“Stranger Things” star David Harbour was altering his acceptance speech up to the last minute yesterday. He didn’t think the Netflix show would win the Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding TV drama ensemble – but if it did, he wanted to be ready.
As thousands of Americans gathered in airports across the country to protest a ban on Muslims from entering the country from seven countries, politics was on the minds of virtually everyone Sunday evening at the Screen Actors Guild Awards – including nominees like Harbour.
And just in case his show did indeed score a surprise win on Sunday night, Harbor wanted to take the opportunity to champion inclusiveness and understanding in the face of President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders.
That’s exactly what happened, as Harbor emphatically highlighted how art can speak truth to power and help shine a light on certain wrongs (including “fear, self-centeredness and exclusivity”) – and, sometimes, punch those wrongs in the face. Watch here:
“This speech went through many iterations,” he told reporters Sunday evening after the show’s surprise victory over series like “Westworld,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Crown.” “I’ve had a lot of feelings and thoughts this past week… [the speech] changed last night based on the protests at the airports.”
There was plenty of celebration to be had at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, but the gathered performers also had a lot to say about President Trump – and the divisive orders he has implemented during his first week in office.
The Trump administration was sometimes directly referenced on stage and in the media room, but so were more general statements of concern about the sudden turn of events in the United States. After performers like Meryl Streep were criticized for bringing up politics at the Golden Globes, winners at the SAG Awards defended their right to speak out.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for example, called it the executive order “a blemish” and “un-American.”
“Right now is an unprecedented time,” said “La La Land” star Emma Stone, who won for best female actor in a leading role. “If we’re human beings and we see injustice we have to speak up. Staying silent only helps the oppressor, it never helps the victim. Right now I would hope that everyone who’s seeing things being done that are absolutely unconstitutional and inhumane would say something at any venue, be it at school or at an awards show or online. I hope people would fight for what’s right and what’s fucking human.”
The tone of Sunday night’s ceremony was set at the very beginning of the telecast, when Kerry Washington used her introduction about being an actress to say, “A lot of people are saying right now that actors should keep our mouths shut when it comes to politics. But the truth is, no matter what, actors are activists because we embody the humanity and worth of all people. This union helps me do that.” On stage, Ashton Kutcher opened the show by greeting “everyone in airports that belong in my America… you are a part of the fabric of who we are and we love you and we welcome you.”
William H. Macy soon after took the stage for winning the best male comedy actor, and compared Trump to his “Shameless” character (a drunk with few redeeming qualities): “I’d like to thank President Trump for making Frank Gallagher seem so normal!”
The speech of the night, besides Harbor’s showstopper, may have gone to “Moonlight” star Mahershala Ali, who told the crowd that “we see what happens when you persecute people… they fold into themselves.”
Ali noted that he’s a Muslim, and that his mother, an ordained minister, “didn’t do backflips” at first. But “we put things to the side. I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me. We love each other.”
Backstage, Ali pointed out that, as both a Muslim and an African-American, “This is not new to me.” He recounted that when his great grandmother (a civil rights activist) died, she was accused of being a Communist. She wasn’t, but Ali’s great grandfather lost his job at an Oakland Navy base.
“McCarthyism, these things, are not new,” he said. “It’s just as painful as it’s always been. I do identify with that struggle, what Muslims are dealing with specifically. I think the positive thing is, as artists and actors, we have an opportunity to make certain choices that shine light on situations that light need to be shined on.”
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” star Sarah Paulson, who won the SAG Award for outstanding female actor in a limited series, used her speech to encourage viewers to donate to the ACLU, “to protect the rights and liberties of people across this country. It’s a vital organization that relies entirely on our support.”
Paulson echoed the sentiment that actors have a responsibility to speak up as American citizens. “Silence is not golden at this particular time,” she said. “If you have a platform and a place to say it with a large audience, and you can reach further, you should take that opportunity.”
Lily Tomlin, who received this year’s lifetime achievement award, said she knew that making statements on an awards show probably doesn’t do much good – and that speeches should involve calls to action like legislation change.
“Trump is changing the laws now, he’s trying to change the laws,” she said. “The Nazis, they changed the laws that didn’t agree with them. We have to be vigilant.”
On stage, “All the Way” star Bryan Cranston, who won the SAG Award for playing President Lyndon B. Johnson, imagined what the 36th president might say to Trump. ” I feel that 36 would put his arm around 45 and earnestly wish him success,” Cranston said, “and he would also whisper in his ear something he said often as a word of encouragement but also a warning: ‘Just don’t piss in the soup that all of us gotta eat!'”
Backstage, Cranston also agreed that as “human beings and citizens, even before we ever became actors,” he and his colleagues have a right to speak out on political matters. “If something is important to you, if something appears before you in a way that feels like oppression, it’s up to the citizenry to speak out. Part of democracy is we’re allowed to do that. In so many countries around the world you’re not allows to voice dissent. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. [Let] people make up their own minds.”