Santa Barbara Film Fest: Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Jared Leto and June Squibb Feted

The legendary Christopher Lloyd celebrated the seven Virtuoso Award recipients, while Daniel Bruhl, Adele Exarchopoulos and Oscar Isaac were honored in absentia.
Christopher Lloyd speaks about the Virtuoso Award honorees as they and moderator Dave Karger look on.

SANTA BARBARA – Neither the absence of three of the night's seven honorees nor the presence of a heckler could dampen the 29th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival's Virtuoso Award evening, which celebrates individuals who gave breakthrough performances of one sort or another during the previous year. (This year's crop ranged in age from 19 to 84 — clearly, breakthroughs can happen at any time in one's life!)

The four honorees on hand — Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan, Short Term 12's Brie Larson, Dallas Buyers Club's Jared Leto and Nebraska's June Squibb — participated in individual Q&As with moderator Dave Karger of, who is always great, followed by a group Q&A and then the presentation of the awards themselves by the legendary actor Christopher Lloyd, a Santa Barbara local.

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The three who didn't make the trip and missed out on a nice evening were Daniel Bruhl (Rush) and Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), who are based in Europe, plus Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), who is now shooting J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year in New York. Each lost a great incentive to attend when they were not nominated for an Oscar on Jan. 16. But Jordan and Larson are in the same boat and deserve kudos for showing up. (As for the other two, Leto is a best supporting actor nominee and Squibb is a best supporting actress nominee.)

Jordan, who is a few days shy of turning 27, completed his work on Fruitvale nearly two years ago, went with it to Sundance a year ago and has been talking about it ever since. Still, his respect for the man he portrays in the film, the late Oscar Grant (murdered without cause by white cops on New Year's Day 2009), and the acting profession, of which he has been a practitioner since he was just a kid, were still palpable. He spoke of how he learned of Grant's murder when it happened (a friend posted the video on his Facebook and he watched it several times) and why it resonated with him (he, like Grant, grew up as a young African-American living in an inner city but near a big city).

Jordan said that the toughest scenes to shoot for the film, which looks at the last 24 hours in Grant's life, were those in which his character is shot and in which he lies on a slab in a morgue. But the scene that most profoundly impacts many viewers is the one in which a pit bull is killed in a hit-and-run incident next to the gas station in which Jordan's Grant is fueling his car. While most of the film is faithful to real events, this part was made up because, Jordan said, it was important to send a subliminal message: "African-Americans are America's pit bulls," presumed by many to be threatening and far too often treated as if their lives don't matter. "You gotta hide the medicine in the food sometimes," Jordan said of the scene.

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Twenty-four-year-old Larson was particularly mellow and brief during her segment about Short Term 12, in which she plays a young woman who helps run a facility for at-risk youth, having experienced a troubled childhood of her own that still haunts her. Her remarks were strangely all over the place: she was home-schooled; she likes listening to Norwegian heavy metal before scenes; and, to prepare for her part, she shadowed a female employee at a facility like the one depicted in the film.

Meanwhile, 42-year-old Leto received an enthusiastic audience reception worthy of the rock star that he is on the side -- and, just as he sat down, heckles from someone who felt that he, as a straight man, should not be portraying a transgender character such as the one he plays in Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon. He calmly and graciously defused the situation — even offering to meet with the heckler after his segment (he did, for 15 minutes) — and then moved on. He acknowledged that he has not yet seen the film because the experience of making it rendered it all too raw and painful for him to revisit — he stayed in character throughout the whole shoot — but plans to one day.

He also described personal experiences that prepared him for the part, such as discovering that a young 30 Seconds from Mars fan whom he befriended in a Louisville mall while the band was on tour, a year before production on the film's production commenced was, in fact, a girl who had been dressing as a boy, and, separately, that when he first moved to L.A. he shared a three-bedroom apartment with two other men, one of whom was dying of AIDS and demonstrated a high level of dignity that Leto never forgot. Those experiences, he says, convinced him to "live your life as you dream it, not as others would have you live it."

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He added that he couldn't have played the character had he not stepped away from film acting for the six years before taking on the role: "I think the six years that I took off was one of the best decisions of my life. I think it made me a better actor and a better person."

And he said of the one scene in which Rayon, who was born in a man's body, dressed as a man, was one of the most challenging but also one of the most rewarding scenes he shot on Dallas Buyers. "It was a very intense day," he says. He bombed the first take, but on the second take "some magic happened, some inspiration struck, some truth came from somewhere," and after he heard "Cut," his director, in tears, told him, "You just did something that's gonna live forever."

Then it was Squibb's turn, and when the veteran — whose work dates back to the 1959 Broadway production of Gypsy — took the stage following a clip of her character being hilariously cheeky in a cemetery, she received a hero's welcome. The character actress said of her Nebraska director Alexander Payne, with whom she previously collaborated on About Schmidt (2002), "I'm comfortable with him. He and I just sort of move together and create." She also shared kind words about her co-star Bruce Dern ("We work a lot alike and he's brilliant") and noted, "We all felt that we were doing something very special."

Squibb also acknowledged the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom she worked on his first film, Scent of a Woman (1992): It's so hard to know that he must have had so many demons before [his death] … I remember him very fondly … I'm just devastated by it." (Leto later dedicated his award to "the late, great" Hoffman, "someone who will really be missed.")

Lloyd then came out and brought things to a close, on behalf of the fest, by offering a kind benediction about the honorees — "Each of them left me in a kind of revelatory state of mind … bared their souls … opened their hearts and took us in, broadened our sense of humanity by how human they became" — and then presenting each of the honorees with both a statuette and a hug.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg