Although the number of entries is not as robust as it used to be, the longform category still boasts formidable roles from a balance of U.S. and U.K. actors and actresses. However, no matter how bright the star wattage, the TV Academy will nearly always choose a defining performance of an iconic historical figure in the end. Here’s a detailed look at each nominee and their chances to take home an Emmy this year:
KEVIN COSTNER (Hatfields & McCoys, History)
Emmy Pedigree: Though Costner doesn’t boast a track record with the Emmys, that certainly won’t tarnish his odds of winning as this has continually been the category for movie stars to get lauded and win on their first time out. Further greasing his wheels heading into the race is Costner’s Oscar blood, having collected best picture and director trophies early on in his career for his iconic western, Dances With Wolves.
What We Say: Competing against costar Bill Paxton means they could cancel each other out.
Related: The Miniseries/TV Movie Race
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH (Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, PBS)
Emmy Pedigree: This first-time Emmy nominee (who also scored on the big screen last year in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has gotten a lot of attention for playing famed detective Sherlock Holmes in a modern-day world, including a surprise victory for him at the recent Critics Choice Television Awards.
What We Say: Cumberbatch’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes resonates with his piercing, emotionless, and wry cadence, and voters know that lauding this young British actor in his prime is timely. This could be the upset to watch for and a possible Emmy pool winner. You heard it here first.
IDRIS ELBA (Luther, BBC America)
Emmy Pedigree: Last year was a very big Emmy season for Elba. He earned a nom for his guest star stint on The Big C and his first for playing the troubled English police detective John Luther. Elba finds himself back again competing in the same category for the same role–the only returning nominee in the category this year.
What We Say: Elba wears complexity as comfortably as a warm, wool jacket against the grim, London fog. The fact that he has been nominated again for Luther should be impressive to Emmy voters, but the Academy doesn’t often reward someone just because they didn’t win before. His recent Golden Globe could help put him front of mind and engineer an upset win against some very stiff competition.
WOODY HARRELSON (Game Change, HBO)
Emmy Pedigree: The TV Academy recognized Harrelson for his role as affable bartender Woody Boyd on Cheers, earning five supporting actor comedy series nods and a 1989 win, as well as a 1999 comedy guest nomination for reprising the character on Frasier. Harrelson is no stranger to the Oscars, either. He earned a lead actor nom for playing Larry Flynt in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt and a supporting nom for 2009’s The Messenger.
What We Say: You simply can’t see Harrelson’s acting here as Steve Schmidt, the campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He brilliantly underplays this political tactician with restraint and so much authenticity you’d swear you were watching a documentary. Like his costar Julianne Moore, Harrelson is the likely frontrunner.
CLIVE OWEN (Hemingway & Gellhorn, HBO)
Emmy Pedigree: It’s the first time that Owen is being recognized by the TV Academy, and it’s not unusual considering voters’ respect for U.K. talent.
What We Say: Owen captures all the passion, complexity, bravado, brilliance, and arrogance of Ernest Hemingway in this story of the high-living and -loving relationship between the famous author and journalist Martha Gellhorn. Playing well-known historical figures is often a plus and Hemingway is a once-in-a-lifetime role. Watch out for Owen coming up on the outside.
BILL PAXTON (Hatfields & McCoy, History)
Emmy Pedigree: Paxton never earned a nom for his recently-wrapped HBO series, Big Love, so honoring him for his fiery portrayal of Randall McCoy is a nice way to make it up to him.
What We Say: The smooth, toned, haunting exchanges that Paxton’s McCoy has with Kevin Costner’s Hatfield are unforgettable. Nothing is more emotional than the moment during chapter two when Randall McCoy begs Devil Anse Hatfield for his sons’ mercy. However, for the same reasons as Costner, Paxton is probably on the losing end. Best thing to happen would be a tie because both Hatfields & McCoys stars turned this into a major miniseries triumph.
CONNIE BRITTON (American Horror Story, FX)
Emmy Pedigree: After being nominated the last two years in a row for Friday Night Lights, Britton has now proven she is quite the Emmy queen with a third consecutive nomination for playing Vivien Harmon in Ryan Murphy’s creepy miniseries. She hasn’t won a trophy, and the race in this category is even more competitive than drama actress this year.
What We Say: Doing the nasty with the Rubber Man and giving birth to a demon baby sets her apart from the other nominees in the category, that’s for certain. Her performance this year and all that goodwill from Friday Night Lights put her in contention, but the heavyweight competition from genuine movie stars makes her a long shot.
ASHLEY JUDD (Missing, ABC)
Emmy Pedigree: This is Judd’s second Emmy nomination, though it’s somewhat of a head-scratcher that she ended up in this category because the low-rated, quickly cancelled Missing was intended as a series. Although Judd gave it her all as Rebecca Winstone, a mother who takes matters into her own hands when her son goes missing under mysterious circumstances, her performance really belongs in the drama lead actress category. Clearly producers and the network decided she didn’t have a prayer there so they somehow convinced the TV Academy that Missing was a miniseries. Uh, no.
What We Say: Judd’s a fine actress and she might have a legitimate shot at winning an Emmy–but not this year.
NICOLE KIDMAN (Hemingway & Gellhorn, HBO)
Emmy Pedigree: This is three-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Kidman’s first Emmy nomination. She gives her finest performance since she won the Academy Award for her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours a full decade ago, taking on another strong woman from the 20th century in crusading war journalist Martha Gellhorn.
What We Say: Gellhorn’s tempestuous relationship and marriage to Ernest Hemingway is the center of the performance, but Kidman makes her so much more. In a rare TV outing, Kidman might have been an Emmy shoe-in were her costar from The Hours, Julianne Moore, not standing in her way. It’s probably Moore’s turn to shine here, but it could be a real race.
JULIANNE MOORE (Game Change, HBO)
Emmy Pedigree: Moore has a Daytime Emmy from her soap-opera days, but this is her first Primetime Emmy nomination. Moore nailed the 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin with an uncanny portrayal.
What We Say: This was no mere impersonation–Moore gave a nuanced, surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the notorious candidate who, by the way, has totally disowned the efforts of the star. Moore has already won for this role at the Critics Choice Television Awards, and it’s likely she’ll march right into the Emmys as the frontrunner to take it all there, too.
Related: EMMYS: Jay Roach On ‘Game Change’
EMMA THOMPSON (Song of Lunch, PBS)
Emmy Pedigree: Two-time Oscar winner Thompson has a long history with the TV Academy, dating back to her very first Emmy win, which was for her guest-starring role on Ellen in 1994. Since then, Thompson has earned four more nominations, including this one for a 50-minute-long adaptation of Christopher Reed’s lilting poem.
What We Say: Thompson was previously nominated in this category for Angels in America and Wit, but if she couldn’t win for either of those Mike Nichols-directed TV classics, there’s no reason she will for this.