LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Eric Stonestreet had a novel idea for his "Modern Family" audition.
The pilot script merely described the character Cameron as the more "passionate" and "expressive" of the show's gay couple. So a few nights before the audition, Stonestreet, who is not gay but prides himself on his ability to mimic almost anyone, decided he would do an impression of his mother.
"I wanted there to be a maternal quality to Cameron," he recalls. "That, coupled with how I look physically -- I'm tall and pretty big -- using a soft voice and dainty hands, that contrast would be funny."
Stonestreet was right, and ABC's "Modern Family" cast is poised to join a surprisingly large field of potential first-time acting nominees at this year's Primetime Emmy Awards.
Sure, the August 29 Emmy telecast will likely include perennial nominees like Bryan Cranston (AMC's "Breaking Bad"), Steve Carell (NBC's "The Office"), Glenn Close (FX's "Damages") and Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey (NBC's "30 Rock").
But what about Lea Michele, Matthew Morrison and the cast of Fox's buzzy musical "Glee"? Or the powerful ensemble on HBO's "Treme"? Timothy Olyphant is earning raves for his performance on FX's "Justified." And CBS' new hit "The Good Wife" also looks to make a strong first showing (star Julianna Margulies is already a six-time nominee and 1995 winner for "ER," but her win was in the supporting category; this could be her first Emmy as a lead).
Should they make the shortlist when nominations are announced on July 8, the Emmy newbies would bring a fresh look to what has become a familiar procession in the past few years. As an example, consider that the nominees in the supporting comedy actor category have remained virtually unchanged for the past three Emmys.
Michele, who already scored a Golden Globe nomination this year, had barely acted on television before being plucked from Broadway by "Glee" showrunner Ryan Murphy.
"This was the first (TV) role I really tried out for," she says. "I was always told as a stage performer that my look was too 'ethnic' and I wasn't pretty enough. Those things stick in the head of a young girl. Ryan really took a chance on me."
For Globes consideration, Murphy personally phoned the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. to insist that Michele and Morrison were his leads, and they have been similarly submitted for the Emmys (Jane Lynch and the rest of the cast are supporting).
The "Modern Family" ensemble, on the other hand, went the "all-for-one" route, with each submitted as supporting.
Ostensible leads Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen have extensive TV experience (to say nothing of vet Ed O'Neill), but the show's co-creator/executive producer, Christopher Lloyd, sees them as new to wide audiences.
"They've done other series, but they're making splashes now," Lloyd says. "And Ed has been out of the mainstream for a while. Those are things Emmy voters like to reward."
Bowen says she wasn't thinking Emmy when she first saw the "Modern Family" script. What sold her was that her over-protective-mom character was written with a clever spin.
"There's a scene where (her character's son) Luke 'shoots' his sister -- that's what drew me in," she says. "They don't usually give the mom with the laundry basket any comedy to play. She's usually the character who says, 'Now, boys ...' and walks away. This character has pathos and gets to play it."
"Community" (NBC) star Joel McHale, also new to Emmy consideration, signed on after his reading the script caused a minor disturbance on an airplane.
"I was laughing so hard, the guy next to me -- (who) was watching the movie 'What Happens in Vegas' -- started getting mad at me because I was interrupting his romantic comedy," he recalls.
Morena Baccarin, who plays the leader of the alien visitors on ABC's "V," had a fondness for the material before she even read the script.
"I remember being a small kid and turning on the original series and just being freaked out by it," she says. "That's why, when I heard they were going to remake it, I thought it was such a brilliant idea. It correlates with what we're going through today -- that fear of terrorism and the economy."
Along with Margulies, the new crop of Emmy contenders could also include several TV veterans with new series. That includes previous Emmy favorites Patricia Heaton (ABC's "The Middle"), Courteney Cox (ABC's "Cougar Town"), Ted Danson (HBO's "Bored to Death") and Ray Romano, a three-time Emmy winner for "Everybody Loves Raymond" who is competing in the drama category for the first time with TNT's "Men of a Certain Age."
"There's no live audience and we have to film everything in little pieces, so you really miss certain things like the audience and their energy," Romano says of the change. "But I also love the world of the single camera, where you can get inside a person and the subtleties of a scene. With a sitcom, you feel you're broader than the real world is."
Khandi Alexander is no newcomer to TV drama, having spent seven years as a medical examiner on "CSI: Miami." But she could be fresh to Emmy eyes with her layered performance on "Treme."
"Down here we're on location -- there's no studio -- so it's like doing a film that never ends," she says from New Orleans.
Also making a tonal switch, of sorts, is Peter Krause on NBC's "Parenthood." He says he has deliberately looked for more nurturing roles since his days on "Six Feet Under."
"Right after that show ended, I was pursued for any role where the character had a psychological imbalance," he recalls. "I wanted something that would allow me to work out my comedic chops and my dramatic ones. After I took on 'Parenthood,' a writer friend of mine said, 'It's nice to see you doing some PG material for a change.'"
Despite the abundance of new contenders this year, the odds of a winner among them are slim. During the past five years, in the comedy categories only two first-time lead actress nominees have won (Felicity Huffman in 2007 for "Desperate Housewives" and America Ferrera in 2007 for "Ugly Betty") and only one lead actor (Ricky Gervais in 2007 for "Extras"; he had won notice in other categories but not in acting).
First-time nominees have even less luck in the lead acting drama categories. Patricia Arquette ("Medium") was the last one, male or female, to win for her first nomination, and that was in 2005.
Even in the supporting categories, there have been just three first-time nominee wins since 2005: Zeljko Ivanek ("Damages") for drama supporting actor in 2008; Katherine Heigl ("Grey's Anatomy") and Cherry Jones ("24") for drama supporting actress in 2007 and 2009, respectively.
Then there's the opposite: Shows that earn Emmy attention their first year, but fail to pique voters' interest after that.
"Sons of Anarchy" (FX) executive producer Kurt Sutter is a veteran of "The Shield," which was an Emmy magnet during its first season. But after star Michael Chiklis won the best drama actor prize that year, the show "never saw any award again," Sutter says. "After seven seasons, we were a bit distant, and I still have some of that distance."
Sutter's wife and "Anarchy" star Katey Sagal could break that spell with a nomination for her performance. Fittingly, given this year's contenders, it would be the first Emmy nomination for O'Neill's former "Married with Children" co-star.