‘Surreal’ scenes and unguarded moments from the SAG Awards party

From left, Jackie Sandler, Adam Sandler, and Jamie Lee Curtis during the Cocktail Reception
From left, Jackie Sandler, Adam Sandler, and Jamie Lee Curtis during the Cocktail Reception at the 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Award.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

It’s 3 p.m. at the Fairmont Century Plaza, about half an hour into the Screen Actors Guild awards cocktail reception in the stylishly red-decked-out lobby. The nominees are trickling in, with the likes of “Better Call Saul’sJonathan Banks and “1883’sSam Elliott ready for their close-ups. It’s a touch incongruous to see Elliott looking dapper in his tux, his nape-length white mane just unkempt enough to counter the black tie — but at least he’s still standing like a cowboy, hands in both pockets, knees slightly bent.

Later, Elliott will collect the actor-in-a-miniseries prize and call it “the most significant recognition of my career.”

a man in a tux with a white mustache and head of hair talks to two women
Katharine Ross, left, and “1883” winner Sam Elliot socialize during the cocktail reception at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, as the reception fills, the place darkens — likely due to the influx of tuxes and little black dresses. The starkness of the black duds and red decor brings to mind a Melania Trump Christmas, albeit with too jovial a vibe for a full-on “Eyes Wide Shut” Holiday Special.

With the show 45 minutes away, the champagne and negronis are flowing — the reception is sponsored by Campari, after all —
and you can’t take a step without bumping into a previous winner (Ariana DeBose, looking fully recovered from her viral BAFTAs moment) or stepping on the intricate train of a nominee’s dress (I continue to be genuinely sorry, Danielle Deadwyler). Any more stars in this cluster may cause a singularity.

woman in a pink pantsuit smiles
2023 presenter and past SAG Awards winner Ariana DeBose.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The casts of “Better Call Saul,” “Barry” and many others crowd in to the left and right of you. There’s “The Whale” nominee Hong Chau, not exactly visible over the shoulders of several admirers. There’s “The Fabelmans’” Gabriel LaBelle hanging out by the bar — wait, is he old enough to drink?

Then the doors open like a plug being pulled and the elegant gowns and suits drain down into the great hall lined with dinner tables. The “light dinner” is a couple of cylinders of chicken and a beet purée that rings the plate. Plus copious bottles of wine with custom labels for the occasion.

man in a tux and woman in a navy dress give thumbs up
“The Fabelmans’” Gabriel LaBelle and Julia Butters.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Once the ceremony is to begin, the actors prove an unruly lot. From the stage, Tony- and two-time Emmy-winner Courtney B. Vance struggles to get the audience to quiet down so he can start. He has to repeatedly shush the crowd during his remarks. Real mature.

He announces the SAG Foundation’s creation of the Meryl Streep Center for Performing Artists with sound-recording booths, on-camera studios and the Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson Screening Room (100 seats). Vance says naming rights for the seats can be purchased to benefit the foundation, and eventual winner for “The Whale” Brendan Fraser is the first to stand up in the room, declaring he’s in.

two women in dresses look behind their shoulder and smile
Megan Stalter (“Hacks”) and Ayo Edebiri (“The Bear”).
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

While miniseries actor Paul Walter Hauser’s nomination clip is played, he dramatically mouths along with the scene directly to a roving camera — which the streaming audience can’t see because the actual clip is playing. Then, with perfect timing, just before the feed goes live to reveal him, he takes a comically large bite out of his sandwich.

There are heartfelt moments too, of course: “Everything Everywhere All at Once” winner Ke Huy Quan, embodying the struggling actor’s story, continues his steak of moving speeches, winning over stars such as DeBose with his remarks. And the ballroom audience’s favorite celebration of the night comes when his winning co-star Michelle Yeoh surrenders to the moment and utters a profanity with gusto.

two young men in tuxes talk to each other
Eddie Redmayne (“The Good Nurse”), left, with Adam DiMarco (“The White Lotus”).
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

There’s even a hint of melancholy. After “The White Lotus” ensemble collects its trophy and leaves the stage, the “Saul” table stands and toasts each other, their awards run — which has extended their time together after finishing the show — nearing its final leg, the 2023 Emmys.

After the awards are all handed out, PEOPLE’s SAG Awards Post Gala begins in a gigantic space upstairs with lots of satisfying finger food (sliders, skewers, chicken and waffles, cookies) — I did mention this was a really tough gig — and a DJ spinning Stevie Wonder and Lizzo.

woman in a dress looks over her right shoulder
“Tár’s” Cate Blanchett.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Now the stars really mix. Hauser and Jon Gries (a winner tonight with the “Lotus” ensemble) exchange enthusiastic pleasantries and phone numbers. The “Abbott Elementary” crew (winners for comedy ensemble) groove together on a sofa. Deadwyler chats with fellow nominee Viola Davis.

Jason Bateman, who won “Ozark’s” final SAG Award for his lead performance (his third for the role), says, in a remark reminiscent of the “Saul” toast: “It was just so good to thank all the people who worked on the show. This was our last chance because this was the last show of the awards cycle.”

woman in a dress and sweater smiles brightly
“Abbott Elementary’s” Sheryl Lee Ralph.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, it’s getting awfully tight in here. You can’t struggle a few feet without inadvertently photobombing someone. Still, spirits remain high. The “Abbott” folks make their reserved area in the middle of the room their private dance floor. The DJ manages to spur an impromptu singalong by dropping out part of the chorus of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” nominee Evan Peters among those cutting a rug and joining in.

All good things must come to an end, and on the way out, Brian and Andy Le, known to fans of best-ensemble winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once” for their involvement in an elaborate fight scene involving a sex toy, stop to chat. They’re still sorting out which reality they’re in, having gone from martial-arts action-comedy videos on YouTube to SAG’s highest honor.

woman in a black dress
“The White Lotus” star (and SAG Award winner) Jennifer Coolidge.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“It was the goofiest concept in the world, but they said everything straight-faced,” says Brian Le of director-writers The Daniels’ pitch to them. “We didn’t understand a word they said, but we knew one thing: They were just like us.”

As bizarre as the multiversal action comedy-family drama is, it’s not as mind-boggling to the Les as standing up on the SAG stage in front of people they grew up idolizing and realizing they voted for their movie.

“It’s surreal,” says Andy Le. “I’m actually still trying to unfold this. But I believe, like Ke Huy Quan said, it’s changing. We’re just happy to be part of the movement.”