While starring the legendary Jean Smart as longtime stand-up comic Deborah Vance, HBO Max’s Hacks cultivated several breakout stars when it first premiered in May, including series regular Carl Clemons-Hopkins, who plays Marcus, Deborah’s overly dedicated chief operating officer. Not only has the actor, who identifies as nonbinary and goes by the pronouns they/them, earn their first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, but they made history in the process as well.
“It still hasn’t, a hundred percent, sunk in yet,” Clemons-Hopkins tells ET. “But what I can say is that it’s an incredible honor and I’m very humbled.” They add, especially when it comes to gender and race, “I’m excited that it is causing conversations with some people that a lot of societal boundaries we put around ourselves are really unnecessarily and unhelpful… It’s really exciting to be a part of something that is sparking so many new but necessary conversations.”
Beyond that, the recognition is very humbling for the rising star, who previously appeared on TV in recurring roles on Chicago Med and The Chi in the few years prior to joining Hacks. While very much a newcomer compared to someone like Smart, Clemons-Hopkins has a commanding presence that exudes depth and maturity, especially as their character grows and becomes more layered as season 1 unfolds.
“It’s a slow-burn journey. I think he’s someone who doesn’t have too much going on in his life, so we don’t see much of him at the beginning. But as life starts to turn, he goes through a bit of an awakening and has to take more of an active role in what he wants and doesn’t want,” Clemons-Hopkins says, adding that they’re really happy that they had the patience to go on that ride with Marcus.
“I knew at the beginning that Hacks was going to go onto his personal life. What I didn’t know was how or timing-wise,” they say, initially happy to just have the job. “But it was very relieving when someone tells you they’re going to do something and they do it.” So when the scripts started coming in, they were excited they not only had more to do, but they were getting to learn so much about their character.
In fact, unlike other examples of vey tertiary, gay assistants seen onscreen, Marcus is a “fully realized, very human, very full individual character on top of such an incredible and engaging and hilarious story,” the actor notes.
And over the course of the first 10 episodes, audiences see Marcus’ world upended when Deborah hires a new writing assistant named Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and finds herself leaning less on him day to day. This suddenly frees him of this work that he’s long put ahead of himself and leads him to taking a chance on romance by asking out Wilson (Johnny Sibilly), a water maintenance worker in Deborah’s neighborhood.
When it comes to Marcus’ budding relationship with Wilson, there’s a great moment in episode 8 (“1.69 Million”) that mixes comedy and romance in such a sweet and unexpected way as the two navigate just how committed they are over dinner. At one point, Marcus gets up to wash his hands and makes his way out to the valet before turning back and finishing the meal with Wilson.
“I’m so glad he did,” Clemons-Hopkins says. But in that moment, they explain, “it’s a deeper and fuller fear of commitment,” especially for someone like Marcus, who is not used to leisure time, is afraid that he won’t be able to connect with Wilson on a certain level. “If you’re someone who’s comfortable with your own feelings, with that time with yourself and your truth, then it’s easier to make the leap. But for Marcus, it was totally unexpected.”
In the end, the biggest wedge in their relationship is Marcus’ inability to confront Deborah about his work-life balance. In the finale, Marcus finally works up the courage to demand what he wants and needs out of her professionally, but before he does, she offers him a CEO position in her company.
“He was risking his working relationship with the possibility of telling Deborah how he felt and having that immediately counter with a work promotion, he immediately ran to the shelter he needed,” Clemons-Hopkins says, adding that the moment says a lot about Marcus. “He prioritizes work above himself.” And the consequence of that is possibly losing Wilson for good.
“I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” the actor says when it comes to what’s next for season 2. “For me, it’s all how he gets off of the couch. We’ve left him bloated and heartbroken on the couch, being comforted by his mother. And at some point, he has to get up.”
While the actor waits to hear more about what’s in store for Marcus when the show returns to HBO Max, Clemons-Hopkins can next be seen as Jameson in Candyman, Jordan Peele’s sequel to the 1992 horror film of the same name, which tells the story of a vengeful spirit who kills anyone that summons him by saying his name five times while facing a mirror.
Filmed in Chicago prior to the pandemic, Clemons-Hopkins describes being on set as an “incredible” experience. “I get to play this character, who, as far as I’m concerned, is a nonbinary artist. And they’re a protagonist, which makes me happy,” they say. “And what’s funny is that was my first foray into a freeing character. Like, ‘I know I can make this mine. I could be awkward and weird.’”
Not only was it a satisfying experience, but it is another example on top of Marcus of the various types of characters they hope they get to portray onscreen. “I’m very excited about the prospect of continuing to expand the possibility and range of storytelling. I’m excited to move forward and I’m excited to break against archetypes and stereotypes and really try to have some fun,” Clemons-Hopkins says. And with their Emmy nomination, “I’m hopeful it can help guide me to very different characters, very unseen characters. I’m excited for it to hopefully be a helpful tool in the journey of what I want to do.”
ET’s “Standout Performances” recognize the best of the 2020-2021 TV season. See more of our favorites below:
How Paul Bettany Rediscovered His Love of Comedy With 'WandaVision'
Aunjanue Ellis on Emmy Love for 'Lovecraft' and Shocking Cancelation
Evan Peters on First Emmy Nomination and 'Mare of Easttown' Season 2
How 'Ted Lasso' Changed the Game for Hannah Waddingham
The 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, will air live Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS and Paramount+. In the meantime, stay tuned to ETonline.com for complete Emmys coverage.
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