Red Carpet Reality: Inside the Emmys Hustle

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Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“Please. One question?” the celeb-wrangler pleaded, leaning over the hip-high hedge in front of us that separated the press from the Emmys red carpet. “One question for George R.R. Martin. Please. He’s so nice.”

Martin, whose books inspired HBO’s nominated Game of Thrones and a whole lot of Halloween costumes, did seem nice. Standing no more than five feet away from us during this awkward transaction, the author maintained an affable expression despite the obvious weirdness of being assigned, essentially, a temporary pimp who was peddling like the rent's due in two hours. From the comfort of your sofa — which, until Sunday, was the only way we'd ever seen one of these things — the preshow parade looks like a fizzy two hours of beautiful people drifting around in a cloud of hairspray, gazing serenely at the cameras and occasionally popping over to lie to Ryan Seacrest about how their gowns are totally comfortable and they don’t exercise. But Martin's experience (his flack eventually found a taker, and the next contender stepped right up) is the reality. What looks like an easy-breezy reunion of all those people who live in our television sets is really two-plus hours of nonstop hustling.

The entire setup, like Seacrest himself, is both smaller and more workmanlike in person. The branded, covered daises erected for each TV broadcast are so convention-like that we half expected to see celebs emerging from them clutching Extra stress balls or Insider pens. Stretched between the daises were risers for print and online media, and what you don’t see on E! is how most celebrities work those risers like politicians in election season; if we’d brought a baby, someone would have kissed it. At home, you just get a personable Julie Bowen on-camera with Ryan, cracking wise about Sofia Vergara or making self-deprecating comments about parenthood, but you don’t catch what came before and after: Bowen being hectically yanked back and forth by a frenzied press rep, hitting pre-selected news outlets to maximize her press coverage before she had to go inside, and nearly ripping a hem in the process.  Maybe all that fuss is why her hair looked like she had been in a barfight. By the third time she was dragged past our riser, she certainly looked like she wanted to smack someone with a chair.

The chess match starts early, about half an hour before the preshow telecasts go live, and longer still before the boldface names hit the carpet. Nominees, presenters, and their plus-ones — usually behind-the-scenes folks first, like Martin and the repeatedly proffered Chuck Lorre — are herded by the firm hands of their publicists, who try to monopolize the most desirable media outlets. The pecking order is clear: Lesser-known celebs are offered to everyone, often in the form of a very hopeful question (“I have Evan Peters from American Horror Story … ?”). Conversely, A-listers’ publicists limit access, unless they accidentally park an important person in front of you and you’re able to squeeze in a “please.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s press agent tersely responded to our riser’s queries by insisting we’d only get two questions and holding up two illustrative fingers, then wiggling them at us for emphasis. (For what it's worth, the erstwhile Elaine talked merrily to people for as long as she liked, which may have cheesed off her handler, but was probably better for business.) Sometimes, the delicate negotiating process was circumvented by journalistic chutzpah, a.k.a. bribery: “Do Extra or I’ll get fired, Jimmy,” barked a cameraman to Fallon. Unfortunately, Jimmy didn’t oblige, although in his defense, he had been sucked in by the Ellen girls for an interminable period of squealing and ran out of time. Turns out that no one wants to short-change DeGeneres. Tina Fey obliged, too. "I have to do Ellen," she told her PR, the way you'd tell your spouse that you must say hello to your boss at the office Christmas party. We'd say more, but honestly, now we're kind of scared of Ellen.

The overwhelming bustle of the red carpet’s business side meant we couldn’t see who all, exactly, was there — not unlike being subject to the whims of E!’s telecast, actually — but we did get up close with some of the outfits: Julianna Margulies’s patterned gown had more visible texture and sparkle in person; the detailing on Zooey Deschanel’s tulle skirt didn’t translate in photos. Emilia Clarke’s white Chanel picked up a little dirt here and there that you could only see up close, and as we talked to Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt, her hem got trampled by stampeding photographers trying to snap Mark Wahlberg, of all people. (Don’t they know Downtonites are the funkiest bunch of all?) Christina Hendricks’s and Kat Dennings’s cleavage was even more … buoyant … than one imagines. Andre Braugher surreptitiously flashed everyone a pool of sweat gathering underneath his right pec. Stars are just like us: By 3 p.m., with two hours to go, we’d already each perspired enough to season a margarita. It was blistering out there. SNL’s Bill Hader referenced his most popular character: “I think how everyone feels right now is actually Stefon’s body temperature at all times.” Merritt Wever of Nurse Jackie glanced at her reflection in our sunglasses and sighed, "Wow, I am really sweaty." No more so than anyone else, Merritt. Go talk to Mad Men's dreamy Ben Feldman, worried about the makeup he’d perspired all over his collar.  Sherlock's Martin Freeman sweetly fretted whether we were wearing enough SPF. And Tony Hale actually clutched us with concern when he realized how long the journalists had been standing in the heat. He metaphorically soothed our brows by discussing the Arrested Development movie, reassuring us Bob Loblaw is still law-blogging, promising us some high-fashion Buster Bluth moments. (“Lots of pastels and argyle. He loves the pop of a sock. You don’t see many pastel hipsters, but he is one.”) And he never once went for a strained Veep reference, even though it was the reason he was even at the Emmys. Basically, Tony Hale is the best.

The other benefit of being Live on the Red Carpet was seeing celebs getting starstruck. Jeremy Davies of Justified paused mid-interview because he saw Judd Apatow,  genuflected to him, and reached across us to grab Apatow’s arm and proclaim his worship (though he also later bowed to Kathy Griffin, so maybe he's just really formal right now). Everybody, even the crews and reporters, went nuts for Michael J. Fox. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson seemed thrilled to run into Alec Baldwin, although maybe they just had questions about their Capital One rewards points. And each actor seemed genuinely pleased to see Seacrest, who, parenthetically, may be the world’s most fidgety person. He never stops moving when he's off-camera (except for a preternatural stillness when he’s being swabbed with a makeup brush), possibly because if he does, exhaustion will finally take over and he will collapse. 

The final surprise was the red carpet itself. You might assume that the A-list rug of choice would be spare-no-expense lush, richly hued, blessed with a magical movie-quality lint repellent. But under our feet on Sunday, the Carpet was thin as a starlet, pocked with stubborn stringy debris two hours before a celebrity even set foot on it, and gleaming with an inorganic IKEA sheen, like a yoga mat crossed with an off-brand Elmo. No point in blowing your budget on something thousands of people will trample on, we suppose, and heaven forbid January Jones should catch a heel in thick pile and tumble straight into Glenn Close’s dignified rump. But it figures that even the purported splendor of the red carpet itself, like so much else in Hollywood, is best viewed through a long lens.