In HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," supporting actor nominee August Schellenberg plays legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull -- the iconic symbol of Native American Indian resistance -- for the third time in his career.
He is competing for the Emmy against castmate Aidan Quinn, who portrays Sen. Henry Dawes; Thomas Haden Church in AMC's "Broken Trail"; Joe Mantegna in USA's "The Starter Wife"; and Edward Asner in "The Christmas Card" from Hallmark.
"I tried to bring as much dignity and honesty to the role as possible," said Mr. Schellenberg, a Canadian-born descendant of the Mohawk Nation. "He is still revered as a champion of his people, and as he says, he was the last chief to give up his rifle. He didn't want reservation life for his people and he fought it to the very end. I was very honored to be given the opportunity to portray Sitting Bull, and hopefully I did a respectable job. It was an absolute joy for me."
When Mr. Quinn was a high school student in Rockford, Ill., he did a book report on Dee Brown's 1970 tome about Wounded Knee that gave him the credits he needed to graduate. Years later, he did research for his role by studying Sen. Dawes' diaries and speeches. He even unearthed part of an unpublished biography of the legislator, the author of a law authorizing the government to survey tribal land and divide it into individual allotments, which presaged the Wounded Knee massacre.
"What I liked was he wasn't black-and-white," said Mr. Quinn. "He did start out well-intentioned but got swept up in the flow of Manifest Destiny, with the power and inevitability. Even when he didn't like their customs, he believed the Indians still had rights. Without him as a buffer, there may have been several more Wounded Knees."
Although Thomas Haden Church was signing on at the time to be the villainous Sandman in "Spider-Man 3," as soon as he heard about a Western directed by Walter Hill and starring Robert Duvall, he wanted a part in "Broken Trail." He got the role of Tom Harte.
Mr. Church is an authentic Westerner who grew up in rural Texas, where his great-grandfather was a federal marshal in the early 1900s; he now lives on a ranch there.
"I had to tighten up in the saddle and grow a mustache," Mr. Church said. "It was not negotiable. If you want to have credibility in a Western, you must have a mustache. Razors were few and far between at the time, and mirrors even scarcer. They actually called them nose and chin whiskers. It's the first time I grew a mustache. My mom thought it was fake."
With nominee Edward Asner playing Luke Spelman, Hallmark's "The Christmas Card" touched audience heartstrings.
"Ed Asner gives a little bite to his role as the owner of a family lumber company who takes in a soldier who saves his life and who ultimately falls for his daughter," said Kate O'Hare, TV columnist for Tribune Media Services/Zap2it. "Mr. Asner makes use of his unique, gruff persona and comedy timing to lift it above the ordinary."
If "The Starter Wife" had gone strictly by the book upon which it was based, Joe Mantegna's character, studio chief Lou Manahan, would have been killed off early. In the USA production, however, he lived through the run of the miniseries as a love interest for the lead character.
"He was a wonderfully surprising, sexy and viable romantic option for Molly Kagan," said Debra Messing, referring to her character. "I loved that Joe was able to humanize Lou, someone who was privileged and powerful."
Also nominated from "The Starter Wife": Judy Davis for her supporting role as one of Ms. Kagan's most supportive friends, even as she battles the bottle.
"Judy Davis is a genius and she's a powerhouse," Ms. Messing said. "She's able to be funny and simultaneously be rooted in realism, which is not an easy task."
For Anna Paquin, appearing in a period piece, as Elaine Goodale in "Wounded Knee," felt like familiar ground after the films "The Piano" and "Jane Eyre."
"Getting to play a woman in that period of time who was strong and independent was very exciting, and everything about it was appealing," Ms. Paquin said. "I was one of the few people who had to speak Lakota, and I was obsessive about doing it right."
Toni Collette also had to learn another language for her role in HBO's "Tsunami: The Aftermath." Part of her dialogue was in Thai as she played a rescue worker helping victims of the natural disaster.
Greta Scacchi received her second Emmy nomination for portraying prostitute Nola Johns in "Broken Trail." Ms. Scacchi took home the Emmy in 1996 for her role in "Rasputin."
Samantha Morton, who played the controversial role of child killer Myra Hindley in HBO's "Longford," has defended it as her duty as a performer to raise issues people are afraid to look at. It's Ms. Morton's first Emmy nod.
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