Constance Zimmer has built a long career playing tough, unsentimental women, including a shady operative on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a hard-nosed journalist on Netflix's House of Cards.

And the role which earned Zimmer her first Emmy nomination this year — reality TV producer Quinn King on Lifetime's UnREAL — could be TV's most caustic villain.

So it's a little surprising that when you ask the actress how she feels about the meaning of her nomination, she almost cries.

"It's a true milestone for me," says Zimmer, 45. She says she's a lot more sentimental and open-hearted than the characters she usually plays on TV.

"People say, 'Over 40, that's when it slows down.' But for me, it's only picked up," Zimmer says. "They are writing more characters for women in television after their 40s, because that's when we really know what is going on. ... We're more confident and we're more secure and we have more things to show."

Years ago, there were so few quality roles, especially for women, that the Emmy academy often nominated the same people again and again. Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen famously stopped entering the contest after winning five Emmys as best actress in a comedy series.


This year, the academy has nominated a bunch fresh faces in high-profile acting categories, handing first-time nods to Louie Anderson (FX's Baskets), Martin Mull (HBO's Veep), Keri Russell (FX's The Americans), Rami Malek (USA's Mr. Robot) and Zimmer.

The influx of first-time nominees hints at deeper changes in the TV industry, including an increase in high-quality, sophisticated series and better roles written for a wider diversity of performers.

Zimmer credits the explosion of high-quality scripted shows across broadcast, cable and streaming for the change.

"There's so many more venues where you can be seen," she says. "Somebody like Rami Malek, he's probably been working for years. But you get that one part that gets enough buzz, that gets enough eyeballs, that people go, 'Oh, this is incredible.' "

The method of acting

Indeed, Malek does have a long acting career on great TV shows, with stints on Gilmore Girls, 24 and HBO's Emmy-winning miniseries The Pacific. But it wasn't until he played emotionally-damaged hacker Elliot Alderson on Mr. Robot that Emmy came calling with a nomination for best actor in a drama series.

Malek, 35, says he talked with a psychologist to figure out how to play Alderson. The hacker sees his dead father as a living being, played by Christian Slater — the embodiment of more destructive elements from Alderson's own psyche.

The actor cites a moment from the second season to show how research helped him shape the role.

"There's that moment in the first episode of the second season where Christian Slater [as Alderson's dead father] pulls a gun on him and pulls the trigger," Malek says. "I bring myself up and I look him in the eye and ask him if he's done. As I turn to go back to the desk, you can kind of see the fear that I've been trying to push deep down inside kind of come up into my face and slip a little bit of my eyes. That was a moment where I felt like we really could understand Elliot."

Non-actors might see a showy, powerful scene like the courtroom confrontation between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men as an example of great acting. But Malek says the definition of quality acting is a little simpler — and subtler — than that.

"[It's] just an authenticity that sucks you into [that] world," he says. "It makes you almost forget what you're watching ... that you're sitting in a theater or sitting on the couch. It's a transcendent experience."

The best of the big screen is going small

Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. says he's sensing a "seismic shift" in Hollywood, after he earned his first Emmy nod as best actor in a miniseries or movie for his role as O.J. Simpson in FX's anthology series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

In the past, Gooding says, an actor might stretch his talent and develop a bond with a great director while working on a low-budget independent film, hoping to work on bigger projects with that director as he or she becomes more successful. There are drawbacks, though: low pay and little money for the production.

"Well now, you have those same scripts [on TV], but they're not sacrificing production value," says Gooding, 48. "They're not truncated to a two-and-a-half-hour tale. They're eight hours. They're 10 hours. And you have the finances to get it right."

Twenty-five years ago, Gooding first worked with director John Singleton, another first-time Emmy nominee who is benefiting from the same trends the actor describes.

Together Singleton and Gooding made the landmark film Boyz n the Hood in 1991, bringing an explicit view of the gang violence in Los Angeles' South Central neighborhood to an international audience.

This year, they reunited on American Crime Story, for which Singleton also earned his first Emmy nomination. He directed the episode "The Race Card," which tells its story through the points of view of the three black men at the heart of the Simpson trial: prosecutor Christopher Darden, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran and Simpson.

"It's probably one of the [rare] times on television you've seen three distinct, multilayered black men who had their own perspective," says Singleton, 48. "Usually when they have black characters on a show, they're in the same socio-economic class, either low or high, or they make them cops — they're all uniform. They may be played by different actors, but they're all kind of uniform."

Singleton says TV work has made him a "brand new man," unlocking a wealth of opportunities he could never have imagined back when he, Gooding and co-star Ice Cube were making history with Boyz.

"When I was 22 years old and I did that movie, I still had one foot in the streets," says the director, who is now developing TV projects with FX and BET. "I didn't think I'd make it past 25 or 30 years old. Doing all this wasn't even on my radar at all."

Doing "great stuff just as a pure show"

Comic actor Aziz Ansari picked up three first-time nominations for his Netflix show, Master of None, highlighted as a writer, director and actor.

Nominees in acting categories must submit an episode to the TV academy for final judging. Ansari, 33, provided a touching episode featuring his character's mother and father and their experience as immigrants titled "Parents."

But he also hopes people won't overlook the idea that beyond its fresh takes on culture, race and the families of immigrants, Master of None also is a pretty good relationship comedy.

His example: an episode he considered submitting called "Mornings," in which his character struggles in a relationship with his live-in girlfriend. The story is told almost entirely in their apartment through their interaction in the mornings over a long period of time.

"I do a lot of these interviews about the show, and a lot of times there's a focus on the diversity and the cultural aspect of it," Ansari says. "I think we did a lot of great stuff just as a pure show. The romantic arcs in our season, I'd put it up against anything. And we did have white people on our show that did a great job," he laughs.

We'll learn if the TV academy's taste for new faces extends to the winner's circle during the Emmy awards ceremony Sept. 18.

If more than few newcomers convert their nominations into wins, it will be an important sign that TV's establishment has fully recognized a fresh crop of trailblazers in television's new golden age.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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