Day 4 of the 35th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival presented by UGG concluded with a star-studded evening with the presentation of the Virtuosos Award, which recognizes a select group of talent whose noteworthy performances in film have elevated them into the national cinematic dialogue.
This year’s honorees included: Awkwafina (The Farewell), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Cynthia Erivo (Harriet), Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart), Aldis Hodge (Clemency), George MacKay (1917), Florence Pugh (Midsommar, Little Women), and Taylor Russell (Waves).
The tribute, held at the historic Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, was moderated for the tenth year by Turner Classic Movies host and IMDb special correspondent Dave Karger, who engaged in one-on-one discussions with each of the night’s honorees to take a look back at their flourishing career and recent noteworthy performances.
The one-on-one discussions were followed by a group panel discussion, also moderated by Karger. Following the conclusion of the panel discussion, Santa Barbara local and legendary actor Christopher Lloyd presented each honoree with their award.
The Golden Globe winner acknowledged that she got her audition for her first film, Neighbors 2, off of the success of her viral video, “My v@g.” And when someone suggested her to Lulu Wang when she was casting The Farewell, her first reaction was, “The ‘my vag’ girl??” She got the job anyway. Awkwafina said she felt the story and the character she plays in the The Farewell so deeply and felt it was really important to use her experience as an Asian-American in this country in her performance. When asked if she considers changing her name from her stage name of Awkwafina back to her given name of Nora Lum, she replied, “I think in the beginning, Awkwafina really was someone to kind of like take the stage fright and the nervousness and the neuroses and the overthinking. But I think more and more as I grew up, I realize they are the same person. And when I see the name Awkwafina on like a chair back or a call sheet, it’s the name I chose for myself. That means something to the 15-year-old girl that was like ‘it’s a great idea to name yourself Awkwafina. Which years later – regrettable – but it’s fine. It’s an homage to that, and I don’t think I’m ready to lose it yet.”
On working with Alfre Woodard, Hodge said “As an actor and an artist, I always seem to put myself around teachers. I love to get around education and an environment that’s going to help elevate and grow me. Being around someone as masterful as miss Woodard – that’s exactly what you’re going to get. She’s a fantastic actress, a fantastic scene partner, a fantastic leader. So for me, it really was a privileged education.”
She loves Booksmart, and calls it a celebration of young women. “Sometimes I’ll just see two young girls come walk up to me and I just put my arms out, and it’s so fun and it’s so lovely. It’s just a joy. We made this movie for everyone, but it’s a testament and celebration of young women, and we just wanted to do this generation proud because they’re so engaged with the world in a way that even…I was at that age. But I feel like young people today are invested in their society at such a young age and it’s so inspiring and we really wanted to celebrate that in Booksmart.” Everyone grew quite close while shooting, “Kaitlyn [Dever] is my soul sister.” She praised director Olivia Wilde as “a force of nature” and admits to being extensively star-struck when Lisa Kudrow came to shoot her scenes. “I think I blacked out for two days.”
When asked if history classes in Britain covered Harriet Tubman, Erivo says she was the only person of color she learned about in her history classes. She played a big part in the costume selections, and especially offered input on the costume in the final scene, “I wanted something that looked heroic…that’s how you’ll remember her.” When asked about how difficult it was to film in freezing cold water without a wetsuit, Erivo states, “It was never going to be as hard as what she went through, so I didn’t complain.”
When asked about Midsommar, Pugh simply admitted, “every aspect was bizarre. Every page I turned, my jaw dropped lower and lower.” She had only 5 days between wrapping on Midsommar and beginning shooting Little Women. She says if it had been the other way around, she would have gone insane. The character of Amy is exactly what she needed after shooting the surreal horror film. She fell in love with the character of Amy and loved how writer/director Greta Gerwig imagined her, saying “[Greta] wanted Amy to be more than just the girl that burned the book and ended up with the guy, and she was excited to maybe let people see themselves in Amy…When we made it, it felt great and lovely. Through Amy in this version, the audience finally gets to see how rough and how tough it was for women, and how clever she was for her to choose the life that she had.” And she says that when Pugh’s Oscar nomination was announced, the first call she got was from Gerwig, who screamed into the phone, “I knew it!!!!”
All MacKay knew about 1917 when he was auditioning was that Sam Mendes was the director and the two scenes he was reading. He didn’t even know what role he was reading for and certainly didn’t know it was for the lead. “It’s like a play and a film together, and that process of being involved right from the beginning…we had to choreograph the entire film. We had to suss out the emotional rhythm and the pace of the entire piece because it dictated the actual length of the set.” Even though he knew so little about the film, he was sold by the two scenes he auditioned with, no matter who he would be playing. “I recognized the character.” When asked about all the cameos in the film, like Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, MacKay says it was most difficult for them, coming into that shooting atmosphere. They didn’t want to be the ones to mess it up. “All that mattered to everyone was the shot and the story.”
On winning the Golden Globe Egerton said, “You know, I’m from a really rural part of the UK. I’m from the middle of Wales, and the Golden Globes feels like something that happens to other people. So to be there, to be nominated was incredible…to win was just really wonderful.”Asked about his dancing in Rocketman, he admits, “What I lack in technical prowess, I make up for in enthusiasm!” when asked what the biggest surprise has been out of his experience making Rocketman, he said, “I’m best friends with Elton John now.” He was only half-kidding. He shared the little-known fact that, when he auditioned for RADA when he was 17, his audition song was “Your Song.” Another little known fact: he attended RADA with Cynthia Erivo. Might they both be singing on stage at the Oscars next month? He said he hasn’t been asked, but then added “we’ll see what happens.”
On winning the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor for her performance in Waves, she claims, “It felt surreal.” When asked how she prepared to play the part, she said she felt she had the best preparation by having two brothers. She felt she understood that love/hate that goes on between siblings. She felt an instant connection with Kelvin Harrison, Jr, who plays her brother in the film. Russell felt, however, that she needed to fine-tune her sensitivity while playing the character, so she asked for baby pictures from all of her fellow cast-mates, which seemed to help her find the vulnerability in them, which allowed her to find the sensitivity she needed for her character. “There’s a lot in my life that I think prepared me for this role. I have two brothers, and that connection is really important to me…I know what it feels like to love somebody and not like them. I knew what a relationship was like with a brother, so I had that and felt that with Kelvin right away,” said Russell.
The final portion of the program was a true crowd-pleaser as Karger brought out all eight honorees for a panel discussion. The audience got a special treat when Karger asked what each person’s go-to karaoke song is, which then escalated to the honorees breaking out into song on stage.
Provoked by Erivo, Hodge sang a few lines of his favorite karaoke song, “Gold Digger” by Jamie Foxx ft. Kanye West. He then prompted Erivo to sing her song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” by Tina Turner. While Erivo was belting out a few bars from the song, Feldstein pretended to faint in her chair as the audience cheered for more. Egerton also volunteered to sing part of his favorite karaoke song, “Faith” by George Michael. Watch the full panel discussion below.