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On Friday evening, six actors were honored with Virtuoso Awards at Santa Barbara’s historic Arlington Theatre as part of 27th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Three will soon be heading to the Oscars and three will not be. From the former category were best actor nominee Demian Bichir (A Better Life), best actress nominee Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and best supporting actress nominee Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), and from the latter category were Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants). All were in attendance except for McCarthy, who apparently came down with a case of laryngitis. The other five were separately and then collectively interviewed by moderator Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly.
Bichir was the first in the hot seat. The longtime Mexican character actor recounted how he met director Chris Weitz after being asked to audition for the part of a werewolf in Weitz’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009), at which time Weitz began pitching him on starring in the film that would become A Better Life. He was thrilled when he was eventually offered the part of the film’s central character, an illegal immigrant who barely scrapes by as a gardener in Los Angeles, even though it meant that he would have to regain some of the weight that he had lost since playing his previously highest-profile part, Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh‘s Che: Part One and Che: Part Two (both 2008). To better understand his character in the months before filming began, Bichir says that he chatted with “my paisans” in the area and even bought a truck from one of them, which he drove around for seven months. As for the frightening tree-climbing scene that takes place at an emotionally-pivotal moment of the film, Bichir says that he had to suppress his fears about shooting it after both a stunt man and Weitz went up before him. And, as he also stated when he learned he had been nominated for the best actor Oscar, he dedicated the film to “the 11 million people who work with pride, power, and dignity to make our society better.”
Next up was Mara. The 26-year-old, who was wearing a fashionable green dress and slicked, firmly-parted hairstyle, seemed almost as intense as the iconic character that she was being celebrated for playing, Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher‘s English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when it would have been more appropriate to be looser and wittier, like the character that brought her to most people’s attention for the first time, Erica Albright in The Social Network (2010). She gave short, terse answers, but periodically flashed a very cute smile that belied her seriousness — “Beaches and romantic-comedies aren’t really my thing” — and still managed to charm much of the audience.
Then came Oswalt, who made his name in standup comedy before he ever began dabbling in acting, and whose comedic chops were on full display throughout the evening. Oswalt, who was being feted for his work in Jason Reitman‘s Young Adult, recounted that he was offered the part after participating in several readings of Diablo Cody‘s script at Reitman’s house. He joked that the call could just as easily have been a solicitation for Paul Giamatti‘s phone number to play the part instead of him, and that he was very grateful that it wasn’t. He dished about the love-hate banter in which he has engaged with costar Charlize Theron throughout the awards season. And the chubby actor cracked, “Talk about Method acting: I gained 40 pounds for the part 15 years before Diablo wrote it!”
Serkis came up next, and, riffing on an earlier Oswalt joke, the king of motion-capture walked backstage from the audience fully-dressed and emerged on the stage with his shirt off. (He proceeded to conduct his entire solo-interview barechested, to Oswalt’s delight on Twitter.) As he has often had to do, he expressed his position that mo-cap does not replace real acting, but actually requires it as much as anything, and really serves as just “digital makeup.”
It was then Woodley’s turn, and the 20-year-old was her usual lovely, humble, fun-loving self. She acknowledged that she had been on hiatus from her TV show (ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) during the two months before she got the part in The Descendants; was actually working at American Apparel when she got the good news; and was worried that her boss would be angry at her for leaving after such a relatively short time. She described her foul-mouthed, high-maintenance character as nothing at all like herself (“she’s the yin to my yang”). She recounted a nice moment when, after filming the scene in which her character emotionally discloses some shocking news to George Clooney‘s character, Clooney offered her an approving high-five. And she admitted that the two pieces of direction that she received most frequently from Payne — whose other work she had not seen at the time — were “Louder” and “Slower.” (Her lack of projection and speed-talking were both probably byproducts of her work in TV.)
When all five honorees in attendance gathered together on the stage, they were asked which film or performance other than their own they really loved this season. Woodley championed Beginners (“I wish it never ended”); Serkis hailed Tyrannosaur (“One of the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen”); Oswalt recommended Martha Marcy May Marlene (and particularly John Hawkes performance); Bichir talked up A Separation (“A wonderful film… well-written”); and Mara demurred.
Asked for a favorite memory from the awards season, Bichir cited the opportunity to screen his film in Washington, D.C. for a group of United States Senators who were considering their position on the Dream Act; Oswalt referred generally to his opportunity to meet and chat with many of his personal heroes (including Lee Majors and Paul Schrader); Woodley mentioned her trip to the Dubai Film Festival with Payne (where they went dune-buggying); Serkis told a funny yarn about Morgan Freeman’s son excitedly introducing Serkis to his father at the Golden Globe Awards, at which point the older Freeman asked Serkis, “And what do you do?”
The festivities came to a close when Weitz, the director Bichir’s film, took the stage to present a brief benediction about and the actual statuettes to each of the honorees. He joked that the directors of the other honorees’ films — among them Fincher, Payne, and Reitman — had better things to do, but that he craved the spotlight so much that he agreed to be there even though it (truly) was his anniversary.
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