Among this year’s Critics Choice Awards TV acting nominees are “the lifers,” an assortment of seasoned performers with long, successful Hollywood careers — many spanning from the ’80s and early ’90s, but also a few as far back as the ’60s — who have once again delivered performances on par with their finest work. And as several actors tell Variety, they’ve each followed distinctive paths, navigating industry changes and career highs and lows, to keep in the game for the long haul.
“In a way, my acting career has been headed toward this,” says Steve Martin, nominated for his performance as former TV star-turned-amateur detective and podcaster Charles-Haden Savage in “Only Murders in the Building,” which he also co-created.
Martin recalls his journey from writer and standup comic on TV series including “The Smothers Brothers” and “Saturday Night Live” through his immensely popular film career, landing now amid modern TV’s more flexible, nuanced formats. “The artistic level of television just utterly changed, and it became actually more desirable to be an actor on television — and I never thought that would happen in a million years — than being in a movie,” he says, convinced that TV is where he’ll stay. “I just have no interest in going away to make a movie — or just even to make a movie. I really like this. It’s the perfect thing I should be doing for my nature right now.”
Jean Smart says her role of veteran standup comic Deborah Vance on “Hacks” was “everything I could have wanted in my next job — it ticked off every box.” Noting that even some of the most successful actors rarely get the chance to demonstrate their full range, Smart feels fortunate to have landed a string of diverse, meaty roles, including “Fargo,” “Watchmen” and
“Mare of Easttown” at this point in her career.
“In the last 20-plus years, I’ve just been offered some incredible roles, and I didn’t take any of it for granted as a gal over 40,” she says. “I never got typecast. The first job I was offered after ‘Designing Women’ was a TV movie about Aileen Wuornos, America’s first female serial killer.”
For “Succession’s” Brian Cox, his now-signature role of media family patriarch Logan Roy came from a confluence of “great script, great role, great time, great situation — and outliving a lot of people. That helps,” he says with a laugh.
Cox notes that he always felt large-scale success was inevitable for him, as long as he stayed the course. “[I thought], ‘It’ll all come to you, but it’ll be in time.’” That’s been the case, he says. “Sixty years I’ve been doing this — since I was 15 — I just felt that eventually I would come into my time, and it would happen gracefully and in the best of work circumstances. And that’s what happened: I came into my moment.”
Broadway and TV veteran Audra McDonald, nominated for her role of lawyer Liz Reddick on “The Good Fight,” credits her performing longevity to a commitment to putting testing herself over increasing her name recognition. “When I look for work, I’m not looking for fame and glory,” she says. “I’m looking for ways that I can evolve, and for what’s going to challenge me as an artist.”
McDonald’s multipronged career includes theater and concert performances and has always kept her plate filled with fresh opportunities to stretch. “I’ve been able to keep it varied and challenging, and that was always the goal: evolution with everything that I do, and not recognition or fame, because I understand that that’s fleeting,” she says.
For Christine Lahti, fear has been a key motivator — not fear of not working, but fear about the role at hand. “I love it when a part scares the shit out of me,” she says, noting that her current part on “Evil” was among those she walked into with trepidation. “I’ve always been attracted to things that scare me and make me think ‘I have no idea how to play this character.’ And inevitably you find a way and you dig deep inside yourself.
“I just love that idea of keeping that challenge — and I’m old now, but I feel so at the prime of my life creatively,” says Lahti, who regularly finds new paths to stay engaged. “Even on television, it’s been challenging finding great roles for women my age, so I’ve been directing more and writing, and trying to produce as well.”
Rather than go all-in on production, Molly Shannon, nominated for the second time for her role of matriarch and now talk show host Pat Dubek on “The Other Two,” believes knowing when to take a step back has been crucial to both career longevity and her own peace of mind. “Too much work makes me unhappy,” she chuckles. “I love not working! And I try not to compare myself to people that feel like you have to work all the time.
“If I was feeling tired or burned out, I would just say no to a job, because I always wanted to be happy and excited to work,” Shannon says. “I never want to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m phoning it in.’ I always know when to pull back, and I think that’s kept me happy and positive.”
How one fills time between gigs is key for actors because they have to know that they are “infinitely larger than any character,” as “Genius: Aretha” star Courtney B. Vance puts it.
“When people turn away from you, as they always will — when all of a sudden they don’t want you anymore — what do you do in between those times? You have to build a life for yourself. You find things that excite you, so when they don’t want to hear from you anymore, you have a legacy to leave behind,” he says.
While Vance cites examples such as Robert Redford with the Sundance Institute and Paul Newman with Newman’s Own, sometimes the lives actors build also lend themselves to enriching their next characters. All these Critics Choice Award-nominated roles are certainly proof of that.