Stretching Miniseries Talent to Suit Emmy Roles

Playing for Laughs or for Sympathy, Women Show Wide Range in Long-Forms

After "Will & Grace" finished its eight-year run as one of TV's most lauded comedies, Debra Messing did not plan to go straight back to work. But when the script for "The Starter Wife" landed in her lap, she threw herself into a character very different from Grace Adler.

Ms. Messing was nominated for an Emmy five times for that role, and won as comedy actress in 2003. Now she's up for lead actress in a miniseries or movie for playing rejected wife Molly Kagan in the USA miniseries that first aired in late spring.

"I had a hard time keying into this character and this world. It was so far away from myself," Ms. Messing said. "I'm not a starter wife and I don't live the life of privilege the way it was dramatized in the miniseries.

"However, I realized there was a parallel [between] being a recognized actress and a starter wife, with different rules and expectations placed upon us, and higher standards of beauty and thinness and glossiness and glamour that seem to be part of the job of being an actor.

"Starter wives have that burden as well, to support their husbands and have the manicure and beautiful hair and Chanel jackets and [involvement in] charity events. But they don't get paid for it and they're much more vulnerable, and that's how I keyed into it at first."

"The Starter Wife" was based on the novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, who said, "Perhaps the most important thing was to have Debra. I could not have picked a finer actress and am thrilled at how it turned out."

Queen Latifah earned her first Emmy nomination for a very different type of woman, Ana in HBO's "Life Support." The character is based on writer-director Nelson George's sister, who had committed petty crimes, become a crack addict and become infected with the HIV virus as a young adult. She went through a remarkable transformation inspired by the diagnosis, which gave her a sense of purpose in her life.

"Latifah emotionally committed to do very difficult work," said Mr. George. "She got so embedded in this character and really dug into her. Two of her close friends had died of HIV, and that experience drove her to want to do this. She even canceled a concert tour [to do it]. I think her performance is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

"I said to her, 'Your character is not the nicest person, and is sometimes duplicitous.' That complexity in life and realness embedded in fact comes from Latifah's willingness to be naked. It's so emotionally vulnerable and so startling where she comes from. I can't think of another performance that matches it. It's all there on the screen."

In Lifetime's "What If God Were the Sun?" Gena Rowlands plays a terminally ill patient whose vitality and unswerving faith helps a nurse cope with her father's unexpected death.

Ms. Rowlands has won three Emmys, for "Hysterical Blindness" (2003), "Face of a Stranger" (1992) and "The Betty Ford Story" (1987).

Mary-Louise Parker got two Emmy nominations this year, for her Showtime series "Weeds" and for playing Zenia Arden in the Oxygen movie "The Robber Bride," based on the popular Margaret Atwood novel.

The character is a treacherous manipulator who steals what other people hold dear: a job, a husband and a child. The film begins with her mysterious death and works backward through her manipulative exploits.

Helen Mirren won an Emmy and a Golden Globe last year for HBO's "Elizabeth I" and then took home the Oscar for "The Queen." As the much less regal Jane Tennison in "Prime Suspect," she won an Emmy in 1996. With "The Final Chapter," she can punctuate the end of the series' 14-year run with another for her performance as the brilliant but troubled Tennison.

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