Emmys: When Co-Stars Compete in Same Category, Does It Hurt Their Chances?

Friendly Fire Heats Up Acting Races - Illustration by Michael Hirshon - H 2019
Illustration by Michael Hirshon

This year, an astounding three-quarters of the 16 acting categories include at least two nominees from the same show; some categories have as many as four, and others have multiple groups from separate shows. As best I can determine, there has never been an Emmy race with more "friendly fire."

In the lead races, drama actor nominees include This Is Us' Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia; drama actress nominees include Killing Eve's Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh; and limited series actress nominees include When They See Us' Aunjanue Ellis and Niecy Nash.

In the supporting races, comedy actor nominees include Barry's Anthony Carrigan, Stephen Root and Henry Winkler; comedy actress nominees include The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's Alex Borstein and Marin Hinkle; drama actor nominees include Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage; drama actress nominees include Thrones' Gwendoline Christie, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams; limited series actor nominees include When They See Us' Asante Blackk, John Leguizamo and Michael K. Williams; and limited series actress nominees include WTSU's Marsha Stephanie Blake and Vera Farmiga.

Guest races pit TIU's Michael Angarano against Ron Cephas Jones; Maisel's Luke Kirby against Rufus Sewell; Fleabag's Kristin Scott Thomas against Fiona Shaw and Saturday Night Live's Matt Damon vs. Robert De Niro vs. John Mulaney vs. Adam Sandler.

What's this all about?

Before Peak TV, there were fewer shows and fewer acting categories, and some shows racked up many acting noms — most famously, Roots scored 13 in 1977, when there were just four acting categories, with three wins — but rarely more than one in a given year. Nowadays, with so many viewing options, one might assume it's harder for one show to accumulate many acting noms. But along with the explosion of shows has come an expansion of the size and quantity of acting categories, creating many more slots for a show that's popular with voters to claim.

Moreover, there may really be a "peak" amount of TV that an Emmy voter can consume, because the electorate, for the most part, still seems to be congregating around a handful of buzzy shows. This can result in "coattail" voting: Much as someone who decides to vote for, say, a Democratic presidential candidate will often vote for Democrats down the rest of the ballot, a voter who really likes, say, Thrones, will do the same.

Furthermore, the TV Academy has, since 2017, invited voters to check off, on their nomination ballots, as many candidates as they feel are worthy of a nom. "The fixed number of 10 that was used prior to 2017 was actually a residual from paper balloting," the TV Academy tells THR. "When the Academy moved fully to online voting, there was no longer any need to specify the number that voters were allowed to nominate." Logic suggests this must benefit the shows — and the people associated with the shows — that are most widely watched among the voting body.

Is it harder to win when competing against co-stars? Such a showdown supposedly divides, to some extent, supporters of the show on which they all appear. HBO took flak this year for not entering for Emmy consideration Thrones' Allen or Christie, who submitted themselves and landed noms. One can safely assume that the network wasn't deterred by the $225 entry fee; rather, it's likely HBO calculated that nominations for those actors would make it harder for better bets like Dinklage and Headey to win.

But each situation is different. Last year, Dinklage topped Coster-Waldau, but two years earlier he was nominated alongside Kit Harington and both lost. Brown topped Ventimiglia two years ago, but both lost last year. This year? Winkler and Borstein, who both won last year, now must face off against co-stars. And Jones, who beat one co-star last year, is facing a different one this year.

Multiple networks tell THR that they approach these situations on a case-by-case basis. If they think one of their nominees does not have a better chance of winning than the other(s), they give all an equal push. If they think one does have a better chance, they lean into that — not that it stops reps for the other(s) from pushing ahead without their help.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.