Rami Malek, Aziz Ansari and 12 More Actors on Connecting With Characters, Pulling Off Tough Scenes

12:00 PM 6/8/2016

by Gregory Ellwood

Fourteen Emmy contenders reveal the character extremes ("That pot is about to explode"), vulnerabilities ("I have anxieties and I have fears") and flaws ("Playing an abusive husband was an ugly and strange feeling") that drove some of this season’s most memorable performances.

rami malek sterling k brown aziz ansari Split H 2016
Malek: USA Network. Brown: FX Networks. Ansari: Netflix.

Much has been made of the two ballot vacancies left by departed nominees Jon Hamm and Jeff Daniels, and part of the reason it's such big news is that the male acting categories always are stacked with dynamo veteran performances — turns that TV Academy voters love to reward with repeat recognition. When there's a chance for new or overlooked talent to break through, the industry takes notice. THR spoke with lead and supporting actors across multiple categories for their take on tough scenes and the idiosyncracies of their characters as they reveal deep connections to the material even (or especially) when it confounds them.

  • Rami Malek

    What do you enjoy most about playing your character?

    Malek plays Elliot, a computer programmer turned hacker with a social anxiety disorder.

    "Someone who has that type of struggle is just captivating for me. Elliot is what some actors call a joker in the deck. That's the one you want. He can be thrown into any situation — and he might be — and many of them are very dire and emotional and tragic. I don't know what this says about me as a human being, but I'm not afraid to go to those places. He's a very empowering character even with all of his devastating flaws. I always ask [series creator] Sam Esmail: 'Are we doing enough? Have we seen enough from him? Is he being pushed to the absolute limit?' And Sam looks at me with a perplexed look that says: 'What more do you want? What is it about you that makes you want to put yourself in more of harm's way?'"

  • Bob Odenkirk

    What do you enjoy most about playing your character?

    Odenkirk returned for a second season as Jimmy McGill, a small-time lawyer on the path to becoming Breaking Bad schemer Saul Goodman.

    "I love getting a new script and discovering what's happening. I will go into the writers room and kind of ask questions but then very quickly tell them: 'OK, that's enough. Don't tell me anymore. I don't want to know. I want to be surprised.' And I am surprised, just like a fan. When I flip through those scripts and see a character from Breaking Bad return to the world, I think to myself: 'Wait a second. That guy! Oh, right. This is before that. He's still alive.' And I'm just as jazzed as any fan to discover these moments and twists and turns of the story."

  • Tony Hale

    What do you enjoy most about playing your character?

    Hale has won two supporting actor Emmys for his role as Gary Walsh, assistant to Julia Louis-Dreyfus' President Selina Meyers.

    "One of the things I love about Gary is that he doesn't really ever evolve. He is so content being right by Selena's side that when anything is ever shaken up, it really stirs that massive anxiety of, he's going to be distanced from her or something isn't going to remain the same, and he likes it to remain the same. With the [show's] stakes getting higher, I just love the arc that you see, going deeper into this boiling pot of irritation Gary has with other people — irritation with the country for not waking up to the fact that [Selina] definitely should be in office and irritation with the team around her. He should be on retainer for the rest of his life. He's pretty much the first lady, but all these other idiots? That pot is about to explode. It's about containing that and [getting ready] for it to explode."

  • Louis C.K.

    What was the biggest challenge in playing your character?

    A six-time Emmy winner, C.K. created, wrote, produced, starred in and self-distributed the web series.

    "The very last scene my character is in, in the last episode, was absolutely devastating for me. It was just a pile of feelings, and it was very intense to experience. I had become very attached to Steve [Buscemi] and Edie [Falco], and therefore to their characters, and the whole thing was a very painful and cathartic ride. Also, playing an abusive husband was an ugly and strange feeling."

  • Connor Jessup

    What was the biggest challenge in playing your character?

    Jessup took on the role of a high schooler who is raped in the second season of John Ridley's anthology series, even though he knew little about it and had not seen a script.

    "From the very beginning, my overriding desire was to not make Taylor feel like a victim. You're so used to victims being the person crying in the interrogation room in Law & Order, and you're like, 'OK, that box is checked, moving on.' I really didn't want to do that. That kid started off on almost a technical desire, but it's strange how the show went on, especially by the end. He doesn't want to be a victim or feel like a victim or act like a victim. So, it's weird how my desire, my technical impulse as an actor merged with the character's. I think that's probably just coincidence, but I think it's also [Ridley] being very perceptive."

  • Jeffrey Tambor

    What was the biggest challenge in playing your character?

    Tambor won an Emmy last year for his portrayal of Maura Pfefferman, who has become a cultural touchstone in the transgender rights movement.

    "I like it when it's difficult. I like it when I don't understand. The only thing I have on a continual basis is that tap, tap, tap of, 'Do this right. Do this human. It's important.' That is a constant tapping. I had that in season one, and I have that in season two, and it's a nice reminder. It keeps me on my toes. I relish the responsibility of it, I really do. When the show was first released and came out, I got a true appreciation of what was happening when people [contacted me] in social media. The response the show got was overwhelming. That was an enormous awakening for me."

  • Liev Schreiber

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    Donovan killed pedophile priest Father Danny O'Connor in the show's first season but did not confront the crime until this season.

    "I think we started to talk early on, probably around episode seven, about confession and what confession means to Ray. For Ray to really confess, he would have to admit to the complexity of that relationship [with O'Connor]. We really wanted to take any kind of burden off his mind [and] perhaps include his feelings for O'Connor. This moment was always loaded, about Ray's relationship to his abuser and how it was perhaps a deeper and more profound relationship than anyone else had ever considered. This is the man who told Ray how good he was, how great he was and loved him — and perhaps Ray loved [O'Connor] as well. The complexity of that, particularly in terms of someone who has been sexually abused, was interesting to me and, I noticed, to the writers as well."

  • Sterling K. Brown

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    Brown played L.A. County District Attorney Christopher Darden, but the prosecutor was not interested in speaking to the actor or providing any insight before the shoot.

    "Episode six, 'Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,' where Marcia [Clark] and Chris are in the prosecutors' office late at night, just after Johnnie Cochran got finished with his whole mischievous alley rhetoric earlier that day. We sort of share a drink and talk about the case. We delve into our personal lives, and I think that it's the only time in the course of our show that Darden mentions that he had a daughter — Janae was 15 years old at the time — and just how important she was to his life and the fact that he would go back and forth to the Bay Area to be as involved as he possibly could while still doing his job. I wanted to make sure that she felt loved because reading his book, In Contempt, it was very clear to me just how much Darden loved his daughter and how important she was to him in his life, how much he missed her. This was my one opportunity to get that sentiment across. I wanted to make sure that it was felt."

  • Tom Hiddleston

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    Hiddleston plays former British soldier turned hotel manager Jonathan Pine, who becomes an unlikely spy tasked with taking down an unethical arms dealer.

    "The most crucial scene, I believe, is the recruitment of Pine by Angela Burr [Olivia Coleman], which takes place at the end of episode one. It was the first scene we shot on the first day. In that moment, they are united in their purpose. They recognize each other as comrades-in-arms; two human beings who are filled with anger and compassion, and they will be inextricably linked for the rest of the story. It comes with the writing, and it comes with the performance and how that connection would be modulated. [Director] Susanne Bier, Olivia and I did huge amounts of work to make sure that that scene felt that it had a lot of sincerity and weight and that you'd believe the alliance of these two: heroes on a lonely crusade to take down this terrible man."

  • Courtney B. Vance

    What scene was particularly tough to pull off this season?

    Vance stepped into the infamous shoes of defense attorney Johnnie Cochran without ever watching an interview or video of the real-life character.

    "I'm most proud of the scene in the jail cell with Cuba [Gooding Jr.], where I basically said: 'Come on. Get yourself together. You are O.J. Simpson. You are a hero.' Also the closing courtroom scenes. They gave me that [script] on Friday, and I didn't look at it over the weekend because I knew we wouldn't probably get to shoot it until that next Friday or the following Monday. So I didn't look at it. I came into work on Monday, and they said, 'We're shooting it tomorrow.' So we really, really had to jam those monologues, just getting them stuck into our heads. It was very frantic."

  • Aziz Ansari

    How important was it for your character to be different from yourself?

    Ansari, who plays struggling actor Dev, tackled the stereotyping of Indian actors in a scathing episode he co-wrote titled "Indians on TV."

    "I think the most helpful moments for any actor, especially a comedic actor, are when you get a script where someone's like, 'Oh they wrote this for you.' Worse is, sometimes you'll get an offer for a commercial, and they'll be, 'Hey, I wrote this for you,' and you'll read it and be like, 'This is what people think I do? Jesus.' I can definitely do more than that, and I would have never gotten the opportunity to show that unless I had done this show. The character is not like any other character I've ever done. He's quiet and at times a pretty thoughtful guy. I think it's just so refreshing for me to play someone who was a little more grounded. I've wanted to do that for a while, and to have a vehicle to do a show that explores these ideas and was just more thoughtful and sophisticated was what I was really attracted to."

  • Christian Slater

    What are your interactions like with your showrunner?

    Toward the end of the first season, it's revealed that Slater's character, Mr. Robot, is not who or what he seems.

    "One of the great things in doing the show is having Sam [Esmail] there [on set]. During the first season, he was there 98 percent of the time. The Mr. Robot character is sort of the figment of Elliot's imagination — his ideal imagining of what his father might be like today. There's a confidence and a swagger to the character. In the show, it would come time for me to do some of the flashback scenes, where I was actually playing Edward Alderson. Those were moments where I would have to be reminded — and again, thank God Sam was there — that I'm not Mr. Robot here in this particular scene, I'm an actual human being. I have vulnerabilities and I have anxieties and I have fears. I'm a little clumsy. I'm not the idealized version of this guy, I'm an actual real person. That was extraordinarily helpful."

  • Jerrod Carmichael

    What are the benefits of shooting your show as a multicamera comedy?

    Carmichael plays a version of himself on this topical comedy that is not afraid to challenge viewers' assumptions in a manner not seen in network sitcoms this century.

    "Being a stand-up comedian, I was like, 'Oh, I'm very familiar with this territory.' Being onstage, the adrenaline and having to live for the moment — because that's all that you have when you're performing — really excited me. Then also not looking at what multicameras had become but looking at their potential. When I think of multicamera, I think of All in the Family, I think of Cheers, I think of all these brilliant, brilliant shows that genuinely affected culture and the way people perceive sitcoms. I thought: 'Let's go for that. Let's not go for the bullshit that's being handed out.'"

  • Matthew Rhys

    What was different about your character this season?

    As Philip Jennings, a KGB officer raising a family while undercover in 1980s America, Rhys has watched the pressure build on his character for four straight seasons.

    "By the nature of this show, Philip's starting to unravel. His life and what he wants is closing in on him in a viselike way. With the introduction of his daughter into this world — his life — it's how he tries to keep it all together. His absolute goal is to raise his children as Americans. He realizes this is a game; if it has a beginning, it has to have an end. He doesn't realize what an adverse reaction he's going to get from his wife, Elizabeth [Keri Russell]. This is something he's not going to win overnight. It's a long-term game. Things are going to get much worse. He's just waiting it out for Elizabeth to eventually say, 'Yeah, we can't do this anymore.' In many ways, he's trying to hide that perspective from her as much as possible."