The Virtuosos Award ceremony was held in the Arlington Theatre on Feb. 6 at the height of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The eight honorees of the night included Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”), Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Stephen Henderson (“Fences”), Simon Helberg (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Nocturnal Animals”) and Dev Patel (“Lion”). The Virtuoso Award is a recognition for the breakthrough actors who gave a riveting performance in a film released the previous year.
The moderator of the night, Dave Karger, acknowledged that six of the actors given the award were people of color (Patel, Henderson, Harris, Ali, Negga and Monae). Despite sentiments of despair that can arise when considering diversity in today’s landscape, the world of film has begun widening its spectrum of inclusion. All of the actors honored with a Virtuosos Award this year brought three-dimensional characters to life with storylines that didn’t submit them into clichéd molds.
Mahershala Ali was the first recipient of the night, receiving the award for his utterly breathtaking role as Juan, a drug dealer in “Moonlight.” Karger spoke of Ali’s ability to channel dynamic vulnerability into a man who dealt with drugs. Ali drew from personal experiences about the region where he grew up, pointing out that most drug dealers in the area did not embody their exaggerated stereotypes.
“Most of them never grew up wanting to be drug dealers; they did it because that was the only way they could survive,” Ali said. In regard to the condemnation of his religion in the media, Ali eloquently stated, “The vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving, but the vast majority of media coverage of Muslims is of those who are not.”
When given the question if he would ever want to pursue making romantic films, Ali responded with “I want to do everything. I want to tell a joke or two, as well. I want to do a comedy or action movie. I’ve done a lot of television, but for now I want to explore more theater and film.”
As for Ali’s “Moonlight” costar, Naomie Harris, she was hesitant in taking on the role of the drug-addicted Paula, as she thought it would only perpetuate negative stigmas, but ultimately decided to take on the role when she saw the vivid complexities and earnest nature in director Barry Jenkins’s script. Harris is the only actor in “Moonlight” that appears in all three chapters, and the astounding element is that she filmed all of her scenes in just three days. She had to deal with portraying a woman who descends into a desperation of drug dependency. To prepare for the role, Harris had to venture into the depths of YouTube to research drug addicts, as she herself doesn’t consume caffeine, alcohol or drugs.
With the vast collection of serious roles in these movies, Simon Helberg’s role in “Florence Foster Jenkins” alongside Meryl Streep sheds a comedic light on this year’s Virtuosos Awards.
When the clip of his performance from “Florence Foster Jenkins” was displayed on screen, the crowd was erupting into fits of laughter when they witnessed Helberg’s facial expressions in the scene reacting to Streep’s singing. Helberg had to undergo preparation to freshen up his piano skills to further delve into the role of the pianist, Cosmé McMoon.
When asked about what it was like working alongside Streep, Helberg said it was “much like a fever dream” and made a knock at the recent comments made about Streep from the President, joking, “She’s very powerful, if not overrated.”
Stephen Henderson is a newcomer in the framework of film yet a seasoned veteran in the theater component of acting. Henderson played the same role he plays in Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of the August Wilson screenplay, “Fences,” on Broadway in 2010.
On his lifelong dream of working with Washington, Henderson mused, “If you wait for the train, it’s always going to come to the station.”
As a surprise to the audience, Janelle Monáe stated that she actually studied drama in college before dedicating her time to music. Her role as Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, in “Moonlight” marked her film debut and catapulted her into the realms of the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
Regarding her role, Monáe said, “I wanted to fill a void for the character of Chiron that his mother couldn’t fill because she wasn’t capable due to her drug addiction. It was a reminder to him that he does matter and that he shouldn’t ever think for a moment that he was not worthy of love.”
Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress, was being presented the Virtuosos Award for her performance in “Loving,” a story of an interracial marriage during the time of segregation. She finalized her interview with Karger about her Oscar-nominated portrayal as Mildred Loving with the compelling message that, “This isn’t just a black story, and it isn’t just an American story.” She added, “It’s my story, and it’s the world’s story.”
Dev Patel has the charismatic qualities of a Disney prince, and his phenomenal role as Saroo in “Lion” only adds to his charm.
Patel’s first scene when filming “Lion” was the ending reunion scene, and he expressed that he “spent eight months of sleepless nights on thinking about making this scene perfect.” Patel recounts his portrayal as Saroo as a “process of introspection; I spent a lot of time isolated, traveling on trains in India. I had to write a diary, which I’ve never done before; that makes you confront somethings inside yourself.”
As the last actor to accept an award, Aaron Taylor-Johnson talked about his sadistic portrayal of the killer Ray in “Nocturnal Animals.” Johnson showed hesitance of taking on this role as he felt it would bring an excessively dark aura into his household, where he is surrounded by his daughters and wife. Due to the gruesome nature of his character, Johnson had to do exhaustive research on serial killers three months prior to the making of the film. While on this intensive diet of serial killer documentaries, Johnson learned that what he had to emulate from these killers into his inherently violent character, Ray, was their dimensions of “charm and charisma.”
In regard to starting the production of “Nocturnal Animals,” Johnson said, “I started to have sleepless nights, both from the things I was watching and the anxiety that came from provoking Jake Gyllenhaal’s character.”
Karger wrapped up the night by asking a final open-ended question to the panel of actors: “What are three dreams that you want to fulfill?” Negga stated that she wants to work with the influential director Spike Lee; Ali would like to someday portray Jack Johnson or the Motown singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye; Monae would like a legacy “Star Wars” movie and to see more predominantly female and minorities in film; Taylor-Johnson would love to work in another one of his wife’s films. This year’s Virtuosos Awards ensemble dared to defy the divisions that are often employed within Hollywood and created compelling performances that enticed audiences across countless screens.