Across comedy, drama and limited series, these 17 nominees carried the weight of laughs, gasps and tears in Emmy's hottest races.
It's a veritable battle of the network (and cable, and streaming) stars in the lead actress categories.
Topliners from the same series competing against each other is nothing new (see: Cagney & Lacey, The Golden Girls), and this year three pairs are in this situation: Feud's Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon and Big Little Lies' Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are competing in the limited series/TV movie category, while Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin — best friends in Grace & Frankie — are going toe to toe in the comedy series race.
These and 11 other lead actress Emmy nominees recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how they and their characters navigated the past TV season's curveballs.
Written by Daniel J. Fienberg, Rebecca Ford, Mia Galuppo, Michael O'Connell, Brian Porreca, Bryn Elise Sandberg, Kate Stanhope, Jackie Strause and Josh Wigler
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
HAVE VIEWERS MADE ASSUMPTIONS THAT YOU AND YOUR CHARACTER ARE THE SAME PERSON?
Yeah, and rightfully so. [Better Things] has all the bones of my life. I'm able to live out situations — "I should have done that," "What if I said that?" — and do this extension of reality and infuse it into my show. It's a very satisfying creative release.
YOU ALSO WRITE, PRODUCE AND DIRECT, REQUIRING YOU TO WATCH YOURSELF ACT. WHAT'S THAT LIKE?
If I'm on the set and I'm watching playback, I've just got to say, "Oh, God, my neck looks 100 years old, but this is the best take." I have to separate myself from "me" and look at my show as a whole.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOUR STRENGTHS AS AN ACTRESS?
I just like to keep things small and subtle and authentic and ground everything in reality. So that is something that I feel is my strength as a director, and I try to achieve that as an actor.
AND HAS THAT COME NATURALLY, SINCE THIS IS YOUR FIRST TIME WEARING ALL THESE HATS?
Unbelievably enough, it feels like a second skin. Being a single mom and raising three girls, it's almost easier. My daughters don't listen to me, but all these other people have to.
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISPERCEPTION THAT PEOPLE HAD ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?
Probably the biggest problem is that they loved Shea Whigham too much, because he's so good at what he does. They found themselves inadvertently rooting for [his character] Sheriff Moe Dammick instead of Gloria. Maybe they thought she was going to die. I know the sheriff never dies in Fargo. Maybe they were looking for it this time, because they know that Noah [Hawley] plays with the tropes of the Coen brothers oeuvre, and maybe they thought that Gloria was going to get killed. Maybe they thought she was going to fall in love. That's probably the biggest misperception, because she didn't. Unless you count Winnie [Lopez, played by Olivia Sandoval], which is kind of a special friendship.
HOW DO YOU THINK GLORIA RESONATES WITH VIEWERS IN TODAY'S POLITICAL AND SOCIAL CLIMATE?
I think she represents the truth — that there is in fact objective truth, there is no such thing as an alternative fact, which undermines the definition of the word "fact" — and that, without the truth, it's impossible for us to have rational discourse. It's impossible for us to create a society with rules in which everyone can operate freely and thrive. We are in a very dangerous time regarding the end of the truth.
DID YOU HAVE A FAVORITE GRACE AND FRANKIE MOMENT FROM SEASON THREE?
We just shot the next season, so it feels like so long ago. All the scenes with [Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin] going to banks and start-ups and trying to sell our [dildo] product and the way people reacted to us — that showed that no one wanted to loan [money] to older women because they thought we would be dead before we paid back the loan. And no one thought we knew anything about sex toys. It was all so misogynistic and ageist, and it was great to get that exposed.
HOW IS IT BEING NOMINATED IN THE SAME CATEGORY AS TOMLIN FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE THE SERIES STARTED?
Lily has been nominated twice now for Frankie, and it was a great thing for us, because it was good for the series. It is difficult when there are two title characters and one gets nominated and one doesn't. I never minded. Everyone was going, "Oh, poor Jane," but that is not how I felt. It's nice for everyone that we had two nominations this year. We could whoop it up and celebrate and have champagne.
DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THE CROWN WOULD BE RECEIVED THE WAY IT HAS BEEN?
Not a clue. I knew it was very special. I knew that the people who were making it were people I looked up to and respected and admired. I knew that I was very lucky to be doing it, but you never know the outcome of something. It's kind of a chemical reaction when you get all of those people together and see what comes out of the other end.
NOW THAT YOU'VE COMPLETED THE TWO SEASONS YOU WERE CONTRACTED FOR, WHAT WAS IT LIKE SAYING GOODBYE TO QUEEN ELIZABETH?
I don't really feel like I have yet because there's so much postproduction to do and publicity. I think once the show is on and once I start [my next project] First Man, I'll really be like, "OK, it's over." The amazing thing about the show is that it will go on and that it hasn't ended badly. It's not like we've done two seasons and they said, "We're pulling the plug." It's going to go on and have another life. Someone else will take on this amazing role. I'm not the first person to play the part. I have taken that role on from other people who've played it before. So, it's in the nature of the role that it will keep reincarnating and that the story will keep being told. I can't wait to watch it.
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?
That she doesn't feel. That she's a distant, unfeeling person. I think she feels everything. She just doesn't express it. That's my idea.
YOUR CHARACTERS IN THE FIRST TWO SEASONS WEREN'T THAT SYMPATHETIC. HOW DID YOU THINK CREATOR JOHN RIDLEY WAS SEEING YOU AND YOUR STRENGTHS?
You mean, why did he cast me as the internally parched bigot and the school principal with no heart? John Ridley brings a 360-degree perspective to his characters. They're not good or bad. I hope that's what he wanted me to bring to those difficult characters, that they were human.
IN SEASON THREE, YOUR CHARACTER IS DECIDEDLY MORE SYMPATHETIC. WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN FIRST LEARNING ABOUT HER?
It's a simple story, she's a simple housewife, and the camera isn't usually focused on those people. I was pleased to get to bring light to that.
WHAT MOST SURPRISED THE NEWER CASTMEMBERS ABOUT THE SET?
They were, like, "Wow, this is a heavy set." I kept going, "It's a quiet set. There's some heavy lifting to do, so we all have to concentrate."
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT HOW BONNIE HAS BEEN RECEIVED?
I get surprised every time I get a script. I'm like, "Am I really allowed to say this?" She's nothing if she's not completely honest, and it's endearing how unapologetic she is about what she wants and needs. People like to laugh at her because they know she has a big heart.
WHERE SHOULD BONNIE GO?
I love that Bill [William Fichtner] is still on the show as Adam. I love their relationship. I want to see it develop more. I want to get Christy [Anna Faris] married off. Christy deserves some love, too. There are some rules about television, though, to never see the main characters happy, because then why would you tune in? (Laughs.) It's more fun to see them struggle, fail and keep getting back up.
DO YOU LIKE BEING KEPT IN THE DARK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?
They show us the scripts and we jump in. I don't mind because I'm not a very gifted writer. Sometimes it'd be nice to know; I might have some input that would be worthwhile.
WHAT'S BEEN THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?
Sometimes I worry that people think Kimmy is flaky. Maybe she's not book smart, but she has to have a certain level of emotional intelligence to get through this horrendous ordeal in the bunker. There are different ways of measuring intelligence, and I think she has a social IQ that's off that charts.
IF KIMMY WERE TO JOIN ANOTHER SHOW, WHICH WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Kimmy could go to work on Silicon Valley as an intern. I think she might force everyone to be a bit more straightforward and ethical. Those guys need some light and balance. And females.
IF YOU COULD SWITCH ROLES WITH ANY OTHER EMMY NOMINEE, WHO WOULD IT BE?
I would love to do anything on Veep — lights or something behind the scenes — just because I want to see how it's made. I'll do [craft services]. I'll make all of the cupcakes and little hot dogs.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU THE MOST ABOUT HOW YOUR CHARACTER WAS RECEIVED?
I was just amazed at how people emotionally responded to her and really felt protective and attached to her. The thing with Celeste and the way in which her story unfolds — it takes time in a series, so initially I think people were like, "Hmm, OK" — it's not until the end of episode two where you start to delve and dig deep into her psyche. A lot of it was more just taking the time, waiting.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN HOW CELESTE CHANGED IN THE SERIES?
Probably the hardest part of doing a limited series is shooting out of sequence. You have to track the emotional arc of the character over seven hours, whereas in a film you have a much shorter amount of time to do that. That's the most difficult thing, knowing where you're at for each scene so that you're really building — and particularly with a character like Celeste, where you're only peeling back layers at different times. That was a high-wire act.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER, JOAN CRAWFORD?
How huge she was for me, emotionally, to play. Sometimes you do a part and then it feels dimensioned in a way when you're done. That could just be an actor's delusion, but you think you're doing more than you are but somewhere along the process it isn't what you had hoped it would be or anticipated, or it wasn't even what you thought you had done. But this was everything and more.
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT HER?
She was an extremely kind, considerate friend, but people think of Mommie Dearest. There's a whole other side to her.
YOU'RE BREAKING YOUR OWN EMMY RECORDS WITH YOUR 23RD NOMINATION. DOES THAT PUT MORE OR LESS PRESSURE ON YOU?
Honestly, the real pressure is keeping this thing going, and by "this thing," I mean the show and trying to keep up this level of excellence. We're just now breaking stories for season seven, and that's the real pressure. Don't misunderstand me: Winning is awesome, I love it, it's fantastic — but the work itself is the pressure cooker.
WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT SELINA RETURNING TO THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL? ARE YOU HAPPY THE SHOW IS KEEPING ITS DISTANCE FROM THE REAL WHITE HOUSE?
I'm delighted to be as far away from the White House as possible, personally. I don't think we can compete with that shitshow. But as far as our little shitshow goes (laughs), I'm thrilled to be getting back out there on the campaign trail with Selina because she's a fighter. She is just staggeringly competitive, and that's fun to get into.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU THE MOST ABOUT HOW YOUR CHARACTER WAS RECEIVED?
How everyone was so inspired by her and the other handmaids and their fight to survive and get their freedom back. It's the thing I most connected to, and it was incredibly gratifying that the audience felt the same way.
WHAT'S THE MOST SURPRISING FAN INTERACTION YOU'VE HAD?
Not so much strange, but awesome! A flight attendant on a flight recently handed me something, leaned down and whispered, "Under his eye" with a wink. I almost died laughing. I got such a kick out of it.
HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER BEFORE SHOOTING STARTS, AND DO YOU LIKE BEING KEPT IN THE DARK BY THE WRITERS?
Sometimes I have input. We talk and interact a lot. For the "Being Bow-Racial" episode, there was one section of the story that they were really getting friction on in the [writers] room. They couldn't land on what they wanted it to be, and they brought me in and we just talked about what my experience was as a mixed woman growing up. They didn't write my story, but they incorporated pieces of it. But in terms of pitching stories, that's the brilliance of our writers. It's different on every project. On Girlfriends, I was much more aware of what was coming.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED THE MOST FROM PLAYING RAINBOW "BOW" JOHNSON?
I'm not married in real life. I'm not the same woman as Bow, and so I've had to explore areas and parts of myself that have been really interesting and have helped me feel even fuller as a person. I have not yet been pregnant and had a child, and who knows if that experience will come up for me, but I got to experience it on Black-ish. I got to give birth! (Laughs.)
WHAT'S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER?
I like the misconceptions. People think of Elizabeth as cold. It doesn't bother me, because that's what is complex about her. She's a rich, complicated character — and on the surface, yes, cool and tough.
WHAT'S BEEN YOUR MOST INTERESTING FAN INTERACTION?
My favorite still to this day is the New York City construction worker who, during season one, yelled across the street to me, "Yo, you really kicked that lady's ass." I was like, "I feel so cool right now."
HOW DOES IT FEEL COMING TO THE END OF THE SERIES?
This will be the sixth year. It will be sad to see it go, but it's time. It's nice to be able to be given the option to go out on a high note.
WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT BETTE DAVIS?
I didn't know anything about her except for her work and this exaggerated version of her. She seemed like a no-bullshit kind of gal and a workhorse. We don't see too much of her vulnerability in the series, but I was shocked to learn of how many ups and downs and heartbreaks she had. She really was a romantic. The biggest blow was the antagonism of her daughter. Her daughter had been everything, was really her companion in so many ways, and suddenly, at 16, she just disappeared.
WHAT REACTIONS TO FEUD HAVE BEEN THE MOST SURPRISING?
Someone told me that there were viewing parties where people were acting out scenes while we were acting out scenes — which is kind of like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That was pretty unusual. I'm just really happy that people have received it so well.
WHAT WERE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO FOR FRANKIE IN SEASON THREE?
Frankie is torn between her kids and [love interest] Jacob and her relationship with Grace. I wondered how they were going to finesse that. I was also excited about [convincing] middle-aged women to use a dildo.
DID YOU EXPECT THE REACTION THAT THE DILDO STORYLINE RECEIVED?
We just liked the idea that we were getting into business by creating a product for older women. Other than that, we just thought it was fun and audacious. But it's a useful product. I have cousins who are my age from different states who want to know where they can get one.
YOU GALS SHOULD START SELLING THEM.
This thing is operable. We should go on Shark Tank.
WHAT'S IT LIKE BEING NOMINATED WITH JANE FONDA?
We whoop-de-dooed. We're hoping that we skunk Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] and win by a tie.
WHAT EMMY QUESTION DO YOU WISH YOU GOT ASKED MORE?
People congratulate me on my acting nomination, but what I'm most proud of is that the show got 16 noms and created four roles for women that got nominated. It's a watershed moment. I haven't had that experience of working with this many actresses of this caliber on one piece of material. I'm certainly proud of acting. It's my first love, but my passion and mission is to create incredible roles for women and enlighten the consciousness of people that women are complex, even when they're over 40. I'm proud that [Nicole Kidman and I] created this together.
WHAT'S THE STRANGEST OR MOST SURPRISING FAN INTERACTION YOU'VE HAD?
People come up to me and tell me they're a Renata or Madeline or a Jane. It's so funny that groups of friends have all decided which character they are.
WHAT WAS YOUR PROCESS FOR KEEPING THE MULTIPLE VERSIONS OF DOLORES STRAIGHT?
I worked together so closely with [showrunners] Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and the writers and directors. We all took the time to go over every moment, every shift, to really map out what we were going to do and when we were going to slip in and out of different modes. In the span of 60 seconds, I could be four different people.
WHAT'S THE DRIVE BEHIND YOUR THEORIZING ON SET?
I love this kind of television. Maybe it's because I have a really overactive imagination and brain. This show was kind of all of my favorite nerd things put together. It was Western sci-fi and psychology and spirituality and mythology. I was trying to figure it out. You can't help it. You get sucked in.
VIOLA DAVIS — How to Get Away With Murder (ABC)
Davis nabbed her 2017 Emmy nom on the heels of winning a supporting actress Oscar for Fences. She received an Emmy for this role in 2015.
ROBIN WRIGHT — House of Cards (Netflix)
It's been a banner year for Wright, with Claire Underwood becoming president on HoC and starring in three tentpoles this year: Wonder Woman, Blade Runner 2049 and Justice League.