This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
I think my most emotionally complex episode was the one where my character, Amy, and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) kiss. There were so many details and intricacies that were necessary to create the kind of intimacy needed for these characters, for whom intimacy is complicated. Should he put his hands on my hips or not? What level of physical closeness should we have? It also didn’t help that the week we worked on that episode, Jim was sick and I was trying not to catch what he had. After every rehearsal, I’d go rinse with hydrogen peroxide.
We did film it that night in a few different ways, but to be honest, I haven’t even watched the episode so I don’t know what we used. It felt weird to me, kissing someone in front of all these other people. It felt like I was exposing myself to the audience. I know that kiss was something huge in the fan world, but what’s neat about it to me is that in the following episode, we didn’t even talk about it that much.
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
There were a multitude of things that provoked a lot of anxiety for me in season one. The scene that provided the worst night’s sleep was the one where Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) pays my character, Virginia, for her “participation in the study,” effectively ripping away her burgeoning professional legitimacy. Virginia had already been slapped across the face and called a whore in the pilot episode, yet this quiet exchange, devoid of physical violence and name-calling, conveyed the exact same devastating sentiment. It’s a scene that says, for all of Virginia’s strength and smarts and independence, she is not the one holding the reins of her own life. Bill is, and he can render her powerless at any moment. To let her absorb the blow, try to keep it together and to exit the conversation with her (shaken) dignity intact, felt like the best way to tackle that scene. She may not have anything concrete waiting for her on the other side of his door, but she can at least feel the reins in her own hands again.
One scene that challenged me was when we’re in the car after discovering that Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) would be president. My character, Amy, was filled with absolute glee, as was everyone in the limo. However, with the new presidency came the added pressure for Amy to secure an actual election for Selina, and the campaign had just begun to face some major setbacks. So, while Selina’s presidency was what Amy had always dreamed of, the celebration in the limo — given the context — was chock-full of other emotions and implications for Amy. I knew I had to convey all of that in that one little scene, because those limo scenes are when our characters are at their barest. To choose one train of thought for dear Amy would be both inconsistent with her character (she’s always got a carnival of thoughts running through her brain) and downright false for the story. So I had to rein in the confetti a bit. Hard to do — but oh so fun!
Downton Abbey (PBS/Masterpiece)
Having played my character, Mary, in a confident and happy place in the third season of the show, there was quite a reversal in the fourth season. Mary was in such a dark place after the death of her husband, Matthew (Dan Stevens). Our director, David Evans, really pushed me and challenged me to think very differently about Mary and about how she holds back. It was quite a challenge doing those scenes because your natural instinct as an actor playing a part with such sadness is to really show it.
To prepare, I found a blog called “A Widow’s Rant.” I would often read it because I wanted to tap into how it would feel to be a young widow. And numbness was what one of the widows talked about. She thought she would feel more, and she just didn’t. That’s what David and I discovered as the season went along. Sometimes actors will say, “My character would never do this or say that.” The third season of our show taught me that people can behave erratically or can be very numb or cold or even cruel when under certain circumstances.
Downton Abbey (PBS/Masterpiece)
There were two things that happened to my character, Anna, that were tough for me. First, she was raped by Mr. Green (Nigel Harman) and second, there was the following scene where she is in the office in a really traumatized state. What I try to think about, getting ready for anything traumatic like that, is the reaction of people watching at home who may have been through the same experience. I feel like I have to do my best for them.
I wasn’t sure how much of the [rape] scene we were going to show on the screen, and we ended up showing more than what was written in the script. It’s rare for me to go on a set and feel nervous, but when you have something momentous like this to do, everyone feels nervous. Everybody was lovely to me, though, like nobody wanted it to happen or to film it. The guys in the crew kept asking, “Are you OK?” So it helped that I felt really cushioned doing those scenes.
Breaking Bad (AMC)
The long scene in the “Ozymandias” episode where I grab a knife and fight with Walter (Bryan Cranston) was challenging on a couple of levels. We shot the fight scene on our studio set in Albuquerque, [but] the part when Walter takes baby Holly and runs out to drive away, we filmed on location in a nearby residential neighborhood. The weather there is always crazy in the spring, and that day it was raining and then started snowing, so we had to hold and hold and hold to shoot the exteriors because of the snow.
Then there was very specific timing to the scene, and specific places for me to stop, so I had to deal with this contrast of having to give in to the emotion of the scene but also to the technical aspects of what I had to do. And I remember the first time I came out of the house, it seemed like there were 100 people out there just as onlookers, which I didn’t expect. Plus, we were running late and coming up on lunch for the crew. I remember feeling like, “Oh God! This is a lot of pressure!” After the first take, the director came over and asked if I was OK. I told him I just felt a little blocked at that moment, and he told me not to worry about anything else going on and take as much time as I needed. So my second take just exploded. It became a day that will remain at the forefront of my mind as one of the richest moments I’ve ever had as an actor.
Mad Men (AMC)
I can’t help but keep thinking about the scene where I learn that Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) has passed away. My character, Joan, goes to meet Roger (John Slattery) and console him, taking care of business as Joan usually does. It was very emotional to do that scene because Bertram Cooper had been a father figure to Joan. And Robert Morse was like that to me in real life. So for me as an actress, to be acknowledging we were wrapping up that character and that Robert would no longer be there every day was hard.
It was the first moment I remember getting the feeling that this whole adventure is coming to an end. I had to walk away after the scene and be alone with that feeling. I went to my trailer and couldn’t shake it off quickly because the emotions were a true blend of character and real life. I was at the end of an era, and you can’t just move on to the next scene. So I just stayed there feeling all this respect and love that the day brought out for Robert Morse.
I always want to do things I haven’t done before, so doing Mom offered me the challenge of working in the four-camera world for the first time. I was challenged every day during our season. The process was incredibly rewarding, but also definitely not as easy as I thought or imagined. You’re not just performing a finished piece for an audience, which I was used to doing in theater or shows like The West Wing. I was surprised at how the audience sees everything … you getting makeup done, messing up your line, rehearsing. It’s hard for me to let go, be vulnerable and just go with it. I’ve been in the business a long time and you’d think I could handle anything, but there I was, with no moisture in my mouth at the tapings because I was so nervous. I shared my feelings with [co-star] Anna Faris, which made her feel better. It was an enormous relief to her to know that she wasn’t the only one who was nervous. Nobody else really picked up on it, and I was surprised that I hid my feelings so well. Maybe that’s the proof that I’m OK at this acting thing. I just know that the good thing about being so nervous about doing four-camera is it means I care about what I do.
The Good Wife (CBS)
“Last Call” was the most challenging episode of the season for me. There is a fine line between outright emotion and controlled emotion. My character, Alicia, is someone who doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, so having such a huge emotional episode when she finds out Will Gardner (Josh Charles) is dead was a very slippery slope for me as an actor. I wanted to convey her grief and disbelief in a way that stayed truthful to who Alicia is. So I was constantly trying to hold back. Still, sometimes the pain was too deep and I had to allow her to feel it, and let the audience see it. For much of the episode, I was listening to a voice message left by Will and I was playing whole scenes with just me and a phone and no dialogue, and I had to convey every moment of what Alicia was feeling with no one to react to. Those are scary moments as an actor, because acting is reacting, and when there is nothing to react to except what’s going on in your head, you don’t know how they will turn out.
Mike & Molly (CBS)
Last year, I directed my first episode of Mike & Molly. Our amazing guest that week was Susan Sarandon. Even though I already knew and loved Susan (we had spent the previous summer shooting Tammy together), I was terrified to direct her. I kept thinking, “Who am I to give Susan Sarandon a note or suggestion?” I tried to stop the continuous list of remarkable films from scrolling through my brain — Dead Man Walking, Lorenzo’s Oil, Thelma & Louise and on and on. Of course, she was great and the episode was really funny. Susan remains the coolest woman I’ve ever met, and if I was giving her insanely novice notes, she never let on.
Saturday Night Live (NBC)
The first time I did my impression of German Chancellor Angela Merkel on “Weekend Update,” I was particularly terrified. I wasn’t even sure who she was until one of the writers, Claire Mulaney — the writers are so much smarter than me, it’s upsetting — said that the German chancellor was angry that the NSA had been spying on her phone. The juxtaposition of the sturdiness of a German politician and the adolescent shame a person feels when their diary has been read made me laugh so hard, and we wrote up a draft very quickly that I loved. In rehearsals, it didn’t seem nearly as funny as when we first conceived it. Then after our Saturday run-through, I went up to Seth Meyers and said, “What’s wrong with this?” And he said, very kindly of course, “You’ve lost her sturdy German-ness. She needs to be holding it together more.” So at the dress rehearsal, I played her a lot more restrained and quiet, trying with all her might to contain her turmoil, and that worked a lot better.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
The most challenging moment for me was also my first moment on camera, when Piper (Taylor Schilling) arrives in the cafeteria and tells my character, Red, that her food stinks. It was a complete relinquishing of vanity, a complete letting go of everything I’d made a complete career of. Which turned out to be the single greatest sensation of liberty I’d ever had as an actress. The superficial is incredibly important in this business. We’re led to believe it’s crucial how we look, all that extraneous stuff. So in that moment, I said to myself that this was a role where not only was all that unnecessary, it wasn’t even going to be called for. I could feel I was becoming a different kind of person, a different kind of actress.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
I would say the scariest thing I faced doing the show was the scene where I knew I was going to be naked and get shivved. But then, things like that happen pretty much every episode. I’m always saying, “Are we really going to do that?” I feel like every day, my life has taken a turn and I ask myself, “What am I doing?” Never did I feel that way more than the first episode of our second season. I know that’s not what I was nominated for, but it felt very challenging to shoot it because it showed me how close I’d gotten to the cast in season one. Although it aired first, that episode was the last one we shot and the rest of the cast had wrapped, so I was on my own. What really saved it for me was having Jodie Foster direct the episode. She’s the most down-to-earth human being, so I felt supported rather than alone. Being without the rest of the cast was nerve-racking, but no, it didn’t make me want to be back naked and getting shivved. That’s more a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope.
All of last season was a challenge for me, on a few levels. For one thing, I was going through this amazing physical transition, this physical journey of having a baby, that my character was not going through. And I work very physically. What I do is often grounded in the body. That meant I had to figure out how to be this woman while my instrument was changing and evolving every day. It was like seeing the keys on a piano jump around on a daily basis. It was tough for me to even maintain Olivia’s walk because of the changes.
At the same time, everything I understood about Olivia unraveled because of the storylines. The season really broke me. I’m a Type A actor who likes to have it all figured out going in, but suddenly I had no idea where this woman was going to go next. I had to jump in without everything being perfect. I felt like I had been in control playing the character, but it all got taken away from me last season. That meant my acting toolbox had to be upgraded. I had to trade in my screwdriver and hammer for a Black and Decker power tool.