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Tales from the Awards Circuit: Highlights of a Return to Live Events

Tales From Awards Circuit
Cage: Dan Doperalski; Harder They Fall: Kit Karzen; Lost Daughter: Clayton Davis; Riley: Jenelle Riley; Power of the Dog: Netflix

In the past year, thanks to vaccines and an abundance of caution, in-person events began to resume throughout the season. It began with Emmy FYC panels, usually filled to around 20% of their normal capacity and held outdoors. But as the year went on, it was starting to seem as if premieres, screenings and events were back in full swing.

Of course, it would be foolish to predict how long this could last — due to a major surge in COVID cases, many premieres and junkets have gone virtual while events including the Academy’s Governors Awards and the Critics Choice Awards have pushed their dates to a yet-to-be-determined time.

Still, the past few months provided many fun opportunities for several of Variety’s editors; here, they pick a few of their favorite moments.

Clayton Davis, Awards Editor

Aunjanue Ellis Feels the Love for Her Performance in ‘King Richard’
A Thursday afternoon at the Directors Guild of America Theater for a SAG NomCom screening of “King Richard.” Stars Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis were in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. When they walked out to the center stage, the crowd was already roaring with delight in reaction to the film. Ellis was called out to the stage first, where people leaped from their seats before she got to the center for a standing ovation that lasted about a minute. The veteran actor who plays Brandi, Venus and Serena Williams’ mother turned to me, with people still standing, overcome with glee and humility. Finally, she said, “Can you please tell them to sit down?” I looked over at the crowd, still cheering, and said to her, “Ain’t no way I can stop them. They love you too much.”

‘The Power of the Dog’ Cast Gives Jesse Plemons Horse-Riding Props
On a Sunday evening in Novem-ber, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” cast assembled at the Pacific Design Center for a post-screening Q&A. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons were on stage to discuss their extraordinary works. Plemons had been shooting his upcoming film with Oscar- winner Martin Scorsese during most of the festival and press days, and it was the first time we had seen the four together after the pic’s Venice bow. Plemons wasted no time charming the audience, talking about a troublesome horse on set but getting major kudos from his co-stars as the best horse rider from the film.

Dakota Johnson’s Tribute at Middleburg
Actor Dakota Johnson was one of the honorees at the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia in October. After her career retrospective discussing previous works and her performance in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” a pony casually strolled by. “Oh, it’s a horse,” she pointed out. I joked that she’d been given a horse as part of her tribute, which brought a big smile to her face. Not sure if such a majestic creature would count as a carry-on item.

Oscar Isaac Plays Pranks on Denis Villeneuve
Oscar Isaac had a fantastic year with Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” and HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” but he got many of his fans excited by being nearly naked in a scene in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” On the Warner Bros. lot, in front of the members of the SAG community, Isaac talked about the pranks he and Villeneuve would play on one another, which included placing a garment traditionally used to hide male nudity it in his jacket pocket for him to find later. We have to find a way for him return for “Part 2.”

Marc Malkin, Senior Editor, Culture and Events

I Am Grover
When I’ve been talking too much over a short amount of time, my voice tends to get scratchy. On more than one occasion, videos of my red carpet interviews posted on Twitter have inspired observers to ask if I’m a Muppet. I’ve been called Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. But things were taken to whole other level in September when I interviewed Colin Hanks at the premiere of “American Crime Story: Impeachment.” Due to COVID social-distancing protocols, I wasn’t on camera because celebs answered my questions into a mic on a stationary stand 6 feet away from me. When Variety’s social-media editors posted footage of me asking Hanks about his brother Chet’s controversial anti-vax comments, Twitter users began to question if I was … Grover! The video went viral — it’s currently at more than 2.5 million views. One enterprising Twitter user, @doejobkin, even spliced video of Grover interviewing Hanks but used my voice. My response to all this Muppet merriment? #IamGrover.

Gucci Love Parade Runway on Hollywood Blvd.
When Hollywood Boulevard is shut down between North Orange Drive and Vine it’s usually for a premiere or, more famously, for the Oscars. Traffic is stopped both ways for a couple of days leading up to the event, causing commuter headaches and warnings from the local news to avoid the area. But on Nov. 2, the streets were cleared for something entirely different. Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele transformed Hollywood Boulevard into the Gucci Love Parade runway to show the fashion house’s spring-summer 2022 collection. Models — including celebs Jared Leto, Phoebe Bridgers, Macaulay Culkin, Jodie Turner-Smith, Jeremy Pope, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Miranda July and St. Vincent — streamed out of the TCL Chinese Theatre for about 30 minutes in front of the sidewalk as guests, including Miley Cyrus, Lizzo, Diane Keaton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Dakota Johnson, Serena Williams and Billie Eilish, ogled the looks from directors chairs lined up against storefronts. The open-air festivities felt like an old-school block party — only things missing were a Bounce House and hot dogs on the grill.

Sending Leo to Space
I woke up on Monday, Nov. 8, to a text from an old colleague at E! News.

“Hey, is that your Jeff Bezos video?” she wrote. “We want to make sure we credit you if it is.”

I didn’t immediately know what she was talking about.

“Huh?” I replied.

“The one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Lauren Sanchez,” she wrote.

I did a quick Google and then I definitely knew what she was talking about.

Just two nights before, I had taken some video of DiCaprio, Bezos and Sanchez talking at LACMA’s Art + Film. I posted a six-second clip on Twitter with the caption, “Do we think Leo is going into space?”
What I didn’t realize that Monday morning was that the video had gone around the world and then some. Twitter was having a field day opining on how Sanchez was interacting with DiCaprio in front of her boyfriend.

My video even got Bezos’ attention. “Leo, come over here, I want to show you something…” he tweeted to DiCaprio alongside of photo of himself leaning shirtless against a sign in a forest
that reads, “Danger! Steep Cliff Fatal Drop.”

“Yup,” I wrote back to me E! News pal. “That’s my video.”

Tales From Awards Circuit Jenelle Ted Lasso

Jenelle Riley, Deputy Awards and Features Editor

Wilbur Walks the ‘Ted Lasso’ Carpet
What do you do when a last-minute event comes up but you’re dogsitting a puppy with separation anxiety and you can’t leave him at home? If you’re lucky, you take him with you and he’s treated like a king.

Last June, on the day of a “Ted Lasso” Q&A at the Ford Amphitheater with Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt, I was watching Wilbur, a pitbull I had originally fostered before a friend adopted him. Wilbur was found on the street outside Sacred Fools Theater Company five years ago and while he’s a pure joy, he has major separation anxiety when he’s not in his own home. I didn’t have his crate or a place I could keep him without worrying, so I asked if it would be OK to bring him … to my surprise, they said yes!
So I bundled all 50-plus pounds of muscular dog into my car and drove to the Ford, where Wilbur was treated like a king. He made himself at home in the green room, was doted on by the security guards and even posed on the red carpet. There was also a fun reunion — I’ve known Hunt for 17 years through our work at the theater company, and he had been present the night Wilbur was found. This was the first time they’d seen each other since the start of the pandemic.

‘House of Gucci’ and ‘West Side Story’ Take the Stage
There’s something about the first time a cast reunites for an in-person Q&A that has an indescribable energy. A packed house is finally seeing their film for the first time and in many cases, the creatives are seeing each other again after a while. In November, I experienced a pair of firsts when the “House of Gucci” crew gathered in Los Angeles for the screening of their film. Not only was it the first time they’d be appearing together after an L.A. screening, it was my first time inside the amazing Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. I watched as the starry cast arrived — Al Pacino, Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto and Salma Hayek — along with director Ridley Scott, producer Giannina Facio and screenwriter Roberto Bentivegna. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the stage at the Academy’s new theater is a stunner — gorgeous and lush and state-of-the-art. When I stepped on stage I actually had to take a moment to take it all in.

A month later, I moderated the first SAG NomCom Q&A for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” in Los Angeles. Though the cast had already spoken at previous Q&As in New York, the excitement on the Fox lot that night was palpable from both the audience and actors. I could hear audience members cheering throughout the screening and on more than one occasion ran into someone in the restroom with their eyes full of tears. When the cast of mostly film newcomers arrived, they were giddy with excitement. Every actor — Ansel Elgort, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler — got a standing ovation. Zegler was the last to take the stage and the applause refused to die down when the entire cast was standing there — only an issue because they had another event to get so I had limited time with them.

Nicolas Cage Learns About the ‘Face/Off’ Machine
There are some actors who surpass mere admiration for you and Nicolas Cage is something of a legend in my house. My mother’s family is from a little town called Kapa’a in Kauai, and Cage has been adored there since he made “Honeymoon in Vegas,” in which the island features prominently. Not only that, but there’s a moment in the trailer when Cage is trying to pronounce the name of the very town my mother grew up in. (“Is it Kapa-ah-ah or Kapa-ah-ah-ah??”)

While I’ve interviewed Cage in roundtables early in my career, I’d never spoken to him one on one. Fortunately, his performance in the indie film “Pig” gave me a chance to sit down with him for my first in-person podcast since the pandemic started. He was charming and funny and spoke about his approach to acting with such specificity and clarity, I was in awe. He spoke about his love for his cat Merlin with such authenticity that I literally started to tear up. Then he brought up “Face/Off,” one of my favorite films of all time. I asked him if he had seen the movie “Spy,” in which Jason Statham’s posturing tough guy agent suggests with total sincerity he use a “Face/Off” machine to go undercover. Not only had Cage not seen the movie, he had never heard of this scene. As I described it to him, he laughed and promised to check it out. It was recommending one of my all-time favorite comedies parodying a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies to one of my all-time favorite actors.

Jazz Tangcay, Senior Artisans Editor

Jay-Z Works the Circuit for ‘The Harder They Fall’
Before the Omicron variant caused Hollywood Q&As to grind to a halt, Netflix pulled out an ace card, having Shawn Carter — better known to the rest of the world as Jay-Z — show up to a Q&A for “The Harder They Fall.”

On Dec. 14 at the NeueHouse in Hollywood, a packed vaxxed and tested AMPAS crowd showed up for the mighty Jay, as I moderated. He was there as the film’s producer and songwriter for the Oscar shortlisted original song “Guns Go Bang.” Alongside him was Jeymes Samuel, the film’s director, screenwriter and composer. What a night it was. First of all, he was to be called Mr. Shawn Carter, which was fine in the intro. Alas, when Samuel kept referring to him as “Jay,” inevitably, I slipped and called him “Jay.” And what wicked sense of humor he had as he said, “You can call me Jay,” cue rapturous laughter from the crowd.

Post-Q&A, there was a reception, and of course, everyone wanted their photo with him, and he happily obliged.

But that wasn’t the most talked-about thing of the night, as the following day, it was his watch that went viral. Jay-Z was seen wearing Tiffany & Co.’s new limited-edition Patek Philippe Nautilus watch. The timepiece happened to be the very watch that sold for $6.5 million at an auction the weekend before. And it happens to be the ninth-highest auction price for a watch ever. The unexpected flex by the super-mogul might be the talk of the town and Netflix couldn’t ask for better marketing than that.