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The Fresh Faces Gunning for Drama Actress Gold

"Shameless" star Emmy Rossum and "Boardwalk Empire's" Kelly Macdonald are among the new entries that could make for a surprise ending for the category.

Emmy Rossum
Showtime
Emmy Rossum in 'Shameless'

When Kyra Sedgwick won the lead drama actress Emmy for The Closer last year, on her fifth nomination, and newcomer Archie Panjabi took home gold for her supporting role on CBS freshman drama The Good Wife, the actress races officially became the most unpredictable — and exciting — to watch unfold.

This year, while several repeat contenders are gaining heat, including Wife lead Julianna Margulies and Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks, five brand-new lead and supporting talents are adding refreshing twists. Here’s why they’re contenders:

Kathy Bates Harry’s Law (NBC)
Not everybody loves Harry’s Law, David E. Kelley’s rookie NBC series, but they do love Kathy Bates as Kelley’s latest loose-cannon attorney, Harry Korn. Her brash, brassy, Oscar-winning animal magnetism is largely the reason the show is still alive. She’s best known as the iconic, leg-shattering star of Stephen King’s Misery and Jack Nicholson’s hot-tub date in About Schmidt but has emerged as a bona fide TV star at age 62 in Law (and in hilarious pop-ups on the network’s revitalized The Office). Ratings prove Bates can still pack star power, and among TV’s fresh crop of Emmy hopefuls, nobody has more established acting chops.

Mireille Enos The Killing (AMC)
It doesn’t hurt that Enos is the first female lead in an AMC original drama — in Mad Men’s time slot, no less. It also doesn’t hurt for voters to know that the theater-trained actress was five months pregnant with her first child during filming of the series’ gripping pilot. Those bonuses aside, Enos infuses her first starring role — she played beleaguered sister-wife twins on HBO’s recently departed Big Love — with such believable and restrained angst that it’s easy to see why she beat out the hundreds of actresses seen around the world by Danish showrunner Veena Sud to play Seattle detective Sarah Linden. Enos’ stark, ethereal beauty and understated take on the female-cop prototype ring totally original and hard to shake.

Lena Headey Game of Thrones (HBO)
Sure, Headey was tough as John Connor’s protective mother on Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But she’s way more intriguing as Thrones’ conniving Queen Cersei. When a little boy climbing a tower glimpses her committing adultery and incest at the same time, her ruthless solution is to have him thrown out the window. Headey plays it cool as liquid nitrogen, giving just a hint of the fiery paranoia within her hard heart. Her steely gaze anchors the show’s pulpy fantasy, and she’s convincingly sisterly with wily dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). As a king’s refreshingly unsupportive wife, Headey is a supporting actress who reigns.

Kelly Macdonald Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
With Panjabi’s win last year for Wife, Emmy showed its affection for European relative unknowns, and Macdonald could be the next beneficiary of this trend. The Scottish actress broke out in 1996’s Trainspotting and was propelled to the A-list in the Coen brothers’ critical hit No Country for Old Men. Boardwalk would be infinitely drier without Macdonald’s pitch-perfect embodiment of Irish immigrant widow-turned-sultry mistress to Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson. As Margaret Schroeder, Macdonald unlocks and exposes Nucky’s heart as well as her own; in fact, Boardwalk’s SAG win for best drama ensemble is owed greatly to her anchoring and humanizing an intensely macho cast.

STORY: Emmy Rossum on 'Shameless' Sex Scenes

Emmy Rossum Shameless (Showtime)
The irony of her name aside — you can just imagine Showtime’s giddiness over potential “For Your Consideration” ads — Rossum has emerged as the race’s most exciting young contender. Only 24, she’s reinvented herself after an erratic film run (The Phantom of the Opera, Poseidon) into the cable competitor willing to do anything on camera. (She clocks more nude scenes in Shameless’ 12 episodes than most actresses do in a lifetime.) Rossum’s empathy-inducing den mother Fiona offers the same balance of grit and beauty that likely wooed voters to — finally — award Sedgwick her statuette.