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Lights, Action Before Camera Rolls

When it comes to an awards gala, there's a show behind the show.

March 13, 2001|GINA PICCALO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the season of endless celebrity awards shows, when the stars fete one another nearly every week. Yet the real action, the nitty-gritty of Hollywood self-aggrandizement, happens long before the red carpet is unfurled and the cameras are rolling.

At the Shrine Exposition Center on Saturday, producers, technical crews, publicists and extras were the true luminaries. The performance hall was crawling with folks dressed for comfort, barking commands into their headsets.

When a bespectacled Juliette Binoche took the stage to rehearse her lines as one of the presenters for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, few people even noticed her--except to order another take.

As "Joan of Arc" star Leelee Sobieski walked the hall, a security guard with an eye keen to hangers-on grabbed her arm and demanded to see her pass. The 18-year-old beauty quickly obliged.

"Put it on," he shouted. "Now!"

Out of the guard's earshot, Sobieski demonstrated a teenager's insouciance. "That was kind of fun," she said. "I was hoping they would kick me out!"

Sobieski was still giddy from a trip to the celebrity giveaway boutique in the back of the hall where star presenters were granted their pick of a variety gifts from Italian cashmere coats to platinum and diamond bracelets, from various designers.

Meanwhile, a group of about 50 people dressed in street clothes and sipping from Starbucks coffee cups waited their turn at the podium. They are day players, extras hired for about $20 an hour to occupy the seats of celebrities and depict them during rehearsals.

Extra Carrie Freeman, 42, of Studio City, was Kate Hudson for the day. She takes the stage for the star of "Almost Famous" and was prepared to improv an acceptance speech so crews can test sound, lighting and camera angles.

Freeman works full time as a production services rep for Universal Studios. But she's a part-time actress and boasts a recent film credit in the upcoming Rodney Dangerfield film, "The Fourth Terror." Awards season is a time to make extra cash, she said. "You get to live in a fantasy for a few minutes." she said.

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Patty Duke said the Sunday gala was the first awards show that she had attended in 15 years. At rehearsal, she walked wide-eyed through the auditorium, a little nervous about an interview with a reporter.

While Willem Dafoe ran through his lines from the stage, Duke shared a hug with fellow actor Dennis Weaver of "McCloud" fame. Both actors have left Los Angeles for more spacious environs. Duke lives on a 70-acre farm in the northern Idaho and visits Los Angeles infrequently. Weaver lives outside Telluride, Colo., in a solar-powered house insulated by recycled tires. The SAG Awards show offers "much more of a family feeling" than other shows, Weaver said.

During a break in the Saturday rehearsal, the founding producers laughed about the group's bumpy start. The SAG Awards were conceived by NBC executives nearly 10 years ago. The first show was held on the Universal Studios sound stage where crews were filming "Batman Returns."

That created a certain confusion on the set. "We had a studio production coordinator yelling at our folks to 'get off the sound stage!' while we were rehearsing," producer Daryl Anderson said. Industry folks had low expectations, he recalled. "One agent predicted the stars would send their cleaning ladies," Anderson said.

When the network dropped SAG's show for the Golden Globes, guild members landed a deal with TNT. Soon, Jeff Margolis took over as executive producer after years on the Oscars and the Emmys. During rehearsals, he mused on his success from a cushy backstage room complete with closed-circuit TV that allows him to monitor rehearsals. As Margolis spoke, an unshaven, baseball cap-wearing Chris O'Donnell appeared on the screen.

Margolis took no notice. "We decided to move it up a notch," Margolis said. "We almost don't have enough room to house all the actors who want to come now."

These days tickets are sold by lottery because the banquet event at the Shrine can accommodate only about 1,000 seats. But guild members are reluctant to move the event to a larger venue because they love the relative intimacy of the show. "It's like a reunion," director William Daniels said.

The two-hour show takes nearly a year to plan and setup takes a week. The stage is built in scene shops all over town and assembled at the Shrine. Margolis pointed to his monitor that shows a wide shot of the set.

"I mean, look at it. You sort of feel like you've been invited to somebody's house for dinner," he said.

That is, a 1,000-seat dinner with a full orchestra.

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