Santa Barbara Film Fest: 8 Breakthrough Stars Take Their Place in the Spotlight

Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Simon Helberg, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Janelle Monae, Ruth Negga, Dev Patel and Aaron Taylor-Johnson each received a Virtuoso Award.
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From left: Dev Patel, Mahershala Ali, Simon Helberg, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Janelle Monae, Stephen Henderson, Ruth Negga and Naomie Harris

When actor Christopher Lloyd describes fellow thespians as "amazing," you can be pretty sure that they are. And the eight that the Santa Barbara International Film Festival gathered at the Arlington Theatre on Saturday night to receive its Virtuoso Award from Lloyd in recognition of giving a breakthrough film performance — Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Simon Helberg, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Janelle Monae, Ruth Negga, Dev Patel and Aaron Taylor-Johnson — certainly fit the description.

Four of them have received Oscar nominations (Ali, Harris, Negga and Patel). One won a Golden Globe last month (Taylor-Johnson). Three co-starred in Moonlight (Ali, Harris and Monae). Two appeared in Hidden Figures (Ali and Monae). Six are people of color (Ali, Harris, Henderson, Monae, Negga and Patel). Five named the documentary I Am Not Your Negro as the 2016 film they most hope people will seek out (Ali, Harris, Henderson, Monae and Negga). And all graciously answered questions about their lives, careers and breakthrough performances that were tossed their way by Dave Karger, who deftly moderates this tribute each year.

Ali, who accepted a SAG Award last Sunday night with a speech about being a Muslim that quickly went viral, was asked what it has felt like to have his religion "dragged through the mud," of late. "The problem is those are not the people I know," the soft-spoken actor said, lamenting the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving, but that the vast majority of media coverage of Muslims is of those who are not. Asked about how he brought such humanity to the drug dealer that he portrays in Moonlight, as opposed to the usual stereotypes, he said, "I grew up seeing it more subtle than that," and described how drug dealers in his community were, like everyone else, just trying to survive. And asked if he was happy with the results of his decision to step away from House of Cards and pursue a film career, Ali chuckled and said, "I was ready to move on," adding, "I'm just appreciative to have this moment."

His co-star Harris recounted her reluctance to portray a drug-addict herself, but acknowledged with a laugh, "I got caught in [director Barry Jenkins'] trap." Harris, who herself never has consumed alcohol or drugs, says she learned how to behave like someone who has by watching YouTube documentaries and interviews during a month of preparation. After overcoming hurdles in obtaining a visa, she finally made it to set in Miami and had just three days to perform her scenes — out of sequence — which, unlike those of any of the film's other actors, are spread between the film's three acts. "I really scared myself with this role," she said. "I really wondered if I could find her."

Florence Foster Jenkins scene-stealer Helberg, who is best known for his work on TV's highest-rated series The Big Bang Theory, looked back on the summer hiatus that he spent working with Meryl Streep as something of "a fever dream." How did it come about? "I got an email that I thought was from a Nigerian prince," he cracked, in reference to director Stephen Frears' offer to meet about the film. The actor won the part with his piano-playing abilities, which somewhat existed before a period of intense prep, and he knocked it out of the park with his inimitable facial expressions. ("Luckily, I just have a funny face," he remarked.) Helberg revealed that the cutaways to him trying to stifle laughs were recorded simultaneous to Streep delivering her scenes, since multiple cameras were filming at any given time — and he deadpanned that Streep's contributions to those scenes weren't bad either: "She's very powerful, if not 'overrated,'" he quipped.

Henderson, a respected veteran of the stage who has appeared in many productions of the late August Wilson's work — including the 2010 Broadway production of Fences, for which he garnered a best featured actor in a play Tony nomination — was, at 67, the senior honoree, and was being feted for his work in Denzel Washington's big-screen adaptation of Fences. He acknowledged that many, if not most, film adaptations of theatrical productions feature casts who are different than those who appeared on stage, and that he was grateful that Washington asked him to reprise his role — but that even if he hadn't gotten that opportunity, he, as a champion of Wilson's work, still "would have rejoiced an the fact that August finally got to the screen." Henderson added, "It's wonderful to play somebody's friend, and it's special to play Denzel's friend."

Monae, like Ali, discussed her involvement with not one but two 2016 films, Moonlight, her film acting debut, and Hidden Figures, another film about race in America, both of which are nominated for the best picture Oscar. The music star revealed that she has a drama degree and long participated in monologue competitions while growing up, and that since the release of her last album in 2013 and shortly thereafter reading the script of Moonlight ("a project that I needed to be a part of") while sitting in seat 3B of a Delta flight, had decided to devote her full attention to acting — elements of which she previously had drawn upon in her music videos. She shot Moonlight right before the 2015 winter holidays and Hidden Figures right after the holidays, and says she was happy she got to do them in that order. Monae thanked Jenkins "for allowing me to have Moonlight as my first film," and Hidden Figures director Ted Melfi for letting her play a part she personally connected to: "When I read that script, i saw myself in her. I knew she was a fighter."

One of this year's surprise Oscar nominees is Negga, for her performance as the late Mildred Loving in Jeff Nichols' Loving. The Irishwoman of Ethiopian descent expressed gratitude that she was entrusted with the role of one of the "unknown heroes" of America, and specifically with "a script that had no business ... no indication of what actors should do," thereby freeing them to make their own interpretations based on research and instinct. "That's a very rare thing." The actress said she personally grew in many ways from her work on the film. "Until this film, I didn't even know about the Supreme Court," Negga admitted, and now recognizes how important it is that only people of strong character be appointed to it. "This isn't just a black story and it isn't just an American story," she added. "It's my story and it's the world's story."

Patel shared that he fought for his part in Lion, even showing up, unannounced, at the home of the screenwriter long before the casting process had begun — at which point he was told, "in the most polite of ways," to submit a tape like everyone else, which he did. "I told my team, 'This is the journey I want to go on — I've been dying to go on a journey like this,'" and he and his team went to work trying to convince the Lion team that "the kid from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" could play the very different sort of role they needed to fill. In the end, he says,  "It was as close of a character to myself as I've ever played," and the challenge of playing it was as gratifying as any he's faced.

Last but not least, Taylor-Johnson took the stage following a clip of him menacing a family in Nocturnal Animals, after which Karger noted how scary he was. "That's become the compliment of the last six months," the actor noted. "'You scared the shit out of me!'" The married father of four young girls said he "was pretty hesitant taking this character on," knowing what dark places it would take him. He was encouraged by director Tom Ford to watch serial-killer documentaries, which showed him something so disturbing that he "started having sleepless nights": "They all had charm and charisma." Taylor-Johnson revealed, for the first time, that one night on set, three hours away from Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert, he became so disturbed that he called a friend to come and pick him up and then take him home, just so he could have the comfort of being in his own home for the night.

At the end of the proceedings, the whole group gathered onstage together and was asked what 2016 film, other than one of their own, they would most like others to check out — five or six named the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, while Henderson gave a shout-out to Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation. And, asked what dreams they still had yet to fulfill, Ali said he'd like to play Jack Johnson and Marvin Gaye; Negga said she hoped to work with the two directors who most influenced her as a young person, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch; Taylor-Johnson expressed his desire to do another film with his wife, Sam Taylor-Johnson, who previously directed him in Nowhere Boy; and Monae said, "I want a legacy Star Wars film."