SAG Awards executive producer Kathy Connell likes to refer to the annual ceremony as “the actors’ party in the actors’ house.” But in 2021, she means it literally: “This year, it’s really in their house!”
That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Screen Actors Guild Awards (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT April 4 on TNT and TBS) to not only go virtual, but also to do something that’s usually a non-starter for top-tier televised honors: Shrink to a completely pre-taped one-hour special. There will be no red carpet, no host and no set — so everything will take place from wherever the actors are.
“It became clear that people were going to stay in pods and need to stay safe,” Connell says. “And so, we looked at it and asked, ‘Is this a year to do a full celebration when everybody’s suffering as they are?’ But at the same time, we wanted to acknowledge the great performances that are entertaining us.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has already led several other major kudocasts to rethink how events are done — some to high marks (such as the Emmys and Grammys), and others to critical pans (ahem, the Golden Globes). Those shows were still broadcast live, however — which led to some awkward moments during the Globes. For Connell and fellow executive producers Todd Milliner and Sean Hayes, the decision was to keep things short, sweet and pre-produced.
“We’re smack in the middle of awards season and we think a lot of people are going to be doing shows that look a little similar, in trying to manage the live component,” Milliner says. “We decided to do a completely pre-recorded hour to celebrate in a different way and to capitalize on a lot of stuff that the SAG Awards have been doing for a long time like ‘I Am an Actor.”
That means digging deeper into that segment, in which actors share a funny, or sometimes touching, story about how they got into the business — ending with the triumphant statement, “I Am an Actor.”
“Some of the performers we’ve asked to really expand on their experience of being an actor and especially what it means to be an actor right now,” Milliner says.
In recent weeks, the producers have sent crews to presenters including Riz Ahmed, Sterling K. Brown, Lily Collins, Common, Ted Danson, Viola Davis, Daveed Diggs, Cynthia Erivo, Jimmy Fallon, Josh Gad, Henry Golding, Ethan Hawke, Mindy Kaling, Dan Levy, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Daisy Ridley, Mary Steenburgen, and Jason Sudeikis with the “Ted Lasso” ensemble. Some may have had to record themselves if they’re in a production bubble and respecting the protocols.
“It’s going to be a really, really small crew when we send them,” Milliner says. “Everybody’s tested and we’re keeping it very safe. It’s very important.”
As for the 13 categories revealed on the telecast, nominated actors will be brought together in a Zoom-like virtual room during pre-tapings this week. They’ll then be told who the winner is, and that person will give their acceptance speech.
“It gives them a sense of the community, not the full community, but at least some of the people in their own categories and they get to salute them,” Connell says.
As a SAG Award-winning actor himself, Hayes says it was important to keep that element of kinship in the show, even if it is taped days in advance.
“That’s what the show has always been about, it’s honoring your peers,” he says. “It would be a terrible thing if that wasn’t made to happen, so I’m happy that’s going to stay true.”
The producers know there’s a risk in revealing the names winners to nominees a few days before the telecast, but they’re hoping the performers (and their reps!) respect the show, the audience and their fellow nominees and agree not to spill the beans beforehand.
Of course, with all those prizes and everything else they have planned — not to mention commercials — it’s going to take some crafty editing to get the SAG Awards in at under an hour.
Hazy Mills partners Milliner and Hayes first partnered with Connell last year to reimagine the show, which they did by cutting the host, adding more pre-taped comedy bits and giving a new spin to “I Am an Actor.”
This time, not only are the producers facing the challenge of giving the ceremony its most extreme makeover ever in its history — but they still also have to fulfill the goal of both being entertaining and properly honoring this year’s top acting performances.
“We’ve made Kathy watch TikTok,” quips Milliner.
Hayes says he wants to keep acceptance speeches intact, but at least with a pre-tape, the producers will know exactly how long those remarks are, and be able to work around them.
“I think one of the main reasons anybody tunes into the show is to hear the speeches and the kind of emotion that goes behind them,” he says. “And so we’re not going to skimp on those, as they’re one of the most important parts of the show. It’s thrilling to see the person go through that process in front of you.”
Milliner says the telecast will save time by cutting the winners’ walks on and off the stage, and by keeping transitions tight. The first thing to go was having a stage of any sort.
“Right off the bat when we knew we had an hour, we knew we had to get rid of that,” Milliner says. “It’s the easiest thing to cut because we don’t want to cut the speeches. We don’t want to cut the ‘I Am an Actor.’ We don’t want to cut ‘In Memoriam.’ So we thought, how can we get the best bang for our buck in this hour?”
Connell says eliminating a stage or set was also a safety precaution. “You have a stage, now you have people together. We really wanted to make sure that our members felt comfortable because they have to go work.”
Meanwhile, Milliner teases big plans for the opening: “Because if we’ve shown anything with last year, we’re going to have a really special beginning. You’ve got to open and close strongly, and we’re working on making sure that it is a fun quick night filled with hope. That’s our whole mission.”
But putting the show together will be a lot like playing Tetris.
“I think it’s kind of a fun challenge, weirdly,” Milliner says. “We’re getting to do something way different and Lord knows after going through this this year, I can’t wait until next year. It’s going to feel like we have seven hours next year.”
Adds Hayes: “As challenging as it is, I think it’s actually going to turn out to be a great thing.”
This year’s SAG Awards, which had been moved to March 14, shifted again to April 4 after the Grammys took that date. That puts the telecast on Easter evening, but Connell believes more people will be home as a result.
“Having celebrated the festivities earlier in the day, they’ll get to sit down and have an hour of, hopefully, laughter,” she says.
And as a bonus, Connell notes that when the telecast airs, it will have already been locked — which means the producers can actually catch it as viewers like everyone else.
“This will be the first time that I have a glass in my hand and get to sit on my own couch and watch,” she says.