Emmy Peer Group Reception Reveals Actors' Anxiety, Goals and Surprises

Jordan Strauss/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
TV Academy's 2019 Performers Peer Group

“You don't know what will happen, if it will ever happen, so it's always special,” admitted Jared Harris, who is nominated for lead actor in a limited series or movie for 'Chernobyl.'

Actors come in all shapes, sizes and ages, as do their careers, but an Emmy nomination can provide common bonds, as proven by the Television Academy’s Performers Peer Group Celebration for the 71st Emmy Awards on Sunday, which united a diverse array of performers who revealed the shared glories — and anxieties — of their walk-up to the celebratory ceremony.

“You don't know what will happen, if it will ever happen, so it's always special,” Jared Harris, nominated for lead actor in a limited series or movie for Chernobyl — his second career nomination — told The Hollywood Reporter. “As Oscar Wilde said, ‘It's much better to be talked about than not be talked about.’”

Harris said he didn’t necessarily feel a unique connection to the role that was any more special than others he’d performed, but he understood why it resonated. “I feel like I give my all to everything that I do, but it's just that this show came out at the right time, and it was embraced by people, and it was one of those shows that became a kind of water cooler topic,” he said. “The success of the show was down to the fans and the word of mouth that they passed on, that they had discovered this secret, if you like, and passed it among themselves, and it became this huge, unexpected phenomenon. I obviously benefit off of that momentum.”

Garnering her first Emmy nomination — for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or movie for When They See Us, Marsha Stephanie Blake said she’s recognized how the series has marked a turning point for the real-life Exonerated Five: “Now the story for them is a positive thing — they're getting love on the streets from it. They're getting hugs, like people who used to shun them or call them animals or think that they couldn't hire them, all those things, it's come completely full circle.”

And the project significantly impacted Blake’s own life. “Oh, my God, how hasn't it changed my life? In every single way!” she said. “It's not just the Emmy nomination and what it means for my career. It's also that when I see people on the streets, a lot of people are coming up to me and crying, which I never got from any project I've ever been in. People will come up, they'll want to tell some anecdote or they'll want to take a photo, but a lot of emotional reaction from just the man on the street. People want to tell me about their family members who have been affected either by the series or in the real way by the criminal justice system.”

Seven-time nominee Ed Begley, Jr. — who is nominated this year in the category of outstanding actor in a shortform comedy or drama series for Ctrl Alt Delete — said one never forgets their first Emmy nod. “I remember the first one vividly,” he recalled. “It was on the set of St. Elsewhere and somebody came onto the set fairly early in the morning. They said, 'Do you know that you've been nominated for an Emmy?' I was gobsmacked, I couldn't believe it. It happened six times. I was proud to be nominated each of those six times, and now it's happened again."

Joey King, nominated for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie for The Act, was especially thrilled to be in the same category as her co-star Patricia Arquette. “She was the second person I called,” said King. “I called my mom first, and then I called Patricia, and I cried to her. I was like, "'We're nominated together!'”

While just 20 years old, King is nevertheless an industry veteran whoe began working at the age of 4. The actress said she deeply appreciates the recognition she’s received: “It feels so good — I feel like a lot of the hard work has paid off, and I feel ecstatic. I never even saw an Emmy nomination in the future when I started filming The Act. I never saw that for myself, I never predicted that, so the absolute fulfillment of filming The Act was, in my mind, that was enough. …Then when this happened, it just completely blew my mind, and I felt this exhilaration on a completely different level.”

“It's what it's all about, right?” said Ron Cephas Jones, enjoying his third consecutive Emmy nomination for outstanding guest actor in a drama for This Is Us (he won in 2018). “It's the payoff for all the hard work that you get a chance to do. I enjoy it because it's like people letting you know that they appreciate the work that's being done. … It's a beautiful thing. Life is good!”

Having paid his dues as a character actor for many, many years, Jones is adapting to new aspects of his career, including recognizability and the luxury of a degree of choice in his acting roles. “I didn't always have that luxury, but finally, after so many years, my work has gotten me to the place where people are noticing me based on my work and not my celebrity, and it's the work that's getting me to be a celebrity,” he said. “I get a chance to actually look at some interesting scripts now, talk to some interesting people that want to work with me,  as well as me wanting to work with them. That's the biggest gift of all, to be able to continue to work in a way that I've always liked to work and do projects that I really enjoy doing.”

Peter MacNicol, who received his fourth career Emmy nomination for guest actor in a comedy for his role on Veep, said being recognized by one’s peers is a precious distinction. “It never gets old,” he marveled. “It remains always surprising and scary, having to lose weight for your tux you haven't worn in 10 years. No, I don't take it for granted.”

MacNicol said he delighted in the role and “the unbridled, toxic nature of the character. I've never played anybody who was like a heat-seeking missile, seeking out the vulnerable and the happy.” 

One surprising key concern the actors all shared? That age-old anxiety plaguing performers: Even with a recent Emmy nom under their belts, just how "get-able" is that next job?

“It's the worst time,” conceded Harris, who doesn’t see the accolade as something to inspire immediate confidence in one’s future. “In fact, to quote my drama teacher at my drama school, ‘If you're sitting on your laurels, you're in the wrong place.’ So you should never get comfortable. … I'm personally always trying to do something different each time. I try not to repeat myself. I can read something that's great, but if I feel like I did it recently, then I don't want to do it again. That's also difficult, because [the industry] sees you do something and then they want you to do it again — that's how you get recognized and you get successful, because it's about ‘A good actor is a well-known actor.’ And I was always trying not to be recognized and move from job to job.”

“I'm one of those actors who even when something amazing like this happens, I'm like, ‘Okay, am I ever going to work again?’” said King. “That's how a lot of actors are, but right now what I'm trying to do is not think about anything next. I'm saying no to a lot of things. What I want to do is really just enjoy this moment, because I feel a lot of the time when something like this happens, some people are like, ‘Okay, what's my next goal?’ So you're never fully happy with what you have. I just feel like living in this moment, having this Emmy nomination right now. The right now of this moment is more than I could've ever asked for.”

“The truth is that 90 percent of actors are living below the poverty line,” said Blake. “It's a rarefied few who get to actually work and make money while they're working, because there are a lot of us who are working and not even sustaining. So if this means that I can sustain a career and be an Ed Begley Jr., keep going and doing what I love, then — oh, my gosh, what a gift.”

“These awards, they don't convert into jobs,” said MacNicol. “They're stand-alone, wonderful, amazing events, but no, they don't add up to sustained employment. Every day, it's one foot in front of the other trying to get the next job. I'll tell you what they are — they're green lights. They're encouragement to keep going.”