10 Actor Performances Emmy Voters Shouldn’t Ignore

Andrew Rannells in Girls. Photo: HBO

The 2016 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 27.

Emmy voters have a near impossible task ahead of them. Not only are they charged with watching dozens of screeners to consider their favorite comedies, dramas, limited series, and variety sketch and late-night shows, they must also parse out — from hundreds of contenders — the performers and performances they feel most impacted the overall success of these series. A lot of these performances are obvious choices: they may be lead, centerpiece characters (Bob Odenkirk, Julianna Margulies), the most buzzed-about contenders (Sarah Paulson in The People v. O.J. Simpson, Rami Malek in Mr. Robot), or they’ve simply become mainstay nominations (Jim Parsons, Julia Louis-Dreyfus). But behind the obvious contenders are many that may not be as apparent — perhaps because their shows' aired last year, they're brand-new talent, or have simply been eclipsed by their Emmy-winning co-stars. Ahead, we’ve compiled ten actors deserving of consideration as voters begin casting their phase one ballots.

Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Supporting actor, limited series
Ryan Murphy’s latest star-studded anthology series is one of a few true locks for a nomination this season, along with its stars Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, and Courtney B. Vance. But voters aren’t doing the legal drama justice if they overlook Brown’s flawlessly subtle take on prosecutor Chris Darden. While his male co-stars get to chew a lot of scenery (and in Travolta’s case, wear the hell out of some eyebrows), Brown quietly channels all of Darden’s angst. 

Louie Anderson, Baskets (FX)
Supporting actor, comedy series
The veteran stand-up managed to transform a role that on paper was potentially disastrous — playing the mother of Zach Galifianakis’s titular small-town sad clown, wig, dresses, and all  — into one of the most moving portrayals of a parent on television. In the role, he alternates between biting, wounded, nurturing. Anderson, who’s long been open about his struggles with obesity and substance abuse, said he wouldn’t play Christine Baskets in a “cartoony” way; rather, she is inspired by his own Midwestern mom and sisters. But mostly, Christine is a feminine extension of Anderson, and that’s why she works. 

Craig Bierko, UnREAL (Lifetime)
Supporting actor, drama series
With so many scene-stealing performances by female actors in this breakthrough contender, it’s easy to miss the genius in Bierko’s delicious portrayal of Chet Wilton. A not-so-thinly-veiled homage to The Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss, Chet is a slovenly, womanizing, and intermittently endearing cokehead who can charm even the snakiest of snakes, Constance Zimmer’s Quinn. Yes, Chet is a very yucky, very entertaining reminder that some of unscripted television’s biggest hits were born from the minds of exactly the type of men our mothers warned us about. And we couldn’t be more grateful to Bierko for the refresher. 

Chris Cooper, 11-22-63 (Hulu)
Supporting actor, limited series
The problem with Chris Cooper is he’s so good in every damn thing he does. He’s flawless once again in the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel as diner owner Al who shows his friend Jake (James Franco) a secret time portal to 1962, through which the assassination of President Kennedy may possibly be prevented. Critics were mixed on the ambitious project, but there is no denying Cooper’s heart-wrenching turn in episode one (and throughout, via flashbacks) as a man besieged not only by cancer, but obsessive regret over not being able to stop one of our nation’s most tragic events. 

Jay Duplass, Transparent (Amazon)
Supporting actor, comedy series
It was difficult to root for Duplass’s Josh Pfefferman in season one of Amazon’s breakthrough dramedy. Smug, self-absorbed, and sleeping with wispy millennials, he exuded the worst of the Silver Lake hipster set. But by the end of season two, Josh has gained and lost more than any character in the series: his love, his unborn baby, his grown son, his job — and his father. The latter is finally addressed in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the series, in which new father-figure Buzzy gives Josh permission to finally mourn the loss of Mort. It turns out it was easy to be critical of Josh because Duplass is so great at making him feel like someone we know. 

Connor Jessup, American Crime (ABC)
Supporting actor, limited series
The last young actor to win a major acting Emmy was Richard Thomas, then 22, for The Waltons, in 1973. Since then, young performers — unlike their Oscar-season counterparts — have inexplicably been absent from the race. Jessup’s performance could singlehandedly change this trend. As Taylor Blaine, a gay teen victim at the center of a posh private school’s rape controversy, Jessup, now 21, obliterates every TV archetype ever created for gay teens and school shooters. He is neither totally good nor evil; Blaine is a good kid who is forced to make some terrible choices. Jessup’s portrayal of adolescence at its most cruel is confusing and at times totally emotionless, which is makes it all the more stunning. 

Malachi Kirby and Regé-Jean Page, Roots (History Channel)
Lead actors, limited series
Producers of the epic mini-series’ reboot traveled the globe looking for their onscreen talent — around 6,500 hopefuls were seen — and their exhaustive efforts paid off. As Kunta Kinte and his grandson, Chicken George, British newcomers Kirby and Page both honor and reinvent these iconic roles, first played by LeVar Burton and Ben Vereen. In episodes one and two, it’s Kirby’s steely physicality that drives the narrative. The story shifts in episodes three and four — and is gifted some needed moments of levity — when Page enters as charismatic, optimistic chicken-handler George. It’s hard to believe that Roots is both actors’ big break in American television. 

Andrew Rannells, Girls (HBO)
Supporting actor, comedy series
After four seasons of playing the resident Hilarious Gay Best Friend in Lena Dunham’s urban tragicomedy, Rannells got to show his full, impressive range as a dramatic actor in season five. The Broadway vet (The Book of Mormon) saw his perpetually single Elijah become vulnerable and fall hard for Corey Stoll’s media star, Dil Harcourt. And just when we thought we’d get to enjoy Girls’ first-ever functional relationship, Elijah is dumped, and Rannells’ performance is so good, you can feel the exact moment his heart breaks. 

Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo (FX)
Supporting actor, limited series
There are few roles written for TV and film for which an actor’s skin color is totally irrelevant. As Mike Milligan in season two of Noah Hawley’s Fargo adaptation, Woodbine’s hair and clothing suggest we may have seen this gangster before — 1970’s blazer, manicured afro, bolo tie — but Woodbine’s ingenious, Anywhere, U.S.A., accent and calm car-salesman vibe throws the audience for a wonderful loop. One is hard-pressed to think of another performance this year that’s as strange, unpredictable, and salient to the broad success of the story as Woodbine’s.