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SAG Winners Reflect on Their Big Night

The words that you should “remember where you came from” could easily be the motto of the Screen Actors Guild Awards. While many of the winners are household names and living legacies, they all know too well what it feels like to audition to be Waiter Number Four (again).

That the SAG Awards have only grown in media scrutiny and prominence since their debut in 1995 has not gone unnoticed by the winners. Nor do they necessarily think this is a bad thing.

“Pragmatically, it’s a financial boon for our guild,” says Bryan Cranston, who has SAG Actor trophies in both the film and TV categories. “But from an honorary standpoint, it is the ultimate test for an actor. Actors can see through a weak performance or one that relies on technique alone. I have my Actors prominently displayed in my office.”

We asked Cranston and other recent SAG Award winners what this honor means to them.

Sarah Paulson
After the winning streak she’d had for her portrayal of Marcia Clark in “American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson,” you’d think Paulson would be pretty calm when she accepted the final major award for actress in a telepic. Instead she found the experience “nerve-wracking,” she says. It didn’t help that she’d thrown out her plans to devote her speech to her acting teacher who inspired her to go pro, in favor of encouraging viewers to respond to Trump’s stringent immigration ban by donating to the ACLU. Paulson felt this was something she had to address and would be supported for doing so.

“It’s an incredible meaningful thing to be chosen by your community in that way and it’s very powerful and very moving. I had wanted to speak some of that out loud to the room and I felt that the only way that I could do that properly was to speak about what was going on in the world.”

After all, she says, that’s an actor’s job. “Actors are vessels of communication and representation of things that are going on in the world for all people,” she says. “That’s all we’re trying to do when we’re called forward: try to inhabit a character or a person and make them as real and alive for yourself and, therefore, the audience.”

Bryan Cranston
The star of HBO’s “All the Way” says his 2017 SAG Award win for male actor in a TV series or movie “was special because, while it was historically important, it wasn’t a very commercial project.”

This isn’t to take away from the Actor statues Cranston took home for male lead in a TV drama for “Breaking Bad” in 2014, or the ensemble in a drama award he shared with that cast that year. “There is a bond that is forged with a cast on a long-running series that can’t be duplicated on a film,” Cranston says. “My castmates on ‘Breaking Bad’ deserved the attention and I was thrilled that we got that experience. Jonathan Banks wasn’t on the show when we won, so he wasn’t included in the award and wouldn’t even hold the Actor, saying he didn’t earn it. Of course he did, but I thanked him profusely for dying on the show the season earlier, and clearing a path for us to win!”

William H. Macy
Macy, an endearing actor and writer in the community, has three Actor statues. But his latest, which he was awarded in 2017 for the long-running Showtime dramedy “Shameless,” may have surprised him the most. He even mentioned it in his acceptance speech, saying, “I’m shocked; probably not as shocked as Jeffrey …” Macy chuckles now about upsetting “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor’s winning streak that night. Presumably not just because of this incident, Macy says, he “likes everything about” the SAG Awards, from the fact that the Screen Actors Guild nominations aren’t as predictable as other award shows to the atmosphere at the venue. “When I go there, I love the people who show up.”

Lesley Nicol
The beloved Mrs. Patmore from “Downton Abbey” says her co-stars had bestowed her with spokesperson duties the night prior to the show’s 2016 win for ensemble in a drama series. Needless to say, this didn’t give her a lot of time to prepare.

“When it was announced that we won, I felt two completely conflicting emotions as we made the short trip to the stage: joy that we won and terror that I would have to speak,” she recalls. But, she says, “as luck would have it I am as blind as a bat, so I couldn’t see when the monitor at the back started flashing ‘please wrap up.’ Once I got going, I was quite enjoying myself and was completely oblivious.”

The experience wasn’t completely foreign to her; the PBS period drama hard won the category twice prior, in 2013 and 2015, and had been nominated every year it was eligible in the ensemble category (not to mention the numerous times for individual performances of the series’ actors).

“It’s hard to describe just how special it felt to be nominated that often — and win three times,” she says. “The competition is ferocious and so, of course, it’s a huge honor. And, as a cast, there was a lot of love and respect for each other. To be recognized for our work as an ensemble meant a great deal. And, of course, from your peers? That’s just the cherry on the cake.”

Taylor Schilling
Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” has won the TV comedy ensemble category every year since it became eligible in 2014. But star Schilling’s speech at the 2017 ceremony got a particularly strong reaction when she called out the then-newly elected commander in chief of the United States.
Her remarks were a response to President Trump’s executive order earlier in the week banning immigrants from certain countries from entering the U.S. (a ban that has since been struck down in courts). Schilling is part of the most ethnically and racially diverse casts on TV — and she says she needed to comment that night.

“This story that we’re telling through this show, collectively, would not be possible without refugees and immigrants,” she says now. “You can’t unbraid the show from the immigrant experience and it felt vital that, if we were going to be honored again, then we needed to acknowledge it.”

She says this win also resonated with her because she feels “the SAG Awards are the most meaningful of all the awards.” She thinks about the Theodore Roosevelt speech that claims that the person who truly counts isn’t the critic, but the “man who is actually in the arena.”

“We’re really all in the ring together,” she says. “To be acknowledged by somebody who truly understands the experience? I don’t know what could be more exciting than that.”

Rowley Irlam
Shocking no one who watches it, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has swept the SAG Awards’ stunt ensemble in a television series category since it became eligible in 2011. Irlam, who heads the fantasy drama’s stunt department, says he’s “lucky” to have such great material to work with, but that “you’re also very aware that you really want to keep that going. There’s also a challenge involved to keep ‘producing the goods,’ as it were.”

“You’re trying to be the best that you can be and you’re also trying to achieve more than you’ve achieved before,” he says. “’Game of Thrones’ is a bit of an anomaly because it’s TV, but it’s not TV as we know it. You’re working slightly faster than a feature, but you’re definitely trying to beat anything that’s been on cinema screens at the same time.”

Given the attention shows like his have gotten, and how much more respect stunt performers have received since the industry began, does Irlam think the SAG Awards’ TV stunt category should be divided up into comedy, drama and TV movies and miniseries?

“I guess they are slightly different theaters,” he says. “Any kind of an accolade or acknowledgement of your craft is a positive thing. I’m sure those that are doing comedy that I work with would probably appreciate awards.”

John Lithgow
Although he is as concerned about the state of the U.S. government as pretty much everyone else in Hollywood, Lithgow says he doesn’t strive to be publicly political — even earlier this year, when he accepted his SAG Award for playing Winston Churchill in Netflix’s “The Crown.”

“It was a night of a lot of politics, as award shows are these days, and it’s pretty hard not to make some reference to politics,” he says. “And yet, I don’t feel comfortable getting out there.”
However, he did think it was important when he won at the Jan. 29 SAG ceremony to give a nod to what he calls Meryl Streep’s “courageous” speech at the Jan. 8 Golden Globes (and why he’d quote Churchill later in the year when he won an Emmy for that part).

Also important to Lithgow that night: Spotlighting those who worked behind the scenes of “The Crown” to get him cast and make him look like the British prime minister. Why? Because he was talking to a room of people who understand how vital these roles are in a production. Lithgow says that shows such as the SAG Awards and BAFTAs “are very special events because everyone involved is a certain cohort. You’re not performing for a great, big audience that the Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmys have.”

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