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The Finest Virtuosos

21 February 2023
  • Written by
    Ashley Balzar
  • Photographed by
    A. Arthur Fisher
Austin Butler (Elvis) at SBIFF 2023
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Adrenaline surged through the air on the second to last night of the 2023 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Fans clustered around the Arlington Theatre, craning their necks while trying to catch glimpses of the eight fan favorites who were gracing Santa Barbara with their respective presences. One by one, the stars made their way down the red carpet, with cheers growing louder. The signature event of SBIFF brought Jeremy Strong of Armageddon Times, Kerry Condon of The Banshees on Inisherin, Nina Hoss of TÁR, Danielle Deadwyler of Till, Jeremy Pope of The Inspection, fan favorites Stephanie Hsu and Ke Huy Quan of Everything Everywhere All at Once, and of course Elvis himself, Austin Butler. These stars were joined at The Arlington by moderator Dave Karger and presenter Jane Lynch. Once all had arrived, the evening was off to an enthusiastic start!

SBIFF executive director Roger Durling and Karger were ecstatic to begin the night as they had made eight asks to get the recipients to Santa Barbara for the honor of the Virtuoso Award. And luckily for all in attendance, they received eight yeses. This year, all recipients were between the ages of 30-50 and all veterans of the acting world, with careers that were all at least a decade long. 

Jeremy Strong kicked off the interviews discussing his recent role in Armageddon Time, and his humble beginnings in Hollywood. He turned his chair to face the audience as he recalled the early days of working as a production assistant and a personal assistant to fellow actor Daniel Day Lewis. He recalled feeling honored to play the role of Irving in Armageddon Time, a character that was a stand in for director James Gray’s father. “It was challenging. He was violent and brutal, but also showed other sides to humanity.”  He chuckled as he shared that he enlisted the help of Gray’s kids to record their grandfather so he could get a better idea of who he was portraying, even as the director cautioned him not to. “[The cast] had to show up and trust each other.” And that trust certainly paid off.

The crowd erupted in applause as Ke Huy Quan ran onto the stage, grinning and waving at all his fans. He, too, recalled the days of working odd jobs in Hollywood. “I appreciate all the jobs,” he said, “I only saw the business as an actor, but my perspective got wider.” Quan reminisced fondly on his early days in the acting business but mentioned that the phone stopped ringing for him shortly after his hit roles in The Goonies and Indiana Jones. “I tried to bury the acting bug, but the landscape has changed. There’s representation now and the acting bug kept crawling back until I couldn’t ignore it.” He was open about his struggles and the shame he felt when he had been asked “what’s next”, and had no answer because he wasn’t working on a project. But after the recent success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, it’s clear that a comeback has been made and Quan has a number of doors that have reopened for him. Quan beamed as he said, “I’m happy to say I don’t have a movie lined up. I want to be in the moment.” 

Jeremy Pope strutted confidently onto the stage to join Karger in discussing his recent role in The Inspection. He admitted he had just wrapped a run in Broadway days before. Now that’s commitment to the craft. His recent movie was shot in just 19 days in the middle of a hot Mississippi summer. “The movie changed me,” he said. As a film that takes on the complex topics of blackness and queerness, he said it was honest and vulnerable for a discussion that deserves to take place. “It brought up ugly and honest truths and was very healing. As an artist, you have to be a vessel for something bigger.” He spoke fondly of his co-star Gabrielle Union, saying she slid into his DMs to work on the project with him. When asked about filming the intense military scenes in the middle of the summer, Pope laughed and said, “I kept waiting for the stunt double, but there was none. I’ve done it, but don’t ask me to do it again!”

Stephanie Hsu looked gorgeous in her Dior gown, but nothing compared to the smile and energy she brought with her as she took a seat next to Karger for her interview segment. She, along with co-star Ke Huy Quan, earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once. In a movie that had no shortage of effects and outfit changes, Krager was asked, “how did you manage to shoot it?” Her voice was filled with pride as she discussed how great The Daniels directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, were to work with. “It was crazy and exhausting and fun, and people cared about the story.” She spoke fondly of her on-screen mother, Michelle Yeoh, and the complicated, messy, and beautiful mother-daughter relationship the pair had in the movie. 

Nina Hoss embodied elegance and confidence as she took her place on the stage next to Karger. Her accent and smile were equally beautiful as she discussed starring opposite the great Cate Blanchett in TÁR. She was delighted to learn that Blanchett knew who she was prior to filming, as she’s native to Germany and never expects to be known in Hollywood. A musician herself, Hoss stepped naturally into her role in the film. “I played piano and even considered opera,” she noted, “but I was curious about the role and playing the violins.” TÁR is a film that has been analyzed extensively since its premiere, particularly the ending of the film. When asked by Karger if she subscribed to any of the theories on the film’s vague ending, Hoss laughed, surprised, and said, “I didn’t know about any of that!”

Joining Karger next on the stage was the gorgeous Danielle Deadwyler of Till. Karger’s emotions came to the surface when he started the interview by saying, “I’m just going to say, I don’t know how this didn’t get an Oscar nomination,” to which the audience affirmed. Deadwyler laughed and said she feels the love every day, and that’s nothing but a win in every sense of the word. Till’s plot is important yet incredibly heartbreaking and when asked how she coped with the sadness of the role, she laughed and said, “I’m an everything-er. Journaling, dreaming, semantic writing, and therapy on set.” Community was everything in the creation of this movie, and she relied a lot on her co-stars to get through the telling of this tragic event. “It’s about the whole experience of the black family, and [Mamie Till] wanted this story to be told to educate people about Emmett Till.” The admiration for Deadwyer was palpable.

Kerry Condon’s energy was contagious as she stepped on the stage. An acting veteran, she began her career at age 17 appearing in plays, specifically with Bashees of Inisherin director Martin McDonagh who directed her first play. “I was taken back at first by the part [in Banshees],” she explained. She felt disappointed at the lack of spunk in her character, though she soon learned her character was tougher than she’d thought. “I was lonely being the only female in the film. I couldn’t kick back with the lads whenever I wanted. But I learned there’s strength in solitude.” Her wise-cracking humor delighted, and the crowd seemed amused with her use of the colloquial term ‘feckin’, not to be confused with our English language counterpart. Her chatty demeanor thrilled Karger and the audience alike and made her interview one of the most enjoyable. 

And finally, screams nearly blew out the doors of the Arlington Theatre as the shy and mild-mannered Austin Butler stepped out from behind the stage. Despite taking on the difficult role of Elvis Presley, and earning himself an Oscar nod in doing so, Butler’s demeanor was reserved and humble, with both Karger and himself using the word introvert to describe him. “I just stumbled onto set and found my tribe,” he noted of starting the process of becoming The King. “Did you ever give up hope that the movie would be made?” Karger asked, referring to the pandemic halting filming for nearly six months. “No,” he answered confidently. “I had already prepped for a year, so I stayed in Australia and practiced walking down the beach talking like Elvis.” 

When asked what the hardest part was of making Elivs, was, Butler replied, “Everything. I had to make all the pieces fit together while spinning a ton of plates and walking a tightrope.” He then went on to speak highly of the Presley family, noting that his relationship with them was his greatest gift, even though he did not meet Lisa Marie until the movie came out. “I just wanted to do justice to Elvis and his family and his fans.” And anyone who has seen the movie will tell you that justice was indeed served.

As the interviews wrapped up, Karger invited all the award recipients on stage for a personal and intimate panel. The audience got to hear about everyone’s early jobs in Hollywood, their dream roles, a special musical performance from Jeremy Pope, and everyone’s must-see films of the year. The night concluded with Santa Barbara local, Jane Lynch, presenting each of these well-deserving actors the well-earned Virtuoso Award, concluding a talent filled night and fan-favorite awards event of the SBIFF.

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Santa Barbara International Film Festival photo from State Street