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Carrie Mathison, Homeland (Showtime)
This is not a role I could intuit. I read a lot on the CIA and bipolar disorder and met with a fairly high-ranking woman who works for the CIA. She took me to Langley, Virginia, and I prodded her colleagues with questions. They were incredibly responsive and generous with knowledge and their anecdotes. I also met with a woman named Julie Fast, who is bipolar and has written a number of books on the condition. I worked with my friend who is a psychologist, who helped me diagnose Carrie and gave me a lesson on medications used to treat it. The heavy research I did for Temple Grandin prepared me for this role. There's nothing casual about playing Carrie Mathison.
My First SAG Job: Like many New Yorkers, it was on Law & Order. I was 12 and played a teenage murderer. When the episode aired, I got on a subway thinking, "Do people recognize me?" I discovered, Nope, it doesn't work like that.
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Amy Jellicoe, Enlightened (HBO)
Mike White [the show creator] and I created Amy. It came from my feeling -- and a feeling that many have probably felt -- that there's real cultural apathy in this country and yet a lot of rage. I wanted to explore this rage and what happens when it could be your greatest flaw but also the thing that drives you to healing and effecting change in the world. What does that mean? Because the only people taking it to the streets are the people who can't take it anymore, and we're seeing that with Occupy Wall Street. I didn't have to look far outside myself to consider Amy, even though I'm very different than her, because there's a seed in so many of us that we share that Amy has. I am a meditator of a different variety, and I'm certainly interested in health on all levels. I have attended spiritual workshops but perhaps not with the same kind of desperation attached to it -- not like, "I've fallen apart, and this thing better work to put me back together."
My First SAG Job: I was a teen in Adrian Lyne's 1980 film Foxes. My grandmother's favorite memory was when my SAG card came in the mail, and I said, "It's time for me to get my own bank account." Then I got my paycheck for $9.75.
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Jess Day, New Girl (Fox)
Working in TV means less free time to prepare, but that's good -- that means more time on set to experiment and really get to know the characters. Jess is very goofy, silly and excitable and finds joy in a lot of things. I'm very excitable and emotional too, so I can relate to that. My approach has tended to be more intellectual, and I enjoy doing television because I can explore things every week that I wouldn't have had the runway space to do before, and exploring the physical comedy part has been really fun. I've always played characters that are sort of removed and ones you don't really get to explore emotionally; New Girl has given me a chance to really live with a character. It's been great."
My First SAG Job: An episode of Veronica's Closet. I was in high school. My parents wouldn't let me do auditions until I could drive myself.
Kristina Braverman, Parenthood (NBC)
Kristina is always crying because of what's happening in her life. So I try not to overthink it -- I try to just be it. But I always stay within the frame of what's right. We have amazing writers. I sometimes get caught up on the words and get really nervous about saying them exactly the way that they're written because my first show was Boston Legal with David E. Kelley. With him, you can't ad-lib anything. Sometimes I add my own little Monica-isms; sometimes they stick, sometimes they don't. When they do, my family spots them. For me, it's about being relaxed and not trying so hard -- rather, breathing and being in the moment. I learned acting along the way -- I didn't study it in school -- so I try not to discuss acting methods anymore. I don't feel like I know what I'm doing fully.
My First SAG Job: A [1990s] Peruvian kids' game show called Nubeluz. I had to dress up like a cloud and fly through the air.
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Fiona Gallagher, Shameless (Showtime)
I keep a whiteboard in my office that charts how Fiona's feelings develop from episode to episode. That lets me visualize, in a big-picture way, how her emotional life tracks with each character. To play her, I started from a place of sound: how she spoke rhythmically, how she walked. I never tried to play her in a way that's sexy, and it's strange to me that men find the character of Fiona sexy. She doesn't glam herself up. There's no vanity about her; the more dark circles under my eyes, the better it is for the show. I feel a sense of connectivity to her that it's not as difficult to find that place in my body. My own father left when I was in utero, and it's been a very painful thing for me that Fiona also has a son-of-a-bitch father but still wants his approval and love. There's this horrible feeling of digging around something that was completely put to bed, yet there's a constant storm brewing underneath. This job has really made me pry it up.
My First SAG Job: On As the World Turns. I played Holden and Molly's daughter Abigail. I desperately wanted the part. I was 11 and had been studying X and Y chromosomes, dominant genes and recessive genes. I watched the show the day before my audition and realized the two actors who played the parents both had blue eyes. I had just learned in school that two blue-eyed parents can't have a brown-eyed child. So I went into the audition and said if they wanted me, I would go get contact lenses to have blue eyes. They cast me and said, "Make sure she brings her contacts."
Gemma Teller Morrow, Sons of Anarchy (FX)
Wardrobe, hair and makeup -- it's all crucial to Gemma because I don't look anything like her in my regular life. I put on the tattoos and those high biker boots, and there's a different energy. Sometimes we'll do a take, and the camera guy will say: "We can't see your feet. You don't have to wear your shoes." But they bring a crucial energy. TV is so fast; you have to do your homework. It's not like in film, where you're going to get 25 takes. I still work with an acting coach; I've always worked with a coach. It allows me to come to the set having tried different things because when I get there, I know I'm not going to get a lot of shots at it.
My First SAG Job: The Failing of Raymond, a 1971 TV movie with Dean Stockwell and Jane Wyman. It was about a teacher who discovers that a student she flunked is out to kill her. I was 17, and I think I had one line. My father [Boris Sagal] was the director, and he wanted me to have a union card. I really just wanted to be a musician, but my dad was really smart and he knew I needed a union card.