Santa Barbara Int'l Film Fest Celebrates Virtuosos, Including 9-Year-Old Oscar Nominee

'Beasts of the Southern Wild' director Benh Zeitlin helped to honor Ann Dowd, Elle Fanning, Ezra Miller, Eddie Redmayne, Omar Sy and little Quvenzhane Wallis.

Last night, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival paid tribute -- and presented its Virtuoso Award -- to six actors who gave breakthrough performances over the last year. This annual event is always a highlight of the fest, as actors ranging from newcomers to veterans -- all of whom are relatively fresh faces to the public, if not yet household names -- walk the red carpet and are then celebrated in Santa Barbara's historic Arlington Theatre.

This year's honorees were Ann Dowd (Compliance), Elle Fanning (Ginger & Rosa), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables), Omar Sy (The Intouchables) and 9-year-old best actress Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). They were interviewed individually and then collectively by Fandango's Dave Karger before being presented with their awards by Beasts of the Southern Wild's 30-year-old director/co-screenwriter/co-composer Benh Zeitlin, whose Oscar nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay make him something of a breakthrough, too.

PHOTOS: 2013 Oscar Snubs

Camaraderie between the honorees was established before they ever entered the Arlington. On the red carpet -- video of which was projected into the theater -- they got to know each other in between group photos and individual chats with reporters. Dowd, a middle-aged character actress and mother of three children, mothered the others, making sure that 14-year-old Fanning wasn't too cold and that Miller, 20, and Redmayne, 31, were enjoying themselves. Sy, the 35-year-old tall Frenchman whose English remains a bit rough, had everyone laughing while posing for group photos. And Zeitin and Wallis, old friends, walked part of the way arm-in-arm.

Just before the show got underway, the honorees were seated in the audience -- Zeitlin and Wallis together, Redmayne still carrying a goblet of green room champagne from sponsor Moet -- and the honorees began to be called up, in alphabetical order, for Q&As with Karger. Dowd, introduced as someone who has been "toiling for decades" without receiving recognition, set the evening's fun tone when she walked out on stage -- accompanied, like all of the guests, by an escort -- and cracked, "You must have expected me to come out with a cane, 'toiling for years!' I'm alive and well!"

In Craig Zobel's Compliance, which Karger warned was a dark film before showing a disturbing clip, Dowd plays a fast-food restaurant manager who is fooled into administering a strip-search of one of her employees by a man on the phone impersonating a policeman. Dowd's deadpan "It's not a date movie" left the audience in stitches. Of the conflicted manager, Dowd said "on a gut level I understood her ... She's just a person who lost her self-esteem a very long time ago. It happens to a lot of people." She revealed that Pat Healey, the actor who voiced the instructions, "is actually the nicest man in the world," adding with a chuckle, "I want to say that loudly to anyone who's concerned!" As for her future, Dowd said, "People say, 'You must be turning down scripts left and right.' And I say, 'I'm sure that will be happening,' but not just yet."

Fanning, in Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa, plays a Beatnik in 1960s England who is simultaneously troubled by the fear of a nuclear Holocaust and the reality that her father is sleeping with her best friend. The tall and bubbly blonde, who died her hair red for the film (hence the first part of the title), noted that she auditioned two years ago, when she was 12, even though the script described the character as being 16. After auditioning Fanning, though, Potter "deleted the age in the script." The actress said that she, like her character, is "still trying to figure out a place in this world," and that she was intrigued by her character's activist spirit -- she participates in marches and protests. For the heartbreaking scene in which her character starts crying while hearing her father and friend hooking up through the thin wall of a boat, she said she just imagined herself in her character's position, adding that it was just one of "so many feelings that I've never even experienced in real-life." And she added that it was a particular treat to get to work on a few scenes with four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening.

As Miller took the stage, several audience members yelled, "We love you, 'Nothing,'" referring to the nickname his character in Perks, Patrick, a closeted homosexual who suffers physical abuse at the hands of his father and cruelty from many classmates at his high school, save for two who become particularly close friends. Miller -- whose true breakthrough came in a much darker film, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), which he says his sister can't even bring herself to watch -- said that he first read Stephen Chbosky's book four years ago, when he was 14 and "a confused young adolescent." (He recently acknowledged that he is bisexual.) At the time, he says, he related more to the film's central character, Charlie, but now he's grateful that he got the chance to play Patrick. "Ever since we let the gays into the movies," he said with more than a tinge of sarcasm, "there's been a lot of tokenization," referring to stock characters like the gay friend or the gay victim. "It was exciting to read the book and then the film, where there's such a strong, brave, compassionate gay character." As for the frighteningly realistic cafeteria fight scene, Miller said he wanted to play it as realistically as possible so that the gay character didn't seem overly effete -- and that it led to "relatively harmful injuries." He also noted that the story is set and the film was shot in Chbosky's hometown, and he and his co-stars "felt like he was ushering all of us actors into his memories."

PHOTOS: Academy Awards 2013: The Nominees

Redmayne, something of a heart-throb, of late, elicited shrieks from fans from the moment he entered the theater, and particularly when he took the stage, following a clip featuring his rendition of the song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," and sat on one leg. He was the only principal cast member of Les Mis who had previously collaborated with its director, Tom Hooper, and also one of the few who had never sang on stage or screen before. (He said that on day three of the shoot he realized that many of the actors playing the students had previously played his character, Marius, which was both intimidating and a valuable resource.) Having seen the play as a kid, he was familiar with its content and music when he learned that Hooper would be making a film version, and taped himself singing in his trailer on an iPhone to audition. (He noted that he hadn't even told his agent that he liked singing.) Redmayne said the scene that made him most nervous was the number "In My Life" -- in Victor Hugo's novel, his character falls in love over seven months, but it's just a few minutes of screen time. He initially tried to play it as a blend of singing and talking, like many of the other numbers in the film -- made possible by the use of tiny earpieces the actors wore on set that enabled "live singing," as opposed to re-recording in post-production. But Hooper eventually said in order to get the message across, Redmayne should play it like "one of those old-school movie musical moments, running down the street and swinging from the lampposts," which he did. He also shared that, when it came time to record "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," he asked Hooper to put four cannisters of film in the camera so that he could record several takes without interruption, using the emotion from one take to fuel the emotion for the next -- a technique that he learned from being directed by Robert De Niro in The Good Shepherd (2006).

Sy humbly acknowledged right off the bat that he "never took any drama school, just life school," and that it is largely because of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the co-directors of the dramedy The Intouchables, with whom he had collaborated on three earlier occasions, that he is in this business at all. When he first met them, he recalled, "I said, 'I'm not really an actor.' And they said, 'We are not really directors!'" They ended up writing The Intouchables for him and casting him opposite one of France's most respected actors, Dustin Hoffman look-alike Francois Cluzet. When Sy first met Cluzet, he says, he was intimidated, but Cluzet told him, "I play for you, you play for me," which "was the key for me to leave all of complexes and fly like a bird." Last year, for his performance in The Intouchables, Sy was awarded the best actor Cesar Award -- France's version of the Oscar -- over Jean Dujardin's performance in The Artist (which was ultimately recognized with an Oscar) and Cluzet. Karger asked Sy if he felt bad about beating his co-star, and, after a long pause, Sy bellowed, "Nooooooo!" He laughed, "I was very, very, very happy," and noted that Cluzet already has a Cesar of his own. Asked about whether or not he plans to make movies in America in the future, Sy said, "I have to work on my English first, I think. But if you have a part for me ..."

Finally, it was Wallis' turn, and the adorable Louisiana native -- now the youngest best actress Oscar nominee in history -- marched on stage carrying a stuffed animal purse. She admitted that she was only five when she auditioned for Beasts, even though they were seeking girls aged six to nine: "I was underage ... but I made it!" She explained, "I knew what acting was 'cause I watched TV, of course," but it was only with the help and guidance of Zeitlin and her co-star Dwight Henry, also a novice actor, that she was able to become an actor herself. She said she loved her character, Hushpuppy, but that "she needs to wear more pants!" And she said that the film's eponymous beasts were not done with CGI, but rather with a pig (with whom she goes snout to nose) and, in other situations, with "a medical man" who "had, like, a box on his head with a drawing of a beast," prompting laughs. Wallis, who will next be seen in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave, said that she first acted "with my friends on the street." She explained, "We would play school, and I would always play the student. Now I don't want to be the student. I want to be the teacher." And she also wants to do "another film with Court 13 [Zeitlin's production company] -- or an animated film as an animal."

Then, following a brief group discussion -- during which Miller told Redmayne and Sy, "You guys have much sexier voices than I do," and Wallis, upon being asked if she wanted to be in a musical, sang-spoke, "Of courrrrrrrrse!" -- Zeitlin came out and offered a closing benediction. "I feel like we've all been kind of catapulted into this weird atmosphere," he told the others. He also noted that one of the things that he has learned in the last year is that Hollywood is composed of people who like to make movies and people who like to make celebrities. "The celebrity side is always threatening to eat the movie side alive," he said, before calling for applause for "people who put their chips down on talent instead of fame," such as this year's Virtuoso honorees.