, and Mike Nelson — my dad — comes and saves me. I was so grateful for the opportunity."

Adrien Brody
Lead actor in a limited series or TV movie, Houdini (History)

"It was a PBS movie called Home at Last. The film was about an orphan who was shipped off to Nebraska for adoption. I had just turned 14, and it was completely liberating to be acting at that age. To be so uninhibited and receive guidance on how to harness that to channel the emotions and journey of another person was the most amazing experience a young actor can have. Also, I got to hang out with the horse wrangler's sons, who were badass and several years older than me. They were real-life cowboys, and for me, a little kid from Queens, that was too cool."

Richard Cabral
Supporting actor in a limited series or TV movie, American Crime (ABC)

"I was a background actor on CSI: Miami. I was told to put on these tight gray leather pants, crocodile boots and some type of '70s V-neck open shirt. I was carrying a briefcase of money. The hardest part was trying to walk in those leather pants."

Kyle Chandler
Lead actor in a drama series, Bloodline (Netflix)

"Mine was a local cable commercial when I was in college. What I remember most was my co-star and her brown eyes and long legs. I'd made it!"

Jeff Daniels
Lead actor in a drama series, The Newsroom (HBO)

"In 1979, I was a guest criminal on Hawaii Five-0. In the inevitable scene where I was apprehended, I said to [star] Jack Lord, 'What happens now, Mr. Garrett?' 'McGarrett!' he snapped. I thought he was going to throw me off the Maui cliff."

Edie Falco
Lead actress in a comedy series, Nurse Jackie (Showtime)

"I played a nurse on a soap opera called Loving. A little foreshadowing there. The casting director, Julie Madison, saved my life. She'd throw me a day's work whenever she could. I'd make more in a day than in weeks of waitressing. I am still grateful to her."

Jones and Lange in Showtime’s 1984 TV movie 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Lead actress in a limited series or TV movie, The Honorable Woman (SundanceTV)

"I had a tiny part in a TV movie my dad [Stephen Gyllenhaal] was directing. But the first gig I got on my own was in a TV show called Shake, Rattle and Roll. It was about a rock 'n' roll group in the 1950s, and I played the girlfriend of one of the bandmembers. I remember they made me cut these weird bangs, and I cried. I hated it. I also remember nobody had mentioned to me the scene where I was supposed to take my shirt off. I hadn't put my foot down about the bangs, so I was like, 'No, I'm not taking my shirt off!' "

Felicity Huffman
Lead actress in a limited series or TV movie, American Crime (ABC)

"Mine was an ABC Afterschool Special. I came to L.A. from Colorado for the summer, booked that job, got my SAG card and then didn't work again in TV for another 10 years."

Timothy Hutton
Lead actor in a limited series or TV movie, American Crime (ABC)

"A movie called Zuma Beach. I played the assistant lifeguard. I think I was cast because I was so skinny compared to the bodybuilder who played the main lifeguard that it was a sight gag when we stood next to each other."

Richard Jenkins
Lead actor in a limited series or TV movie, Olive Kitteridge (HBO)

"A PBS theater production of Feasting With Panthers. I had a bad British accent."

Regina King
Supporting actress in a limited series or TV movie, American Crime (ABC)

"My first was as an extra on Silver Spoons. I had a crush on [co-star] Jason Bateman … though he never knew it."

Jessica Lange
Lead actress in a limited series or TV movie, American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX)

"We filmed the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Los Angeles, and we had the most extraordinary cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Kim Stanley and Rip Torn. I was just in awe. Tommy Lee has always been one of my favorites."

Matt LeBlanc
Lead actor in a comedy series, Episodes (Showtime)

"It was a public service announcement for the United States Constitution. This was late 1986. We shot it in Bronxville, N.Y., at a college, and there was a wicked snowstorm. They'd picked us up in Manhattan, but because the roads got so bad, they didn't want to take the chance of driving everyone back, so they gave everyone a lift to the train station. A young Stephen Baldwin was one of the actors in it, too, and he had this old Mustang he'd driven from the city, so he offered me a ride. Then the car got stuck. There were three of us in the backseat, and we had to get out and push that old shitbox Mustang like 20 f—in' times. We might as well have walked back."

William H. Macy
Lead actor in a comedy series, Shameless (Showtime)

"I was an actor in Chicago. I did a TV pilot called Spider. I had one scene. I remember I had to stand in a long line to get my costume. And for the first time I had a trailer!"

Tatiana Maslany
Lead actress in a drama series, Orphan Black (BBC America)

"I was 7 and singing with my family in a tourism commercial for my hometown Regina, in Saskatchewan. We had to sing a line from the theme song while standing next to a lake and a bunch of Canada geese. I remember watching local TV for hours hoping to catch the ad."

Schreiber with 'CSI' star Marg Helgenberger in a 2007 arc on the CBS drama 'CSI.'

Niecy Nash
Supporting actress in a comedy series, Getting On (HBO)

"My first TV job was in 1996, playing, of all things, a nurse! The show was Party of Five. And now I'm nominated for playing a nurse on Getting On. This is such a full-circle moment. Happy tears."

Bob Odenkirk
Lead actor in a drama series, Better Call Saul (AMC)

"Saturday Night Live. It was hard. I learned a lot about comedy writing. I made a lot of friends, but I was a difficult young man. I actually remember that. It wasn't a conscious choice. Wait, no, now I'm remembering more clearly. It was a conscious choice!"

David Oyelowo
Lead actor in a limited series or TV movie, Nightingale (HBO)

"A British TV show called Maisie Raine. I remember claiming I could roller-blade, then spending the entire shoot trying not to kill myself and everyone else in my path."

Emma Thompson (front row, left), with Hugh Laurie (back row, left), Stephen Fry (back row, center) and fellow collaborators in 1983.

Liev Schreiber
Lead actor in a drama series, Ray Donovan (Showtime)

"I did a small arc on CSI in 2007. I'd always been terrified of TV. I was really skeptical. But I was so impressed by the crew's skill level and how well it worked. Unlike independent film or theater or even the feature world, where it was a long shot if you were going to get a job, this was steady employment. There was a stability that I found quite antithetical in my thinking about the entertainment industry, and I remember being impressed by all of it."

Jeffrey Tambor
Lead actor in a comedy series, Transparent (Amazon Studios)

"CBS' 1970s drama Kojak. I had a scene in a hospi­tal. It was the coldest day in New York. When they said 'action,' my mouth froze from the cold. All the muscles between my upper lip and my nose were frozen. So my first line came out all mumbled. And it's out there! Because they said, 'Cut, print, moving on!' So on a Kojak is young Jeffrey Tambor, mouth completely shut in the rictus of freeze and my eyes are like, 'Oh my God, what's happening?!' Cut, print, there's my debut!"

Emma Thompson
Lead actress in a limited series or TV movie, Sweeney Todd (PBS)

"A Cambridge Footlights special with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I remember I kept tripping up over the cabling in the studio, and the chain-smoking producer, a wonderful man, treated me to contact lenses. They changed my life."

Additional reporting by Shawna Malcom and Kate Stanhope

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