"Birdman" beat out "Boyhood," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything" for SAG's movie ensemble prize.
FULL COVERAGE: SAG Awards 2015
"This is the ultimate team sport," said Michael Keaton, accepting "Birdman's" award on stage at the Shrine Exposition Center in Los Angeles, before passing the microphone to the rest of the film's actors, in a series of speeches that rolled on like one of director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's film's long, kinetic takes in the film.
In selecting "Birdman," the actors' union acknowledged the work of a large cast of stars, including Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, on a set with a high level of difficulty because of continuous takes during shooting.
"If you made a mistake, you're possibly destroying another actor's best work," Watts said backstage of "Birdman's" challenge. "The responsibility of that made it high pressure. But on the flip side, it was incredibly exciting. It was like winning a race, which made it probably the most collaborative experience. As actors, maybe that's why we got recognized."
The other major movie acting awards went to Eddie Redmayne for lead actor in "The Theory of Everything," Julianne Moore, lead female actor in "Still Alice," Patricia Arquette for supporting female actor in "Boyhood," and J.K. Simmons for supporting actor in "Whiplash." All four are favorites for the Oscars, although Keaton is clearly still a contender for his title role in "Birdman."
In the television world, multiple awards went to projects featuring minorities, coming in stark contrast to the Oscars' much-discussed, all-white crop of acting nominees this year.
Viola Davis, who won for female actor in a drama, thanked the creators of her ABC show "How to Get Away With Murder," "for thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned African American woman who looks like me."
Backstage, Davis reiterated her desire for more onscreen diversity.
"We want to see ourselves," she said. "We want to be inspired by that. ... I want to feel less alone when I look at TV."
In individual film acting, the guild stuck largely to the script that has been playing out this awards season, with one surprise.
Redmayne won for his performance as ALS-afflicted theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything" in a category many thought would go to Keaton for "Birdman."
Redmayne dedicated his award to people with ALS and thanked Hawking "for allowing someone who gave up science at 14 years old to come into your orbit."
It's been a long awards season, and backstage after winning his prize, Redmayne talked of being caught up in the "white noise of euphoria" as the march to the Oscars continues.
Redmayne also acknowledged two men from films conspicuously absent from the awards show: "American Sniper's" Bradley Cooper and "Selma's" David Oyelowo. Both movies are hot topics. "American Sniper" just crossed $200 million at the domestic box office and has inspired umpteen political debates, and "Selma's" failure to garner more Oscar nominations helped inspire the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on Twitter.
But both films opened late in December, making them difficult for SAG voters to see in time to nominate their performances.
Lead female actor winner Moore, a front-runner in the Oscar race, was quick to bring the room down to Earth as she accepted a trophy for her role as a professor with early-onset
"When I was on 'As the World Turns,'" Moore said, pausing for reaction, before recalling playing twins on the soap opera. "What was most exciting to me was being with another actor ... getting to know somebody in that way."
Arquette, another Oscar favorite, won her first SAG award on Sunday for her performance as a struggling single mother in "Boyhood," a film that many had seen as a clear Oscar front-runner earlier in the race.
"I'm a fourth-generation actor," said Arquette, whose great-grandfather was a vaudevillian, and grandfather and father both appeared on TV series. "My family has been committed to acting for over a century through feast or famine."
J.K. Simmons, who is also considered a probable Oscar winner, won in the supporting category for his performance as a tyrannical music instructor in "Whiplash."
"I feel like all of us actors are supporting actors," Simmons said in his acceptance speech. "I would like to thank the 49 actors who appear onscreen in 'Whiplash' for realizing [director] Damien Chazelle's vision so brilliantly."
The guild gave its life achievement award to Debbie Reynolds, the 82-year-old actress, singer and dancer best known for her roles in
Reynolds also recalled "Molly Brown" as one of her favorite films.
"In that movie, I got to sing a wonderful song called 'I Ain't Down Yet,'" Reynolds said. "Well, I ain't."
Voted on by 111,228 eligible SAG-AFTRA members and coming just over three weeks before Academy Awards ballots are due, the SAG Awards are a key event for Oscar watchers.
The ensemble prize is an imperfect predictor of Oscar's best picture winner — last year
Redmayne was typically modest about his win. Asked what he attributed it to, he had three words: "Peers, privilege and luck."
Times staff writers Yvonne Villarreal and Tre'vell Anderson contributed to this report.