Every year, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honors actors who delivered exceptional performances during the past year. The annual Virtuosos Award specifically recognizes performers who are not household names, actors who often fly under the radar or are newcomers who deserve to be recognized for their incredible work. This year, the Festival honored eight gifted actors, a diverse group that spans a wide range of talent, from a Broadway star to a veteran character actor, from a comedian who was ready to walk away from the business to a teenager just starting out, from an actress who already has a successful career as part of a Grammy-nominated band to a deaf theatre actor who finally found a role and a film that allowed him to show the world that being deaf doesn’t mean you aren’t a great actor. Moderated by TCM host Dave Karger, the evening was as entertaining and energizing as expected from a group made up of these talented performers:
- Alana Haim from Licorice Pizza
- Ariana DeBose from West Side Story, nominated for Oscar for Best Supporting Actress
- Caitríona Balfe and Ciarán Hinds, from Belfast
- Emilia Jones and Oscar nominee Troy Kotsur, from CODA
- Saniyya Sidney from King Richard
- Simon Rex from Red Rocket
Unable to join the festivities was Belfast’s Jamie Dornan, whose shooting schedule prevented him from being there, although he did send a video greeting.
Here are some of the highlights of the evening, which the full house at the famous Arlington Theater, ate up with enthusiastic glee:
-Haim, upon seeing that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson had named her character in Licorice Pizza Alana, begged him for a cooler name, like Dirk Diggler (from Boogie Nights) or Reynolds Woodcock (from Phantom Thread), but he said no.
-When director Anderson wanted Haim to drive a truck in a scene in the film, she warned him that she was such a bad driver that even her father wouldn’t let her get her license until she was 18, but Anderson wasn’t dissuaded. “I could have killed everyone!” she said.
-When asked about starring in a film that’s nominated for Best Picture a year after being nominated for a Grammy Award for Album of the Year with her group, Haim, she replied, tongue-in-cheek, “I’m just up here trying to get more confidence.”
-When asked if she plans to act again, considering her full-time job is being part of her band, which is about to embark on a world tour, Haim said, “I hope I get to do it again, but if I don’t, it was the greatest experience of my life.”
-On calling out Lady Gaga from the stage when she won for Best Supporting Actress at the Screen Actors Guild, Ariana DeBose noted, “she glows in the dark, you cannot miss her!”
-DeBose noted that director Steven Spielberg didn’t tell her she was cast as Anita in West Side Story, rather he invited her to be a part of the production, which, she says, was the absolute right approach, “because I’m an Aquarius, and you can’t tell me to do anything.”
-The hardest part of getting cast as Anita was the fact that she was strictly forbidden to tell anyone. She was cast in September, 2018 and the announcement wasn’t going to be made until January, 2019, so it was difficult. But, despite the gag order, she just HAD to tell her mother, but, because she didn’t trust that her phones weren’t tapped, she flew to North Carolina to tell her in person.
-DeBose found out she got the role while she was getting her nails done. When asked what she did after she got the news, she said, “I finished getting my nails done, then I took a nap.”
-DeBose was starring on Broadway in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical when she was cast in West Side Story. Because she couldn’t tell anyone, “I just went to work.” The best part was knowing she had a job after the show. And that she was going to work with Steven Spielberg.
-As for playing Anita in West Side Story, the role that made Rita Moreno famous, DeBose said she just wanted to focus on Anita’s strength, and wanted to tell “a real story of a real human. She’s not one woman, she’s the Everywoman.”
-DeBose admits she did not grow up with access to her Puerto Rican heritage and she was not fluent in Spanish, so she was quite nervous that she would let people down, considering how much was riding on her representation of a black Latina woman, which is a far too rare thing in Hollywood. “I knew that if I didn’t do it well, it would set us back.”
-Caitriona Balfe’s secret weapon to inhabiting each character she plays is she chooses a scent/perfume for each one. She herself doesn’t wear perfume, so it helps her to get into the role.
-Filming Belfast during the height of COVID was a challenge, but a welcome one for the actors, who were “all starved for connection,” said Balfe. They all bonded immediately and became a family off screen as much as on.
-When asked if Balfe, who is a new Mom, will show her son Belfast one day, she responded, “Of course! Better that than some of the other things!” She also noted that Belfast is “a film I’m going to be proud of the rest of my life.”
-Balfe’s co-star Cieran Hinds found out he was cast only after being given the “Judi Dench stamp of approval.” Of the legendary Oscar winner, Hinds noted “she’s a hell of a rebel. She takes the work seriously, but not herself.”
–CODA star Emilia Jones said “the family you see on screen is the family we are in real life.”
-Jones has been quite composed during this grueling Oscar campaign, but she admits she fangirled out at the Screen Actors Guild Awards when she saw Will Smith in person, calling him “the most well-groomed man I’ve ever seen,” adding, “he must smell amazing!”
-It took Jones nine months to learn American Sign Language. She also had to learn how to sing. She said she did a musical on the West End when she was 8, but doesn’t think that counts.
-When Jones was asked if she knew CODA would hit an emotional chord with people, she said, “when we saw that the crew was crying, we figured maybe other people would cry too.”
-Jones understood she was representing a community that she didn’t belong to and felt a real responsibility to the CODAs (Child of Deaf Adult) of the world to do a good job. She also noted that all the interpreters on the set were CODAs.
-Sidney refers to her co-star and onscreen father Will Smith as “Mr. Will.”
-Sidney, who plays Venus Williams in King Richard, didn’t meet Venus herself until three weeks into shooting. She said she has a confidence that just lights up the room. “She is Venus, literally!”
-Sidney is left-handed, but, because Venus Williams is right-handed, Sidney had to learn to play tennis with her right hand.
-Sidney acknowledged that they still don’t know if Richard Williams has seen King Richard yet. “Nobody knows!”
-Simon Rex talked about Red Rocket director Sean Baker’s method of casting non-actors in starring roles in his films. “We call them ‘first-time actors’, not ‘non-actors,’ because they can act!”
-The “first-time actor” Brenda Deiss, who plays Rex’s character’s mother-in-law in the film, was discovered by Baker outside a port-a-potty in Texas. Reiss passed away a couple of months ago and never got to see the film.
-Rex notes the film came together so quickly that he only had three days to get from California to the Texas set, so he had to drive because flying (during COVID) would have required a week-long quarantine.
-Baker shot Red Rocket guerrilla style, with no permits, no SAG contracts. They felt like they were constantly hiding from neighbors and cops. “It was chaos!” But he said that energy translated to the film and makes it work.
-Rex noted he only got the role in Red Rocket after he had given up on acting and had moved to the middle of the desert, where he lives in a trailer. “When you let go, things come to you.”
-Regarding the critical acclaim Rex has received for his performance in Red Rocket, Rex, who was previously most known for the Scary Movie franchise, confesses, “I’m not used to cinephiles enjoying my work.”
-Deaf actor Troy Kotsur, noted the great influence of Randa Haines’ 1986 film Children of a Lesser God had on him. “It was so inspirational to see real deaf people represented on screen.” It all came full circle when Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in that film, was also cast in CODA, playing Kotsur’s wife.
-The hardest part of making CODA for Kotsur was learning how to fish. “I’m from Arizona. We don’t have whales in the desert!”
At the end, Karger went down the line and asked each honoree to recommend an underappreciated film that they loved from last year that they hope people seek out:
Alana Haim: Luca
Ariana DeBose: The Wheel of Time (TV show)
Caitríona Balfe: Swan Song, starring Mahershala Ali
Ciarán Hinds: The Humans
Emilia Jones: The Hand of God
Troy Kotsur: Audible (short film)
Saniyya Sidney: Encanto
Simon Rex: Jockey
While the festival is always a star-studded affair and a top stop as we head into awards season, its most important aspect is its year-round contribution to the Santa Barbara community, as well as its support for the film industry at large. The funds raised through the festival and affiliated events are vital to the community, providing direct support for SBIFF’s plethora of free programs that serve over 14,000 people annually and reach some of the most vulnerable members of society – including at-risk and underserved youth, low-income families and their children, cancer patients, and transit-dependent senior citizens. SBIFF screens Academy fare in the Arthouse theater throughout the year, even throughout the pandemic, to encourage people to come back to the theater in a safe way.
The festival joined with Direct Relief to deliver aid to Ukraine, which has already surpassed $86K just a few days into the festival! See the link to the fundraiser below.
Photo: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF