While it’s not uncommon for a married couple to both be nominated for acting Emmys in the same year (just ask Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy or The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), an African American couple has never had the same honor -- until now.
Kelly Jenrette and Melvin Jackson Jr., longtime working actors who will have been married three years in November, are making history as the first married African American couple to be up for acting Emmys in the same year -- Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series and Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series, respectively -- in the awards’ 70-year history. And for Jenrette and Jackson, the recognition marks new territory in terms of diversity and representation.
“It says a lot when there are so many other talented African American married couples that have been in this industry for decades,” Jenrette tells ET, referring to the likes of Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, both Emmy nominees in different years, and other longtime black couples. “So, I think it’s an amazing thing, a beautiful thing -- but it also shows Hollywood that we still have a long way to go.”
It’s been a long journey for the couple, who have been working in Hollywood for more than a decade, amassing at least 75 TV credits between them.
For Jenrette, who has recently recurred on Grandfathered and Pitch, her Emmy nomination comes as the biggest surprise, considering she only appeared in two flashback scenes -- including one where she doesn’t even speak -- in The Handmaid’s Tale’s season-two episode “Other Women.” “Everyone was surprised, including myself,” she says. “That typically doesn’t happen for what Hollywood considers to be an unknown actor, especially on such a powerful show with so many amazing actresses.” Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale garnered seven nominations for its female actors, while the Guest Actress category puts Jenrette up against veterans Diana Rigg (Game of Thrones), Cicely Tyson (How to Get Away With Murder), Viola Davis (Scandal) and Cherry Jones (The Handmaid’s Tale) as well as her Handmaid’s Tale co-star Samira Wiley.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s nomination comes for the YouTube series This Eddie Murphy Role Is Mine, Not Yours, which he produced and co-wrote with Jenrette. The series is about Jackson receiving a call from his agent about an audition for the role of Eddie Murphy in a biopic, and how he and a friend come up with a plan to knock out his competition. The actor, who has appeared on The New Edition Story, says that working on the project with Jenrette made the experience even more special. “My wife is a perfectionist, and I had the best partner in this in making sure it was right. I owe a lot to her for this coming together because she just supported me.”
That support goes both ways -- and beyond their television work, too. Jackson, who still works a regular 9 to 5 job to financially support their family, doesn’t believe in the “starving artist” mentality that the business ingrains in young actors. “I don’t subscribe to that, because being a starving artist means you may be homeless or sleeping on someone’s couch,” he says. “I can’t do that to my family. I still want to live out my dreams, be responsible, take care of my family and make sure I can pay my bills.”
If anything, Jackson and Jenrette, who is currently filming All Day and a Night alongside Jeffrey Wright and Ashton Sanders, hope that the nominations will not only help them (“Doors have definitely been opening. People have their eyes set on us,” Jackson says) but will “shine a light in a dark corner of what people of color deal with in the industry,” Jenrette says, acknowledging the fact that many articles about her nomination came with questions like “Who is she?” and “Where did she come from?”
"I think it just shows Hollywood that you may not know us, and we may not be a name actor or actress, but we’re still out there,” she continues. “There are some talented people that Hollywood may not recognize because they don’t have agents or they haven’t been given a chance.”
When it comes to the Creative Arts Emmys, during which both of their awards will be handed out, there’s nothing but shared excitement for one another. “I’m just honored to share this moment with her. I’m rooting for her and if I win, she’ll do the same; either way, it’s a win for the Jacksons,” Jackson says, with Jenrette co-signing her husband’s sentiment.
“I think that recognizing and acknowledging that we are a union, and a win for one of us is a win for both of us, it also keeps that competition out of the marriage in every aspect of it,” she says. “If Melvin wins, I’ll be the loudest person screaming my head off. I know the same, if I win, he’ll be screaming his head off because it’s a win for both of us.”
The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, co-hosted by Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost and Michael Che, will air live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 17, starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on NBC. Check out the full list of nominees and ET’s ongoing Emmy coverage here.