Emmys 2020: 9 Acting Nominees and the Real People They Portrayed

11:31 AM 9/9/2020

by Trilby Beresford

Among the nominees this year are performers who tackled a wide range of historical figures: from feminist icons to a British monarch, Hollywood talent agent, disgraced school superintendent, self made millionaire and more.

Uzo-Aduba-as-Shirley-Chisolm-in-Mrs.-America-Real-Shirley-Chisolm-and-Hugh-Jackman-as-Frank-Tassone-in-Bad-Education-Real-Frank-Tassone
Courtesy of FX; GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images; Courtesy of HBO; Willie Anderson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Among the Emmy nominees this year are many actors playing real people — from Uzo Aduba's portrayal of feminist icon Betty Friedan in FX drama series Mrs. America to Hugh Jackman tackling the disgraced school superintendent Frank Tassone in the HBO movie Bad Education.

And then there's Jim Parsons, who became the powerful and controversial talent agent Henry Willson — known for being influential in Rock Hudson's career — in Ryan Murphy's limited series on Netflix, Hollywood

While each actor listed portrayed a real person, Dylan McDermott's performance in Hollywood must also be mentioned as the actor played Ernie West, a character inspired by the infamous Hollywood pimp, Scotty Bowers. Meanwhile, Shira Haas's portrayal of Esty Shapiro in Unorthodox was inspired by Deborah Feldman, whose story forms the source material for the drama series.

Read on to learn more about the Emmy nominees and the influential figures they portray.

  • Olivia Colman Plays Queen Elizabeth II in 'The Crown'

    The Crown follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, first portrayed in the critically acclaimed British series by Claire Foy. 

    In a November 2019 interview with S Magazine, Colman opened up about playing the queen after her predecessor. "It’s a character that we both have to just do our own view of, I suppose," said the actor. "I told her how incredible she was because I was completely hooked. I binge-watched [season one] and then I found out about the job before I watched the second season."

    At 94, Queen Elizabeth II is currently the longest living monarch of Great Britain. "I am an enormous fan of the Queen," Colman told S Magazine. "I think as a human being, she’s f–king marvelous," she says. "I think she’s like a rock, our even keel … and [she] has really tried to make the right decisions. I think during this process I’ve become more and more of a fan."

  • Hugh Jackman Plays Frank Tassone in 'Bad Education'

    Bad Education follows the story of Frank Tassone, a superintendent involved in embezzling more than $11 million at a public school in Roslyn, New York, in 2004. The film's writer, Mike Makowsky, was in seventh grade at the time of the scandal.

    In an interview with the Long Island Weekly, Jackman explained why he felt compelled by the project. "I read the script and I said, 'Oh, this is an amazing story. I had no idea this happened." He went on to share that he felt the screenplay was a mix of genres and may be difficult to pull off."

    "My agent sent me Cory Finley’s first film, Thoroughbreds, and I was 20 minutes into watching it and I was like, ‘I’m doing this movie’ because that is exactly what he achieved in Thoroughbreds. So it was a mixture of the story, the character and then ultimately I think Corey as a director [that drew me to the film]."

  • Cate Blanchett Plays Phyllis Schlafly in 'Mrs. America'

    In order to play activist Phyllis Schlafly in FX drama series Mrs. America, a polarizing figure who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and feminism and defended traditional gender roles, Cate Blanchett committed herself to a lot of reading and research. 

    "The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority was certainly the place that I started from," Blanchett told Collider, adding that she spoke to author Carol Felsenthal and read the "very thick tome" that was Phyllis Shlafly Speaks

    Blanchett went on to explain, "the Phyllis Schlafly archive is enormous, and I almost sank under the weight of it. At a certain point, I had to say to myself that I’d absorbed enough and had to attend myself to the story that that we were telling."

  • Octavia Spencer Plays Madam C.J. Walker in 'Self Made'

    Octavia Spencer takes the lead in the aptly titled Netflix series Self Made, which follows the first female self-made billionaire in America, Madam C.J. Walker. Born in 1867, she made her fortune through developing hair and skin care products for Black women.

    In an Allure story told to senior editor Cotton Codinha, Spencer shared what the role meant to her. "Of course, it's daunting to play her because in the Black community, we look up to her," said the actress. "But it's daunting any time you have to tell the story of someone's real life — you don't want to make a mistake. At the same time, I'm excited that I get to tell her story and the story of what she meant to me. She was one of the people that my mom used as a standard-bearer for us, to teach us that anything that we ever dreamed for ourselves could happen."

  • Helena Bonham Carter Plays Princess Margaret in 'The Crown'

    When Helena Bonham Carter was preparing to play Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II, in season three of The Crown, she realized that there was not a whole lot of material to use. "There's very little footage of Margaret speaking as herself," the actress told Town & Country. "You've got a lot of appearances and a few speeches, but you get very little sense of what she was like. She’s quite complicated because she’s quite elusive."

    Series creator Peter Morgan told the outlet that Bonham Carter was chosen because she possessed the "rare combination of spirit, intelligence, vulnerability and the vivid, electric talent required for this role."

  • Uzo Aduba Plays Shirley Chisolm in 'Mrs. America'

    Taking on the role of Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman elected to United States Congress and the first Black woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Uzo Aduba (known for Orange is the New Black) recognized the pressure that would come with playing a historical figure.

    "As a woman of color in this world, I think that pressure exists in various orbits of life, not just if you're the only one feeling the pressure of representing your race or your gender," Aduba told THR back in April. "If you're the only woman in the room, you're like, 'I now speak for every woman in the building.''

    But at a certain point, the actress let that pressure go. "Shirley felt the weight of being Shirley in the time in whatever way she felt it. I don't want to speak for her, but it didn't stop her from being Shirley."

    When Aduba put on the wig and costume for the first time, she tweeted that she felt "unbought and unbossed."

  • Margo Martindale Plays Bella Abzug in 'Mrs. America'

    Becoming social activist, feminist and lawyer Bella Abzug — who founded the National Women's Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisolm and Betty Friedan — was a "privilege," Margo Martindale told Collider back in May, but it was also an education.

    "I’ve learned so much about politics that makes me a lot more knowledgeable, and things that I didn’t know about the way to get things done," the actress explained to the outlet. "Because I’m playing a politician, really. She was the only politician of the group. And the way to get things done is to sometimes put the things you’re most passionate about in second place. She was an incredibly smart, funny, outspoken, passionate person."

  • Tracey Ullman Plays Betty Friedan in 'Mrs. America'

    In preparing for the role of feminist icon Betty Friedan in FX's limited series Mrs. America, Tracey Ullman read numerous interviews and watched television appearances, but also tried to get to know Friedan and learn who she was behind closed doors. "It's imagining them in their private life that's harder to do," Ullman told THR in April.

    "But I loved her huskiness and her Peoria, Midwest accent," said the actress and comedian. "I love all that — that's my thing, knowing where people are from and therefore what they can expect and what they grew up with."

  • Jim Parsons Plays Henry Willson in 'Hollywood'

    Jim Parsons becomes talent agent Henry Willson in Ryan Murphy's Hollywood, which includes a number of other portrayals of real people such as Rock Hudson (a client of Willson's).

    Willson was a powerful and controversial figure in the 1940s, known for his ambition to create Hollywood stars. As for playing this real person, Parsons found joy in its complexity. "It was just about as rewarding for me as anything I've ever gotten to do, the actor told OprahMag.com. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that he is an outlandish character, and was in real life. It's a candy shop of choices and opportunities."