Emmys: Bryan Cranston, Josh Charles on What Surprised Them Most About Their Characters

Bryan Cranston Character Surprise - H 2014
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Bryan Cranston Character Surprise - H 2014

From shocking season finales to emotional weddings and all the quirky stuff in between (we're looking at you, Fred Armisen), 15 acting contenders reveal the behind-the-scenes angst — and antics — that made their performances so worth watching this season.

This story first appeared in special Emmys issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

FRED ARMISEN (various characters)

Portlandia (IFC)

There was a scene we did called "We Can't Both Be Crying," where my character, Nina, is forced to take over her boyfriend Lance's responsibilities after he can't stop crying about the death of their pet lizard. Upon discovering this, they both start to weep, but then Nina realizes that in order for their daily lives to continue, they can't both be crying. She takes care of Lance, who is usually stoic, by tucking him into bed and going into their garage to fix a motorcycle that he was supposed to be working on for a friend. I liked that it was an emotional role reversal caused by practicality, and we were able to present Nina and Lance in a deeper way by having them do the opposite of what they would usually do. There was also this other sketch called "I Missed Hip-Hop," where it was me playing me and [co-star] Carrie [Brownstein] is giving me a history lesson on hip-hop music. We didn't know how it was going to turn out but hoped that the focus of it would be the relationship between Carrie and me -- one person teaching, the other open to being taught. I was happy -- and relieved -- that the simplicity of the idea of me missing the historical details of the hip-hop movement remained intact.



Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

One of the things that surprised and pleased me this past season -- and that I found funny and unexpected -- is just what a badass young Holt was in the 1970s and '80s. It was wonderful to embrace his Dirty Harry quality; to be sure, he ain't that now. But during our first season, we were constantly flashing back to show him in various manifestations. One time he catches the Disco Killer and has a monologue he delivers to the perps at the critical moment about how much fun they're going to have doing time in jail. It was just perfect. Same thing happens when he catches the Freestyle Killer in our Christmas episode. It was almost like being able to play an entirely different character during those moments, and it always felt surprising.


JIM CARTER (Mr. Carson)

Downton Abbey (PBS/Masterpiece)

I was shocked and quietly delighted to discover that Mr. Carson had a romantic secret in his past. He had lost his heart to a music-hall singer, half of a double act called The Lark and the Dove. If only he hadn't been so timid and blinkered in the affairs of the heart, who knows how differently his life could have turned out? He could have dumped Cheerful Charlie Briggs, teamed up with the Lark -- or the Dove (see how long ago it all is?) -- and become a headline act on the music-hall stage. Fame and fortune could have beckoned. Ah me, the cruel twists of fate! Such are the vagaries of life.


JOSH CHARLES (Will Gardner)

The Good Wife (CBS)

The audience probably found Will's death the most shocking moment of the season, but for me it was Will's silence when Diane [Christine Baranski] tells him that Alicia [Julianna Margulies] is leaving Lockhart Gardner. For a character as articulate as Will, I found his reaction startling. He not only feels betrayed by the woman he loves, he also feels duped on a professional level -- and the last thing a lawyer wants to be is surprised. In that moment, he's going over Alicia's moves in his mind like a chess player, trying to figure out how he didn't see it coming. All of those silences were written into the script, but playing them in the moment was fascinating because of all the directions it could take. I didn't know what was going to come up from take to take, and that was very exciting.



Breaking Bad (AMC)

In a series where surprise became its stock-in-trade, the true brilliance of the writing on Breaking Bad again came through in how Vince Gilligan and his team wrapped up the story in an exciting yet justifiable way. Walter admitted his affinity for the dangerous life he created and then used his calculating mind to set up a payment system for his family by dangling a constant threat over Gretchen and Elliott. Finally, determined to go out in a blaze of revenge, Walt lay dying amid his beloved chemistry equipment as the Badfinger song "Baby Blue" aptly described his journey: "I guess I got what I deserved …" I don't know if that fully answers the question about a surprising or shocking moment, but the truth is that pretty much everything surprised me as much as it did the audience until it happened. That was the genius of this show.



The Newsroom (HBO)

Unlike Will McAvoy, I actually had a close relationship with my father. I lost him about six months before we shot episode 205 ("News Night With Will McAvoy"), where, while on the air, Will learns of his father's death. Instead of playing the predictable but understandable cracking of his emotional armor or going the other way and spitting, "Good riddance!," [creator-showrunner-writer Aaron] Sorkin had Will come to a complete halt. During a long, long pause, he became very still, measured, considered, as if deliberately assessing each and every moment he'd ever had with his father. Finally resolute, Will turns to the viewers and says, "Well, I guess it's just us now." Still surprises me. It was a brilliant dialogue choice and kind of a perfect moment.


JESSE TYLER FERGUSON (Mitchell Pritchett)

Modern Family (ABC)

The wedding of my character, Mitch, to Cam [Eric Stonestreet] was the overall arc of our season. A lot of the writers from Modern Family attended my real wedding to Justin [Mikita] last summer. I was so interested to see what they would do with this event. Tony Kushner officiated our wedding, so I kept teasing our writers that they had a lot to live up to! I was so surprised (and pleased) that they reintroduced conflict between Mitch and Jay [Ed O'Neill]. A father's discomfort with his gay son's wedding may not have been the most hilarious concept, but I felt it was an incredibly honest addition to the season. I was taken by how sure-footed Mitch was when he stood up to his father. Those rare moments when we have more foresight than our parents is something that everyone can relate to. I think Mitch gets steamrolled by his father a lot, so I was enormously proud of his strength in that particular confrontation.



(Gary Walsh)

Veep (HBO)

There were literally hundreds of moments last season that shocked me about Gary. I'm always shocked by the type of psychological and verbal abuse that he regularly puts up with from Selina [Julia Louis-Dreyfus]. And yet he's lasted with her for 20 years. But there was one moment when Gary -- who had bought these shoes for her years before that he was saving to give her for just the right moment -- gets the opportunity to kneel down and put them on Selina's feet. It was like he was Prince Charming and she Cinderella. Gary gets this look of just absolute joy on his face. It's like he had achieved nirvana. And it was like, how sick and how sad. It really crossed a line in their twisted relationship. Now we had entered kind of psycho-killer territory. It's flat-out Bates Motel. You get the feeling this guy has taped-up newspaper clippings and an altar somewhere. He worships the ground that Selina walks on, and now it was literal, as she'd be walking in these shoes he put on her feet. Now there truly were no boundaries in their relationship. And yeah, it kind of shocked me that our writers would take it this far.


JON HAMM (Don Draper)

Mad Men (AMC)

What most surprised me came in our third episode of this last season, where Don Draper comes back to Sterling Cooper after having been offered a job at a rival firm. He asked Roger [John Slattery] why he didn't ask him to come back, and Roger just says, "Fine, sure, come back." So I go back into work to be met with this very strange dynamic. It was very much like the first day of school, but no one wanted Don there. He was decidedly not in the cool kids' club. Mind you, this was a school he had founded and nurtured, yet still nobody wanted him there. It was very strange and uncomfortable for me to shoot, to be perfectly honest. That feeling of not being wanted really permeated the set -- I mean, obviously to a point, of course. It was the precise opposite of Don's usual feeling of being cool and so in control. I think it was ultimately good to have Don feel like he was sort of knocked off his pins a little bit.



Episodes (Showtime)

If you want to know the truth, nothing about playing this guy really shocks or surprises me anymore. If I had to pick one moment from last season, it would probably be the idea that my character's stalker was finally over me, and I was upset by that. His stalker had moved on. I thought that was a hilarious writing choice. So was having him date a blind girl. I'll tell you another thing that's sort of consistently surprising: that my character does such horrible things, and yet they're able to redeem him so we still root for the guy. He's so oblivious, unaffected and irresponsible. It's also so funny that, because I'm playing some version of myself, I'm always asked to define the differences between me and my character. The thing is, I think it serves the show better for people to decide on their own what's me and what's not really me. The ones where it's more confusing to people are, I think, really the best episodes of Episodes.


WILLIAM H. MACY (Frank Gallagher)

Shameless (Showtime)

The moment that I didn't see coming -- certainly not from an emotional standpoint -- was one where my character, Frank, is almost at the height of his illness with liver failure. He's somewhat delusional but trying to regain some control over his life. So he gets out of bed and announces he is going to the Alibi, and his daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) tells me to forget it and get right back into bed. Then comes this most wonderful scene. She says, "Come downstairs, I've got something for you." When I get down there, I see that she's gone to the Alibi and gathered all of the barflies and even the bartender, and there they are in Sheila's [Joan Cusack] living room. When I come downstairs and find what they've done, I suddenly burst into tears. That's what shocked me. That wasn't scripted. And I could not regain control of myself. Mark Mylod directed the episode, and asshole that he is, he kept the camera rolling.

I was weeping like a baby. Snot was coming out through my nose. I simply could not get it together. I think it had to be a combination of circumstances, chiefly how much this show has meant to me. Was it me or was it Frank? Let's just say both of us and leave it at that.


MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY (Detective Rust Cohle)

True Detective (HBO)

I was surprised by the way Cohle's factual, exclusive propriety became no less poignant yet humorous at the same time. Nic Pizzolatto, our writer and executive producer, shared an [Emil] Cioran quote with me early on that helped sum up where Cohle's sense of humor lives: "Things are bad, and much worse than you think. On the plus side, you'll be dead soon." Cohle doesn't think this line of belief is a funny, extraordinary or dubious truth -- it just is truth. Without attitude, his sentiments are convictions. That Cohle's unquestionable certainty on these existential matters would lend a certain levity to the show and his relationship between him and Marty [Woody Harrelson] surprised me. In large part, this became funny because of Marty's opposition and annoyance with Rust. This dynamic also helped to establish the particular friendship and bond they had as well. How that happened between us … well, that surprised me.


AARON PAUL (Jesse Pinkman)

Breaking Bad (AMC)

The simple fact that Jesse made it out of there alive in the end was by far the most shocking thing to me in that final season. I wasn't really sure what his fate would be. All I knew was that he had to pay for his actions one way or another, and at the end of the day, I believe he did. Jesse Pinkman had hit his bottom. I wasn't really sure he could go any lower, but he did. Finding out about what happened to Jane from Walt and then getting tortured inside of a hole while being forced to watch the murder of Andrea -- and then going back to cooking the drug that started all of this madness. I have a tremendous connection to Jesse that I hope everyone can somewhat share with me. In the end, I'm happy the kid got away. It's still hard for me to believe.


KEVIN SPACEY (Francis Underwood)

House of Cards (Netflix)

One of the most enjoyable parts of playing Frank Underwood is how I continue to learn things about him that I didn't know. The process of discovery -- of what he is capable of and determined to accomplish, sometimes through Machiavellian choices -- is rewarding and continues to challenge and inspire me. Certainly the decision to dispose of one of the characters, whose threats of exposing some of the choices he has made, was a big surprise -- I think even to him. Although his choice of location might have seemed completely premeditated, it's also possible that if the conversation before this event had gone another way, perhaps the choice would have been different. Of course, the most complicated aspect will be to discover how these decisions affect him as the story continues.

JON VOIGHT (Mickey Donovan)

Ray Donovan (Showtime)

There were really several mom­ents for me that were surprising about Mickey, because that's really how the character is written. One of them happened right out of the box in the pilot. I was recently let out of jail and have an opportunity to party in the shower with a hooker, dancing while wearing only a towel. It's especially crazy to be able to play that for a fellow my age. And I guess the moment stimulated something in me and in the imaginations of the Ray Donovan writers. They started seeing Mickey as this irrepressible force of nature, and it ramped up what were considered the limits of, and possibilities for, the character. They started to write the occasional dance into the storyline. And it all kind of started during that first scene with the hooker. That moment seemed to have released Mickey in some way, along with the creative team.