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Emmy Predictions 2021: Best Actor in a Limited Series — A Classic Race with a Bit More Meaning

Will we see a bona fide TV performance recognized come Emmy night, or will voters look to expand the definition of this small screen honor?

The Undoing Episode 6 Finale Hugh Grant ending

Hugh Grant in “The Undoing”

Niko Tavernise / HBO

Last Year’s Winner: Mark Ruffalo, “I Know This Much Is True”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: In accordance with its category, the Best Actor in a Limited Series race hasn’t seen a repeat winner or even back-to-back wins by the same network in over a decade. (HBO won from 2008-2010, thanks to Paul Giamatti in “John Adams,” Brendan Gleeson in “Into the Storm,” and Al Pacino in “You Don’t Know Jack.”) Still, a recent anthology series does have a perfect two-for-two record in the category: “American Crime Story” has garnered wins in each of its first two seasons, with both Courtney B. Vance walking away with the trophy for “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” and then Darren Criss snagging his own Emmy two years later for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” We’ll have to wait one more year to see if the FX series can go three-for-three.
Fun Fact: “American Crime Story” is one of only two programs with more than one win in the category, although it’s still way behind in total nominations. “Hallmark Hall of Fame” cleaned up from 1959-1969, as the longest-running primetime series in television history pulled in 12 of its 81(!) Emmy nominations in this category alone. It won four times, all while airing on NBC. (The anthology series also aired on CBS, ABC, just once on PBS, and now resides on The Hallmark Channel.)
Notable Ineligible Series: “American Crime Story: Impeachment” (the season did not air in time to be eligible); Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (submitted as a Drama Series)

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Actor in a Limited Series, Anthology Series, or TV Movie. This article will be updated throughout the season, along with all our predictions, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest news from the 2021 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys was held from June 17 through June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations were announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out Saturday, September 11 and Sunday, September 12. The 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place Sunday, September 19. CBS is broadcasting the ceremony.

The State of the Race

Two presumed favorites, a dark horse, and a pair of spoilers: Seen this way, the race for Best Actor in a Limited Series is a classic awards showdown. But in any other light, it’s a reflection of the TV industry at large: one adapting to change and overwhelmed by content.

Take the presumed frontrunners: Paul Bettany and “WandaVision” welcomed the Marvel Cinematic Universe to television, causing quite the stir among critics, franchise fans, and TV at large. Presumably, ratings were strong, and the show’s 23 total nominations proved voters were certainly watching. That bodes well for Bettany, considering such an impressive showing for the series typically indicates a desire to give it at least one major award: The Limited Series trophy might be tough, and Elizabeth Olsen is facing similarly daunting competitors in the Best Actress race; many expect Kathryn Hahn to earn her win for Supporting Actress, and maybe that’ll be all “WandaVision” gets at the Primetime ceremony. But Bettany had an actor-friendly role in nearly every way, which may be enough to beat out his top challenger.

Enter: Hugh Grant. The “Paddington 2” charmer was only one of two nominees for “The Undoing,” another well-rated limited series, this time from HBO. Though Grant escaped the pulpy mystery’s much-maligned ending unscathed, it seems buzz has left the one-time awards favorite. Its fall 2020 release won’t do it any favors come August, so even if Grant’s critical raves and winsome interviews are enough to keep things competitive, “WandaVision’s” recency bias is likely enough to win a war between two British thespians in two widely seen limited series. Being seen matters, and in addition to their strong turns, the high awareness of both shows helps elevate these two above the competition.

Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor is sitting there as the dark horse. Ryan Murphy’s series, even when they’re panned, do well for their actors; “Hollywood” raked in four acting nominations last year among its 12 overall, and even though none of them won, none of them were named Ewan McGregor — and none of them were true, name-above-the-title leads. All that is to say: Even though “Halston” didn’t blow the doors off at Netflix, it’s still an easy binge and further evidence that McGregor can do just about anything very well. If voters can rally behind him (and overlook the rest of the show), the four-time Emmy nominee may be able to snag his first win.

Then there’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. While the Tony Award nominee and winner, respectively, were certainly both leads in the landmark Broadway musical, it’s hard to measure their work in a live stage production against those from actual TV Movies (or limited series). Is there a true apples-to-apples comparison between Miranda and Odom Jr.’s recorded and cut together theatrical performances and, say, Andrew Scott in “Oslo,” an HBO original film, made and released as a movie? Should voters consider that the two “Hamilton” leads honed their blocking, vocals, and elocution through a year-plus of Broadway shows before they were recorded for a Disney+ release? And should their accomplishment in perseverance and consistency be a positive or a negative when held against actors who got one or two takes per scene and wrapped their roles in a few months or less? Bottom line: Should an Emmy be given for not just the same role honored by the Tonys, but for the very same work?

“Hamilton” being considered a TV Movie is yet another shrug by the TV Academy when it comes to the dilapidated category, as non-movies are regularly admitted to ensure enough notable nominees will fill out the ballot. Not knowing how or where to qualify such performances points to the TV Academy’s ongoing struggles efforts to adjust to TV’s expanding scope, just as Miranda and Odom Jr.’s inclusion — over the likes of hailed TV turns from Ethan Hawke (“The Good Lord Bird”) and Joel Edgerton (“The Underground Railroad”) — illustrates how voters flock to what’s familiar (aka what they’ve seen). Year after year, it’s clearer and clearer that popularity can be the deciding factor when it comes to winning Emmys, as voters and casual viewers alike can only make time to watch so many shows.

Still, there’s plenty of TV to honor this year. Let’s make sure we do, eh?

Power Rankings:

  1. Paul Bettany, “WandaVision”
  2. Hugh Grant, “The Undoing”
  3. Ewan McGregor, “Halston”
  4. Leslie Odom Jr., “Hamilton”
  5. Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton”

Will Win: Paul Bettany, “WandaVision”
Could Win: Hugh Grant, “The Undoing”
Should Win: Hugh Grant, “The Undoing”

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