Emmys: Six Nominated Actors Dish the Details of Character-Building

Sam Urdank for Netflix
"Arrested Development"

In their own words, lead actor nominees in "Arrested Development," "Downton Abbey" and "The Big Bang Theory" reveal how nailing the audition is just the beginning to perfecting the art of their roles.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's August Emmy stand-alone issue.

JASON BATEMAN on playing Michael Bluth
Arrested Development (Netflix)

The good part of auditioning is that you basically get to play the character any way you want, and then they get to decide if you guessed right, and that's what they want for the rest of this character's life.

In this case, I auditioned, and I just happened to guess right about how they would need this character to be played based on having just read the pilot. And [creator] Mitch Hurwitz really liked it, and we were kind of off to the races. I ended up playing the character really from what my first instinct was, and we were on the same page from the very beginning.

I have to give credit to Mitch and the way that he wrote the pilot; it was very much from my character's point of view. And coupled with the narration, it just established this very down-to-earth, real observation of a bunch of eccentric people. So you just simply imagine that each time the camera would turn back on [Bluth], who was observing these freaks, there's something that's very sort of straight and deadpanning and a sort of a stunned blank stare every once in a while -- that would be the best way to frame the weird stuff this person's watching. Basically, someone who's in a zoo, the way you just stare at an animal, you're just sort of bewildered.

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HUGH BONNEVILLE on playing Lord Grantham
Downton Abbey (PBS/Masterpiece)

Apart from being 6-foot-2 and standing quite like him, I don't think I'm particularly like my character. I don't necessarily espouse the value structure that he's grown up in and that he'll defend to his dying day. But I think there's a benevolence about him -- he tends to try and see the good in people, and I suppose that's my philosophy on life, too, so I'm like him in that respect. It's completely baffling why I've been nominated two years in a row, let alone one year. I'm ridiculously honored and as bewildered as anyone, but I'm not complaining.

And to be given a nom in the same direction as my good friend Damian [Lewis], or one of my mentors, Kevin Spacey, or one of my great heroes, Jeff Daniels? And [Bryan Cranston's] Breaking Bad is one of my all-time favorite shows. So, you know, to be put alongside those guys is ridiculous but an honor.

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DON CHEADLE on playing Marty Kaan
House of Lies (Showtime)

I think during the second season, we got to understand the characters a lot more. We got into their lives. We got to see the relationships between them a lot more. I think Marty got pushed to another place with Jeannie [Kristen Bell]. Things got a little more explosive between them, which in the upcoming season will have to be dealt with. It's wreckage. Next season is about wreckage.

With a TV show, the character is a lot more elastic. Because we have more time with Marty, we can push him further in either direction, either comedic or more dramatic. The audience will stick with it. The tone will change within the shows, but it also happens over the longer arc of the characters together. People know if they tune in next week, they're going to get the other part of the character.

It's very easy to get into Marty's character. I love the role. I think he's a great mess. I have a lot of fun with him. I'm always excited and interested to see where the writers are going to take it. I'm always asking them to push it further. It's not hard to get into the role; in fact, it's kind of liberating.

That's what's good about him -- Marty isn't immune to the business that he's in. He's in a cutthroat, sharky, dirty business, and he's as cutthroat, sharky and dirty as any of them. And it's fun not to have to carry the moral weight of a show -- he's a complete reprobate with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. But Marty is a mix. He's got both sides, and he wishes he was doing it better, and he can't, so it's fun to see him struggling to work it out.

I think what's in store for him, he really has to look at his life and realize he's kind of alone now. He won the world, and he's got his own shop, and it looks like what he wanted to achieve, but it was at the cost of all his friendships, which he needs. Some other people might be able to just move to the next grouping or say, "That's what it took" and move on. But I think what we see -- especially with Marty's relationship with his father and his son -- there's something inside him that wants to do better. He just keeps getting in his own way.

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JEFF DANIELS on playing Will McAvoy
The Newsroom (HBO)

The moment I knew that I "got" the character was the speech in season one -- the Northwestern speech [in which Will outlines his frustrations with America]. That was Mount Everest for Will, for the show, for the chance at a series -- everything. It really just kind of defined him. It's a rant, but it's an honest rant, and it's probably a place that Will had not tapped into in a long time. So in a way, for me, that just defined him, and I just went from there.

The thing I noticed going back for the second season was, there was a greater confidence in all of us. The stress of creating a character was over; he was created! "OK, good. Now that we've opened, let's run the show." If this was Broadway, this would be the run starting. Everybody knew their characters, and you could fall into them much more quickly. I remember Emily [Mortimer] and I would say, "What's missing?" And I said, "Oh yeah, the stress."


MATT LeBLANC on playing Matt LeBlanc
Episodes (Showtime)

I play the public's perception of a celebrity -- namely, me -- if that makes any sense. I show up to work, leave my morals in the car and go play this guy, who's a bit more damaged than I am. You know, everybody's got baggage, but he's got quite a bit more than I do -- or I like to tell myself that. We shoot in a very bizarre way. We don't shoot it one episode at a time; we shoot like a film. So everything that happens at the network office for the whole season, for example, we shoot at once. We go to that set, and we shoot all of those scenes. In one day, you may be shooting a scene from episode nine and episode seven and episode four, and two scenes from episode one and then a scene from episode three. It's really tricky to keep it all straight. You keep all of your scripts in a binder, and you can kind of keep it straight that way. I've never worked that way in television before.

This is single-camera -- it's not Friends, which was multicam -- so it's essentially like shooting a long movie. The rhythm of [Episodes co-creators Jeffrey Klarik's and David Crane's] writing is similar to the rhythm on Friends [which Crane also co-created and co-wrote]. I can really hear their writing -- and my biggest concern was, I didn't want to slip and have it come across as Joey. That was something that I was really careful to keep an eye on. And I think there is a clear distinction between the two.

I've been nominated for an Emmy five times; I've been nominated for a Golden Globe five times, too, and I won on my fourth one. I had always said it was just an honor to be nominated, but when you win, it's quite a bit different. That sounds shallow and vain or whatever, but it's true. The history book doesn't show who came in second or third or fourth or fifth. So it's validating to be nominated, but I would go out on a limb and say it's probably nicer to win. It's a kick in the ass -- how's that?!

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JIM PARSONS on playing Sheldon Cooper
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

What attracted me to the pilot and to Sheldon was the way he talked. It wasn't about what he was saying or talking about, it wasn't even completely the situations he was in or how smart he was -- although all that informs how he talks. The writers have always had a very specific way to show how Sheldon strings words together. Some of that is that he talks too much and knows too many words. There's a real rhythm. Looking back, the only specific thing that I ever did to "get into character" is simply running those lines again and again and again. I've gotten a bit better, and I don't panic as much as I used to.

There were two main things about the way Sheldon spoke that scared me as an actor: There were no "umms," "buts" and that kind of filler to bridge the gap where I don't fully remember the line. The other thing was that Sheldon wasn't talking about things I actually understood very well. I had to get these words strung together mechanically because my brain didn't understand at a deep enough level.

I learned early on in junior high this trick of biting on a pencil just to force you to articulate and enunciate. It's harder to make clear words come out when biting on a pencil. With some of the more dense passages, I'd drill the lines with a pencil in my mouth, and suddenly things you were struggling with -- not memorization but words with too many consonants -- would just flow right out of my mouth. That was the only trick I had. I don't do it as much as I used to, and I'm not as panicked as I used to be, now six seasons later. Thank God!

Lead drama actor nominees Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Damian Lewis (Homeland), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) and comedy actor nominee Louis C.K. (Louie) were unable to participate.

Reported by Scott Feinberg, Lesley Goldberg and Michael Walker.