It was a night of reunions at the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s fourth annual Patron of the Artists Awards – reunions of colleagues, activists and Friends in a gala celebration of actors and the many social causes they champion. Jennifer Aniston, Ava DuVernay, Mark Ruffalo and Greg Berlanti were the honorees, who were introduced by a stellar lineup of their friends and mentors – all in support of the good works of the foundation.
Held on Thursday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, with cabaret-style musical interludes and a Wolfgang Puck-catered buffet afterwards, it was, in all the world, the place to be.
Leonardo DiCaprio, one of Hollywood’s leading environmental and human rights activists, was on hand to present an award to fellow climate warrior Ruffalo; David Oyelowo was there to present an award to DuVernay, with whom he’s worked on three of her films, including Selma, in which he starred as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Norman Lear presented an award to Berlanti, who hired the legendary producer 15 years ago on one of his many TV shows; and Aniston’s Friends co-stars Courtney Cox and Lisa Kudrow were there to pay tribute to their friend – a word they joked about not using anymore. There were standing ovations all around.
“I don’t really feel I deserve this,” Ruffalo said on receiving the foundation’s Artists Inspiration Award, crediting the many other activists who fight for change every day – and the “Native people who are trying to remind us of our common ties.” Ruffalo, who has stood alongside Native Americans in their fights for voting rights and environmental justice, reminded the audience that this was once their land. “We have to be there for each other, now more than ever,” he said. “It’s the only way we’ll find our way out of this mess.”
Like DiCaprio, Ruffalo, who currently stars in HBO’s I Know This Much Is True and the upcoming Focus Features movie Dark Waters, is one of the industry’s leading advocates for renewable energy and environmental justice – pointing out that pollution and climate change tend to disproportionately impact the impoverished. He has previously received the Global Green Millennium Award for Environmental Leadership and the Meera Gandhi Giving Back Foundation Award. Named one of Time Magazine’s People Who Mattered in 2011, he received The Big Fish Award from Riverkeeper in 2013, and helped launch The Solutions Project in 2012 as part of his efforts to share science, business and culture that demonstrates the feasibility of renewable energy.
Saying that a “spiritual revolution” will be needed to win next year’s presidential election, Ruffalo said: “We have to put ourselves on the line like we’ve never done before.”
“Many aspire to make the world a better place,” DiCaprio said of his friend, “but Mark doesn’t just aspire.” After the show, they and presenter Paul Rudd hung out together, laughing and talking about things large and small.
“Can I nominate Mark Ruffalo for President?” Aniston asked, to a huge round of applause, after receiving her award. Currently starring on Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, Aniston was given the foundation’s Artists Inspiration Award for her philanthropic efforts, which includes millions of dollars in donations to natural disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Ricky Martin Foundation. She has also been an avid supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and was the recipient of the GLAAD Vanguard Award in 2007 for her outstanding contributions to increase understanding and awareness of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. She has also supported many non-profit organizations that advocate for education, animal protection, and cancer research.
“Supporting these causes has been the biggest honor of my career,” she said. Aniston recalled how she’d been working as a waitress when she first earned her SAG card – cast as a waitress in a commercial for Bob’s Big Boy restaurants. Later, she’d be cast again as a waitress – this time as Rachel on Friends. “I got lucky,” she said. “Powerball lucky…There’s never a day that goes by that I take that for granted.”
She also gave a shout-out to her old friend Gabrielle Carteris, the recently re-elected president of SAG-AFTRA, who was there with a contingent of the union’s leadership. Aniston recalled how she and Carteris, as two struggling young actresses, had splurged on a fancy dinner one night not long after being cast in the pilots of Friends and Beverly Hills 90210 – not knowing if the shows would even go to series.
DuVernay, who received the foundation’s Patron of the Artists award for “creating significant professional opportunities for performing artists to work and thrive,” paid tribute to the community of actors. “They translate us to ourselves,” she said. “They give us ourselves back to us. That’s what actors do.”
DuVernay, who was Oscar-nominated for directing Selma, has gone on to helm such films as A Wrinkle In Time, which made her the highest-grossing African American female director in American history, and the Netflix limited series When They See Us, the story of the Central Park Five that received 16 Primetime Emmy nominations. She’s currently overseeing production on the fourth season of her critically acclaimed TV series Queen Sugar and the upcoming romance anthology Cherish the Day.
Making history as the first African-American filmmaker to win the Best Director prize at Sundance for her micro-budget, self-distributed feature Middle of Nowhere, she continues to amplify the work of other women and people of color through her non-profit film collective ARRAY. She also serves on the advisory board of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and co-chairs the Prada Diversity Council.
She said that Oyelowo, whom she cast as a bus driver in Middle of Nowhere, is like family to her. “He made me a better director and a better person,” noting that their work together “will forever keep us bonded.”
Berlanti, who described Norman Lear as a mentor, has, like Lear, brought social consciousness to all of his projects – of which there are many. Berlanti is one of the TV industry’s most prolific hyphenates: his company, employing hundreds of actors, currently has 18 scripted series on the across six different networks – the highest number of shows to air at one time for any producer and creator. A WGA, DGA and Golden Globe nominated writer, director, and producer, he began his career in television on Dawson’s Creek and became the hit show’s executive producer and showrunner after one year on staff. Since then, he’s served as creator, writer or executive producer behind shows such as Supergirl, The Flash, Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, Arrow, Blindspot, Riverdale and You. Making his film directorial debut in 2000 with The Broken Hearts Club, his most recent feature was Love, Simon.
The star-studded lineup of other presenters Thursday night included Hank Azaria, Willem Dafoe, Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Wilde, Constance Wu, Julia Garner, David Harbour and Awkwafina, with musical performances by Tom Scott, Patti Austin, Cynthia Erivo, Wé McDonald and Chrissy Metz.
The awards show also featured a change of guard at the foundation – outgoing president JoBeth Williams, who helmed the non-profit for the past 10 years, introduced her successor, Courtney B. Vance, who praised her for her tireless efforts on behalf of actors. He also made an impassioned pitch for a campaign to raise $1.5 million to support the foundation’s ongoing work, which since 1985 has provided $12 million in financial and medical assistance to actors and their families, and $8 million in scholarships to nearly 2,300 SAG-AFTRA members and their dependents.
The foundation has also put on 9,400 workshops, panels and screenings to advance actors’ careers; provided 24,000 studio hours for members at its voice-over labs in L.A. and New York; and presented more than 700 online workshops, panels and livestreaming events for actors. The foundation’s famed Storyline Online, in which well-known actors read books to children, has had 575 million views.