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A night of camaraderie

Backstage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards

Reese Witherspoon admitted a small leg up on playing June Carter — she’d played the country star in a fourth-grade play. But she’d also been told in summer camp, “Don’t ever sing again.”

“When this came up, I said, ‘I can’t sing. So I’m not going to sing.’ ” But helmer-writer Jim Mangold asked her to sing. “He said, ‘I need you to try.’ It ended up being a good thing because this little seed that was planted in my mind became a huge thing, and it was good to conquer that fear.”

Witherspoon credits her humility to her Southern upbringing. “I never thought I’d be here. I never knew any actors, and it wasn’t considered a real job.

“Up until about seven years ago, my mother would say, ‘You gonna do another one of your little movies?’ ‘Yes mom, that’s my career.’ ‘Well, when you finish college, you’re going to do something else, right?’ I never finished college, so I have no skills.”

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Philip Seymour Hoffman said that while he loves getting awards, his best moments in the business have just been from being a working actor.

“You get a job as an actor and you go to work and you think that’s like, it. When I got ‘Scent of a Woman’ when I was 24 years old, I don’t think I’ve been more joyful than at that moment. This is gravy.”

Asked what the real Truman Capote might have made of his success in the role, Hoffman demurred. “I’m sure he’d try to make it about him somehow,” he said. “I hope he’d have liked it. Can you imagine my life if he didn’t?”

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Felicity Huffman whooped up backstage after winning as lead actress in a comedy series and being part of the winning TV comedy ensemble. “They both feel fantastic. One of the main things I love about acting is the community. I deeply love it, and the fact that our community was recognized was wonderful.”

She’s still an actress for hire, she says, taking roles as they’re offered, and she insists she isn’t taking her new high profile for granted. “It happened for me so late, I’m such an old broad, and I’ve had so many times when I didn’t work for a long time, I have a great sense of gratitude into my bones, and gratitude keeps you humble.”

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Kiefer Sutherland, after collecting his second actor award for “24,” reflected on advice he got from his father, Donald Sutherland.

“He said don’t get caught trying to cheat or lie — the audience will catch you and they won’t forgive you for it. He was right, because early in my career, I tried to take a couple short cuts and I got nailed for it.”

Kiefer admitted he didn’t appreciate his father until his late teens, when he spent a few days watching his dad’s R-rated films. “I remember phoning him and apologizing that I didn’t know how important an actor he was. As a son I didn’t know how versatile he was and so prolific.”

Sutherland also confirmed reports of a “24” feature in the works. “We all want to make that happen. It’s very difficult within the production schedule we have for the show to get the script ready and get the pre-production done. But it’s something we’re very intent on completing, and for us, the sooner the better.”

* * *

“Grey’s Anatomy” star Sandra Oh was excited to be one of several Asian-American actors to pick up awards, including some of the cast of “Lost.”

“That’s a huge advancement,” said Oh, who remembered having no Asian-American actors to look up to as a girl. “Just the fact that I’m here and I look the way I do means something far beyond myself. I take that seriously, and it means something to people I don’t even know.”

She said the schedule for “Grey’s Anatomy” is so demanding that “Dude, we can’t do anything,” but during her hiatus she’s going back to her legit roots to do Diana Son’s “Satellites” at Gotham’s Public Theater. “After all this heat, to go do a play in a 50-room theater!”

* * *

“Lackawanna Blues” star S. Epatha Merkeson was gratified to accept her SAG award with so much of her “Law & Order” family in attendance, including presenter Benjamin Bratt. “Ben is like my little baby brother. I’ve like adopted him and Jesse (L. Martin).”

She said she hopes that “women of a certain age” will see more opportunities in Hollywood. “There are so many baby boomers, it’s important that they be represented. I think that’s why this movie had so much resonance.”

Merkeson has already collected a Golden Globe and an Emmy for the role, and she confessed to being thrilled, but she said that having a regular series gig and living in Gotham keeps her from getting too full of herself.

“I’ll go back to New York and get on the subway and nobody will know I have this.”

* * *

Sean Hayes was shocked to be accepting another actor award. “You show up to these things just happy to eat the free dinner and not expecting anything. I was comfortable in my seat and didn’t expect to be getting out of it.”

He said it’s sad for him to see “Will & Grace” wind down. “I was 26 years old. And I’m only 28 now,” he quipped.

He resisted suggestions that the show pushed boundaries with its gay characters. “I don’t think ‘Will & Grace’ was groundbreaking at all. It was just funny, that’s all. There were gay characters in the past, just like African-American characters. Hollywood goes through this thing where gay characters are in the forefront again, but they were five minutes ago, and they will be again five minutes from now.”

* * *

Rachel Weisz, in a Rochas gown made to accommodate her pregnancy, apologized for needing to put down her 12-pound statuette. “It’s not how I feel about it.”

The “Constant Gardener” thesp said she can’t understand why star Ralph Fiennes has been overlooked this award season. “I feel from the bottom of my heart that any acclaim I get from this movie I share with him.”

She was diplomatic about the spate of political films under consideration this year. “I think it’s wonderful if films ask questions. I think if it raises debate and awareness and thought, that’s a good thing. None of these movies are preachy movies — that’s what I love about them.”

* * *

“I hugged Dakota Fanning three times tonight. We like each other. She’s super,” said lifetime honoree Shirley Temple Black.

Black said that she didn’t have much trouble coping with her fame because her mother treated it just as a job. “Besides, I had two brothers, one in the FBI for 25 years and one was a professional wrestler, so nobody bothered with me,” she said.

After being one of the great movie stars and a 30-year member of the U.S. Foreign Service, she called being a wife and mother her greatest accomplishment. “There’s nothing like real love. Nothing.”

* * *

The “Crash” cast, winners for top film ensemble, admitted backstage that they didn’t really come together as a cast while the film was being made. “It’s a big ensemble and it felt like a collaboration amongst all of us,” said Matt Dillon, “but I only worked with around 6 or 7 actors in the ensemble. And nobody has more than 4 or 5 scenes.”

Shaun Toub, who plays the Persion shop owner in the film, said that everything changed after they saw the film at the Toronoto film fest. We were in awe of one another,” he said. “We became friends after that. It was a great bonding experience.”

Sandra Bullock said “I’m still a little surprised, not that they won, but that I was a part of the group that won,” adding “I think we did have incredible women in this film, amazing men, and actors in this film whose work you thought you knew.”

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