Left to right: Virtuosos Greta Lee, Charles Melton, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Andrew Scott onstage during the group interview portion of the evening. (Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus)

On Saturday, Feb. 10, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored eight performers with the Virtuosos Award. The Virtuosos Award is given to actors who achieved a breakthrough performance in the past year. 

The 2024 honorees were America Ferrera for “Barbie,” Andrew Scott for “All of Us Strangers,” Charles Melton for “May December,” Colman Domingo for “Rustin” and “The Color Purple,” Danielle Brooks for “The Color Purple,” Da’Vine Joy Randolph for “The Holdovers,” Greta Lee for “Past Lives” and Lily Gladstone for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

The crowd outside the Arlington Theatre grew more energetic as each of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) Virtuosos Award honorees began to arrive. Starting with Melton, each actor stepped out of their black sedan and made their way to greet and take pictures with the crowd before making their way to the red carpet. Shortly after, Randolph, Ferrera, Scott, Gladstone and Lee arrived, ready to commence the sold-out ceremony.

The night started with a special performance of “Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People)” by Scott George and the Osage tribal singers from the Martin Scorsese film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which stars Gladstone. Paying tribute to Osage culture in traditional outfits, the singers evoked strong emotions with their powerful voices and impactful drum sequences. The energy of the performance radiated into the audience and was met with a standing ovation. 

Following the performance, the SBIFF director Roger Durling explained that due to filming schedules, Domingo and Brooks were unable to attend the ceremony.  Both actors sent in videos apologizing for their absence and expressing gratitude for the honor.

Durling then introduced the longtime veteran host Dave Karger, film journalist and author of “50 Oscar Nights.” With 14 years of hosting the event under his belt, Karger described this year’s honorees as “the most impressive and accomplished group” SBIFF has ever awarded. 

He also made it a point to recognize that the group of actors were made up entirely of performers of color or performers who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, which was a stark difference from the previous night. 

“Last night was fabulous. Leonard Malton, Robert Downey Jr., Cillian Murphy, Rob Lowe,” Karger recounted. “Straight, white, male Bonanza.” 

After Karger’s introduction, a short video montage of all the performances was shown to highlight the work of the actors. Then, the first actress was brought on stage for her interview. 

In a dazzling, elegant white dress, Ferrera was met with thunderous applause as she made her way across the stage. In “Barbie,” Ferrera’s character Gloria delivers an incredibly impactful monologue, which quickly became one of the most memorable parts of the film. 

For Ferrera, however, it was “terrible to watch” and she was her worst critic. She was “glad [she] didn’t eff it up” and that the monologue was able to resonate with all kinds of audiences, even if it wasn’t necessarily intended for them. 

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When asked about being offered the role by Greta Gerwig, Ferrera expressed that “from page one, [the script] was the most incredible delight.” 

Ferrera emphasized that it was this version of the film that “needed to be brought into the culture and [she feels] so grateful that [she] got to be a part of doing that.”

Ferrera’s performance as Gloria landed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, which she states has been a lifelong dream of hers since she was five years old and “watching [her] sister begrudgingly be flying monkey number two.” Ferrera’s ending remark was that it has been a “surreal dream to reconcile what [she’s] living right now with that girl.”

The crowd gave another standing ovation as Ferrera left the stage.

The next honoree to take the stage in an all-white, multi-textured suit and sleek white shoes was Scott. He was recognized for his work as Adam in “All Of Us Strangers.” In the film, Adam is a gay screenwriter who goes through the journey of coming out to his dead parents and becoming more comfortable with his sexuality. 

“Oh, I blend in with the chair,” Scott said as he approached his seat. The crowd laughed at his observation. 

Karger asked Scott what people have said to him in regards to the film. 

“There’s so many bits in the movie that are so devastating to people,” Scott responded.

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He has received a broad spectrum of emotions from audiences and that has been a “testament to the movie” for Scott. Karger mentioned that no other movie had moved him more than “All Of Us Strangers” this past year. 

Scott flusteredly touched on the process of filming intimate scenes with co-star Paul Mescal. Being able to work comfortably with the intimacy coordinators allowed him to be more “daring” since he knew that if the senses were not something he was proud of, then they would not end up in the film. Even though Scott is very proud of the work he was able to do in the sex scenes, he expressed that the radicalness of the film actually came from the surrounding scenes.

“The tenderness between two men is radical because I think there are certain prejudiced factions of the community who can understand sexuality, but what they find challenging is the tenderness between two male characters,” Scott said. “I think it’s important that that’s represented in that way because our vulnerability is our greatest power.”

Scott ended his interview talking about the sensitive response he felt when he and Mescal attended the Irish premiere of the film in Dublin, Ireland. 

“It was so emotional to be seen in that way,” Scott said. “We think that there are films made for particular types of people, but I like this movement towards this idea that you can see yourself in so many different types of cinematic and theatrical characters.”

Recognized for his role in “May December,” Melton made his way on stage wearing a classic black suit paired with shiny loafers. The role was a breakout performance for Melton, who had  previously only been known for his role on CW’s “Riverdale.”

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His character in “May December,” Joe, is a husband and father forced to work through repressed feelings and confusion he feels towards his marriage and partner. After Melton touched on how excited he was to work with Todd Haynes, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, Karger asked Melton if he ever saw himself in this role.

“I never thought I had this kind of performance in me or anything like that,” Melton said. “I was really just immersed in the whole process … and there were many days where I was just like I’m so bad, this is not good, I’m not good.”

Ultimately, Melton persevered through the 23 days of filming by “just focusing on the work” and relying on Portman and Moore for guidance. 

Melton ended by remarking on meeting some of his film heroes thanks to the success of “May December” and even getting the opportunity to have insightful conversations with them. 

Next entered Randolph, who was met with a standing ovation for her performance in “The Holdovers.” In the film, Randolph portrays Mary Lamb, the school head cook who struggles with the grief of losing her son in the Vietnam War. Karger mentioned he immediately knew Randolph would be a winner of the Virtuoso Award when first watching the film. 

Despite the film being shot two years ago, Randolph didn’t get to see it before it came out. Bittersweetly, Randolph recounted her conversation with the film’s director Alexander Payne during the last day of filming. 

“I was like, ‘I really look forward to eating pasta with you guys in Venice next year,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Alexander, all I want to do is be on a boat in Venice stepping out.’ But it didn’t happen, and that’s okay.”

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Wanting to stay true to the character, Randolph herself cooked the dishes for the film and during the Christmas dinner scene, had everyone sit down and actually eat the meal.

“We didn’t eat that day and then when they shot [the scene], we ate the whole complete meal. At some point they said cut and we were still eating,” Randolph said. 

In her ending remarks, Randolph shared an anecdote of the time she was on a flight sitting behind a woman watching “The Holdovers.” After shedding some tears, the woman recognized Randolph and gave her a hug telling her that the film was so special to her because she recently had lost her grandson. She told Randolph that when her daughter was ready, the film would be the perfect way to tackle her grief. 

“That’s why you do it,” Randolph said. 

The audience gave yet another standing ovation as Randolph left the stage.

Lee was next to take the stage.

Her role as Nora in “Past Lives” was a story she “felt small and urgent and necessary” to be told. Even though Lee was looked over for the role, she felt firmly that she was meant to play Nora and has strong “in-yun” with it. “In-yun” is a Korean word that means providence or fate, specifically between two people, and is the main theme in “Past Lives.”

She really highlighted how the script of the film is what drew her in, and that, in part, was due to the work of director Celine Song. 

“I had never expected that given the world that we live in that seems to support excess or the loudest voice in the room, that maybe something like this, a quieter construct of love that we can all understand, would be something of this worth endeavor,” Lee said. 

“You could tell a love story and present what could seem like a conventional love triangle through the lens of a woman who is not constructing her identity based on who she loves,” Lee remarked. “The greatest romance of your life could actually be one you have with your own life.”

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In her last comments, Lee expressed that “Nora was the role of a lifetime,” and it was so important to her because she couldn’t “remember the last time [she’s] seen an Asian American on screen for more than several seconds.”

Lee left the crowd with laughter when she called out Karger for crying more to Scott’s film rather than her own, to which Karger responded, “‘All Of Us Strangers’ is going to move the gay guy more, you’re going to have to forgive me.”

The last nominee to be honored was Gladstone, who wore a custom duck-feathered structured top that paid homage to her native heritage. After receiving her first Oscar nomination, along with becoming the first Native American to be nominated for Best Actress, Gladstone said she had been “in Osage County, on Osage land” when she found out. 

Gladstone further expressed how “the film is so remarkable because of how remarkable the Osage people are.”

Karger mentioned that George also received a nomination for his song, to which Gladstone shared that she was “honored to be sharing this Oscar” and “it was very touching to see the impact that a win for one of us means for all of us.”

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The audience was shocked to learn that Gladstone’s character, Mollie, was only in the film for three scenes before the script was changed. 

“Everybody came to the same conclusion that the heart of the story needed to be with these two characters, consequently bringing the Osage reign of terror and Osage characters to the center of the story,” Gladstone said. “We already have the story with FBI propaganda … we didn’t need another one.”

The audience gave Gladstone another standing ovation before watching a final montage of all the actors’ work. After the montage, all the honorees came back on stage for the final group panel.

Karger kicked off the group interview by asking each actor to name a language they would want to learn or speak in a future film. 

Ferrera was the first to answer by describing her experience growing up in an immigrant household, which was met with cheers from the audience. She touched on how she would only respond in English to her parents and how that lack of practice speaking Spanish has manifested itself into hesitation around the language.

“I would love the challenge of actually acting in Spanish,” Ferrera said. “I think [it] would be terrifying for me and it would be really fun too.”

Ferrera kicking off the group interview. (Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus)

Gladstone then touched on the process of learning Osage for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” With the resources available to her, she was able to construct sentences in Osage on her own which helped her improvise during the film. 

“When you can express emotion in a language, you’re more likely to remember it. You’re more likely to use it,” Gladstone said. “I would love to have a chance to pick up Blackfeet as well as I was able to crack into Osage.”

When asked if there would be anyone in particular they thought they would have good chemistry with in a future film, all of the actors jokingly replied that they would have good chemistry with everyone on the panel. 

Karger then asked the group if there had been any notable encounters with some of their idols. 

Lee recounted when she met Jennifer Lopez for the first time and Lopez congratulated her on “Past Lives.” Lee told the audience how she reacted in that moment. 

‘I said, ‘I wuv you J-Lo,’” Lee confessed, making the audience and the rest of the panel laugh hysterically. “She kind of politely waited for more and I went [shakes her head].”

When it was Scott’s turn, he told the story of meeting Jodie Foster and added a twist that made everyone in the auditorium lose it with laughter.

“At the Golden Globes I met Jodie Foster and I said, um, I wuv you Jodie Foster,” Scott said, barely able to contain his own laughter. 

“Oh that’s savage,” Karger responded before asking the panel his last question. 

Lastly, Karger has a tradition of asking every Virtuoso panel to end the night with recommending a recent film they’ve watched to the audience. He started off by recommending “The Unknown Country,” which stars Gladstone. Scott recommended an French movie called “Passages.” Randolph recommended an older film that came out in 2022, “Triangle of Sadness.”

“It’s really really riveting. It’s really intelligent,” Randolph commented. “I just thought it was beautifully shot. 

Lee recommended a film that premiered at the same festival “Past Lives” premiered, A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One.”

“There are certain performances that really feel like acts of services,” Lee stated. “And Teyana Taylor, my god, my god, that performance. You’ve got to see it.”

Billy Luther’s first narrative film, “Frybread Face and Me” was then recommended by Gladstone. Ferrera recommended Eva Longoria’s feature directorial debut “Flamin’ Hot.” After spending a lot of time pondering his answer, Melton ended with his recommendation of “Monster.” 

“I haven’t seen it, but I feel like it’s going to be incredible,” Melton said and shamefully put his head down, causing the audience to laugh once again. 

Actress Jane Lynch presented the Virtuosos with their award. (Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus)

At the end of the group panel, Karger introduced Santa Barbara local and five-time Emmy winner Jane Lynch to present the honorees with their Virtuoso Awards. The group stood for one final picture with their award and received thunderous applause from the audience as the night came to an end. 

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