The actress is nominated for her guest appearance in 'The Handmaid's Tale'

By David Canfield
July 12, 2018 at 03:58 PM EDT

Amid The Handmaid’s Tale’s impressive haul of 20 Emmy nods, announced Thursday morning, was perhaps the most surprising acting nomination of the year: Kelly Jenrette, who was nominated for Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her performance in the episode “Other Women.”

Jenrette appeared in only a few scenes, but clearly made an impact with what little screen time she had. She played Annie, who was married to Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) until he left her to be with June (Elisabeth Moss), with whom he was having an affair. The episode tracks how Luke’s first marriage imploded as a result of his love for June, and how Annie struggled to let go, at one point pleading with June that she leave Luke and allow her to fix her marriage.

Credit: Hulu

What’s particularly remarkable about Jenrette’s Emmy recognition is that, in addition to her very small role on Handmaid’s, she doesn’t have the profile of nearly every other nominee this year. Small roles that gain awards recognition usually have a lot to do with the popularity of the actor: think Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love performance, or more infamously for Emmy gurus, Ellen Burstyn’s 14-second-long appearance in Mrs. Harris. Jenrette can’t even claim the familiarity factor, as this was her first and only appearance in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Jenrette has recurred on several under-the-radar drama series over the past few years, including Graves with Nick Nolte, Here and Now with Holly Hunter, and Fox’s short-lived Pitched. She was also a series regular on the season-long John Stamos comeback vehicle Grandfathered.

To put Jenrette’s nomination into perspective, let’s consider who she’s up against, starting with the two other “guest” actresses from Handmaid’s. Samira Wiley is nominated for her turn as Moira for the second consecutive year; while she’s technically a series regular and earned a supporting nod last year, in season 2 she only appeared in four out of 13 episodes and thus qualified as a guest star. The other Handmaid’s representative is Cherry Jones, a highly-touted guest star (and former Emmy winner) who got a meaty episode playing June’s activist mother. As for the other half of the category, you’ve got a trio of heavyweights, all of whom have won Tony and Emmy Awards: Game of Thrones‘ Diana Rigg, How to Get Away With Murder‘s Cicely Tyson, and Scandal‘s Viola Davis. (Davis is nominated for the Scandal crossover episode featuring her HTGAWM role of Annalise Keating, which previously won her a best actress Emmy.)

So how did Jenrette pull it off? To say anything related to The Handmaid’s Tale was automatically checked off would be a little unfair, because among the many, many contenders Jenrette beat out was none other than Marisa Tomei: another Handmaid’s guest star who had little screen time, but has a much higher profile. Still, voters showered the Hulu drama with love this year, handing it even more nominations than it did its best drama-winning freshman run.

Indeed, there was a particularly vocal contingent of fans hoping that Yvonne Strahovski would be recognized in the Best Supporting Actress category — she missed out on a nod in 2017, but emerged as a second lead behind Moss this year, and generated rave reviews — and she pulled it off. “I am so excited for everyone in The Handmaid’s Tale who has been recognized and am thrilled to be standing alongside of them,” Strahovski said in her reaction. “I’m so grateful to Bruce Miller and the writing team for the extraordinary storyline this season and to the academy voters for the recognition.” Returning champs Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel (a guest contender last year) are cited again opposite Strahovski, while on the Best Supporting Actor side, original cast member Joseph Fiennes (who plays Strahovski’s husband) is also nominated for the first time.

So sure, Handmaid’s love likely went a long way in getting Jenrette her first major award nomination. But no matter, there were clearly some Television Academy members who wanted to get behind her performance specifically. Perhaps ultimately, this is Emmy recognition without much precedent. And as to whether Jenrette can defeat the likes of Cicely Tyson and Cherry Jones, and keep the surprises coming, who can truly say?