(L-R) Kerry Condon, Danielle Deadwyler, Nina Hoss, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jeremy Pope, Austin Butler, and Jeremy Strong receive the Virtuosos Award | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

Elvis was in the building last night — in the form of newly anointed movie star Austin Butler — along with The Banshees Of Inisherin’s Kerry Condon, Till star Danielle Deadwyler, Tár’s Nina Hoss, Stephanie Hsu and Ke Huy Quan from Everything Everywhere All At Once, Jeremy Pope from The Inspection, and Jeremy Strong from Armageddon Time.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Virtuosos Award, designed to honor breakout performances, serves as proof that, as moderator Dave Karger explained, “as actors, you can have your breakout at any age.” As has been the tradition with this celebrity panel, each actor was introduced with some clips from their honored performance, then they were interviewed individually, followed by a lively group participation round.

First up was Jeremy Strong, who is widely recognizable for his Emmy Award–winning role as Kendall Roy on Succession, but shared his backstory of working as a production assistant for Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, as well being the personal assistant to Daniel Day-Lewis. Of that last experience, Strong said, “Daniel exemplifies a commitment and courageousness we all aspire to.”

Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

Of the role he plays in Armageddon Time, based on writer/director James Gray’s father, Strong said, “I love characters who are up against something that they may not be able to handle.”

Ke Huy Quan was up next, and he also has a history of behind-the-scenes jobs in the film business, to which he said, “My perspective got wider.” And of his multiverse, multifaceted character Waymond in the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, he said, “All of those experiences I had, I brought all of them into this character.”

Honoree Jeremy Strong attends the Virtuosos Award Ceremony | Credit: Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

Obviously it worked well. The Vietnamese-American actor is now nominated for an Academy Award, and after not working in front of the camera for many, many years, said, “The acting bug that I had buried has slowly crawled up the surface.”

When the next interviewee, Jeremy Pope, starred in The Inspection, he had just come off of a run on Broadway playing Jean-Michel Basquiat opposite Paul Bettany in Anthony McCarten’s The Collaboration.The Inspection changed me in a very real way,” said Pope of the emotionally tense role. “Had I seen a movie that represented this Blackness and this queerness, it would have helped me as I grew up.”

He continued, “You have to believe as an artist you are a vessel for something bigger than yourself.”

Stephanie Hsu had already worked with the Daniels, directors of Everything Everywhere All at Once, on an episode of Nora from Queens when she took on the role of Joy, Michelle Yeoh’s daughter in the film. The whole experience was “all so fun,” she said. “It was all hands on deck; it was so exhausting. But it really was like being with your friends all day.”

Nina Hoss, who co-starred as Cate Blanchett’s fellow orchestra member and wife in Tár, said she looked to composer Gustav Mahler’s work and complicated relationship with his wife, Alma, as a reference point, with her character Sharon being someone who was willing to and even wanted to be partnered with a genius figure. 

Karger also quizzed Hoss about her take on the controversial ending of the film. She said she’d seen it three times and took something different away from it each time, positing that it was because writer/director Todd Field doesn’t preach, preferring to give the audience things to take away and discuss. “All we wanted to do is start a conversation about power,” she said.

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In a slightly uncomfortable line of questioning, Karger then asked Danielle Deadwyler how she felt about being “snubbed” for not getting an Oscar nomination for her strong performance in Till. Deadwyler, however, handled the awkwardness like a champ, saying the experience had been “nothing but a win in every aspect of the film.” 

In discussing the emotionally intense experience of working on a film about Emmett Till — a 14-year-old Black boy who was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman — Deadwyler mentioned how supportive the set environment was and that they had a therapist there. “That’s what film is; it’s nothing but community,” she added.

Austin Butler speaks onstage at the Virtuosos Award Ceremony. | Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

Kerry Condon, who played Colin Farrell’s sister The Banshees Of Inisherin, brought a much lighter note to the proceedings, with a hilarious explanation of the Irish word “feckin,” a family-friendly word not to be confused with the similar sounding English word. Her relationship with writer/director Martin McDonagh goes back to him seeing her in first professional play when she was 17. They’ve worked together ever since, and Condon says, “I learned to be an actress through doing his plays. We sort of learned together.”

Elvis star Austin Butler took the spotlight seat last, but certainly not least. Young fans in the audience were particularly eager to cheer for Butler, who is apparently quite shy, and talked about how becoming an actor has helped him find his place in the world. He also shared that his relationship with the Presley family, who he got to know after the film was completed, was quite special to him. “To me, that’s been the greatest gift of everything,” said Butler. 

He got to speak to Lisa Marie Presley about the film just prior to her death, and said that Priscilla Presley sent him an email about his portrayal of Elvis Presley, and that “that’s the greatest review I’ll ever get in my life.” 

Actress Jane Lynch, apparently a Santa Barbaran, presented the awards to cap off the night. She shared that she had been interviewed on the red carpet earlier that evening and asked by some student journalists about her advice for young actors. What she wished she had told them was to listen to the words of great actors, and that they had just received a masterclass in acting from the group of virtuosos assembled that night.


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