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The moment Sheryl Lee Ralph found out that her standout role on “Abbott Elementary” had landed her an Emmy nom was immediately immortalized for all the internet to see. On vacation with her family in Jamaica, Ralph gasped into her phone as her son filmed her shock and awe unfolding in real time. The second she confirmed the nomination, they both burst into joyful yelps, thrilled beyond the parameters of coherence. The video went viral almost as soon as her son posted it on Twitter as Ralph’s fans rushed to celebrate alongside her. After decades of turning in worthy performances, Ralph has finally — incredibly — just received her first Emmy nomination.
“It’s just the best feeling,” Ralph says now. “Recognition for your female actors of a certain age and what you do is always a wonderful thing, [whether] from your peers, from your friends, from your family or from people you didn’t even know knew and loved you.”
Ralph isn’t the only veteran performer receiving her first nomination from the Television Academy this year. From Ralph, to Jennifer Coolidge (“The White Lotus”), to Sanaa Lathan (“Succession”), 2022’s guest and supporting actress honorees include women who have long been standouts to the point that it’s a genuine shock to realize that they’d never been nominated for an Emmy before. Take Harriet Sansom Harris, whose unforgettable takes on roles including the “Desperate Housewives” snoop Felicia Tilman and Frasier Crane’s acidic agent, Bebe, have made her one of TV’s most familiar faces.
“She always has a mad glint in her eye,” says Jeanne McCarthy, casting director for “Hacks” with Nicole Abellera. “She’s one of those people that you always know is going to bring something delicious and unexpected to a party.”
Still, it took Harris’ guest turn on Emmy favorite “Hacks” as a retired stand-up comedian — alongside fellow “Frasier” alums Jean Smart and Jane Adams, no less — for the Academy to finally name Harris’ sharp performance as one of the year’s best.
“I’m glad it was for something that I really enjoyed and that I was proud of. I believed in the story,” says Harris of receiving the honor.
Asked why her “Hacks” character might have resonated with voters more than others, she has an equally reflective and logical answer. “People loved the show. You can be great on a show nobody’s watching and think, ‘Was I not good? I thought I was good!’ But people have to be watching the show. Then something kind of magical can happen, where the interests align and people have it in their lens.”
That point resonates with “Succession” star J. Smith-Cameron, whose nom for supporting actress in a drama also marks her first. As Gerri, a calculating businesswoman whose unlikely partnership with Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin) makes for some of the show’s most memorable scenes, Smith-Cameron seized the opportunity to make the most of a series at the height of its cultural powers.
“People get a kick out of this character, and I think that’s a big part of it. It has to strike a chord.” As Gerri’s part in “Succession’s” ongoing power plays has grown, so too has the lore behind Smith-Cameron’s initial casting. Though Gerri was originally written as the anonymous male suit Jerry, Season 1 casting director Douglas Aibel thought of Smith-Cameron instead, and the rest is history. From there, she became determined to establish herself as someone eminently capable of balancing the show’s unique blend of comedy and tragedy. Imbuing Gerri with arch wit, Smith-Cameron quickly made herself indispensable, leapfrogging over what would’ve otherwise been a guest star nomination in Season 1 to the supporting category for Season 3.
That philosophy has extended throughout the series’ run, according to current casting director Avy Kaufman. For Season 4, which is shooting now, Kaufman says with a laugh that she’s casting a part that “can go in every direction possible.” Unlike “Hacks,” which tends to call for a very specific brand of actor for each of its roles, “Succession” leaves its possibilities more open to the idea of casting someone seemingly outside the box.
“It would be very easy if it were like, ‘45 years old, red hair, has a funny laugh,’” says Kaufman of the process. “But you just try to be as clever as you can to follow the writing.
In so doing, she’s cast everyone from Lathan, to Emmy nominee Hope Davis, to Season 2 standouts and (yes, Emmy nominees) Holly Hunter and Cherry Jones. Still, as Smith-Cameron looks over some of the names of women enjoying their first nominations this year, she wonders how she and Harris — an actor she’s long known through their years in the New York theater scene — have never worked together.
“I feel like we’d be up for the same part,” she hypothesizes about why their paths have so far failed to cross. “At this point, we’d have to be in a production of ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,’ you know? Something with two parts for women ‘of an age.’”
She’s not wrong. In browsing through the surprising list of first-time nominees in 2022’s actress categories, an undeniable theme emerges.
“It really is often the case that by the time you hit a certain age, especially as a woman, you can only be like a mother or a side character — if you even get work at all,” McCarthy acknowledges.
With shows including “Hacks,” which so specifically tells the stories of women whom Hollywood would prefer to ignore, more actors such as Harris, Adams, Laurie Metcalf and even Smart can not only co-exist, but also flesh out completely different kinds of characters. With more roles available to women beyond television’s typical parameters come more occasions to highlight performers including Harris, Smith-Cameron, Coolidge and Ralph — who might otherwise be competing for a single part. They can bring substantial depth to whatever their roles require no matter the genre.
“There seems to be an opening up of what constitutes an interesting story to tell,” McCarthy says. What’s more, “actors in their 60s are sublime. They’ve been honing their craft for decades.”
For Smith-Cameron, getting the chance to make Gerri her own, on a show that has viewers as excited to watch it as she is to bring it to life, is exactly the kind of challenge she’s always wanted as an actor. That her work has also resulted in an Emmy nom — alongside enough colleagues that “Succession” broke the acting nomination record previously held by “The West Wing” — is an especially sweet bonus.
“It’s like catching a wave,” she says, “and if you catch the right wave, you might get all the way to shore.”
Carole Horst contributed to this report.
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