At the 2014 SAG Awards, Morgan Freeman presented the Life Achievement Award to Rita Moreno; earlier this year, Moreno presented the same honor to Freeman.
Kristen Bell takes the stage at the 24th Annual SAG Awards
Among entertainment award shows, 25 years of existence qualifies a show as a fresh-faced upstart, especially compared to the 70-year-old Emmys and the almost 90-year-old Oscars.
But when that quarter-century spans many of the industry's most seismic changes, including the advent of streaming television and the #MeToo movement, a show can benefit from a youthful, even nimble perspective. The Screen Actors Guild Awards show, which airs January 27 on TNT and TBS, definitely has.
In 2018, the SAG Awards broke ground by having only female presenters at its 24th annual ceremony. It was an awards show first. "The decision by the SAG Awards to make all presenters female last year definitely sent a message to the industry," says analyst Chris Walters of Awards Insider Consulting.
"Any time there is a national platform that can reach millions of viewers, an opportunity exists to influence the industry, or even our society as a whole."
To SAG Awards show executive producer Kathy Connell, the decision just seemed like a natural extension of the national conversation about gender equity.
"We were talking about a 50-50 split in 2020, and we started thinking, you know, for two hours on one night, maybe this is the year," she says. As promised, Halle Berry, Dakota Fanning, Lupita Nyong'o, Niecy Nash, Frances McDormand and a host of other actresses presented, though men weren't excluded; Woody Harrelson, Daniel Kaluuya, Sam Rockwell and others introduced movie and TV clips.
"We certainly had our men, and we weren't trying to dis the men," Connell says. "They were presenting their own film clips that were nominated, and our Life Achievement Award [went to Morgan Freeman]. But we thought, let's just hear women. And we were fortunate to have an amazing lineup."
A theme of female empowerment and equality seems like the ideal fit for the SAG Awards — and it's already reflected in Connell's current role.
"I am the sole female executive producer of a TV awards show," she says, and she has been since the 2014 ceremony. "So that was important to me, because SAG–AFTRA has supported me as a woman and I'm extraordinarily grateful. They've believed in diversity forever."
Connell, who spearheaded the idea of an actor-centric awards show while a member of the SAG board, initially worked with four other members (Daryl Anderson, Yale Summers, Paul Napier and Toey Caldwell) to launch the very first SAG Awards in just over a year.
"There were five of us who created the show," she says. "No joke, we were working on it 60 hours a week. You can imagine, we were creating a show from scratch in 15 months."
They were meticulous. Even "The Actor," a bronze statuette that requires a 15-step process to achieve its signature green patina, is more art than award. Happily, their dedication paid off with the show's successful debut on NBC in 1995.
Though The Actor has stayed the same, the industry — specifically television — has not. As TV has entered what many critics consider a golden age, the star wattage in the television categories reflects that shift.
"I mean, when we began 25 years ago, TV was a four-channel thing, and now look at it," says Alan Carter, who has directed the SAG Awards show seven times (he began in 2005). "Good Lord, what comes out of TV right now is amazing!"
Despite changes in the industry, the SAG Awards has never made a distinction between the film and TV categories — either in the program or with regard to seating.
"Actors never felt that there was a difference between work in TV and work in film," Connell says. "They respected the craft of acting, even if the industry said, 'You're a film person or you're a television person.' And because actors didn't have that feeling, we wanted to have both a television and film award with the actors together, and really made an effort to make sure that's reflected in our seating.
"We will have a film cast next to a TV cast, and the actors love it. We'll see an actor currently working in film go up to another actor and say, 'I've been watching you in a marathon all day!'" That ability for attendees to connect with a broad mix of people is bolstered by another innovation — the ensemble award.
"We were the first to give [an ensemble award]," Connell says. "We gave it because we understood that actors don't work alone, and that's particularly so in television. They work as a team, day in and day out for 10 months or a year. At the time, if you were on a series, you were either doing 31, 13, or 21 or 22 episodes and had a small ensemble. That's changed. Now you look at ensembles and there could be dozens of actors working together."
Recognizing a broader ensemble has made it possible for actors who might not receive trophies at other awards shows to be part of the process. That can be thrilling for everyone involved.
"When you've got Debbie Reynolds up there and Carrie Fisher and Morgan Freeman and all the people that have been honored by the SAG Awards over the years, and you're an actor who has a minor role, you're sitting in the room with these huge stars," Carter says.
"How often does that happen? It doesn't happen on other awards shows, because an actor with a smaller role isn't going to be nominated. But it can happen at the SAG Awards. And there's electricity in the air because of it."
For many actors, recognition in the ensemble category can come after many years of dedicated work.
"After over 50 years creating work in the theater, I have been recognized along with, and by, my peers," says Dale Soules, who plays Frieda Berlin on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and has won three ensemble awards for the show. "I thank each and every one who welcomed me into this truly diverse cast and crew, and who helped me learn to perform in a new medium."
Of course, as ensembles have expanded, there has been a price to pay. "There grew to be more nominees because of the way shows were cast, so we had to make the stage a little bit smaller to accommodate more tables on the floor," SAG Awards production designer Joe Stewart says. "Space is finite in that room!"
In its 25 years, the SAG Awards show has faced other changes and challenges. "We almost began before things like LED tape and LED lighting," Stewart says. "I still think we were looking good back then, but we're a lot more modern now."
With its focus strictly on actors, the SAG Awards allows performers to relax, catch up with friends — and be a fan.
"Because it's actors voting for actors, when you're in the room it's a very different vibe than any other awards show," says Carter, who pursued acting "enough to know that I wasn't any good at it."
He adds, "There's a sense of camaraderie, whether you're Johnny Depp or a supporting cast member of Orange Is the New Black. Everybody's on equal footing that night, because they're all actors. That air of Hollywoodish stuff that you sense at a lot of these things, it's gone. Across the board, everyone in that room is just happy to be there."
Of course, even if the show is a lovefest for the actors, putting it together hasn't been so easy.
"One year I got it in my head that it would be a great idea to do the set out of live roses," Stewart recalls. "I still think it was a very good idea, and it was a beautiful thing, but I had no idea how many roses that would take. I don't think we affected the commodity price of roses, but we must have come pretty close."
The tens of thousands of roses required Rose Parade–level handling — and the blooms could survive stage lights for only a brief time before fading.
"They had to be opened and cut and put in those glass vials, and then stuffed into giant walls," Stewart says. "There were people on their hands and knees in the lobby cutting roses for forever, but it looked really pretty and awards show-y and and fabulous."
Connell's vision for a waterwall another year also provoked technical difficulties, though of a different kind. "It was like a sprinkler system. It wouldn't hang onto the wall like it was supposed to. Of course, we got it to work eventually, but it wasn't quite as simple as rolling in a wooden wall and putting some lights on it."
While a light-covered wooden wall would have been easier, Stewart says that going big for the show's design is a necessary challenge, even if it hurts.
"The guild has always taken this seriously, because it is an event. It's a Hollywood event as well as an awards show, and one that does, I think, a pretty good job of predicting future awards, too." Granted, no dream is too big in Hollywood. "The magical thing about Hollywood is that anything can be done with a couple of phone calls, a smile and a checkbook," Stewart adds, laughing.
Despite the months of planning each show requires, sometimes the most memorable moments aren't expected.
"Jamie [Foxx] did not have the fortune to come in and rehearse, so he and Kerry [Washington] walk out and miss their marks entirely," Carter says, recalling the 2005 show, when Foxx and Washington presented a clip from their nominated film, Ray. "Then, Kerry realizes they're on the wrong side of the stage.
"So she grabs Jamie's arm and they run over to the other side of the stage in a very cute way. But when they get there, Jamie gets completely tongue-tied. So he stops, grabs Kerry's arm, and they walk backward about 10 feet and Kerry yells out, ' Music! '"
It took two more tries, but Foxx, who would win the lead actor SAG award and later the Oscar for Ray, eventually nailed it. "The room just died," Carter says. "It was great. If you're going to have that experience, the best possible place to have it is the SAG Awards, because everyone there knows how that feels."
With the SAG awards celebrating its quarter-century this year, the show isn't likely to have too many free-wheeling moments. Still, it's likely to be memorable, even if many of the details are under wraps — beyond who will receive the Life Achievement Award (Alan Alda).
"Everybody always asks what's going to be new about the show, and because we only have two hours and we're giving 13 awards as well as a Life Achievement Award, we don't have a whole lot of time for much else," Connell says. "This show is really about the television shows and films that need to be acknowledged this year, and it's about our members, which keeps it simple."
Well, it might not be all that simple this year.
"It's an anniversary show," Stewart points out. "There's a certain kind of gravitas that you feel about an anniversary. We've been working a long time on the design, which will remain a surprise, but the goal is to capture a certain respect for the show and the guild. I would hesitate to call it monumental, but there's something about reaching a certain mark in time. You want to record it."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2018