Jennifer Aniston’s big break came back in the day when she got cast as a waitress in a commercial for the diner-style restaurant chain Bob’s Big Boy. In a twist, Aniston had to act out a part as a rival server. “I played the waitress at the tacky competitor serving up fast seafood, which is two things that should never, ever go together,” she recounted from the stage while accepting one of two Artists Inspiration Awards during the 4th annual SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Patron of the Artists Awards Thursday night in Beverly Hills.
“My big line was, ‘The shrimp’s up!’,” she recalled. “It felt, honestly, like the greatest day that had ever, ever existed. That was it. It changed my life. I finally got in.”
By in, she meant accepted into SAG-AFTRA, and when that coveted union card came in the mail a few weeks later, “it was a huge moment,” Aniston said, because, “I was officially a working actor. I was part of a community of actors. Every day and every job I’ve had since then feels like the greatest day that I’ve ever had. Even the bit parts, I’m going to say it – even Leprechaun. They loved it.”
Just then, she turned around to face two friends standing behind her, Friends co-stars Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow, who had the honor of presenting the award to Aniston. Hers was the final award doled out during a star-studded, two-hour show held inside the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts.
Mark Ruffalo accepted the other Artists Inspiration Award from good friend Leonardo DiCaprio; Greg Berlanti took home the Patron of the Artists Award following an introduction from Norman Lear; and Ava DuVernay accepted the same prize as Berlanti, with hers coming with praise from pal David Oyelowo.
There were standing ovation-inciting performances from Cynthia Erivo, Chrissy Metz, We McDonald and Patti Austin, and appearances by presenters Hank Azaria, Laurence Fishburne, Willem Dafoe, Julia Garner, David Harbour, Paul Rudd, Olivia Wilde, Constance Wu and Awkwafina. The SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Patron of the Artists Awards is an annual fundraiser that benefits the organization’s emergency assistance and free educational programs for SAG-AFTRA artists. Some of those who utilize the service are struggling actors, and in that spirit, many of the honorees praised the bravery of artists for all they deliver despite the hardships in a fickle industry and in the larger world.
Even Aniston expressed her gratitude — and profound good fortune — for having achieved success as a working actor (and now producer) for the better part of three decades. “I got really doubly lucky. I got, like, really lucky — I got Powerball lucky and that was because a few years after I did that Bob’s Big Boy commercial, I got another waitressing role, but this time on a friendship show called Friends,” Aniston continued after the SAG card story. “Friends was lightning in a bottle. … I don’t mean the ratings. It was a very rare environment where there was truly no competition, no egos, we were just six relatively unknown actors learning on the job together and thanking our lucky stars to be on this rocket ship of a show. We didn’t care who got the best line, although Matt Perry usually stole all the good lines.”
All they did care about was making audiences laugh via their work on the iconic NBC show, which ended its run in 2004 after 10 seasons, cementing its actors as A-list stars and making them the highest-paid actors on television at the time. “We’d trade ideas and coach each other and help each other, and if someone killed it, we would beam with pride,” said Aniston, who was praised by Cox and Kudrow for her philanthropic efforts in supporting causes like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Red Cross and cancer organizations. “We went from Friends to a family. That experience set the bar for the rest of my career and it taught me to surround myself with supportive people who make me better. Not only a better actor, but a better person.”
DiCaprio honored Ruffalo, the night’s other actor recipient, by describing him as one of the best people. The two met close to a decade ago, DiCaprio explained, while filming Shutter Island. “During the course of shooting, we got to speak about his genuine passion for activism, and since then I’ve watched as Mark has become a leading voice in the effort to shift our world away from a reliance on fossil fools and an outspoken advocate for human rights,” he said, singling out his profound impact with the Solutions Project and mentioning his advocacy on behalf of voter registration efforts, LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive freedom, the march against white supremacy. He even mentioned how Ruffalo channels activism into his work, like he’s doing with his upcoming Dark Waters on Nov. 22. “With all of these causes that Mark fights for, he chooses to inspire hope for the future, not fear for the present.”
In accepting, Ruffalo first thanked “the ancestral lands we find ourselves on here… and the ancestral native people of California for having us here.” He praised his wife, Sunrise, for everything she does in support of his career and advocacy while shouldering the biggest burden at home. He then turned his attention to the present time with a nod to politics by quoting presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
“We have to be there for each other, folks, now more than ever. We have to get into our hearts and see each other as family, as brothers and sisters and us. That is the only way out of this great mess we find ourselves in,” said Ruffalo. “As Bernie Sanders recently said, ‘Are you willing to fight for someone that you don’t know, who we don’t look like, who we don’t live near and who may even may not relate to in any way?’ Because that’s what this unique moment in human history is calling upon us to do. Starting with the 2020 election, it will take a spiritual revolution in our hearts, one that I honestly wonder if we’re up to. But I remain hopeful that with enough suffering, we will be heartened to do what needs to be done. We have to put ourselves on the line in ways that we’ve never done before and that’s not just writing a check because that’s not going to cut it. We need to put our whole selves in.”
That line was quoted later during the program by Courtney B. Vance during his remarks as he accepted the passed torch from outgoing SAG-AFTRA Foundation president JoBeth Williams. The veteran actress stepped down from the organization following a 10-year tenure. “This business is a tough ride. It’s a roller coaster and that’s why we need the SAG-AFTRA Foundation,” Williams said, taking her final bow. “The career fears never really go away but when I saw an opportunity to help make the journey a little bit easier, I had to do it. I didn’t do it alone, certainly.”
She then thanked her “unpaid” board of directors and executive director Cyd Wilson, who got a huge round of applause. “Without her, we certainly wouldn’t be having this evening tonight, honoring all these extraordinary artists. Cyd treats her staff with immense respect and as a result, the staff feel empowered to take the initiative to help.”
Vance, joined at the event by his wife, Angela Bassett, and their two children, called upon the audience to help him build upon the foundation set by Williams and Wilson with a fiery passion. “There is a critical need within our community of artists that urgently requires all of our hands to be on deck. We are in the midst of a crisis right now of monumental proportions made all the more acute by the fires ravaging our state. People suffering with such uncertainty and fear about their homes and their futures is a very real and ongoing calamity. For many, the foundation, this foundation is the last line of defense,” he said. “The movie Field of Dreams is impactful for me. “The mantra of the film, ‘If you build it, they will come’ resonates very deeply for me. But we must take it one step further. They have built it and it’s time to go.”
He laid out his four-pronged approach to the enterprise: Let you know what the need is; show you your part; put systems in place to be able to do it on a regular basis; and have fun doing it.
Oyelowo looked to be having a bit of fun presenting to his friend and longtime collaborator DuVernay. The two previously worked together on such films as Middle of Nowhere, Selma and Wrinkle in Time, meaning they stretched a creative partnership from her first time, the $200,000 budgeted Nowhere through the $100-million-plus Wrinkle. While he listed her many accomplishments, the awards on her mantle and the Array business she’s built, the most revelatory moment came when she talked about her humanity.
“I am in awe of her and the way she has her very essence intersect with who she is and what she creates. Ava can appear invincible at times, but I have also been privileged enough to see her in moments of vulnerability, her moments of self-doubt,” Oyelowo noted. “Yes, she is actually human. She’s humanly aware and very cognizant of how rare it is to be a black woman who has carved out such a big platform for herself. She’s always thinking not just about what she’s doing, but what kind of runway she’s leaving behind for others who look like her and are like her. She wears this responsibility both lightly and heavily. Lightly because she knows she’s called to this work and thus operates in it with a real ease. Heavily, because she never, ever takes it for granted.”
In accepting, DuVernay said that her mind drifted to all of the actors she’s worked with her in career. “It’s a thing of beauty to behave as catalysts for life. For how we are who we are. Actors become us, they mirror us, they translate us to ourselves. It’s brave. They give us their bodies; it’s their face — their actual face, their breath, their voice, their beating hearts, in every line every time I say action … [They] give us ourselves back to us. That’s what actors do. That’s what they’re charged with and that’s what the very best and the very brave ones do every time they deliver that.”
Berlanti also dedicated most of his acceptance speech to the bravery of actors, something he knows intimately as the most prolific show runner/mogul working in the TV business right now. But also because he wanted to be an actor once upon a time. “I wanted to be an actor for a while when I was a kid. Both my parents somehow supported this dream in spite of actually having seen each and every one of my performances,” he said in accepting from Lear who praised him as “delicious” and for having 11 shows on the air and 35 total to his credit. “My dad [Eugene] is here with me tonight. He really understands the plight of the actor. I cast him as an extra several times through the years and the first two times, he got cut in editing. True story. In fairness to me, I didn’t realize until my father’s first on camera work that it was possible to stare quite as directly into the lens as he did. Eventually he made the cut, and we’re still talking to each other which is good because I couldn’t imagine surviving this business without his love and support.”
Berlanti lost his mother, Barbara, to cancer two years ago, and he dedicated many thoughtful words to her, as well. “She was my first patron. She loved the arts and believed before anyone that I was destined to make a life in it. On occasion she would cut me out of school to bring me to the movies or a Broadway play that we both wanted to see. She would drive me to all my rehearsals, help me raise money for the shows and bitch about anyone who got cast instead of me. That’s an actor’s favorite quality in a patron,” he quipped. “You would know if she was here tonight because she would be cornering Leonardo DiCaprio saying, ‘Have you seen my son’s shows? Which is your favorite?’”
Berlanti, who thanked his bosses at Warner Bros. and his “incredible, incredible” husband Robbie Rogers, said his mother gave him another gift, too. “She taught me empathy in as much as it can be taught. To me, that’s the root of any artistic endeavor, the artist feels something and they use their art to make you feel it too.”
That job is an actor’s job, and he said those who do it are among the most “emotionally courageous” in the industry. “The greatest lie about this business ever told — and it’s a lie told particularly about actors, I’m afraid — is that this is a glamorous profession. The parties might be glamorous but the work is not and the days in between the work are even less so. They’re mostly hard. That’s why the work that the SAG-AFTRA Foundation does is so vital. It gives assistance and support to, in my opinion, the most emotionally courageous and vulnerable artists in our business. I’ve witnessed firsthand all that actors give up and overcome to make us think and feel with their art, to move us or change us in some way and to be a part of the great chain of empathy that surges through this world and is more important today than ever.”