Credit: HBO Photo: Ed Harris and Woody Harrelson in Game Change

When expectations are high, Woody Harrelson thrives. Whether it is replacing beloved Coach on Cheers or portraying drunken former tribute Haymitch Abernathy in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, he is up to the task and executes it perfectly.

While Woody’s accent tends to shine through regardless of the origins of the character he’s playing, that is easily forgotten once you watch him on-screen. In HBO’s political drama Game Change, which chronicled John McCain and Sarah Palin’s 2008 political journey, he played Steve Schmidt, McCain’s senior campaign strategist, so flawlessly that it felt like you were watching a documentary.

Let’s break down his strongest Emmy-worthy characteristics:

1. Subtlety Is Key

In the midst of constant battles with under-qualified running mate, Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin (Emmy-nominated Julianne Moore), Woody underplayed his character, showing restraint in the emotional power struggle that elapsed throughout the campaign. Given Palin’s notoriety, it was not an easy feat to portray such familiar political figures, but Woody made it look effortless.


2. He Showed Both Sides of the Battle

While Steve remained relatively calm throughout the film, the rough battle between Palin and McCain’s political team was exhausting. With McCain, Steve tiptoed around issues, exuding confidence about the campaign while, in reality, everything was crashing and burning. On the flip side, when trying to coach Palin, he both inspired confidence in the most bleak situations
and fought for his sanity while arguing with the governor. Woody was able to flip a switch between his personalities as Steve, making us both root for him and be disappointed with him at the same time.

Credit: HBO Photo: Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson in Game Change

3. His Incredible Chemistry With Julianne Moore

Throughout the film, Steve and Sarah disagree on many points. This becomes more apparent as he discovers her blatant lies, lack of knowledge, and stubborn personality, but it isn’t until the end of the campaign (and the film) that Steve explodes. Watching back and forths between the two was mesmerizing, particularly in an astonishing battle wherein Sarah undermines him, with both spinning out of control in different directions. While Woody had fantastic chemistry with everyone in the cast, watching him with Julianne was the highlight for us.

All in all, Woody simply embodied the role of Steve Schmidt to a tee. This is not a game change for him as an actor, though. Whether he’s playing a killer — of zombies in Zombieland, or of innocent people in Natural Born Killers — or a sinner — à la Larry Flynt, publisher and editor of Hustler, in The People vs. Larry Flynt — he has you hooked within five minutes. Both his charisma and thoughtful acting make him a pleasure to watch on-screen — especially in Game Change.

Credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images Photo: Emmys 2012 Miniseries or Movie Nominees

And although the other candidates delivered stellar performances in their respective miniseries and movies, we think it’s Woody’s year. He was recognized by the Emmys five times for Cheers, but he only won once, so we think it’s about time he takes home another winged woman statuette.

 

Do you think Woody deserves to take home the Emmy for Game Change? Weigh in below!
 
Alyse Whitney is an editor at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter@AlyseWhitney.