Power of Strong Supporting Roles: Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Allison Williams

Actors dream of landing that one role that ignites a career. And in rare instances, the magic of being in the right supporting role on the right show at the right time can propel a player who’s the second (or third) banana into full-fledged stardom, the kind that inspires Internet parodies, Halloween costumes and social-media shrines.


Such was the case for three actors who rocketed from virtual obscurity to become likely contenders in this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards derby. Christina Hendricks made Joan a force to be reckoned with during the pilot shoot for “Mad Men.” Aaron Paul saved the life of Jesse Pinkman by virtue of how compelling he was in the skin of the tortured soul on “Breaking Bad.” And with her first TV role, Allison Williams found her life changed as millions of viewers came to love (or love to hate) her as spoiled twentysomething Marnie on “Girls.”

A little sizzle on TV can lead to bigger things in the traditional sense — movie roles, stage work, personal appearances and endorsements — and even, in Hendricks’ case, a Barbie doll modeled after her character.

The experience is especially surreal when you’re associated with a show that’s become part of the zeitgeist.
Paul marvels at all the parodies and tributes to “Breaking Bad” he finds online. And how he went from being best known for an arc as Amanda Seyfried’s boyfriend on HBO’s “Big Love” to counting some of the industry’s biggest names as fans.

Two years ago, the night before Daniel Day-Lewis would win his third Academy Award, Paul spotted the “Lincoln” star at a party. “We make eye contact,” Paul says, “and he just bows to me.” The rest, he adds, is a blur, but he recalls Day-Lewis shaking his hand and professing his love for the show. “I forget what I even said,” Paul admits. “I think I went deaf.”

Says Williams of landing the role on “Girls,” “It’s absolutely changed my life.” Prior to playing Marnie, the actress had only minor credits. In fact, it was a 2010 video, in which she sang the song “Nature Boy” set to the music of the “Mad Men” theme, that caught the eye of producer Judd Apatow.


“My first day on set as a professional actor was shooting the ‘Girls’ pilot,” she notes. “It was a big moment that was either going to confirm or deny the lifelong belief I’d held that I was going to be an actress.”

Unlike Williams, both Hendricks and Paul had been working actors for years, racking up guest spots on countless shows and getting their hopes up for busted pilots and short-lived series.

“I’ve been doing this now for 17 years,” Paul says. “There were ups and downs, lots of struggles, but I was content, and happy to be working.” Everything changed when he read for “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, who didn’t take long to become a fan. “I was completely unaware of him as an actor, but he was fantastic from the moment he walked in the door,” Gilligan says.

In fact, Gilligan actually had seen the work of Paul, who had appeared in an episode of Fox’s “The X-Files,” on which Gilligan was an exec producer. The actor had played the gonzo producer of a “Jackass”-style show. Laughs Gilligan, “He was so great in that, and he’s such a chameleon, I didn’t recognize him from my own show.”

Paul was unaware, until halfway through the filming of the initial year of “Breaking Bad,” that Jesse wasn’t intended to stick around long. “The plan was to kill him off at the end of the first season,” Gilligan admits. “I figured that character would have served his usefulness, and his death would drive Walter White onward to even more drama in season two. But very quickly I realized that would be a ridiculous thing to do. (Paul) was so very good and he and Bryan (Cranston) had such great chemistry together — no pun intended.”

Similarly, Hendricks found herself getting upgraded from guest star to series regular, after “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner tapped her for the pilot. She had fallen in love with the world represented in the script, and didn’t care that the show was on AMC, then an unproven network.

“There was another project (at a broadcast network) I was up for that was not nearly as interesting to me,” she notes, adding that it seemed like a can’t-miss proposition. “In the past, I had done series that seemed like the sure thing,” she says, “and all the elements were in place for them to be a hit. And they didn’t go. So I told myself, ‘Do the one you love.’”

Hendricks originally auditioned for the role of Midge, one of Don Draper’s lovers, eventually played by Rosemarie DeWitt.


“I had imagined Joan as more bookish,” Weiner says, “someone who would be Peggy’s friend.” But Hendricks was playing the character with more confidence than was written. “It was warmer, sexier, than I imagined it to be,” Weiner recalls. “She had a stronger sense of who Joan was than I did. And that was actually a big turning point for me to juxtapose these characters. Peggy embodied this professional interest, and Joan the Helen Gurley Brown philosophy of ‘I will use anything I can to get what I want — but ultimately what I want is a house in the country.’ ”


- By breathing life into roles that become so integral to a show, actors can’t help but influence the development of their characters.

Sometimes, it can be the simplest suggestion that has an impact. Gilligan recalls Paul coming to him after season two and asking if Jesse could cut his hair short. “I don’t know that he ever put it into words, but I think he was sensing that Jesse was at a point in the story where he was very much buying into the cult of Walter White,” Gilligan says. “Jesse was subconsciously trying to look more like his mentor. And it was an excellent detail that did not come from me, did not come from the writers, came strictly from Aaron Paul.”

Weiner concurs with his actress about the nature of using real life as a muse: Who Hendricks is offscreen greatly informs Joan onscreen. “You start writing things and seeing what fits and who the person starts to be. She’s different from Joan — she’s not as harsh, she’s not a know-it-all. But there’s a lot of Christina in there,” he says. “She’s a much softer and kinder person, and sometimes you see it peek through.”

Paul figures the “Breaking Bad” writers had a different challenge, since Jesse wasn’t intended to last past the first season. “They had a lot to think about once they decided to keep me around,” he says. “I love that they decided to go against the norm, for this kind of druggie, burnout character. You get to see at the root of it all, he is just a mixed up, damaged kid who has his life turned upside down.”

According to Gilligan, Paul is most responsible for Jesse’s dimensionality, and even for influencing the show overall. “There’s an innate sweetness to him as a person that shines through, no mater how villainous a part he may be playing,” Gilligan says. “He was kind of a moral center for the show, and I don’t believe he would have become that if not for Aaron Paul’s (own) strong moral center.”

- Coming face to face with the intensity of fan response to a buzzy show can be unnerving.

Paul noticed a response to “Breaking Bad” almost immediately. “It was sudden and strange; we saw it in the very first season,” he recalls. “People would come up, and not just say, ‘Hey I like your show.’ It was people grabbing my shoulders, screaming at me, ‘My God I love your show!’ Each season (the reaction was) just more and more intense.”

- Behind the scenes, there’s also a jolt that comes when the phone starts ringing with job offers.

This year, Paul headlined his first movie, “Need for Speed.” The DreamWorks pic was based on a videogame, but the marketing was centered on Paul, which marked a new kind of pressure for the 34-year-old actor. The film underwhelmed at the domestic B.O. with about $44 million, but did better internationally, banking almost $160 million.

“I don’t care if it’s a small role in a small film or a small role in a big film or a big role in a small film,” he notes. “I just want to do what I’m passionate about.” That includes everything from the indie film “Hellion,” which he also produced, to a role in Ridley Scott’s upcoming “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” He is executive producer on the Netflix animated series “BoJack Horseman: A Tale of Fear, Loathing and Animals,” in which he voices the human friend of a washed-up movie-star horse.

Hendricks began fielding feature offers for the first time early in her run on “Mad Men.” She landed a small part in “Drive” with Ryan Gosling that led to bigger things. “I was in the back of a swerving car on set one day, and between takes Ryan goes, ‘I’d like to direct you in something,’ ” Hendricks says. “I was like, ‘Oh, thanks, you’re not a director, but that’s super sweet.’ A year later, he sent me a script.”

That film was “Lost River,” in which Hendricks stars as a single mother drawn into a dangerous underworld. Though derided by most critics at Cannes this year, the experimental noir pic has its fans. “We knew when we were making it that it wasn’t for everyone,” Hendricks says, adding that Gosling made the film he wanted.

Williams, too, has seen Hollywood take notice. And while rumors she was circling the film reboot of Marvel’s “The Fantastic Four” didn’t pan out, she is looking at several future projects. “Girls,” she says, has allowed her the luxury to be selective — and to choose a path that won’t leave her typecast.

“I don’t want to rush, because I don’t want to (keep playing roles) like Marnie,” she says. “I’m looking for a director to have the imagination to say, ‘I can see you as a Midwestern woman with a meth addiction.’ So doors will open, but you have to navigate them.”

[such a weird article. i love 2/3 of them, but "power of supporting roles for your career" = commercial/critical flops?]