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Freida Pinto, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Kathy Baker, Jimmy Smits Salute Screenwriters at Nicholl Awards Live Read

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feted its newest crop of budding film scribes and marked the 30th Anniversary of the Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting Wednesday evening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The event, directed and produced by Rodrigo Garcia and Julie Lynn, featured live readings of scenes from each of the five winning scripts, to which “Slumdog Millionaire” actress Freida Pinto, “Straight Outta Compton” star O’Shea Jackson Jr., Kathy Baker and Jimmy Smits lent their voices.

Academy CEO Dawn Hudson noted the tremendous growth of the Nicholl program over the course of its 30-year history, telling the audience that only 99 entries were received when the fellowships were first implemented. This year, the Academy received 7,442 submissions, with applicants hailing from Spain, the U.K., Australia, Israel, Pakistan, Brazil, South Korea and throughout the United States. The winners receive a $35,000 prize and must write a feature-length screenplay during their fellowship year.

Nicholl committee chair Robin Swicord said this year’s honorees were chosen from among “the strongest field of writers we’ve ever seen.”

“We were looking for original ideas, original and strong voices, screenplays that were fearless and personal… and that were about something that would have us talking about the film later,” Swicord said of this year’s selection process.

Jimmy Smits, Freida Pinto, Kathy Baker and O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.

The live read began with a scene from Australian scribe Andrew Friedhof‘s script “Great Falls,” which centers on a sheriff’s deputy and sergeant who must decide what to do when a death-row inmate witnesses them negligently kill a hunter with their patrol car. Pinto and Smits read the parts of the two officers, while Jackson portrayed the inmate.

Friedhof, who left his job as a civil engineer to pursue a masters in creative writing, said the idea for his script came from an article he read about the execution of a death-row inmate.

“It made me think about how we’re so sanitized from the violence in our society,” Friedhof told Variety. “I wanted to explore what would happen if that barrier between that institutionalized violence and ordinary people was torn down.”

Taking the stage to receive his award from Swicord, the Aussie garnered laughs from the audience as he joked, “We don’t all look like Hemsworths.”

Pinto and Bates then switched gears to embody a young basketball player and her agent during the reading of a scene from Sam Regnier‘s script “Free Agent.”  Regnier, a self-proclaimed “NBA junkie,” said he knew he wanted to write a story with a strong female protagonist and also drew upon his own experience of becoming a father.

“The core relationship in the script is the relationship between a woman and a 15-year-old girl. It’s a mother-daughter type of relationship and it really grew out of having kids for me,” Regnier explained. “It was sort of about my own insecurities about becoming a parent.”

Regnier was presented with his award by “Dear White People” exec producer Stephanie Allain, who implored this year’s fellows to “please hold onto the distinctive voice that you have now that brought you here tonight.”

Nicholl Fellowship Award honorees Sam Regner, Amy Tofte, Elizabeth Chomko, Anthony Grieco and Andrew Friedhof
Michael Buckner/Variety/Rex Shutterstock

Smits then broke into an Ethiopian accent during the reading of a scene from Amy Tofte‘s dramatic script “Addis Abeka,” which explores the struggles of a 10-year-old boy with exceptional ping pong skills as he attempts to reunite with his brother.

Tofte said she was inspired to write this story after traveling to Ethiopia on a humanitarian trip. “I never intended to write a script,” she noted. “I just talked to a lot of people and pretty much everything in my script – every location, everything in there – is a real place that I saw, that I experienced. But the story is fiction, so the story is sort of pulled from the different stories that I was told.”

Smits and Pinto drew some of the biggest laughs of the night with their reading of a snippet from Anthony Grieco‘s script “Best Sellers,” about a young editor trying to save the publishing house left to her by her father. Smits channeled the demeanor of a surly and unpredictable author while Pinto read the part of the editor tasked with preparing him for his appearance on “The Tonight Show.” The two engaged in a role-playing exercise, with Pinto even offering an impression of Jimmy Fallon delivering his monologue.

Grieco explained the relationship between the two characters, telling Variety, “Basically they become surrogates for each other. She’s working out her issues with her father. He’s working out issues with the daughter he never had.”

The final reading of the evening combined both humorous and somber tones as Pinto and Baker read a poignant scene from Elizabeth Chomko‘s work “What They Had.” Chomko said her script is largely based on her own experience dealing with her grandmother’s devastating bout with Alzheimer’s.

“It was inspired by me in the shower with my grandmother when she forgot what shampoo was and what you do in the shower and how to bathe herself. I would get in there with her and remind her to rinse the soap off her hair,” she said of the scene read by Pinto and Baker.

It was quite an emotional evening for the Nicholl fellows, many of whom struggled to hold back tears during their acceptance speeches, prompting Garcia to playfully quip, “We’ve had men crying and women determined not to cry,” as he closed out the night.

Other guests in attendance included Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who brought along some of her students from Chapman Univ., and presenters Billy Ray and Tyger Williams.

(Pictured at top: Rodrigo Garcia, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Freida Pinto, Kathy Baker and Jimmy Smits)

Freida Pinto and O’Shea Jackson Jr.

Michael Buckner/Variety/Rex Shutterstock

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