In the current era of “Peak TV” it’s becoming increasingly hard to stand out, but that’s what these 15 potential nominees did. ET sat down with the stars of ‘This Is Us,’ ‘The Leftovers’ and more to discuss their standout performances of the season.
Mandy Moore, 'This Is Us'
In many respects, This Is Us represents a pivot point in Moore’s life. Before the acclaimed series came along, she was at a crossroads “in every sense” of the word -- both in her personal and professional life. (Moore’s divorce from musician Ryan Adams, her husband for seven years, was finalized in June 2016.)
“I’ve gone through my share of career lulls and rejections and disappointment,” she acknowledges. “I sort of feel like my life has hit on so many different notes that that collective experience [is something I can] bring to the table with a role like this and sprinkle a little bit of that into this woman.”
Claire Danes, 'Homeland'
While in the middle of the series’ sixth season, showrunner Alex Gansa began writing new scripts and retrofitting scenes into already shot episodes that reflected America’s current political climate, placing a greater burden on the series’ star, Claire Danes, in her role as Carrie Mathison.
“The onus is on the writers to make the show as relevant and reflective of what’s happening as possible,” she says, explaining that it’s the actor’s responsibility to be flexible and responsive to the ever-changing nature of their work. “That’s true of television in general; you’re airing as you’re filming, as you’re writing. It’s all happening simultaneously. You have to rely on your experience and your reflexes and your technique, but also your intuition.”
Milo Ventimiglia, 'This Is Us'
“The older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve been interested in [chasing] the grand success of a young man, where you think you’re going to take over the world, you’re going to win awards, you’re going to be the biggest movie star,” Ventimiglia says one balmy April afternoon on a secluded hotel balcony overlooking the Sunset Strip. “Those things fade into ‘I’m a working actor,’ and that is one of the most satisfying things in an industry that has no guarantees.”
Dan Stevens, 'Legion'
Ultimately, Stevens found that “not knowing” informed his portrayal of Haller. “Anybody who suffers from any of these similar conditions has to relinquish a certain amount of control over much they know about what is real and what isn’t,” he says, explaining that although terrifying at times, it was also very liberating.
Once people gave in to “not knowing and finally started to embrace the weird mystery and abstract nature of the show” Legion really started to blossom.
Sterling K. Brown, 'This Is Us'
“It’s a wonderful position to be, in terms of people who are enthusiastic and wanting to work with you. For such a long time, you spend most of your time hoping and putting your best foot forward and maybe something will come along that will be a break. Now, I’ve had a couple of breaks,” the St. Louis native says, noting how dramatically different life is from the way it was before filming American Crime Story in 2015. “It’s night and day.”
Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, 'The Leftovers'
When they weren’t filming together and Coon saw what Theroux was given the opportunity to do in other episodes, the actress was envious. “Which is a funny thing, isn’t it?” she muses. “It almost feels like a jealous partner because I see him with Ann Dowd and I think, Why didn’t I get to do that sort of thing with Justin? That’s how I know I love and respect working with him, because I actually get jealous of his scene work with other people.”
Issa Rae, 'Insecure'
In 2012, Shonda Rhimes brought her into the ABC fold after Shondaland bought Rae’s I Hate LA Dudes; the following year, HBO teamed up with Rae and Wilmore to develop a new series. But in mid-2015, after nothing had materialized, The New York Times wondered why Rae couldn’t seem to translate her online success on TV.
“The ABC project was completely different than Awkward Black Girl. I wasn’t in that at all [as an actor],” Rae says. “I think removing myself completely lead to its voicelessness and non-specificity.” But just as any doubt set in, HBO picked up Rae’s Insecure for a series order. “When I tried this new project with HBO, I put myself back in it and clearly recognized what I wanted to say.”
Thandie Newton, 'Westworld'
When the first season of HBO’s buzzy sci-fi showcase Westworld wrapped, Thandie Newton had been put through an emotional rollercoaster -- and loved every second of her wild ride.
“It was so profound, the feeling of freedom I had afterward,” she says. “I just felt liberated from my own doubt about self and power and my creative force. That was removed. I gave everything to Westworld and I was so thrilled with the result. I felt like I was so privileged just saying the words that were written.”
Asia Kate Dillon, 'Billions'
“I did not do it to consciously push back against expectations,” Dillon explains about their decision to submit for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series rather than Actress. “I don’t identify as a woman, so it wouldn’t have felt right to me to submit to Best [Supporting] Actress because that word doesn’t ring true for me.”
Brian Tyree Henry, 'Atlanta'
A deadpan but comical Glover is the protagonist, an Ivy League dropout with no real plan and a young daughter to care for who convinces his cousin to let him manage his fledgling rap career. But there are no Champagne bottles or strippers ahead. Instead Atlanta is a brass tacks peek at being poor, educated and black in America and how stressful treading financial waters can be when you seem to be surrounded by glistening yachts. For Henry, who says he became a man while attending Morehouse, he wanted to make sure that his depiction of Alfred was true to the city.
“It’s so easy for people to label us and see me in a button-up with a gold chain, like, ‘He ain’t gon’ go nowhere, he ain’t read no books,’ and I didn’t want to put that on Alfred,” Henry says. “I didn’t want it to be a buffoonery of people who are from places like East Atlanta. I really wanted him to have a soul, feelings and be the most lovable dude, but it’s hard out here.”
Alexis Bledel, 'The Handmaid's Tale'
By the time The Handmaid’s Tale premiered at the end of April, the show’s buzz almost made Gilmore Girls seem like a thing of the distant past, especially considering how Bledel -- unrecognizable to many at first -- in particular was so well-received. Vanity Fair explained why she was the show’s “secret weapon” and Vulture wrote that Oflgen was “the role she was born to play,” finding new depths as an actress. “I knew that this was an amazing role, but I certainly couldn’t expect such wonderful reviews. I’m certainly appreciative,” Bledel says in amazement of the reaction to the show, which she joined simply because of what she described as “incredibly complex and rich storytelling.”
Trevor Noah, 'The Daily Show'
“If your views have not been challenged, then you were handed a platform. But if people now recognize you for the hypocrite you are, then I would safely say that’s what debate is all about. You can’t exist in a political space and not talk to people you don’t agree with -- then you’re in the world of self-congratulation, not in a world of engagement,” Noah says, explaining the difference between giving someone a platform versus engaging them. “It’s different [from] if I was playing games with people. Then, appearing on my show could be considered a platform because there is no way that you’re going to walk away unscathed. But if you come on my show -- whether you’re John Kasich or Ben Carson or Tomi Lahren -- I will have you on the show because I wish to engage you and your views.”
Billy Eichner, 'Billy on the Street'
"I never want the show to be didactic. I always want to lead with comedy, but hopefully be able to sneak my message through at the same time," Eichner says. "I'm glad that the show has evolved in a way where we can take on those topics. Because that really reflects who I am as a person, more than just someone who is so single-minded in terms of thinking about pop culture and award shows and all that. And I do love all of those things! But, obviously, I was thinking about more serious issues."
Our Lady J, 'Transparent'
“It’s something I always wanted to tell, a story of trans childhood. It’s something we hadn’t seen onscreen before and so it just took a lot of pressure off of what I had to do artistically in the world.”
With that notion of having “to write that one thing that will make everyone finally understand me” out of the way, “I can sleep a little better,” Our Lady J says.