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May 27, 2020

High Five

In an Emmy season unlike any other, audiences are lauding these five for their discerning, diverse performances.

  • Julia Garner

    Owen Bruce /thelicensingproject.com
  • Matt Bomer

    Matthias Clamer /USA Network
  • Kaitlyn Dever

    Cliff Watts /Netflix
  • Bowen Yang

    Sela Shiloni
  • Sarah Snook

    Joe Pugliese /HBO

JULIA GARNER

By Jennifer Vineyard

When a shocked and shaking Julia Garner won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series last fall, she actually "blacked out" for a moment, she says, before haltingly comparing the award to a large foil-covered chocolate she wanted to break into pieces to share the honor.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, this is insane!'" Garner was startled in part because her work as whip-smart Ruth Langmore on Netflix's Ozark unexpectedly beat out a contingent of presumed favorites from the final season of Game of Thrones.

She was also preoccupied — she'd been mentally prepping to shoot a "huge scene" in the Ozark season-three finale. "As soon as I got off the stage, I started thinking about what I had to do that Tuesday," she says. "It was crazy timing."

Garner grew up in New York, where she studied acting in her teens as a cure for shyness.

Auditioning for student films led to her first role, in 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, and when juggling film festivals with midterms proved difficult, she opted for a GED.

Even so, she's never skimped on homework — she's always done a lot of prep, chronicling her various characters' feelings in a journal. "If I lost that, it would be devastating," she says.

The book is running low on pages these days, filled with voices from her professional past: Michelle in the Paramount Network's Waco, Ellie in Netflix's Maniac and Terra in Bravo's Dirty John, as well as several women with daddy issues, like Kimmy in FX's The Americans, Maddy in Amazon Prime's Modern Love and Ruth in Ozark.

What unites them, she thinks, is their curiosity. "Dear Diary," she might write. "Today I had a bad day — I was really upset at Marty." She also keeps a list of her characters' physical traits — "how they walk, do their hair, facial expressions, do they blink too much?"

The prep makes her feel more secure, but sometimes she still feels as if she's about to vomit during key scenes. So she incorporates that discomfort into her work.

"If you feel like you want to throw up, it's because they want to throw up," she explains. During one huge scene — the one that worried her on Emmy night — she used her distress to turn the angry Ruth into an almost feral creature, screaming and carrying on "like a wild cat."

She had carefully planned her verbal smackdown of Laura Linney's character, Wendy, but discovered new things in the moment. "The more intense I got, the more I started doing things I wasn't planning," she says. "I crawled up on the desk and was cornering her, and she started getting up and overpowering me."

"It was like a dance," says her costar and executive producer, Jason Bateman. "It was like they were figuring out who was pursuing whom, how to balance it out. It was nice to watch that unfold."

Those who like the thick Missouri accent Garner uses as Ruth should be doubly impressed by the meticulous vocal shadings she's preparing for the role of real-life New York con artist Anna Delvey in Netflix's Inventing Anna.

"I feel like I'm getting my PhD in accents," she says, breaking out a rich bit of Anna-speak, which is "consistently inconsistent — it's a little bit German, but you have to have the Russian, too. To Europeans, it's like she's trying to sound American. To Americans, it's like she's trying to sound European."

The show's New York production is on hold because of the coronavirus, but Garner continues to practice religiously.

When the crisis passes, she and Anna will be ready to go.

MATT BOMER

By Bruce Fretts

What a difference a decade has made for Matt Bomer.

In 2009, he became one of the blue-eyed faces of USA Network's so-called "blue skies" brand of aspirational, upbeat dramedies, thanks to his role as a crime-fighting ex–con man on White Collar. Now he has returned to USA for a much darker project: The Sinner.

In season three of the crime- drama anthology, Bomer plays Jamie, a disenchanted teacher whose involvement in the death of a longtime frenemy (Chris Messina) puts him in the crosshairs of Bill Pullman's police detective, Harry Ambrose.

"Jamie is an incredibly multifaceted character, which is something you always look for as an actor," Bomer says. "He's a little bit Hamlet, a little bit Holden Caulfield, a little bit Macbeth and a little bit Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as interpreted by Patricia Highsmith — all of which are very interesting to me."

Coming back to USA after stints in FX's American Horror Story and the Magic Mike movies "feels like a homecoming in many ways, but I'm also impressed with what the network has become since I was there: a powerhouse source of dramatic material that deals with really deep themes, like Mr. Robot and The Sinner," he says.

"When we were doing White Collar, we couldn't show certain body parts — God forbid we should say a curse word. Now the sky's the limit in terms of what you want to do."

Plumbing the emotional depths of a damaged character like Jamie took its toll. "A series like this asks everything of you as an actor," Bomer says. "Within two hours of wrapping it, I completely lost my voice and got sick. I don't know that I could play Jamie for six seasons, to be honest with you."

Given the format, Bomer signed on for only a single season of The Sinner. That allowed him to take gigs on two other, very different series: the NBC sitcom Will & Grace and Doom Patrol, which will bring its second season to both DC Universe and HBO Max.

"The TV landscape has completely changed, and I'm embracing all of it," he says. "I did Will & Grace, which was like old-school network TV. And on Doom Patrol, I'm getting to explore what streaming services provide."

But The Sinner holds a special place in Bomer's heart. "I would get every script and think, 'I've never had to do that before. Why are they trusting me to be able to do that?' Which is what made it such a great job," he says.

"This was hands-down the most challenging role I've ever been given — and the most rewarding."

That's saying something, considering Bomer earned an Emmy nomination for HBO's 2014 film The Normal Heart; he played an AIDS patient and lost 40 pounds for the part.

Still, he continues to push himself to take on greater challenges. "Honestly, I lived this role so deeply, I don't know if I'm going to be able to watch the show," he says, laughing. "Who knows? Maybe I'll just have a shot of tequila and give it my best."

KAITLYN DEVER

By Maria Neuman

Though she 's been acting professionally since age nine, last year Kaitlyn Dever evolved — seemingly overnight — from "working actress" to "critically acclaimed."

"It definitely feels like I'm doing more," says the Arizona native, who became familiar in recurring roles on FX's Justified and Fox's Last Man Standing, as well as the lauded indie films Short Term 12 and Beautiful Boy.

Then last year she and Beanie Feldstein starred in Booksmart, Olivia Wilde's perfectly formed coming-of-age indie hit. Only a few months later, Dever starred in the harrowing Netflix series Unbelievable.

"It's all happening at once, and while I don't know if my life has changed in a big way, I'm creating and doing characters that are complex, and luckily, people are moved by them."

In its first month, Unbelievable streamed to 32 million households, Netflix has disclosed. The eight-episode drama is based on the true story of Marie, a young woman charged with fabricating her own rape, and the detectives (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) who brought the truth to light.

"It's been a whirlwind experience," Dever says. "It's rare for two projects to come out at the same time and for people to love them both." The heavy subject matter of Unbelievable made for her most challenging role to date, and she knew it was powerful from the first read.

"I was blown away, and even though it happened back in 2008, it felt timely to me," she says. "Marie is one of the bravest people I've ever read about. I was happy that it was going to be told on a platform like Netflix, because not a lot of people knew her story. I knew what kind of impact it was going to have, because it's such an incredible story of courage."

Another deciding factor? Finally getting to meet Toni Collette, even though the actresses never share the screen. "I love her so much, and was able to tell her," she says. "I'm so in awe of her and how she views the industry, because she takes it all seriously — but not too seriously."

This year looks to be equally epic for Dever. She'll play another troubled soul, a single teen mom, in Hulu's Monsterland horror anthology. The eight episodes feature Gothic beasts, vampires, fallen angels, werewolves and other terrors.

"It's set in Louisiana, and my character lives in a really detached world," she says. "I knew it was something I really wanted to do, and I've never played a mom before, so that was a dream come true."

She'll also appear in the FX series Platform, which is written, directed and executive-produced by B.J. Novak (The Office, The Mindy Project). "B.J. is one of the smartest people I know, and it's very, very funny," she says. "I want to do different things all the time, but a lot of times my choices are just gut reactions."

Meanwhile, she's happy at home in L.A., where she lives with her parents and two sisters. She and her younger sister, Mady, perform as a duo called Beulahbelle, which had three songs on the 2018 Tully soundtrack.

"I love my family, and my parents are a huge help with everything," Dever says. "I'm so grateful I can have dinner with them every night."

Lately, she spends time each day dancing alone in her bedroom with headphones on. "It's like my version of yoga," she says with a laugh. "It all gets crazy sometimes, but people are giving me these opportunities, so I'm going to take them. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of all of this."

BOWEN YANG

By Bob Makela

When Bowen Yang showed up for his first day of filming on Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, he was profoundly struck by the names heading the call sheet.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, the top four people on this are Asian,'" recalls the comedian, who's been on the writing staff at Saturday Night Live since 2018. "And then I thought to myself, 'Wow, I've never gotten to play a family member of the lead. I've never played the cousin or the brother or the anything.'"

In the Comedy Central hit, Yang is hilarious as cousin Edmund, who begins season one as a Silicon Valley hotshot and natural enemy of bong-ripping Nora, who's still living at home with her patient father (BD Wong) and wisecracking grandma (Lori Tan Chinn).

Yang is eager to get back to filming season two, and he's especially looking forward to working again with the veteran Wong (Law & Order: SVU, Mr. Robot), though the pair didn't shoot many scenes together in the first season.

"That was one little request I put in to the writers' room — to write him and me together more," Yang says. "Because he's somebody that I've looked up to my whole life. I've been a fan since I saw him in Jurassic Park as a kid."

But it's Chinn (Orange Is the New Black) who might be the show's breakout star, according to Yang, who became SNL's first Chinese-American cast member last year.

"She moved to New York in the '70s and was doing shows with all these show biz legends. When I got hired for SNL," Yang says, "she regaled me with stories about working with Belushi and Aykroyd and all these comedy legends."

Before he moved to the East Coast — to earn a degree in chemistry from NYU — Yang grew up in Aurora, Colorado, where his parents insisted he undergo gay conversion therapy.

After college he taught himself Photoshop and worked as a graphic designer for a decor website, while doing improv and stand-up around New York City.

Yang loves the intergenerational Asian-American bonds Nora has fostered — and not just in front of the camera.

"We did as much as we could to bring in Asian people behind the camera, too," he says. "Everyone really listened to each other. Everyone really keyed into each other's instincts and each other's visions for what the show would be — even though it was a very dynamic and a very eclectic group of people coming together."

Yang points out "just how rare and how wonderful that is. I hope it becomes more common."

He knew he was on to something special on day one, while shooting his first scene with his three Asian-American costars.

"We were at a restaurant, nibbling on [Asian] food in between takes," Yang recalls. "And none of us had to explain to each other what this weird fungus was in front of us. There was this built-in understanding of what we had all gone through. And that got me emotional."

SARAH SNOOK

By Bob Makela

The season-two finale of Succession — HBO 's acclaimed series about media baron Logan Roy and his four ambitious children — features a pivotal beach scene between Roy's only daughter, Shiv, and her unctuous husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), who delivers a gut-punch confession.

Sarah Snook, who portrays Shiv, plays the disconnection and quiet despair perfectly.

That brutal moment of marital discord could not have been more different from the Australian actress' internal monologue that day. "I'm thinking, 'Damn, I'm so lucky,'" Snook recalls.

It was the start of shooting in Croatia, at a gorgeous island cove. The sun was shining behind a scrim of clouds, adding to the magic of the moment.

"Where are we? Are we even shooting something? Are we working ? We're not working. We're just on a lovely beach, reading a book, and I'm having a pretend argument with a friend of mine. This is not my life. Someone else is pissed because I've stepped into their life."

It's been a fruitful few years for Snook. Before Succession came along, she'd worked in theater and Australian TV. After sending in her video audition from Australia, she never thought she'd land the role — and once she did, she worried about getting fired in the early days of shooting season one.

But with two seasons under her belt, Snook has settled into a groove. She's got friends across all departments of the production, and she's trying not to dissect exactly what the show's success — it was nominated for five Emmys last year and won two — will mean for her preparation and peace of mind.

"I guess I try and not think about it," Snook says. "That's like noise. When you're in the eye of the storm, you don't even know the storm's actually going on around you."

She hadn't realized just how popular the show was until she attended the Emmys in Los Angeles last September. She'd expected to fly under the radar to see how things work, prepping for if and when she ever got invited back.

Instead, people she'd admired for years were saying how much they loved the show. As for surreal moments, Snook says, "There were heaps. Like dancing on the dance floor and [realizing], 'Oh, it's Amy Poehler, and she loves the show.'"

After the chaos of awards season, Snook carved out time to go home to Australia for the first time in more than a year. Her timing was fortuitous, as such routine trips would soon be a thing of the past, due to the pandemic.

"That's what I want to do after all this craziness in my life, I guess — just have normal times."

And "normal" does not include the opulence and wealth she experiences playing Shiv. "That's not how I grew up" in Adelaide, she points out. "It's fun and silly and, in the end, a little bit uncomfortable. Though inevitably, you get very comfortable with it."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2020

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