In Depth

Bad Boys Enliven Drama Side

Characters May Be Difficult to Like, But Drama Actor Nominees’ Performances Aren’t

A cynical doctor. A high-powered, unethical attorney. A brilliant advertising agency executive. A shrink who’s also in therapy. A schoolteacher turned drug dealer. A forensics expert who moonlights as a serial killer. Those are the roles played by this year’s crop of Emmy contenders for lead actor in a drama series.

Of the six candidates, three star in first-season shows that made a major critical splash: Jon Hamm of AMC’s “Mad Men,” Gabriel Byrne from HBO’s “In Treatment” and Bryan Cranston of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

For Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan on Showtime’s “Dexter,” which premiered in 2006, this is his first Emmy nod for the role.

It is Hugh Laurie’s third nomination as acerbic physician Dr. Gregory House on Fox’s “House,” a performance for which he has won two Golden Globes, in 2006 and 2007, and a Screen Actors Guild Award last year.

Emmy voters have favored James Spader as Alan Shore three times now, first in 2004 when the character was on ABC’s “The Practice,” and then in 2005 and 2007 when he transferred his caseload to “Boston Legal.”

Mr. Cranston previously was best known for his work as Hal, the father on Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” (2000-2006), for which he received Emmy nominations for supporting actor in a comedy series in 2002, 2003 and 2006. His role as high school chemistry teacher Walter White in “Breaking Bad” could not be more different from Hal. Sporting a paunch, a pencil mustache and spectacles, Walter partners with a former student to make crystal meth in order to raise money for his family after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“You relate to him, you understand him and you forgive him for the evil and bad decision-making, yet you root for him. That combination is rare. That roller-coaster ride, that push and pull, lends itself to wonderful storytelling, and that’s what pulled me in,” Mr. Cranston said.

“I often feel he’s gone to seed, a man who for 25 years was living a silent, depressed life, filled with regret about missed opportunities that start to wear on you and break you down,” he added. “So I wanted his physicality to be soft and a little pudgy and invisible to the world and himself. I drew that little mustache that made me feel impotent; the glasses were a cover, a mask, so he’s invisible to society. The clothes palette—beige, sand, cream, pale yellow—everything that blends into the walls, he could have painted himself as Navajo white.”

The well-dressed character of Don Draper, the creative director of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency in “Mad Men,” has already won Mr. Hamm a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal. In the first season of the program—set in the 1960 milieu of New York’s Madison Avenue—the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking executive’s secret past life is revealed, and a co-worker tries to blackmail him with it, but Draper emerges unscathed. Yet his marriage and his family life are also threatened by his numerous adulteries.

“We don’t show a lot in terms of the sex scenes, but it’s very sexy in a way that’s becoming a lost art. There’s a mood, a feeling, a vibe that’s much more about the relationship, and you see that emotional vulnerability—or the distance,” said Mr. Hamm, whose nomination is one of 16 that “Mad Men” received. “I’m tremendously proud of the show and my work, and it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. We shot the pilot two years ago, and I’m thrilled that I got nominated and the show was recognized in such an overwhelming fashion.”

The vast majority of Mr. Byrne’s work has been in film, and his portrayal of psychoanalyst Paul Weston in HBO’s “In Treatment” earned him his first Emmy nomination. In the course of the program’s first season, Dr. Weston treated several different patients—including one who fell in love with him—and went into sessions with his own therapist, played by Dianne Wiest.

Playing the title character in “Dexter,” Michael C. Hall works as a blood splatter expert for the Miami-Dade Police Department. In his time off, he’s a vigilante killer who hunts down murderers who got away with their crimes.

“I felt he was unlike any character I’d ever encountered as an actor or in watching a performance,” Mr. Hall said. “As reprehensible as Dexter is, the audience identified with him and his roots, and to breathe life into him was something I couldn’t pass up. He’s someone who manages a really formidable compulsion, and as a person I understand what it’s like to be compelled to do things, but thankfully not to kill people.”

Mr. Hall also was nominated in the lead actor category in 2002 for “Six Feet Under.”