Emmys: From Matt Damon to Justin Timberlake, Inside the Wacky Race for Guest Star Gold

Matt Damon, left, and Justin Timberlake

Oscar winners are pitted against pop stars in the strangest (and most entertaining) competition of the season.

This story first appeared in a stand-alone special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The four races for guest star gold have reached new levels of absurdity this year -- in the best way possible. More than 100 performers are eligible and deserving of consideration, and the breadth of their showbiz statuses stretches from A-list Oscar winner (Matt Damon) to beloved TV icon (Bob Newhart). In between are a couple dozen performances -- some hyped up, some under the radar -- that demand closer inspection.

Jim Beaver
Justified (FX)

The Deadwood actor rekindles his rural Southern sensibilities as Sheriff Shelby Parlow (he was key to the series' season-long mystery surrounding Drew Thompson). With guest spots on Dexter and Mike & Molly too this year, Beaver is crossing that "Who's that guy again?" line of bona fide recognition. (9 episodes)

Bobby Cannavale
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

It makes sense that Cannavale was just cast to headline Martin Scorsese's forthcoming 1970s rock 'n' roll drama. The guy can do "nuts" better than anyone. And a season spent on Boardwalk as demented mobster Gyp Rosetti only solidifies his facility to deliver sadistic charm. (12 episodes)

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Linda Cardellini
Mad Men (AMC)

Can you imagine how many actresses would have killed to be cast as Don Draper's mistress? The season's most exciting (and unexpected) cameo saw ER alum Cardellini deliver the most sophisticated and sexy role of her varied TV and film career. (Scooby who?) (7 episodes)

Joan Cusack
Shameless (Showtime)

After three amazing seasons as a full-time guest on Showtime's gritty dramedy, Cusack hasn't begun to outstay her welcome. Her virtuous yet S&M-loving agoraphobe Sheila is still the series' most outrageous character. On this show, that's saying something. (12 episodes)

Matt Damon
House of Lies (Showtime)

In a season where Damon is nearly a nomination lock for playing Liberace's lover in HBO's Behind the Candelabra, it was especially amusing to see him portray a hyper-jacked-up version of himself alongside Ocean's 11 co-star and pal Don Cheadle. (1 episode)

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Jane Fonda
The Newsroom (HBO)

She barely makes more than a pop-in, but her moments playing a Ted Turner-esque network chief are stoic and chilling. Turns out Fonda's marriage to the mustachioed media tycoon was research time well spent. (4 episodes)

Walton Goggins
Sons of Anarchy (FX)

The Justified actor did his network a major solid by guest-starring as transvestite Venus Van Dam. And voters thought Michael Douglas delivered the most deliciously over-the-top performance of the year! (1 episode)

Melanie Griffith
Raising Hope (Fox)

The Oscar nominee opened the Fox series' last season with a serious swing at black comedy alongside her real-life mom, Tippi Hedren, whose character has passed away and shares scenes with her daughter while in a coffin. Griffith easily embraced the show's goofy-dark sentimentality and could do well headlining her own such format one day. (2 episodes)

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Bill Hader
The Mindy Project (Fox)

It pays to have buddies in the Universal family. Lucky for Mindy Kaling, Hader had some extra time to pop in on her new series as a love prospect (until his cute-doctor character got married, that is). Their reunion at a college frat party (after his divorce, natch) was one of the series' more memorable moments. (3 episodes)

Melissa Leo
Louie (FX)

The Oscar winner goes from cool chick to totally crazy as Louie's date Laurie. The episode takes on, ahem, sexual reciprocity inside her truck after Laurie, ahem, gives Louie an unexpected first-date gift. Only Leo, who was nominated for a Critics' Choice Award, could have pulled off this madness with such professionalism. (1 episode)

Bob Newhart
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

It's hard to believe this TV icon hasn't won an Emmy. But Newhart's moving turn as Sheldon's (Jim Parsons) and Leonard's (Johnny Galecki) Professor Proton could be his best chance at awards glory in his 50-plus years on the tube. (1 episode)

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Chris O'Dowd
Girls (HBO)

The Family Tree star pops into Lena Dunham's world again as Jessa's (Jemima Kirke's) deer-in-the-headlights new husband. The scene where she meets his disapproving parents -- and melts down -- is one of the bizarre season's more cohesive and hilarious moments. (5 episodes)

Patton Oswalt
Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Oswalt won the Critics' Choice Award for his turn as a Pawnee local who challenges Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to a week of living like a pioneer. With stints on Justified and Portlandia (among others), Oswalt is one of the year's most versatile guests. (1 episode)

Matthew Perry
The Good Wife (CBS)

Perry lost his full-time gig when Go On was canceled, which makes his recurring bit as adversarial attorney Mike Kresteva on Good Wife that much more meaningful. (2 episodes)

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Seth Rogen
Arrested Development (Netflix)

The guest-star-a-palooza of Arrested Development reminds voters that Rogen's roots were actually in TV (Freaks and Geeks). He's competing against himself for his appearance on Fox's The Mindy Project as a charming PTSD-addled soldier. (4 episodes)

Ray Romano
Parenthood (NBC)

After cutting his dramedy chops on TNT's Men of a Certain Age, Romano has nearly erased all memory of his sitcom alter ego. Playing crabby photographer Hank Rizzoli, Romano exudes utterly believable angst when wooing Lauren Graham's Sarah Braverman. It's not clear whether Romano will return (per Hank's move to Minnesota), but voters will no doubt have him in mind when they're casting their ballots. (14 episodes)

Molly Shannon
Enlightened (HBO)

Reuniting with her friend and Year of the Dog director Mike White, the Critics' Choice nominee is priceless as White's sweetly odd co-worker Eileen, who falls for his even more awkward Tyler. Their perfectly strange (and realistic) sex scene was just one of the many moments that made the brilliant canceled series almost too real for TV standards. (4 episodes)

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Jimmy Smits
Sons of Anarchy (FX)

Kurt Sutter's motorcycle drama got a lot cooler in season five when Smits' Nero Padilla, owner of a seedy escort service, smoldered his way into Gemma's (Katey Sagal) heart -- and her bedroom. The bad news? He won't be eligible here again. The good news? He's been boosted to series regular for season six. (12 episodes)

Justin Timberlake
Saturday Night Live (NBC)

It's Timberlake. It's SNL. And he's won twice before for hosting. (1 episode)

Merritt Wever
New Girl (Fox)

A first-time nominee last year for Nurse Jackie, Wever expanded her résumé with an arc on New Girl as Schmidt's college love, Elizabeth. Her nerd-quirk is such a perfect fit for the series, her New friends may not want her to leave. (4 episodes)

Patrick Wilson
Girls (HBO)

Wilson's impressive film and theater career (Little Children, Angels in America) was almost instantly forgotten when he became the hunk who plays naked Ping-Pong with Lena Dunham. Acts of revolution on TV come in all forms, and Wilson's (here: hot guy beds average girl) was one we won't soon forget. (1 episode)