"Someone asked me the other day, 'Are you super-nervous?' And I'm really not right now," says the former Baltimore School for the Arts student, who is vying for best supporting actor in a drama series on television.
"I've been to the Emmys before, though I've never been individually nominated. But I'm really just going to enjoy myself. I'm excited to see friends," adds the co-star of the CBS drama "The Good Wife," which is up for nine Emmys, including best drama and best actress in Julianna Margulies.
Last weekend, Charles flew out to Los Angeles from New York, where he lives, to do an Emmy roundtable discussion with other first-time nominees. While he was connecting and re-connecting with new and old acting colleagues, he says, the awards show experience came into focus.
"I got to see friends like Michelle Forbes, who's nominated for "The Killing," and we worked on "In Treatment" together, and Walton Goggins, who's nominated in the same category as I am, and we worked together on one of the first films he ever did," the 40-year-old Baltimore native says.
"And that's really what it's about. In this business, there's so much built around competition that I have a kind of mixed feeling about any kind of awards show, to be honest with you," Charles adds. "That doesn't mean that I'm not really flattered and touched [by the nomination]. Look, I'm going out there [to Los Angeles], so I don't want to sound like a hypocrite. But it's just that I want to embrace it as a celebration for all the people whose work has been recognized, all the creative people, as opposed to who's going to win or not win."
The best-supporting-actor category in which he is nominated is filled with friends, according to Charles. His relationship with two of the other nominees goes back more than 20 years, when they were starting out and appeared in the made-for-TV move "Murder in Mississippi," a compelling and socially conscious 1990 production about Mississippi in the summer of 1964. The film revisits the death of three civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
"Andre Braugher was actually in the same television movie I did years ago," Charles says." I think it was one of the first things he did out of Juilliard. It was called 'Murder in Mississippi, and I played Andrew Goodman. Andre was in it. Walton was in it. And it was so great to connect with Walton. I hadn't seen Walton in years, and he's such a great guy and really fine actor."
That major role in the civil rights docu-drama came for Charles only two years after his 1988 debut in John Waters "Hairspray," and it is typical of the kind of quality productions he has sought throughout his career — rather than chasing after easy TV money in one-joke sitcoms and pilots.
In addition to his current role in "The Good Wife," which is generally considered the one network drama worthy of comparison to such cable productions as "Mad Men," Charles has also played leading roles in Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night" and HBO's "In Treatment." Before CBS' "The Good Wife," Charles was perhaps best known for his work in such feature films as "Dead Poets Society."
"He's always been pretty selective in what he wanted to do," said Stan Charles, the actor's uncle and publisher of Baltimore's "The PressBox," "Quality has always meant something to him, and that's why I'm so happy that he's finally at this point in his career where he's been able to match quality with hitting a mass audience in something that's smartly written and presented."
After more than two decades of hard and selective work, Charles acknowledges that "it feels very nice to have somebody decide for whatever reason that your name is in the hat this year. Whoever decides that, I'm happy that they did."
In addition to "just enjoying" the nomination and "soaking up" the fellowship of his acting colleagues, whom Charles describes as his "allies," the Baltimore native had something else to celebrate this Emmy week: Thursday was his birthday, and it was a big one.
"Yeah, I'm 40 now, but try not to highlight that too much in the article, would you?" he said jokingly. "Don't kick a man when he's down. You can say it's my birthday, but let's leave the 40 out a little bit, you know what I mean?"
But Charles is all seriousness again when he's asked if the nomination has changed his life in any significant way.
"I don't think anyone is treating me any differently or anything," he says after giving it some thought. "These kinds of things just help grease the wheel a little bit, that's all. They just WD40 things along so that they move a little smoother, and it maybe helps someone put a face to a name a little more easily."
After thinking about it a little more, he adds, "It's nice to be included, but it's not why I do what I do. You know what I mean? I said this at that roundtable I was at out in Los Angeles last week. I said I didn't want to speak for anyone else, but I would shocked if anybody on the panel said they got into this business for these type of things like the Emmys."
His real joy comes from being in a good "creative" place right now playing attorney Will Gardner in "The Good Wife." The nomination is just the gravy.
"This show for me has become like my creative home right now, my creative center," he says. "It's made in the city where I live [New York]. And for me, just trying to get better and the writers having faith in me and writing for my character — that's what drives me. I feel like I know when I do good work. And sometimes I've done work that I'm really proud of, and it doesn't get recognized. But right now, I'm doing work that I feel good about, and it is getting recognized. And it's not really for me to try to figure out why the universe decides that now's the time for me to get recognized or not. I'm just sort of happy that I am."
Charles says no matter what the outcome of the awards show, Emmy weekend is going to be a happy and simple time for him. He mostly wants the chance to party a little with actor pals and his girlfriend, author Sophie Flack.
"I just want to go out there and have a beautiful weekend with my girlfriend — watch her get all dolled up and look gorgeous and just really enjoy myself," Charles says.
The "63rd Primetime Emmys" will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on WBFF-TV (Channel 45