ELLE FANNING (The Great)
The first season of Hulu’s historical comedy was all about Catherine the Great’s rise to power, and the second begins with her grabbing the crown from her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). “The second season is asking the question, ‘Once you have the power, what are you going to do with it?’ ” says star Fanning. “As Nick likes to say, once she takes power, she makes Peter her sex slave.” That naturally complicates the relationship between the two royals. “There’s a real push and pull with them. Peter is desperately in love with Catherine. Catherine still hates him and wants to kill him. But at the same time, she’s keeping him alive for a reason.”
That reason, as seen at the top of the sixth episode of the current season, is for purely carnal purposes. “He’s doing the ‘tongue trick’ on her, and he stops to say, ‘I think it’s a one-way street here,’ ” Fanning says. “Nick and I were both excited to do this because it’s all this back-and-forth, Bringing Up Baby-style with lots of [fast dialogue]. I do think Catherine is a little like Katharine Hepburn — she can take control of a room with all of her spunk.”
Fanning says that the second season arc for her character has been a rewarding one because she’s been able to play with Catherine’s best and worst qualities as a leader all at once. “I’m glad the show doesn’t make her a girlboss. She’s a feminist, but she’s still making mistakes, and although her heart is good … she can be a bit of a tyrant sometimes.”
HARVEY GUILLÈN (What We Do in the Shadows)
As Guillermo, the devoted and long-suffering familiar to Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), Guillén has spent three seasons on the FX comedy as the human foil to this character’s vampire housemates. But by the end of the third season, Guillermo’s patience has waned — and his powers as a vampire killer, who has protected Nandor from outside forces bent on destroying him and his bloodsucking comrades, have only grown stronger.
“Guillermo has been pushed to his limits,” Guillén says of the season three finale, in which Guillermo and Nandor finally come to blows. “He’s been a familiar and bodyguard for over a decade. He stands up for himself and literally goes toe-to-toe with his master, where all that frustration and anger, all the things that have gone unsaid, spew out.”
Guillén likens the moment when Guillermo and Nandor express their complicated feelings toward one another, like any fight within a relationship — whether it be platonic or romantic. “Guillermo shows Nandor that he’s not a pushover — he has killed so many vampires in his name to protect him and his honor. It’s a weird thing to play because he’s showing off his power, but you don’t want him to come across as a complete jerk.”
THUSO MBEDU (The Underground Railroad)
The lead of Amazon’s limited series, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, carried an entire show on her shoulders with her performance as Cora, an enslaved woman who journeys north to freedom. The whole production took an emotional toll on the young Mbedu, but there was a moment early on that made the project an extremely personal one for the actress.
In a dream sequence in the eighth episode, Cora encounters Caesar (Aaron Pierre), who had helped her flee at the beginning of the series. “She’s at a point where she can choose to embrace this new life that she has — but she can only do that by accepting what’s happened to her and the people that she’s lost,” Mbedu says. “She sees Caesar in that dream form and she asks him, ‘How long will this last for?’ And he says, ‘As long as you need.’ “
Unbeknownst to creator and director Barry Jenkins, the moment hit home for the actress. “I lost my mother at the age of 4, and I had never dreamt of her,” she says. “I arrived in Savannah to begin shooting the series, and I dreamt of my mother for the very first time. In the dream, she told me that everything was going to be OK. And so to see that moment in the show and have us shoot the scene so early [in production] was a lot for me. I remember saying [to myself], ‘I pray that whatever healing I’ve gained from this moment is what audience members who are in need of the same type of closure will gain from watching it.’ “
ANDIE MACDOWELL (Maid)
On the Netflix limited series, which stars Margaret Qualley as a young woman who leaves her abusive partner and begins cleaning houses to care for her young daughter, MacDowell plays Paula, the mother to Qualley’s Alex. (Qualley also is MacDowell’s real-life daughter.) Struggling with an undiagnosed mental health disorder, Paula had high highs and low lows, which often required MacDowell to jump into manic behavior that seemed risky.
“It’s always hard to get those scenes right,” MacDowell says, pointing to a moment when she breaks into her con man boyfriend Basil’s house. “It was cold. It was late. I had to wear this blood. I didn’t want it to be melodramatic — I wanted to be honest and real. That was the height of the chaos.” The veteran actress with decades of experience under her belt was worried that the reveal of Basil’s true identity would be difficult to pull off. “I really was like, ‘This is tricky, you guys.’ I don’t think the audience, or most people, were going to recognize that, but I’m telling you as an actress, that was a tricky thing.”
NICK MOHAMMED (Ted Lasso)
The charmingly awkward Nate shocked Ted Lasso fans with his season two arc on the Apple TV+ comedy when, having felt ignored by his colleagues at AFC Richmond, he turns his back on the team after a confrontation with the title character in the season finale.
“Back in season one, I remember Jason [Sudeikis] distinctly outlining season two as being like The Empire Strikes Back, with Nate [turning] to the dark side,” recalls Mohammed, who earned an Emmy nom for the comedy’s first season. “We knew that it was going to maybe antagonize the fans of the show to a degree, and so it was [a moment] that we knew we had to get right.”
The actor admits his character’s development was daunting, as it was a kind of performance he’s never delivered before. “If I have a comfort area, it’s very much in doing the awkward-comedy thing,” Mohammed says. That discomfort — as well as the sudden attention he earned on the massively successful series — was an asset when shooting Nate’s fight with Ted. “I remember Jason saying, ‘You’ve got to use that unfamiliarity,’ ” he says. “Nate is going through a similar journey — he’s not used to getting media attention. It felt like art imitating life. [Usually] I would try to make it light, to find the funny in the dialogue. But there were just too many moments in this season that were far more emotional or dramatic, or genuinely not very nice.”
LEE PACE (Foundation)
Pace had just begun shooting the first season of Apple TV+’s sci-fi series when the COVID-19 pandemic torpedoed the production. “We shot the first episode and were beginning the pieces of the season when we were shut down for half a year,” recalls Pace, who spent his hiatus enjoying the extra time he had to develop the character of Brother Day, the second of three genetic clones of the Emperor Cleon I. “I’m a theater actor, and like many actors in the theater, you learn things in your last performance that you wish you had known in your first,” Pace explains, noting that he rarely has so much time to sit with his scripts and dive deep into a character in a film or TV show.
In the eighth episode of the show, Brother Day has an existential crisis when he discovers he is not the all-powerful being he assumed he was. “By the end of the episode, he’s physically convinced that he’s just a man,” he says. To get into that mind-set, Pace spent the pandemic physically preparing for the role. “I spent so much time working out and lifting weights, thinking, ‘I’m going to get this Emperor body together.’ But I ended up doing hours and hours of yoga by myself, thinking about what happens when my character loses control of the body [to which] he is accustomed.”
EVAN PETERS (Mare of Easttown)
In the third episode of HBO’s limited series, Peters had to pull off a feat that might be difficult for most actors: playing drunk. “We talked early in rehearsal about the levels of drunkenness,” Peters says of preparing for the scene with showrunner Craig Zobel and co-star Kate Winslet. “You see this guy who’s put together, who seems like he’s doing OK. But then you see him at this bar, and he’s just absolutely shit-canned. Like, what’s going on with this guy?”
Peters dug deep into his character Colin Zabel’s past to find out how the detective got to his present. “You have to try to empathize with your character and understand why they are doing what they are doing,” he says. “The hardest thing for me to try to do, to get right in a scene, is [finding] that line of [a person] taking stock of their life — looking at where they thought they’d be.” At the bar, Colin bonds with Winslet’s Mare over their failed marriages and professional disappointments. “He is stuck and has failed to pull himself out of that feeling and ultimately feels like a total imposter.”
Many months after shooting (and earning an Emmy in September for the role), Peters now laughs about his own imposter syndrome while filming the bar scene. “I went crying to Craig, ‘I failed. I blew it! I’m going to have to shadow you now — I’m going to have to learn to direct.’ “
KAREN PITTMAN (The Morning Show)
Producer Mia Jordan is the voice of reason holding everything together on Apple TV+’s behind-the-scenes drama — but even she can’t escape the chaos that unfolds around her. That’s never more clear than in the second season’s eighth episode, when rumors of former host Mitch Kessler’s (Steve Carell) sudden death make their way to the production staff. As she works to confirm the story, Mia is challenged to honor her personal connection to Mitch, with whom she had an affair before he was fired in the first season for sexual misconduct.
“She is the architect of separating fact from fiction,” says Pittman, who notes that Mia has the chance to control the narrative of her relationship with Mitch despite what her colleagues may think of it. The episode was “fertile ground” to delve into her character’s nuanced emotions. “She’s grief-stricken but can’t really fall apart,” Pittman says. Mitch’s death — coinciding with an explosive tell-all book about the goings-on at the fictional daily news show that’s about to be published — gives Mia an opportunity to manage her grief by honoring the man she has lost.
“She knew the real Mitch,” Pittman explains. “The world has never gotten to get him, and how tragic and sad is that? I just really, really wanted to do justice to the character because we had done so much work in season one to show that she cared about her job, she cared about this man — and for it to end that way, you can imagine how devastating that would be for somebody.”
MICHAEL STUHLBARG (Dopesick)
As Richard Sackler, president of Purdue Pharma, Stuhlbarg gives a chilling, subdued performance on Hulu’s limited series. As the series unfolds — and Sackler is identified as the architect of the opioid crisis, having developed the highly addictive OxyContin — his power and influence begins to dwindle, even within his own family.
“There was one scene that on the page did not necessarily seem like it would be too much of a challenge, but the day turned out to be a very strange shoot,” Stuhlbarg says of a moment in the seventh episode, when Sackler breaks the news to his father, Raymond (Lawrence Arancio), that the FDA’s regulation of the drug will mean a huge profit loss for the company. “It’s a very pivotal moment when he finally says things to his father that he never said before. We started with a very moderate place, and then [creator Danny Strong] led us to go for it — to raise the volume and the pace and dive into the melodrama. The temperature of the scene grew to a very loud pitch until it got to the point where he says this untenable thing to his father, [who then] leaves the room by slamming the door.”
Stuhlbarg admits that finding the tone of the scene already was difficult, especially after midnight on a long day of production that involved a farcical moment with a set malfunction. “That door was the only entrance into the room, and that door locked when he slammed it,” he says with a laugh. “They could not for the life of them get the door open again. It might have just been pure exhaustion on everyone’s part, but not being able to get that door open and everyone just collapsing for 45 minutes. … It was a very odd, strange and memorable evening.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.