SAG-AFTRA Foundation Benefit: Lee Daniels Discusses Being Homeless, Having Two Heart Attacks

Mark Davis/Getty Images for Screen Actors Guild Foundation
(L-R) Leonardo DiCaprio, Megan Ellison, Lee Daniels and Rob Marshall

The 30th anniversary celebration honored the 'Empire' co-creator, Leonardo DiCaprio, Rob Marshall and Megan Ellison.

In the spirit of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, an organization (not to be confused with the Screen Actors Guild) that gives support to actors in need, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels shared the story of how his troubled past influenced his award-winning work.

Daniels, Leonardo DiCaprio, Megan Ellison and Rob Marshall received honors at the foundation's 30th anniversary bash held at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on Thursday night. Daniels discussed his poor beginnings, which made him unable to afford film school, and watching Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals in the projects with his cousin, which inspired his love of working with actors. 

"I was homeless for a little bit. I didn’t pay my rent in Hollywood when I got here," said Daniels. "I lived in a church and I started directing theater and it was empowering. I’ve been very blessed because I shouldn’t be here today. I’m very blessed that I wasn’t shot growing up. I’m very blessed that I didn’t die of HIV as many of my friends did — and I held them in my arms in the '80s — because certainly I was destined to do that. That I’m not HIV [positive] is a miracle. I then went on to do drugs because I thought that I should die, and I survived two heart attacks. All that stuff is in my work. I try to bring that out with the actors I work with.”

Empire’s Jussie Smollett and Gabourey Sidibe presented the Patron of the Artist Award to Daniels, their boss, whom they consider more like a father figure. 

"When you’re with an actor, it makes me happy," added Daniels. "I thank Hollywood for embracing the unconventional because I am just that. I am the unconventional and I like to give voice to people that don’t have a voice and to show faces for those that we ignore."

Before presenting another award to Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo reminisced about filming Shutter Island with DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.

"When you’re shuttered on an island with Leonardo DiCaprio you get to learn a lot of interesting things. You get to learn about all the endangered species that are left on the planet; you get to learn about ways in which we could transition to 100 percent renewable energy wind water and sun and keep us from frying the planet; you learn about models."

Ruffalo joked by saying he was presenting DiCaprio with an Oscar, an award the actor has been nominated for several times but failed to win, and then corrected himself to say, "Artists Inspiration Award" to DiCaprio who spoke onstage of growing up in Los Angeles with dreams of being a successful actor. 

"When I was 14 years old, after doing many television commercials, including Matchbox cars and Bubble Yum I was watching a Robert DeNiro movie with my father. He pointed to the screen and said to me, 'Son, watch closely because this is what great acting looks like.' A few years later, I found myself on a soundstage playing opposite that same Robert DeNiro, watching from him and learning from him."

DiCaprio also took a moment to discuss his love for acting and to discuss the seriousness of climate change. 

"While shooting The Revenant, our team endured two unprecedented weather events that shut down the already-delayed and complicated production schedule, which I’m sure you’ve heard about. Turbulent and disruptive weather events are happening all over the world and are causing irreparable damage. 2015 has literally become the tipping point for climatic instability and it’s incredibly scary."

DiCaprio also took the opportunity of his speech to thank his parents: "And I'm going to take one moment here because this isn't nationally televised to embarrass both of them, but they're sitting here tonight. Mom, Irmelin, George, I would not be receiving this award and I would not be the actor that I am or be able to do any of the philanthropy that this job has given me the opportunity to have, and I wouldn't be the person I am without the both of you, so thank you." 

Producer Megan Ellison accepted her award from David O. Russell, whom she worked with on American Hustle and the upcoming Joy. Russell praised the Annapurna Pictures boss for "always being herself."

James Corden presented his Into the Woods director Rob Marshall with his honor. Marshall, who started as a dancer on Broadway. The director joked that filming with actors immune to musicals such as Queen Latifah and Renee Zellweger felt like he was the mom encouraging her child in Toddlers and Tiaras. He also recalled a moment while filming Chicago when Zellweger asked him why he didn’t hire someone who could sing.  

The evening featured performances by Darren Criss, Abigail Spencer, Shelby Lynne, Ledisi, Estelle, Bellamy Young and American Horror Story: Hotel’s Cheyenne Jackson.

The SAG-AFTRA Foundation has awarded $17 million in health and emergency assistance funds to actors. The foundation has produced over 5,000 workshops and has hosted reading events for more than 66 million children across the globe. 

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