Five Actors Who Have Had an Emmy-Worthy Year

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Photo Source: Dan Busta
The 2010–11 television season proved to be a banner year for the medium, with its groundbreaking stories and memorable performances. As Emmy season gets into gear, Back Stage gathered several actors, representing the best in drama and comedy, at Smudge Studios in Los Angeles to discuss how they booked their roles, their most difficult moments from the past year, and what it's like to be nominated for an Emmy Award. The participants were: Connie Britton, who bid farewell to "Friday Night Lights" this year; Chris Colfer, who headed a bold storyline about gay bullying on "Glee;" Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who took his role on "Modern Family" to new comedic heights both physically and verbally; Christina Hendricks, whose "Mad Men" character struggled with an unplanned pregnancy from an affair; and Margo Martindale, who stole scenes on "Justified" as a criminal matriarch who lived (and died) by her own code.

Back Stage: Last year, four of you received your first Emmy nomination. What was it like, getting that call?

Jesse Tyler Ferguson:
I really was not expecting a nomination, because it was such a strong category for supporting actors. I called my castmates beforehand, because I figured Ed O'Neill would certainly be nominated and any of us would be lucky to get a spot, as well. I said, "If I'm the only one not nominated, do not feel bad for me. I will survive." And then I got one and was truly, truly shocked. People always say, "Oh, I was sleeping; I didn't even know they were being announced today." And I'm like, "Oh, crap, you were awake and watching." But I was truly shocked.

Jesse Tyler Fergusen (Photo by Dan Busta)

Back Stage:
And then Ed wasn't nominated.

Ferguson: Yeah, and he came after me too. It was real scary. [Laughs.] No, we all thought it was crazy, but it ended up being a nice opportunity to recognize him because he was the only one not nominated and it kind of shined a light on him and got everyone talking about it. Everyone, meaning us.

Christina Hendricks: I think sometimes, too, shows or actors can be taken for granted. We know they're great and everyone knows they're great, so the new kids get more attention. And for the record, when I got the call, I really was asleep.

I don't believe you.

Hendricks: The show had been nominated several times, so when the phone rang, I thought it was about the show being nominated. And that was exciting enough, but when they told me I'd been nominated, it was just icing on the cake.

Connie Britton:
I really didn't expect to get nominated, because "Friday Night Lights" has never gotten any Emmy recognition, and we kind of got used to that. We'd always had wonderful support from our fans and critics, but had never been nominated for anything. There was no anticipation on any level that it would happen. I got a call from my cousin in New York, who is my biggest fan and is always aware of these things. She said, "You just got nominated for an Emmy. You and Kyle both." And I said, "That's impossible." The fact we both were nominated was so bizarre and surreal and wonderful. For us it was really great because we were just two weeks away from saying goodbye; we were in our second-to-last episode.

I had the amazing experience of one of the publications announcing the year before that I was nominated, but I wasn't. So my poor mother, I had to tell her it was a mistake. She kept saying, "But it was in the paper." I had all these congratulations calls and I wasn't nominated, it was terrible.

Britton: Honestly, that's what I thought happened. I really thought a mistake had been made. I kept saying, "Are you sure? What's your verification?"

Chris Colfer: USA Today did an Emmy prediction thing around this time last year, and my name was on that list and my old speech-and-debate coach thought that was the actual nomination list. So she had her entire class do a congratulations video. They were like, "We're so happy you're representing the team." I was like, "I'm not. I'm not."

Back Stage: But you did end up with a nomination.

Colfer: Thankfully. So that video came in handy. By the way, I really was asleep, and I was still half-asleep when I got the phone call, and I remember thinking I was dreaming. It was a conference call with a bunch of people, so I was even more confused because I was hearing 10 different voices. I remember sitting on my apartment floor and wondering, "Am I awake? Is this really happening?"

Back Stage:
Can you talk about the process of booking your roles?

Margo Martindale: I was out here for the "Secretariat" premiere, and my agent called and said, "Would you like to audition for 'Justified'?" I said, "What's that? Oh, I think I've seen a poster for it. What's the part?" He said, "It's a Kentucky drug matriarch." And I said, "Well, can't he just look at my reel?" [Laughs.] He said, "No, they want to hear you say the words." Then I looked at the script and I said, "Wow. I will go anywhere for this. This is fantastic writing." I auditioned with the casting director, and a couple hours later, I got it.

Margo Martindale (Photo by Dan Busta)

Mine was a typical casting couch situation. [Laughs.] I was actually planning on moving back to New York because I was kind of frustrated with L.A. I was going to workshop a musical version of "Elf" on B-way—that's Broadway.

B-way? So pretentious.

I know. It's going to happen a lot today. But I got the script for "Modern Family," and they were desperate to have me come in and read for Cameron. I really didn't want to; I was more attracted to the role of Mitch. I thought it would be fun to play a brother and a son, as well as a partner and a father. They were adamant about me coming in for Cameron, so I finally went in and I read half of a scene and they said, "You know, you'd really make a better Mitch." So I took the script—they wanted me to do it there on the spot, but I really wanted to prepare properly. I think I was the first person cast, aside from Sofia [Vergara], who had a development deal with ABC, and Ed O'Neill, who was offer only. Apparently, that happens with age.

Not always.

Hendricks: It was nearing the end of the dramas during pilot season. Then you start to get the comedies, and I was like, "No. I wanted a drama; I'm scared of comedy." And "Mad Men" was the best script I'd read all season. I went in sort of dressed a little 1960s without seeming hokey. You know, you feel like if they don't have an imagination, you have to kind of look like it, but you can't come in full-on costume, or you'd just look ridiculous. My best friend was there, helping me run lines, and I just started crying before I went in because I was so exhausted. Pilot season is so exhausting and takes such a toll on your soul. I wanted it so bad, and felt I wasn't doing anything with it, I was just saying words. My friend gave me a great pep talk. They actually called me back to audition for the Midge role and then they brought me back again for Joan and I was like, "Whatever role sticks around is the one I like." Because every female role in the show was excellent.

Did you have any idea what it would become? Because it was AMC's first drama, and I'm friends with Maggie Siff and Rose DeWitt, and they both told me, "We got this show on AMC." And in my head I was like, "Aw, that's really sweet for you. How cute."

Hendricks: That's what my agent said too.

Meanwhile, it's so brilliant, and now it's a touchstone for drama.

Hendricks: We didn't know. There was another project I was up for that was not nearly as interesting to me, and in the past I had done series that seemed like the sure thing and all the elements were in place for it to be a hit. And they didn't go. So I said, "Do the one you love." But, yeah, we didn't think anyone was going to watch AMC.

Christina Hendricks (Photo by Dan Busta)

Colfer: Mine was an audition. Originally I was auditioning for Artie, and I kept moving through the ranks. They knew they wanted me in the show, but they didn't want me for Artie. I remember the day of the network test, all my original contracts said, "Artie Two," because they didn't know what they were going to do with me yet. I was cast and, a week before we were shooting, I was told I was Kurt Hummel.

Back Stage:
Weren't you living in Northern California? How did you know about the audition?

I had an agent and was one of those sort of Make-a-Wish kids that lived in the sticks, and they would send me out on, like, one audition a month. I did that from the time I was a freshman in high school to my senior year, which is when I got "Glee." And I am not looking forward to those audition tapes leaking someday, because I was horrible. Nothing terrified me more than an audition, and I sucked in all of them. Except "Glee."

Mine was an offer, but I was the opposite of you guys, who were fighting and fighting and fighting. I was fighting against it the whole time. And I know that sounds crazy, but I had done the movie "Friday Night Lights" with Peter Berg, and I remember going to the premiere and thinking that they had made my character mute because so much of it had been cut. Pete Berg had to put that movie together in a very arduous way, and he knew some characters would suffer. So when the TV show came along, he was looking at it as a way to kind of make up for it. I was looking at it as a way to destroy my life, if I decided to sign on to do a TV show about football and play a coach's wife. So I kept saying, "No, no, no." But Pete is such a persuasive, enthusiastic guy and was like, "Connie, this is our chance to give these women a voice. And to play this character and give her all the life you want to give her. She's going to be strong and weak and f---ed up and awesome." But even when I decided to do it, I was convinced I was really self-destructive. It is so easy for women to fall into the background, and so many shows are dominated by men, and that's what I was assuming I was getting myself into. But Pete and Jason Katims, our showrunner, truly were committed to giving all the women a voice, and I have such great gratitude to them for that.

Back Stage:
Was there a particular scene or episode that was particularly hard for you in the last year?

Ferguson: It's so funny because I'm sitting next to these brilliant dramatic actors on shows like "Mad Men" and "Friday Night Lights" and "Justified," and I'm like, "There was an episode where Mitchell wanted to go to Lady Gaga." [Laughs.] But we shot our whole episode in one day, and I had a ton of dialogue, and they were rewriting things, and [creator] Steve Levitan had just fractured his collarbone so he was on all this medication, and it was a first-time director. And literally the world fell in on me, and everyone was looking at me like, "Why aren't you making this work?" And I cried on set that day. And now you watch, and I look so excited to go to that Lady Gaga concert, but between those takes, I was literally crying, "Why am I an actor? I'm a horrible actor, this is a nightmare." I look at it now, and it is the work of some brilliant editing.

For me, the most difficult episode I've had to do is the "Prom Queen" episode, when Kurt was crowned prom queen. Just picture me in my bed at home, reading the script, not expecting Kurt to be crowned prom queen, and I read that he's in a kilt and tiara, dancing to "Dancing Queen." I was like, "No, this cannot happen." I was so concerned they were just pushing it way too much, because Kurt has been so helpful and progressive for some people, and I was afraid this would damage that—it was just too, too much. But they assured me it would be done in a great way. Originally it was written that Kurt was persuaded by his boyfriend to go back in and accept the crown. But I asked them, "Please let Kurt do that for himself and not be persuaded by a second party." And they changed it for me, and it did turn out to be a beautiful episode. I was so wrong.

Chris Colfer (Photo by Dan Busta)

Martindale: There was a speech I had to give in a church, sort of a revival speech, and it was two pages long. So I really learned it like a play so that I could just go out there and wing it. That was one hard thing. The other thing that was really hard, and I could almost cry, was the final scene I shot. I broke down crying because I was having to kill this character that I'd created. And they're going on without me. I mean, [creator] Graham Yost could have saved the character, but it wouldn't have had the same effect. It wouldn't have been the [story] it was, if she had gone limping into a third season.

Back Stage:
Connie, you also shot your final episode this season. Is it hard when your roles come to an end, or is there some excitement?

Britton: It was hard; it still is hard, frankly. It was a great experience, and we all became such a family—and we shot in Austin, Texas, so we became a family with our crew. Kyle and I in particular had such a wonderful relationship of trust. There was a real grief there, for sure. And yet at the same time, it was wonderful to say goodbye to something we felt so good about and felt we went out in a really good way. But I still find it hard—I'm about to start shooting something else and I still wonder, "Who am I if not Tami Taylor?"

Back Stage: What do you consider your big break as an actor, and did you have any people who championed you along the way? Chris, I know you got a break at a young age—

Colfer: Yeah, and honestly, I hate being so young because I feel like those are the kind of questions I never get asked. Usually people ask us, "Who's your favorite Jonas brother?" rather than "What were you feeling in this scene?" But I will say, the first time I felt I was taken seriously as an actor was after the Emmy nomination, about this time last year.

My champion was John Wells. I did a pilot for him, and it didn't get picked up, but then he gave me a production deal for the next three years and kept putting me in shows like "ER" and trying. For a young actress to have a production deal…I call him my fairy godfather, because he really believed in me and completely gave me a career.

Ferguson: I don't want to say I set the bar low for myself, but literally, when I got my first headshot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I had a black-and-white glossy, I was like, "I have made it." I just needed the tools to become an actor to feel like one. The moment should be, like, the Emmy nomination, but it was really the black-and-white glossy. And it was very glossy. No border, too. And I was wearing a turtleneck underneath a button-down. Very '70s.

Martindale: The people who helped me were all the playwrights who wrote plays for me. Then I got a play that became a huge hit in New York, which was "Steel Magnolias." And that sort of put me in the movies. You know, I always wanted to be on television and I just couldn't. I kept getting movies and movies and movies. I know that sounds like a silly complaint. But, for a character actor, TV is really where you make the money. But when I truly thought I had made it was my first commercial. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. It was for Gillette Right Guard, and it never aired. But I got it.

Britton: It was the same with me: I was so excited to get my first commercial that I almost didn't go to the Sundance Film Festival when "The Brothers McMullen" got in. After two years of trying, I finally got my first commercial. "Brothers McMullen" was truly my big break. I got it out of Back Stage, and I didn't have an agent and I wasn't in SAG, and it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and everything changed. And that film's director, Ed Burns, is definitely a champion. I've done three movies with him, and I learned so much about the way I love to work by working with him. Pete Berg too. I love working with the same people over and over again; I feel it always allows me to do my best work, because I know that person is behind me.

Back Stage:
Did the commercial pay more than "Brothers McMullen"?

Britton: Well, "Brothers McMullen" paid nothing, so yes. It's funny; when the movie was going to Sundance, I had a Christmas party at my apartment in New York, and everyone from the movie came. Ed Burns brought a bunch of contracts for everybody to sign because he had recently gotten a lawyer, and we were now going to be back-paid for the number of days we worked. Of course, we worked so much on the movie, and I think I was paid for three days. It was less than a thousand dollars. But it didn't matter, because that was my big break.

Connie Britton (Photo by Dan Busta)

Back Stage: Is there any advice you could offer actors that you've picked up over the years?

The piece of advice I keep giving myself is that I have constraints. I look like I should have a great Irish accent, and I don't. I'm not going to go in for roles that require me to have an Irish accent anymore, because I always sound Jamaican. So I know there are things I cannot do. I went in for "Band of Brothers," and it was all these tough military guys, and they had me do a scene that was not in my wheelhouse at all. Somewhere, there is tape of me trying to talk like a tough solider and horribly failing. It was so bad that the guy putting me on tape actually got the giggles, and I started laughing too. We all just knew it was so wrong. So I keep telling myself if I'm not feeling it on the page and I'm not excited about it, there's no reason to put myself in that situation. But I will jump through hoops if I feel it's in my wheelhouse.

Britton: I think that is such good advice because I still have this feeling like I'm letting myself down if I don't go fight for everything, even if it isn't something I can relate to. Somebody once said to me, "That's where we have the most power, when we can say no. It's really the only power we have." One of the things I've recently discovered is the way I get through the nerves of auditions is telling myself it's a workday. I know my lines, I know my character, and I'm going to work with the director. And sometimes it goes terribly, terribly wrong, but it frees me up a little bit.

Colfer: I really believe an element of luck is in it. Sometimes you just have to catch the right wave in the perfect storm. I wish I had advice on auditions, but I was terrible. I would actually black out my experiences because I sucked so bad.

Hendricks: I don't know if you guys have this feeling, but I can really gauge when I sucked. Or I'll call my manager and say, "You'll be getting a phone call. And I wear a size 8 shoe." And other times I'll be like, "That was a disaster, you need to do damage control, tell them I'm sorry."

One thing about not auditioning and being offered something is it can be tricky. What if you get there and you're not who they thought you were or you can't do what they thought you could? So sometimes it's good if you show them what you can do.

Britton: Like Jesse was saying earlier about being conscious of your limitations, the flip side of that is being conscious of what you have to offer. Remember, there is only one me, and what do I have that is special? It's a constructive thing to do while you're pounding the pavement.

And believe in yourself completely. Because you will be poor. Maybe some people get successful right out of the gate; but, for me, it was a long time counting pennies and eating beans. Kids in high school ask me how they can become a star. And I have to explain to them it's not about that.

Right. Don't do it because you want to be famous. Do it because you love it. You've got to love, love, love it.