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For the past decade, Dave Karger has been the interviewer for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s (SBIFF) wildly popular evening with the Virtuosos honorees. Thanks to his amiable personality, quick wit, and thoughtful questions, the actors — who join Karger one at a time in the hot seat for a quick Q&A about the film for which they are being honored and then return for a group Q&A during the second half of the night — tend to become relaxed and open. The group chat portion of the event has been known to produce some of the festival’s most side-splittingly funny and memorable moments.
Karger, who spent 17 years as a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, has had an illustrious, award-winning career as a television host, interviewer, and “entertainment expert.” He’s had guest spots on Today and Access Hollywood Live and at myriad red-carpet affairs. He also works for Turner Classic Movies and IMDb. In addition to his day jobs, he’s been an SBIFF fixture since he took over as the Virtuosos interviewer in 2011. This year, Karger will chat with honorees Awkwafina (The Farewell), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Cynthia Erivo (Harriet), Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart), Aldis Hodge (Clemency), George MacKay (1917), Florence Pugh (Little Women, Midsommar), and Taylor Russell (Waves).
I recently spoke with Karger over the phone about the evening from his side of things. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
How did you become an interviewer for Virtuosos? It kind of happened by accident. I started doing a couple audience interviews here and there when I was a writer at Entertainment Weekly in New York. I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. A friend of mine at the magazine, Sean Smith, was the one who was hosting the SBIFF’s Virtuosos for the first couple of years that it existed. He was moving to Africa to join the Peace Corps. He let the Santa Barbara International Film Festival know that he was leaving the country, but said he had a friend from Entertainment Weekly who just moved to L.A. he thought would be a good person for this event. They said, Okay, we trust you.
I don’t think they knew who I was, but that’s okay. They said, Yeah, let’s give him a try. That was my first year doing the Virtuosos in 2011. I had a great time. Roger Durling seemed to be happy with it. All these years later, here I am. It’s a true highlight for me, not only to actually do the event, but also to help pick who the honorees are going to be every year with Roger. I love it.
How do you decide which actors to honor? Roger and I go to the early fall film festivals like Toronto. I go to Telluride, Cannes. I’m definitely taking notes in my head all year long of films and who I think might be good for this event. Once September comes around, Roger and I start an email chain. We just go through all the people that we like and which ones we agree on. We make the offers and cross our fingers.
Your interviews feel conversational and natural — like they’re chatting with a friend who happens to keep people on point. Is that something that you had to learn, or do you have a natural affinity for it? I’m a chatterbox. That’s my nature. I’m also pretty nosy. I just love talking to people. The fact that my job essentially is talking to people or with people — I feel very lucky that that’s what I get to do for a living. My whole goal is to make them feel comfortable because a lot of the times they’re really nervous because they’re in front of an audience. They want to do a good job. I can’t afford to be nervous, because my job is to make sure that they’re not. Now that this is my 10th year, honestly, I can say, I know that the Santa Barbara audience is so friendly and lovely that it makes it easy for me not to get nervous, because I know you guys just want a good time. No one’s judging. No one’s judging me or anybody else on that stage.
How do you prepare for an evening of interviews with eight different actors separately, and then together, such as the Virtuosos event? For Virtuosos, I’m seeing all of the big awards movies just to get a sense of who I want to pick. But honestly, once we have the people chosen, the interviews are so quick. We really do focus on the current movie — it’s not like doing a career retrospective where I need to do the deep dive. I can really focus on the movies that we’re honoring these virtuosos for.
What I try to do is think about the audience. For Taron Egerton, I know that basically everyone has probably seen Rocketman, so I can really dig deep into specific scenes and moments because I know the audience will know what I’m talking about. If it’s Aldis Hodge and the movie is Clemency, which probably 5 percent of the audience will have seen by the time I’m interviewing him, then I know I need to be a little bit more broad in my questioning and not too specific, because then no one will know what I’m talking about. Those are the kinds of things that I try to think about when I’m doing the questions, and because I only have six or seven minutes with each person, I really try to be very targeted to elicit the most interesting answers.
Your questions may be targeted, but the atmosphere onstage feels laid-back. The nice thing about the Santa Barbara festival in general is that because it takes place in the middle of January, near the end of the award season, it really can feel like a victory lap for these people. Taron has already sold the movie. He’s already done all the big Q&As. He’s gotten the nominations. This will just be for him to kind of take one final victory lap and enjoy it. Enjoy Santa Barbara. Have a good time on the stage. That is my main goal. I want everyone to have fun.