Emmys: Freddie Highmore, Bill Hader and 6 Other Dark Horses in the Actor Races

Bill Hader on "Saturday Night Live"

Sure, the Kevins -- Spacey and Bacon -- are hot on everyone's lips, but several gifted performers in comedy and drama also are poised to break through the competition.

In the early phase of every Emmy season, there is grumbling over too many predictable and built-in contenders. This year, despite a cadre of boldface movie stars entering the race via House of Cards, The Following and The Newsroom, there also is excitement over some new and returning faces who could see their work from last season lauded. For one, Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader, it’s a bittersweet final round at contention. For another, Veep and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale, it’s a rare shot at a supporting actor twofer. Whether on a comedy or drama, via cable, network or streaming, each actor here has proved his mettle as a performer worthy of consideration.

Bill Hader

Saturday Night Live (NBC)

Stefon, say it ain’t so! On May 18, eight-year SNL veteran Hader delivered his final performance-art-meets-’90s-rave-dispatch bit as the New York party
boy on “Weekend Update,” a segment culminating in his gay marriage 
to anchor Seth Meyers (natch). The
 bit capped a hilarious run for the Oklahoma-bred actor, who managed to kill it every time -- whether as a blond-mulleted Californian, lizardy James Carville, irritated Lindsay Buckingham and any other ridiculous character Lorne Michaels and company could conjure for him. He will be missed as sure as Devon will take San Vicente, make a left on Wilshire then get stuck in traffic on the 405.

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Tony Hale

Veep (HBO); Arrested Development (Netflix)

As if Hale fans didn’t have enough to cheer in the actor’s guffaw-worthy turn as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “bag man” Gary Walsh on Veep (he’s proving even more genius in season two), the actor now can be seen -- again -- playing Buster Bluth in Netflix’s redux of Arrested Development, which premiered (all 15 episodes) May 26 to giant acclaim. After dabbling in the occasional dramatic role (even a couple Law & Order pop-ins), Hale is back doing what he does best: totally believable and absurd physical comedy that’s so good, he doesn’t need to speak to crack us up.

Freddie Highmore

Bates Motel (A&E)

Rare is the child performer who survives adolescence with his career intact. Even rarer? A child star turned adult actor who reinvents an iconic film role for a modern prequel to a classic horror film. Highmore, who was 12 when he garnered acclaim for his turn in Marc Forster’s 2004 feature Finding Neverland, has landed the TV series debut gig of a lifetime in A&E’s buzzy drama. As a young Norman Bates, Highmore displays the goofy relatability of a modern-day teen while simultaneously exuding the creepy loyalty some boys have for their mothers. One of the youngest drama breakouts in years, Highmore could shatter one of Emmy’s most frustrating traditions: the snubbing of younger actors.

Jake Johnson

New Girl (Fox)

This isn’t Johnson’s first year of Emmy eligibility, but it might as well be.
 The debut season of Fox’s affable Zooey Deschanel comedy didn’t allow for 
his schlubby Nick Miller to realize his comedic value (and who could, with Max Greenfield’s Schmidt stealing the show?). Not so in season two, which saw Johnson do the will-they-or-won’t-they, Ross-and-Rachel boogie alongside Deschanel with such convincing sweetness (and LOL-worthy pratfalls) that at times it felt 
like New Guy was a better title.

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Chris Messina

The Mindy Project (Fox)

In the last year, when he wasn’t wrapping a stirring arc as a PTSD-rattled soldier on Damages, appearing in the best picture Oscar winner Argo, wooing Rashida Jones in Celeste and Jesse Forever and guest-starring on HBO’s The Newsroom, Messina has been spot-on as grumpy-cute doctor Danny Castellano on Mindy Kaling’s titular comedy. Also charged with supporting a quirky female lead character (see Jake Johnson), Messina manages to avoid cliche with suave conviction: He’s the irritating best guy friend you hate because he knows you better than you know yourself. (Bonus: Voters might find it hard not to be swayed by Messina’s impressively diverse -- and recently Oscar-winning -- résumé.)

Navid Negahban

Homeland (Showtime)

At Showtime’s annual holiday party in December, Negahban told reporters he’d love to do comedy -- possibly a guest spot on Shameless? The anecdote went viral because it’s impossible to conceive that the Iranian-American actor could have a shred of levity in his acting toolbox. As Homeland’s resident terrorist Abu Nazir, Negahban reinvented the villain archetype to a chilling degree. He was at once elegant and psychotic, handsome and sadistic. Having perished -- finally -- at the end of season two, Negahban’s alter ego can appear again only in flashbacks. For now, though, his legacy as TV’s most-wanted man is reverberating.

Matthew Rhys

The Americans (FX)

As congenial gay lawyer Kevin Walker on ABC’s departed drama Brothers & Sisters, Rhys was the calm, well-adjusted brother in a family of shrill Pinot drinkers. On FX’s Russian spy drama, he plays the anti-Kevin, Phillip Jennings: a cold-blooded liar whose loyalty to his motherland competes with his love for his fake wife (Keri Russell) and their children. It’s been a blast to see this talented Welsh actor get mean and nasty (not to mention rock dozens of looks in 1980s wigs and Members Only jackets). The series is FX’s most promising drama contender in a decade, due in part to Rhys’ steely persuasiveness. Who knew rooting for a KGB sleeper cell could be this fun?

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Aden Young

Rectify (Sundance Channel)

If you watched the first episode of Ray McKinnon’s six-part drama and thought, “Huh?,” you’re not alone. The series, about a man released from death row after 19 years, is slow (nearly in real time), quiet and generally lacking in any major action. But it works, largely because of Young’s visceral embodiment of Daniel Holden. He’s slow because he hasn’t been in the modern world since the ’90s. He’s quiet because he wants to hear the chirp of every Georgia cricket. He doesn’t want action because all he’s dreamed of is lying on green grass. In a season of flashy performances, the Canadian-Australian actor proves that less can be a beautiful thing.

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