Four actors who light up the TV screen in small roles

The fate of Michael Kelly's Doug Stamper is unclear at the moment on "House of Cards."
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Sure, the Emmys honor top talent on TV, the stars and supporting actors who bring the drama or the laughs to the forefront. But what about the actors who don’t necessarily get the cute catchphrases or flashy support arcs, yet they bring the intensity, lighting up the screen every time they’re in a scene? Here, we turn the spotlight on four such talents, who have a total of zero Emmy nominations. Maybe it’s time to take a second look.

Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell, “Mad Men”)

For seven years, Pete has made us squirm. He’s so overweeningly ambitious and proud, he all but screams “appreciate me!” and then makes it impossible to do so. “Men” fans might feel Don Draper’s been playing hard to like all this time, but it’s Pete Campbell who’s pulled it off.


“I would never attempt to portray weaselly,” says Kartheiser. “He’s a man of ambition and great want, and he has something to prove to every single person — from the girl on the elevator to the pilot on the plane.”

Being on the show has been educational, says the actor, who shot the pilot at age 26 and will finish at age 35. “Those are transformational years for any person, especially men,” he says. “‘Mad Men’ has taught me a lot of things about being a man in this society. I have grown, I have changed, and success on ‘Mad Men’ just opened my life to a wealth of experiences.”

Alyson Hannigan (Lily Aldrin, “How I Met Your Mother”)

In Hannigan’s expert hands, the quirky and surprisingly inappropriate at times Lily turned into a character with untapped depth; the actress’ wide-eyed mischievous innocence made her accessible and identifiable over the 200 episodes she appeared in before “How I Met Your Mother” wrapped earlier this year. She wasn’t “Mother,” but the show wouldn’t have been the same without her.

“I love that they never shied away from the drama aspects of the show,” she says. “The Lily/Marshall [Jason Segel] stuff was something Ted [Josh Radnor] wanted to attain, and had it right there in front of him the whole time.... There was a scene where I had to tell Marshall that his father passed away, and it was awful, but exhilarating that you could do such dramatic work on a sitcom.”

She’s already shooting her next show, “More Time With Family,” and is thrilled that the sitcom is going strong. “When we started ‘Mother,’ people were, like, ‘Sitcoms are dead. The format is going away.’ Now, everybody wants to do a sitcom.”

Jack Huston (Richard Harrow, “Boardwalk Empire”)

As the enigmatic, traumatically injured sharpshooter behind the mask in “Boardwalk Empire,” Huston was supposed to do only a handful of episodes in Season 1. But something about him caught the writers’ interest (perhaps it was Huston’s ability to spark with virtually everyone on-screen), and he lasted all the way through the end of the penultimate season of the series, getting a haunting send-off that was equal parts homage to the gravelly voiced (yet simultaneously soft-spoken) character — and cold, brutal goodbye.

“He got everything he ever wanted, but he was a tragic character,” says Huston. “It was the right way to go.”

The show changed everything for the British actor’s career, which he says was virtually “nonexistent” before. “I’m a lot more relaxed now, a little more confident in my ability. The thing about Richard is he was hard not to totally emotionally invest in; every scene you find new depths. It was an amazing all-around experience, and it was constantly surprising how each scene would affect me.”

Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper, “House of Cards”)

At the moment, Kelly’s Stamper is like Schrödinger’s cat: Both alive and dead. When last seen, his head had been bashed in, and he was left in a forest, and at the moment Kelly doesn’t know if he’ll be asked back (show creator Beau Willimon wouldn’t comment). But it’s hard not to hope that the low-key right-hand man to Francis Underwood is returning, complete with his thousand-yard stare.

If he isn’t, though, that’s par for the course for Kelly, who has a history of short, intense arcs on series. “My manager makes fun of me for it,” he says. “I like having days off to be with the family. That’s not to say for a second I wouldn’t be the lead of a show if the right opportunity presented itself.”

He’s been surprised at the loyal reaction (and street shout-outs) he’s gotten by playing Stamper. “Most people are like, ‘Doug is a bad-ass.’ But we were asked to attend the [White House] correspondent’s dinner last year, and I can’t tell you how many people were like, ‘I work for a guy just like you.’ A lot of people. That’s scary as hell.”

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