Last night at The Arlington Theatre marked the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s 12th annual Virtuosos Award, and the excitement was palpable. A long line wrapped itself around the theater in the cold evening as eager film fans vied for a chance to see seven of Hollywood’s latest breakout stars. The eighth honoree, Academy Award Best Actress nominee Yalitza Aparicio, collected her award last week to tumultuous applause after a screening of Roma, as director Alfonso Cuarón looked on. Aparicio spoke of her role as an indigenous woman of color in Hollywood, and her humility charmed the crowd as easily as her natural talent on screen stunned.
Tuesday’s event, however, was moderated by Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger, who began the celebrations with Steven Yeun (AMC Series The Walking Dead, Okja, Sorry to Bother You). Yeun’s latest performance in the Haruki Murakami–based Korean drama Burning continues to receive international acclaim. Yeun spoke about the impact of his upbringing as a Korean-American in his preparation for the film, which is his first major foreign-language role. “The eyes of my parents were boring over my head,” he laughed, before crediting his background as an Asian-American immigrant for his ability to remain in an ambiguous space as a person and actor. “I felt alien everywhere. It was wonderful. No one else can re-create that.” Yeun spoke eloquently about this ambiguity (possibly due to the hours of discussing philosophy with Burning director Lee Chang-dong during film spadework) and demonstrated this openness to the unknown when considering new genres and roles for his next projects.
Next, John David Washington took center stage. He recounted how he dove into the world of the ’70s music and art to perfect his perfectly groovy, KKK-infiltrating Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, which he noted as a film of rich and important history: “That dance sequence? That was not a stunt double — that was me!” Considering his father is actor Denzel Washington and director Spike Lee personally offered him the lead role in his movie, it is easy to assume Washington would not be one to fear failure, but Washington reflected on his somewhat less-than-illustrious career in the NFL and how it continues to follow him. “It was like something you worked on your whole life and it doesn’t work out.” Washington remained aware of the fickleness of the business, noting this paranoia of potential failure that continues to fuel his work ethic in the acting world.
Then, in a sweet moment of excitement, 18-year-old Thomasin McKenzie pointed up to herself on the big screen as she walked across the Arlington stage before taking her seat opposite Karger. Her Kiwi twang surprising all (she employs a flawless American accent in her critically adored role in Leave No Trace), McKenzie looked ahead in her career and hopes to continue to tell authentic stories. “There’s an important pressure to do it right and represent the people right,” she said. Despite whatever genetic predisposition she has toward the craft — McKenzie is the third generation of actresses in her family — she remains a normal, down-to-earth teenager, her eyes widening when talking about the animals she got to work with on the set of Leave No Trace: “If you ever get the opportunity to work with bees, do it!”
McKenzie was followed by Richard E. Grant, Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, who once again took over the Arlington stage with his trademark humor. “I’m just a kid from Swaziland,” he said, “It feels arbitrary but very lucky, very grateful.” Grant joked about his relationship with co-star Melissa McCarthy, his time working on Spice World (“I’m replacing Posh Spice for the tour!”), and the amount of bread he got to eat on set with McCarthy.
Claire Foy charmed with her empathy and class, noting her admiration and gratitude for her costars in First Man, but also by taking time to emphasize her feelings about acting in such emotional roles. She mused on how she does not participate in emotional substitution, an acting trick of reaching into one’s own life to mimic a character’s sadness. “I never want to cheapen someone else’s reality,” she said. “Even the thought of what they can be going to is enough trauma.”
Young and spunky Elsie Fisher, star of Eighth Grade then took her place with her finger guns in full blast. The teenager was exceedingly charming off the bat, somehow seeming the most comfortable onstage. She admitted to fan-girling over director Bo Burnham and having to revisit the traumas of middle school, and, for someone so young, she possessed a surprising brand of refreshing honesty. When discussing reactions to her film, she spoke about how the female teenage experience, which she always thought of as specific, was something her elderly grandfather also related to. “It just shows how universal hating other people is!” she joked.
Sam Elliott from A Star Is Born was the last onstage, who after 50 plus years in the industry has nabbed his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. “I cried through most of it,” he admitted in his long, Southern drawl when recounting his first experience watching his film, and said the best thing about his nomination was that he initially heard of it from his wife, actress Katharine Ross. Elliott expressed his appreciation but also his keen awareness of the world around him, talking about going through awards season during the California fires, floods, and mudslides. “The juxtaposition was really something,” he quietly said.
The seven actors then joined each other onstage for a last round of questioning, citing their favorite movies of the year, remembering their 8th-grade selves, and divulging who their dream actor collaboration would be. (Turns out John David Washington really wants to work with Beyoncé, and the others think that would be pretty neat, too.) Santa Barbara’s own Hollywood alum Christopher Lloyd finally made his appearance to dole out the awards, and the seven actors became SBIFF’s newest Virtuosos to an enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovation.
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