Last Wednesday evening, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored five actors for being standout performers in 2008. The award was created last year to “recognize a select group of actors who have distinguished themselves through performances in film.”

This year, as luck would have it, four out of five actors being honored this year are up for Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards. This year, the festival chose Michael Shannon (nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his quirky and surprising performance in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road”), Viola Davis (nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her 12-minute powerhouse role in “Doubt”), Richard Jenkins (nominated for Best Actor for his subtle debut performance in “The Visitor”), Melissa Leo (nominated for Best Actress for her grimy and bare performance in “Frozen River”) and Rosemarie DeWitt (who I was rooting for this season for her underappreciated, glowing performance in “Rachel Getting Married”).

Everyone was incredibly gracious with their time, speaking to me for as long as possible and asking my name, etc. Asking the first question, I got the consensus response, “We’re storytellers,” and as Rosemarie DeWitt put it so succinctly, “To get people to think.”

Answering the second question, Michael Shannon seemed overwhelmed by the diversity of films in 2008, whereas both Rosemarie DeWitt and Melissa Leo exclaimed with glee, “ACTORS!” 2008 was indeed one of the best years in recent memory for wonderful, moving performances, while the films themselves weren’t overall quite as memorable.

The award ceremony itself played out as an extended interview, with all five actors conducted by Roger Durling, followed by the award presentation by James Cromwell. What everyone gathered from the evening was the idea that Michael Shannon, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Rosemarie DeWitt and Melissa Leo are all true] actors (they all have theater backgrounds), not celebrities. They spoke like working-class actors, seemingly unaffected by their newfound accolades from their award-winning films.

Michael Shannon, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Rosemarie DeWitt and Melissa Leo had many things in common and everyone seemed ecstatic to be honored, but were all hungry to continue working; to bask in the glow for a moment before going back to their craft. Thank God.