Sam Richardson, Marcia Gay Harden and Other Emmy-Nominated Guest Actors on Their Brief — But Attention-Grabbing — Screentime

Sam Richardson (Ted Lasso, Apple TV+)

From left: Toheeb Jimoh and Sam Richardson

Courtesy of Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

Billionaire Edwin Akufo, who arrives from Ghana to buy out the contract of Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh), revels in watching people unravel in front of him. “Edwin comes in as this benevolent, greater-good figure — a billionaire who says billionaires shouldn’t exist. But he’s really just a petulant child,” says Richardson. “To see him come and cause chaos in this world, knowing that it’s part of a calculated plan, is a fun manipulation.” Initially, Richardson knew nothing about the context of his role, only that his presence was requested by Ted Lasso co-creators and fellow Second City alumni Jason Sudeikis, Brendan Hunt and Joe Kelly. “There [was] a clear A-side and B-side, and the turn can be so much funnier if the A-side is so charming and affable. I wanted to achieve that hard spin.” For Richardson, it was his character’s final scene, when Edwin is turned down by Sam, that epitomized his character. “It is that journey from cold to hot. He is smiling, and then he hears the news and his eye twitches. It’s still, and then goes to a thousand,” explains Richardson, who knew he was getting it right when his scene partner couldn’t hold in his laughter. “It is fun when your partner is breaking because then you’re like, ‘All right, well, that’s the audience.’ ” But while throwing an onscreen temper tantrum is pure delight, the scene that Richardson felt pressure to nail was the heartfelt conversation between Edwin and Sam over a meal of Nigerian food, in which his character’s intended purpose is to alter the course of the season. “It’s Edwin’s job to make the case for why Sam should leave this world, leave that team, leave the show, and to make it feel, even for the audience, that he might go,” says Richardson. “I was most nervous about that scene, but I think it turned out well.”

Tom Pelphrey (Ozark, Netflix)

Tom Pelphrey

Courtesy of Steve Dietl/Netflix

From the moment Wendy’s (Laura Linney) brother, Ben, enters the world of Ozark — as an irate substitute teacher who throws his students’ cellphones in a wood chipper — he is an agent of chaos. Ben really starts to push people’s buttons when his actions threaten the money-laundering business built by his sister and brother-in-law. But the reason Pelphrey believes Ben so effectively tugged at people’s strings is not because of the havoc he wreaks but because of how the writers established the heart of the character. “The monologue in the taxicab was one of the most beautiful pieces of writing that I’ve ever had the privilege of working on,” Pelphrey says of one of the scenes leading up to his character’s death, which was revisited in season four to remind viewers of the shadow Ben cast over the entire show. Equally formative was Ben’s introduction to love interest Ruth (Julia Garner). “I thought it was such a beautiful and simple scene,” he says. “Before Ruth knows who Ben is, he’s flirting with her and she’s flirting back, but also kind of yelling at him. It really established a beautiful dynamic of Ben — this pure, fun spirit. Even if, eventually, we have to go to darker places, at the core of that character is someone who’s quite charming.” Pelphrey never felt a need to consider the impact his character would have on the rest of show. “My job was trying to understand as best as I possibly could what a person with bipolar disorder might be going through and to make it as personal as I could, so that it didn’t feel like I was showing you what someone with bipolar disorder looked like,” he says. “On a show like Ozark, it’s not about being big or being small, it is just about being truthful — and being truthful in a world like Ozark means that you’re going to come to life a lot.”

Marcia Gay Harden

Courtesy of Erin Simkin/Apple TV+

Harden was grateful to have the foundation laid out in season one for her journalist Maggie Brener — whose upcoming book could have serious consequences for anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston). “You really knew who she was,” she says. “Jen’s and Reese [Witherspoon]’s characters are powerful women, so Maggie needed this gravitas to be able to come in and swing her bad ass around and scare up the flock. And she did.” While positioned as a foe, Harden sees Maggie as a Maureen Dowd-esque character whom the audience would normally root for. “I don’t think of her as the enemy. I feel like she’s the people’s voice, on some level,” she says. “She’s not the people’s heart — they love Jen, Reese and Billy [Crudup] because they identify with them. I don’t know how many people identify with Maggie, but I know they can see some of the illusions that she’s aware of.” Harden compares the interactions with her scene partners to chess and tic-tac-toe. “You have to pull a different game metaphor out of your pocket each time to play the rhythm of the scene because they’re all requiring something different,” she says. Her scene with Aniston, Harden says, was like an erratic game of catch. “Jen is limping into the hotel room, throwing herself on the couch, crying and throwing herself on the bed — it was delightful to work with someone who is throwing the ball back,” says Harden. “And the scene with Reese was a tennis match. Could Maggie keep up? Who are we kidding? Of course Maggie could keep up.” But Maggie has the tables turned on her supposed virtue. “I don’t think Maggie was expected to be called [out on] the power that she had with this book. When you’re interested in the power, you become part of the system of abuse that you’re trying to expose.”

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Arian Moayed

Courtesy of HBO

As a constant threat to the succession plans made by the Roy descendants, Stewy Hosseini has been steadily jeopardizing board elections since the first season. But as a shift in Waystar Royco’s leadership appears more imminent than ever, what Moayed believes has evolved from his recurring interactions with the Roys is a respect between opponents. “Stewy has been the straightest player in the entire series. I see him as the person that’s playing the game in a way that Logan [Brian Cox] likes,” says Moayed. “He’s doing what Logan wants his kids to do: not take this all so personally and get to the brass tacks.” For Moayed to be able to come in and turn the corporate and family dynamics upside down, the actor feels the need to stay on top of surrounding plotlines. “Stewy himself would be abreast of everything that’s going on in the Roy family,” says Moayed. “At that level, secrets are rare, I feel.” To exude the kind of power his character appears to have, the normally quite animated Moayed has imbued Stewy with an unnerving stillness. “There’s a level of confidence and relaxation that is really jarring for the rest of these folks,” explains Moayed. “He can come in, slow down the pace and tell the truth about what’s happening at this moment.” Achieving that stillness could be challenging in an environment that to a lesser person sounds like a pressure chamber. “I can imagine that an eight-page scene with no cuts, no rehearsals and three film cameras could scare the shit out of you,” he says. Thankfully, for the Iranian American actor, those scenes have become his favorite challenges. “There are 10 expert musicians in that room, and the key is to find out how to play music without throwing in a solo. There’s a little bit of deliciousness in that.”

Christopher McDonald (Hacks, HBO Max)

Christopher McDonald

Courtesy of Karen Ballard/HBO Max

What Marty Ghilain and Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) lack in shared screen time, they make up for with intense chemistry. “They have this history together and can push each other’s buttons. That makes for interesting stuff,” says McDonald, whose character is the impetus for the legendary comedian to expand her horizons when he reduces her performance slots at his casino. But it is never just business between the two Vegas veterans. “I freakin’ asked her to marry me — and she said yes!” says McDonald with a laugh. “We have made carnal knowledge between a couple of our weddings and divorces.” Portraying an intimate history that doesn’t exist is something actors often have to do, but in the case of Smart and McDonald, there was something of a relationship to fall back on. “It helps that we had worked together in the past, and I was already enamored with her talent and personality.” The rest, however, was up to McDonald to develop. “It’s always the actor’s job to flesh out a character,” he says. “I don’t know how you step into the life of this guy without building a solid foundation of where you’ve been for the last 25 years.” Even with an understanding of Smart’s talent, McDonald felt his co-star’s responses in his gut each time Marty has to go for the jugular. “The look on her face is so reactive,” he says. “She goes right into making jokes, but you can see the hurt in her eyes. But it’s what I have to do. I have to break the bad news, and it moves the story along so beautifully.” For McDonald, playing the love interest — however antagonistic — is a welcome challenge. “I don’t get to play that kind of empathetic part very often,” he says. “I find that has stretched me, and playing opposite a jewel like Jean Smart makes it easier. I want more of it.”

Lee Yoo-mi (Squid Game, Netflix)

From left: Lee Yoo-Mi and Jung Ho-Yeon

Courtesy of Noh Juhan/Netflix

While the task of a guest star is often to come in, shake up the plot and move on, the shift caused by Squid Game contender Ji-yeong is not exactly chaotic in nature. “My character shows that among the adults, there are some who are still considerate of others and care for other people, even when their life is on the line,” says Lee, whose three-episode arc includes the heart-wrenching episode “Gganbu,” in which the contestants — after establishing teams of two — realize that only half of them will make it alive to the next round. “I think Ji-yeong’s role is to show that caring people still exist in these very scary games. She shows that the world is still livable.” Although Lee’s participation is relatively brief, it is not the number of lines one has, according to the actor, but what one does with them that counts. “I appear in very short scenes, and I have very short lines as well, but I thought that from these short lines I could show a lot of different facets of Ji-yeong,” she says. “I tried my best to make sure that the way I talk and the way I look at people really shows who Ji-yeong is.” To make it feel like her character was part of the games all along, Lee established an offscreen relationship with her co-star Jung Ho-yeon. “At first, I felt like I should be close to her to make sure that the scene really seems grounded and real, but we did really click and, because we became friends, my character was built very quickly.” The reverberations of Ji-yeong’s sacrifice can be felt for the remainder of the season, but Lee tried hard not to play up her character’s importance onscreen. “She is a character that supports the growth of other characters, so I wanted to make sure I [didn’t] become too greedy as an actor, and focused on the character by putting myself in her shoes,” she says.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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