The best-loved faces on TV have a new look. This past spring we cheered for Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson and wrestled with Wendell Pierce’s nuanced take on Justice Clarence Thomas in the HBO movie Confirmation. This summer John Turturro co-stars in the HBO miniseries The Night Of, and Ellen Barkin leads a family of criminals on Animal Kingdom, while for the past two years Viola Davis has won accolades for her portrayal of a criminal-defense attorney on How to Get Away With Murder. Familiar faces all, but not in the kind of roles that made them familiar.
That’s because many of today’s top-billed TV actors used to be considered character actors, known for playing bridesmaids but never the bride, secretaries but not CEOs. They’re not Clooneys or Bullocks but talented workhorses–and they’re flourishing on the small screen as never before.
The promotion from second fiddle to soloist can be attributed to our current era of “peak TV,” a time of more high-quality scripted shows than ever. The pay is better and the commitments shorter, as the average number of episodes per season declines. For Turturro, a veteran of more than 70 films, the migration to small-screen lead is as much push as it is pull. “They don’t make many serious films, the middle kind of film I made my living doing,” he laments. And when they do, he continues, “they want certain actors that get first crack.”
Serious actors like Turturro always follow good work, but they also want to be where audiences are. “And let’s face it,” he says, “the watercooler conversation is about what’s on television.”