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‘Moonlight,’ ‘Hidden Figures’ Actors Receive Santa Barbara Festival Virtuoso Awards

Conversations about an actor’s life were mixed with observations about Muslims and the Supreme Court as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival saluted eight actors for their breakthrough work in 2016 films.

The first recipient of the fest’s Virtuoso Awards on Saturday was Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures”). He was asked about his SAG Awards speech about being a Muslim, and about his reaction to having his religion “dragged through the mud” for the past months. “The Muslims I know are peace-loving people,” he said quietly, adding that the actions of a few extremists have been reported so much that many people are getting a distorted view of the religion.

Janelle Monae, who also appears in both those films, said she was deeply moved when she first read Barry Jenkins’ script for the latter, because it depicted characters who are usually marginalized and discriminated against.

A third “Moonlight” actor, Naomie Harris, spoke about filming her role in three days, even though the script spans 15 years and they had to film out of sequence. She was scheduled to do the work over three weeks, but “For some reason, I had visa issues,” she said wryly.

Ruth Negga, Ethiopian-born and raised in Ireland, said she was unaware of the Supreme Court before she started work on “Loving,” but hopes the film raises worldwide awareness of the court and its justices. She said the true-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving wasn’t a black-white issue or an American issue: “It’s the world’s story,” because Supreme Court decisions often have global implications.

Dev Patel was a crowd favorite, inspiring whoops on the red carpet, during his entrance onstage, and for some of his answers. He spoke about having to fight for the role in “Lion,” after being typecast as “that goofy kid” in the “Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies, adding, “I was fighting against my own resume.”

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Nocturnal Animals”), Simon Helberg (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), and Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences”) also spoke of their work, expressing admiration for Tom Ford, Meryl Streep, and August Wilson/Denzel Washington, respectively.

Dave Karger of “Today” and TCM conducted one-on-one interviews with the eight actors, who then assembled at the end for a group discussion. Asked to recommend a 2016 movie, several of them cited documentaries “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Life, Animated,” “13th,” and “O.J.: Made in America.” Patel and Taylor-Johnson also recommended “Captain Fantastic.”

Asked about their goals, Ali said he hopes someday to play Marvin Gaye, Jack Johnson, and to appear in an August Wilson play. Monae said she wants a “Star Wars” legacy, to see science-fiction movies with black and brown people, and women both behind the camera and in front of it.

The evening, at the 1930-built movie palace the Arlington Theatre, concluded with each of the eight being presented a trophy by Christopher Lloyd, who’s a Santa Barbara resident.

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