At 58, Jeff Daniels has made more than 40 movies, been nominated for three film Golden Globes and had one of the defining big-screen comedies of the 1990s (“Dumb & Dumber”). But before last year he had never been a TV-series regular — and had never been nominated for an Emmy Award.
That changed Thursday, when the actor scored a lead actor in a drama nomination for his portrayal of anchor Will McAvoy on HBO’s fictional cable-journalism series “The Newsroom.”
Daniels leads a pack of film performers who have caught the television academy’s eye with their move to the small screen. Although the shift has been underway for several years, it perhaps reached a tipping point at the Emmys announcement Thursday, when more than a dozen well-known film actors landed nominations.
“We all follow the quality. It was indie film for a while, and now it’s cable,” Daniels said in an interview Thursday from his home in Michigan. “The creative freedom these shows offer is why many of us are going there.”
Everywhere one looked on the Emmy list there was an iconic cinematic character — Tony Montana (Al Pacino, nominated for lead actor in a movie/miniseries for “Phil Spector”), “Alien’s” Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, lead actor in a movie/miniseries for “Political Animals”), Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, lead actor in a movie/miniseries for “Behind the Candelabra”) and Buttercup (Robin Wright, lead actress in a drama for “House of Cards”).
There was a queen, Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, lead actress in a movie/miniseries for “Phil Spector” and an Oscar winner), an Oscar nominee from “Up in the Air” (Vera Farmiga, lead actress in a drama for “The Bates Motel”), the Oscar-winning star of movies such as “King Kong” and “Tootsie (Jessica Lange, lead actress in a movie/miniseries for “American Horror Story: Asylum”) and the Oscar-nominated hero of “Hotel Rwanda” (Don Cheadle, lead actor in a comedy for “House of Lies”).
To say nothing, of course, of Keyser Söze. Kevin Spacey had won two Oscars previously, for “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty.” But he became a favorite in 2013 for playing Congressman Frank Underwood in Netflix’s D.C. soap “House of Cards,” which of course wasn’t even on television, let alone at the multiplex
In a further sign of this commingling, the Liberace biopic “Candelabra,” which director Steven Soderbergh had initially sought to make as a theatrical feature, ended up on HBO. The movie garnered 15 nominations — becoming the rare Emmy contender to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played in competition in May. Soderbergh, an Oscar winner in his own right, landed a directing nomination for “Candelabra,” while other decorated feature filmmakers, including David Fincher and Jane Campion, also landed Emmy noms (Fincher for directing an episode of “House of Cards” and Campion for directing as well as writing “Top of the Lake”).
Performers say the proliferation of cable and other platforms for high-end, shorter-run series has made the crossover easier. To act on TV once meant a 24-hour commitment to a network show, often for years at a time. Film actors now can dip in to 10 or 12 episodes — or in the case of HBO’s spate of prestige movies, not even that.
The fact that many theatrical films are now watched soon after on small screens — including laptops and mobile devices — has also led to the leakage, as actors say that TV roles have pretty much been stripped of any stigma.
“The crossover is easier now because technology has changed the way we watch television and film,” said Farmiga, who also noted that “Bates’” 10-episode run on A&E made for what “didn’t feel like a massive commitment.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean TV is easy for actors accustomed to a big-screen schedule. “With film, you know it’s a 90-page script. It’s a beginning, middle and end, and you’re done. With a show like ours, it’s like you’re making a 10-hour movie,” Daniels said. "[Co-star] Emily Mortimer and I... [have] said this isn’t just like scaling Everest — it’s like scaling a mountain range of Everests.”
There are benefits, though. For one thing, when many of the actors turn up to the Emmys ceremony in September, they’ll also have new films to promote.
Benedict Cumberbatch, nominated for lead actor in a miniseries/movie for “Parade’s End,” stars in the fall awards hopeful “12 Years a Slave,” while Hugh Bonneville, the “Downton Abbey” star who snagged a lead actor in a drama nomination, has a role in George Clooney’s buzzy autumn movie “The Monuments Men.”
That double-dipping is particularly pointed in Mirren’s case. Even as she was being nominated for her role in “Spector,” the actress was preparing to open her summer action-comedy “Reds 2,” which hits U.S. theaters Friday.
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report