Lunch date

Nominees gather for the annual Oscars luncheon

Diversity was on many minds Monday when the Oscar nominees gathered for the 79th Annual Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at the BevHilton.

“When I was young, there was only one actor of color working in Hollywood,” said “Last King of Scotland” star Forest Whitaker. “Now, it’s increased exponentially. There is more diversity in the stories now, too.”

Song nominee Melissa Etheridge (“I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth”) agreed.

“I think diversity is what’s happening all over the place… it’s what’s truly happening in our society, and politics and music are a reflection of that,” said the singer-songwriter.

Will Smith, nominated for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” added, “I just think it’s a great time in America right now, and we just need a white woman or a black man as president and it’d be perfect!”

Befitting the multicultural bent of this year’s Academy Awards nominations, the event saw questions asked and answered in Spanish and Japanese. Supporting actress nominee Rinko Kikuchi of “Babel” answered questions briefly in English, and then elaborated with the help of a translator.

Penelope Cruz said her perf in the Spanish-language “Volver” is opening doors for her, and paid tribute in two languages to helmer Pedro Almodovar.

“He’s written some of the best characters for women in the history of movies,” said Cruz. “He’s the master of female confusion.”

Beyond diversity, there was agreement on a somewhat lighter issue: who to vote for.

“Blood Diamond’s” Djimon Hounsou said he would be voting for himself.

“Who else will vote for me?,” joked the supporting actor nominee.

“The Queen’s” Helen Mirren seconded that – with some caveats.

“It’s an awful moral dilemma,” she said, drawing laughs. “You cannot vote for yourself, it’s venal – but then you think, ‘What if it’s the only vote I get?’ ”

Mirren, a front-runner for Best Actress after picking up numerous other awards this season, said she definitely had room for one more trophy.

“I’ve decided to build an extension to my house,” laughed the thesp.

At the other end of the spectrum was Kevin O’Connell, the “Apocalypto” sound mixer who’s on his 19th nom. Though he’s never won, he’s had acceptance speeches ready each time.

“I’ve saved them all, they’re all in a drawer at home,” he said. “All my nominations (certificates) are on the wall, so I don’t have any more room on the wall, but I have plenty of room on the mantel.”

First-time nominee Iris Yamashita wasn’t even working in the film industry when she got opportunity to write the screenplay for “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

“I had a full-time job as a Web programmer,” she revealed. But after a couple meetings with Paul Haggis, “he told me I could quit my job.”

Fellow newbie Jennifer Hudson, when asked if she’d thank “American Idol” if she won, said, “I do believe in giving them credit” for putting her on the map.

The “Dreamgirls” supporting actress also was eager to clarify earlier statements she’d made that seemed to imply the reality competish was abusive.

“If you do ‘Idol,’ you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Jackie Earle Haley was no newcomer, but the former child star had spent more than a decade away from the camera. “Time away from acting made me a better actor from the standpoint of giving me more to draw on. I got to experience life in the corporate world, doing odd jobs to try to survive, getting three months behind on rent,” said the “Little Children” supporting actor nominee. “I’ve got a lot more to draw on than when I was 14.”

And as for expectations for the ceremony, which will be held on Feb. 25 in Hollywood, Whitaker had a modest wish.

“I just hope I’m going to have one of the greatest nights of my life.”

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