[Excerpt from 12 Years a Slave]
Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from the film 12 Years A Slave.
It's nominated for a SAG award in the category Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture--and this is Art works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
January is the start of the new year and of the Awards Season--Kicking off with the Golden Globes and ending with the Academy Awards; this is the time when the film industry pauses to honor its achievements of the previous year. A relative newcomer to the awards scene is the prestigious Screen Actors Guild or SAG Award. Now celebrating its 20th year, it's the only award given by actors to actors, for both individual performances and for cast performances. And we'll be hearing clips from the other four films nominated for a SAG Award in the category Best Ensemble throughout the show.
Taking us backstage to the SAG Awards is Kathy Connell. Kathy Connell is the Executive Producer of the SAG Awards--not only has Kathy been producing the show since its inception---she in fact was one of the people who was instrumental in creating the award itself.
Kathy Connell: I was part of a team that worked on it initially. The idea had come to the union a few times over the years, but at this occasion, all the stars lined up, and I was asked by the president then, Barry Gordon, if I would chair a committee to look into figuring out if there was a way to make a deal with a network and craft what the SAG Awards would look like. And so five of us were on that committee,, and we, basically, spent the next 14 months working first to come up with a contract with the network, and then sitting down to figure out what the awards would look like.
Jo Reed: I just want to backtrack for a second. Can you remind us what SAG is?
Kathy Connell: Well, it's now SAG-AFTRA, and that's the Screen Actors Guild American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. And we merged as Screen Actors Guild-- SAG-- merged with American Federation of Television Radio Artists, AFTRA, two years ago, but initially it was SAG and was the largest actor union in the world representing over a 100,000 people. Now, the new union represents not only actor performers, singer-stunt performers, dancers-- but we also represent recording artists and broadcasters. So with a 165,000 entertainment and broadcast professionals, that is who we now are.
Jo Reed: Why is it significant to have a SAG Award?
Kathy Connell: Well, what was wonderful is we look to the fact that there has been a director's award given by the Directors Guild of America. Also, the Writers Guild of America had been giving an award to their professionals, and there had never really been a peer award-- actor to actor before. And one of the things that was very important to the union in considering this-- and one of the reasons that it hadn't moved forward in the past is for SAG, we had such a large membership the question was how would you do the balloting for that and-- without it costing a lot of money. And we didn't ever want to use dues money, and so the opportunity to have a network show allowed us to move forward without using dues money and ballot the entire membership because that was very important to us. It-- this is a peer award, and I think that that's what brought the actors out even from the very first show-- was the fact that actors love acting and appreciate acting, and you know we feel that nobody knows better what it takes to do a great performance than a fellow actor.
[Excerpt from Dallas Buyer's Club]
Jo Reed: Well, how are people nominated?
Kathy Connell: We have two smaller nominating groups-- one for television and one for film. Those are picked at random out of our membership. So we have 2,200 people voting for nominations on television and another 2,200 voting for film. Well over 100,000 members will vote on the final nominees. We give in the course of the show just 13 awards and then the life achievement award; we give eight in television and five in film. And I'm very proud that the SAG Awards created the first ensemble award. It had never given-- been given by any organization before ours, and we gave it because we knew that actors working on television and film don't work alone with the exception of a couple of recent movies, that is, but, generally speaking, you work as a team. And that ensemble award really was important because it represented the work that our members do as a team, but it also represented the union and the fact that everything we do is teamwork.
Jo Reed: You were instrumental in devising this show 20 years ago. This is its 20th anniversary. I really want to know what went into your thinking as you produced the first show. What is it that you wanted to do?
Kathy Connell: We wanted it to be special for the actors because it's a peer award, and because actors truly respect the opinions of their fellow actor, we wanted to make it as congenial an evening as we could. And so right from the beginning, we made sure that the casts were seated together. We do the show at tables with food and wine and champagne in front of them, and it leads to a very congenial, exuberant evening. Last year, it was interesting to me. I was standing backstage just before the show, and the volume-- the noise in that room was deafening because they were just having a blast. There's humor. There's laughter. There are tears, but mostly there's just such admiration for each other. And that's really what we were trying to create from the beginning-- the space to allow them to have a great time together, and they can do that being seated. And we also made sure that-- 20 years ago, people very often were considered television actors or film actors by the industry.
Jo Reed: That was exactly the question I was going to ask you
Kathy Connell: Yeah, by the industry, they were, but never by the actors. The actors knew that acting-- you know, they could be on Broadway at one instant-- TV on the next, you know, or they could be in a film. Now, the crossover is-- nobody thinks about the crossover. It's just-- people work in one medium and the other back and forth all the time, but back then, they didn't. And one of the things the actors loved is that we would put the TV table ensemble next to a film cast-- next to a TV cast, next to a film cast. There was no segregation in our room. It was their night, and it was all about all of them. And I used to say my philosophy was its actor's night and the actor's house. And how do we make their homecoming as warm and special as we possibly can?
Jo Reed: There is so much crossover-- so what happens if somebody is in a television series, but he or she is also in a movie and nominated for both or nominated for an ensemble in one-- let's say-- and for a best actor in another?
Kathy Connell: And that has happened. An example last year was Brian Cranston who was an individual for "Breaking Bad," but was part of the cast of "Argo."And at that point, the actor tells us which cast he wants to sit with or she wants to sit with, and then we do our best to put them fairly close to the other cast or show. So we work hard in trying to make it as easy for the actor as we can.
Jo Reed: How many people are in that room?
Kathy Connell: 1,250.
Jo Reed: Dinner for 1,250?
Kathy Connell: Yes, I call it a wedding on speed for camera.
Jo Reed: When do they actually eat, Kathy?
Kathy Connell: They eat during the show.
Jo Reed: They are eating during the show?
Kathy Connell: They are eating during the show. It's in front of them, which also I think I lead to the conviviality of the evening. They have their champagne at the commercial breaks. They will run around and congratulate each other or greet each other because some people may not have seen each other in a while. It's an opportunity for them to say hello because one of the things people don't recognize is-- everybody thinks everybody knows each other, and, in many cases, they have worked with each other, but, in many cases, they haven't. And they are such admirers. I have been privileged to walk that room and seen a film actor walk up to a television actor and-- that he did not know and say, "God, I was watching a marathon of you all day. It's awesome," and just see this other actor melt because of the admiration that's going both ways.
Jo Reed: That's a lot of seating to figure out.
Kathy Connell: Oh, it is. It is. The SAG Awards has the most actors of any award show by far because it-- those are the only awards we give and because we acknowledge the cast and ensemble. So per capita, we've got the most. That also makes it challenging because you can have 30 people in a cast, and with their guests, that's 60 people over 3, 4-- 5 tables. And some of our tables are very large. Our tables can be anywhere from eight. The majority of them are 12, but we have some that are 14, 18, 20, or 22 tops. So it's a puzzle, and, also, you have to make sure they're on aisles so the cameras can get to them during a show for reactions or because we have no idea who's going to win, there are five cameras running around at every award trying to capture the moment.
[Excerpt from August Osage County]
Jo Reed: Meanwhile, you're producing a show on the stage.
Kathy Connell: That's correct.
Jo Reed: And you never had a host for the SAG Awards?
Kathy Connell: No, because, again, it was never supposed to be about the show. I mean, I'm asked so often, "What are you guys doing that's really different for the awards this year?" And that's because other people do have hosts and other people are trying a lot of different ideas, and that's terrific, but the SAG Awards are two hours long. And we're there primarily to acknowledge the work of fine acting and to allow the actors to receive an award. And so it's not about us. So we don't have a host. We're very careful about who presents. We make those selections very, very carefully, and we've been blessed to have amazing presenters that sort of make sense for what they're giving the award that they're presenting, but, no, it-- we don't have a host. That takes time, and it also takes away from the people that we're trying to honor.
Jo Reed: No song and dance numbers?
Kathy Connell: No song and dance. It's just me backstage hopping up and down.
Jo Reed: But you show clips from the television series--
Kathy Connell: We do, and--
Jo Reed: -- and from the movies.
Kathy Connell: And that's really what excites me is to give everybody an opportunity if they haven't had a chance to see a film or at TV show to capture the moment very quickly in a clip, which explains to you in a few seconds why this actor is nominated because this performance is so incredibly special-- be it a TV show or a film. So we just focus on the work and the actors like that.
Jo Reed: What are some of the challenges, though, of working on a live television show that is playing for two very separate and distinct audiences? You have the 1,200 people in the room-- some of whom are being honored, and then you have the television audience who you also want to entertain.
Kathy Connell: Well, my attitude has always been if the actors in the room are having a good time and they are reacting, then the people at home who are watching the actors have a good time, are part of that. So I primarily do a show for the room because that's a very tough audience because a lot of those people go to awards often because they are professionals. So if you can give them an evening where they're having a good time, then the TV audience will as well.
Jo Reed: You've been doing this for 20 years. Tell me what is one of the surprising or unexpected things that happened because we know it does on live television?
Kathy Connell: Oh, goodness, yes. Well, the first one, I have to say is Tom Hanks won for "Forrest Gump" on the very first show, and there had been a conversation about the fact that we were giving a statue that seemed like a male statue though he has no features and is naked and is holding the masks of comedy and tragedy. And Tom understood exactly what that was. He got on the stage, and he-- first, he pulled out his union card because we are the only union show acknowledging the work of union members on national television. So he pulled out his union card and talked about what it meant to him to be a union person and how much he and his wife, Rita, loved getting their union cards. And then he talked about the statue, and he recognized and he said he loved the fact that the-- our statue was holding the masks of tragedy and comedy because both are so hard to do.
[Excerpt from Lee Daniel's The Butler]
Jo Reed: You also give a lifetime achievement award. Have you done that since the very beginning?
Kathy Connell: Actually, the Screen Actors Guild has been giving the Life Achievement Award since 1962 with one year out, and this year, not only is the 20th annual SAG Awards, but it's the 50th time the union will be giving the Life Achievement Award. And we couldn't be more thrilled that this year it's going to Rita Moreno.
Jo Reed: How was she chosen?
Kathy Connell: She is chosen by a committee of the union who looks to not only career achievement, but humanitarian service. The award is given for fostering the ideals of the acting profession-- the highest ideals of the acting profession. And we really, as I say, recognize it for both humanitarian and career achievement, and, certainly, Rita lives up to both of those.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I'm very happy. I've had the opportunity to interview her, and she's--
Kathy Connell: Isn't she fun?
Jo Reed: She's so much fun. She's a great interviewee as well as just a rocking performer.
Kathy Connell: That's exactly right.
Jo Reed: It's hard to talk about any award show on the planet without looking at the ever growing importance of the red carpet and your thinking also now has to go into that as well, no?
Kathy Connell: Oh, yes. We had the tiniest red carpet on the first show. The first show-- I always say I am so grateful I didn't know what I didn't know because we couldn't have done it. It was just-- everything about it fell into place, and we were so fortunate, but because it was the first show, no-- not many people know-- knew who we were. So we didn't have a lot of press there. We did have all the actors there, and it was just so exciting because they recognized what we were, but it took a while for other people to sort of catch on. And so over the years, the red carpet has grown, and grown, and grown, and so now I think we're something along the lines of-- ooh, gosh, I'm going to mix up how many yards we are, but we have over 600 broadcasters and reporters out on that line. We have over a 150 different media outlets, and the carpet is about a football field long. It's just huge. It's just huge, and 300 people---- are sitting on the bleachers Social media has grown so people can watch the red carpet on social media. Our network, TNT, also streams with People magazine-- a red carpet show from the red carpet as well as E! doing a live broadcast. And we have all kinds of other broadcasters there. So a lot of social media has started as well.
Jo Reed: You actually have a social media ambassador.
Kathy Connell: We do. We do. Sasha Alexander from "Rizzoli & Isles," who is fabulous and will be tweeting our hash tag is #SAGawards, so it'll be fun.
Jo Reed: Now, you were a second generation actor yourself.
Kathy Connell: I am. I am. I grew up in New York. My dad was on Broadway. He was the lead in a soap opera. He and my mother wrote soap operas. I grew around the business, and I say to everybody, "I think that the-- one of the reasons I love my job so much is not only that I love the union so much-- is that I grew up sitting on beds watching the award show with my fingers cross because friends of my family were nominated and winning."And so the excitement in our house watching an award show was a very personal experience.
Jo Reed: You're a strong advocate for actors' rights. Can you just give us a couple of examples of the way that SAG and now SAG-AFTRA protects actors?
Kathy Connell: Well, first of all, we have contracts that are vitally important. They provide pension and health for our members. They protect them on sets-- safety. They encourage the consideration of diversity because what people see on television is very often-- helps to promote the consideration of social issues and the awareness of the fact that we live in a very diverse world-- basic hours. What I was saying-- everybody thinks that stars get to do whatever they want. They don't. They don't. They work on a set, and they work with crew people and actors in front of cameras for very long hours. So there are rules about how long you can work people before they have to be fed. It's one of our reasons that our union was created. Boris Karloff was sitting in a makeup chair for Frankenstein when he was encouraging his fellow performers to sign that they would be part of a union because he had to work 20 hours a day. And that can still happen-- not 20. Though, I must say I've worked 20, but the turnaround is tremendously difficult for people because you have to recognize these are people who are going onto a screen that's 65 or 100 feet wide. You have to look good, and if you haven't slept and you haven't had a chance to look at your lines, you're not going to look good and you're not going to give a great performance. So the union provides very basic things that help create good art. So those are just a few of the things that our union does.
Jo Reed: And we should point out that I am sure most of your union members are not stars. They're regular actors who, hopefully, can live from paycheck to paycheck without having to work as a waitress or a bartender.
Kathy Connell: That's exactly right, and they also live off of residuals, which our union also collects and distributes to our members. So, yes, people just think about the top earners, but the top earners recognize that they're the fortunate ones, and they're very proud to be union members because they remember before they became stars. And later on in the industry-- sometimes even if you're a star, work as you age becomes-- you have less opportunities. And so they recognize the importance of the union because they're going to rely on a pension plan, too.
[Excerpt from American Hustle]
Jo Reed: All right, Kathy, when we watch the show on January 18, what should we keep our eye out for?
Kathy Connell: First of all, it's going to be a beautiful room. We're really excited with our set, but we always start the top of the show with some stories, and we never announce who's going to do the stories. So it's-- it ranges from young performers to our more experienced and mature performers and our television people-- our film people. It's usually a diverse crowd, and they're usually telling a very quick sound bite of how they became an actor and-- or why they love being an actor. And that's always fun. And from there, you know what? It's a live show, and that's what's exciting. I'm sitting back there. I don't know who's won. I'm holding my breath just like everybody else in the room, and so it's just the energy level of-- our room is a little bit unique, I think, for an award show because it's about them. It's just not about us. It's their night.
Jo Reed: Kathy Connell, thank you so much. Thank you for taking us back stage in the SAG Awards. I appreciate it.
Kathy Connell: Saturday, January 28 on TNT and TBS. Thank you, Jo.
Jo Reed: That was executive producer of the SAG Awards Kathy Connell
You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
We heard clips from films nominated for SAG Awards in the category Outstanding Performance by a Cast. They were:
12 YEARS A SLAVE (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
AMERICAN HUSTLE (Columbia Pictures)
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (The Weinstein Company)
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (Focus Features)
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (The Weinstein Company)
You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, Jeff Orlowski--director of Chasing Ice--a documentary about the effects of climate change on the Arctic Glaciers.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.