Written by Saul Taylor
Ask anyone in the movie industry who Kathy Connell is and a broad smile will appear across their face. Hollywood royalty, Kathy Connell has produced the Screen Actors Guild Awards — a ceremony of accolades for actors voted for by their peers — since its inception in 1995. Herself an actor, Connell has been deeply involved in the entertainment industry her whole life and fights for the rights of her fellow performers in various roles at unions and organisations across Tinseltown.
I am a second-generation actor and my first start with the union was actually during a strike. My father was on the board and we were on strike. I was a union member but I was a young actress. He said, you have to go down and walk a picket line. And I was like, “but I’m busy I’ve got things to do.” He said, “No, you have to give it a day.” A day turned into my life.
How did the SAG Awards come about?
I was serving on the board of directors and the idea for an awards show had come to the union a couple of times but they never wanted to use any dues money for a show, which meant we needed license money from television to underwrite it. We wanted the ability for all members to vote and at the time there was no such thing as ‘online’, so all balloting would have to be done by mail and that was expensive. We had about 75,000 members at the time. So, when the opportunity came up to have a network TV show of the ceremony, I, along with a small group of people, was asked to figure out what kind of show it would be. What were the rules, what were the awards and what would the statue be? Five of us spent 14 months trying to make those decisions.
So what was that process?
It was 60 hours a week talking about what represents our union. One of the things that’s unique is that we give an ensemble award. It seemed like such a natural thing, but it had never been given before. It represented both our union and the idea of working together, because no actor works in television or film by themselves. So we individually salute some members for performances, but also the chemistry as a whole.
It’s important recognition for the actors?
Oh yes, it’s a peer award given by actors, by their peers who understand what it takes to create a great performance; who understand how you create the chemistry for that. We now have over 120,000 voting members from across the country who are involved in saluting their fellow members and they love it. We have over 30 viewing parties happening across the country, so members are joining together to watch the show that they voted on. And they’ve all had an opportunity to see the movies — they are sent out to everyone. So it really brings members together.
It must be seen as an indication of what might happen at the Oscars a month later.
I think a lot of people see it that way. It is a unique season because there have been so many great films and television shows this year. Particularly films, they seem to be all over the place. But television too. We are at a real high point in television. You could spend your whole day watching incredible work and not even see one per cent.
It has come full circle, TV was also great 26 years ago when the SAG Awards started.
TV was unique but you only had three or four channels back then. You had some great work, but now you have so many ways to watch, particularly with streaming. Back in the day the actors never delineated between film and television, the industry did. So you would have people go, “Well, those are film actors and those are TV actors.” The actors never felt that and we always sat the TV people next to the film people, which they loved. I would see an individual for a film go up to a TV actor and say, “I’ve been watching a marathon of you all day!” Those are the moments that are wonderful. So many times the actors may know each other, they may have worked with each other on stage at some point in their career, or on a small television show, or a commercial, or they may never have met and always wanted to meet. They’re all seated close together and get to really enjoy each other. That was something that was very unusual in the beginning, too. We felt it was the actor’s party in the actor’s house, so the actors should all be down at the front and the suits should be in the back.
Has it changed much since the beginning?
Oh gosh, yes. Our red carpet used to be out on 32nd Street where the trucks are today and it was about 50 yards long. Now, we have 17,500 square feet of carpet. I’m a blessed woman with the people that I work for and the fact that I work for a union. That’s incredibly important to me because the stuff I’m doing is the fun stuff. The union represents these actors all the time on sets all over this country. Whether it’s a commercial or a film or a television show; whether it’s a broadcaster who is in danger this year, who is being threatened, or a recording artist who is trying to do a music video working in smoke. Our union is there to protect people and that’s very important to me. I don’t think, as a woman, I would have had the opportunity to be an executive producer. There is, to my knowledge, not another sole woman executive event producer, and I think it’s because I work for a union who believes in diversity.
That’s something that at the moment needs to be promoted.
Something that’s been in the union’s contract since before the show is a term called the “American Scene”. The American Scene is an attempt to reflect what our country looks like, and of course our country is half women as well as being very diverse. Nowadays, I think that the country is starting to show that in the television, films and commercials that you see.
How much planning goes into the show?
Oh, it pretty much always starts before the next one’s over, because you’re starting to think about the timing; you’re already making notes for possible adjustments to a rule because of the way the industry is changing. A few years ago we had to work out what to do with streaming, how to adjust that to fit our rules and to incorporate that work as well. So, we’re always looking ahead, looking at the timing of next year’s show which will be more of a challenge because of the shortened awards season with the Oscars moving forward. There are always a few things to consider. At least I’m not bored!
And how do you choose the presenters?
We try and look across the board. A lot of it has to do with who’s going to be available in our room. So the film clips are always introduced — and that was started by us — by the key members of their own cast explaining their own film. From there we look at diversity, we like to have some icons on the stage but we also want to have some of our up and coming young actors, and again to reflect what’s happening in terms of film and TV.Back