As the star of "Slumdog Millionaire," Dev Patel plays an Indian orphan who competes for a boatload of money on a game show and a girl's affections. But what the 18-year-old actor won Sunday night -- the top award from the Screen Actors Guild -- was possibly more precious: the respect of his acting peers.
Patel let out a triumphant whoop as he and his "Slumdog Millionaire" costars walked off the stage of the Shrine Exposition Center to collect their SAG trophies for best cast in a motion picture. He stared in wonder at the trophy table, where his statuette was waiting.
"We each get one?" Patel asked. Told that yes, even the youngsters in Mumbai who played the film's desperate waifs would get one of the film's 11 trophies, Patel marveled, "These trophies weigh more than they do."
The film's triumph was a shock not only to many of the SAG members inside the Shrine (who had nominated only Patel among the "Slumdog Millionaire" actors, none of whom is actually in the guild, for an individual award) but also to the newly minted stars of the India-based rags-to-riches saga, now the overwhelming front-runner for the best picture Academy Award.
Standing in the Shrine's wings cradling their trophies, the "Slumdog Millionaire" cast seemed dazed.
"We won, we won, we won," Anil Kapoor (who plays the smarmy host of the movie's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?") shouted into his cellphone at international-call level seconds after the ensemble's big win.
"I've met Kate Winslet!" Patel said backstage a few minutes later. "She was my first love when I saw her in the cinema. And she knew who I was!"
Even with the surprise ending, the actors union staged a fairly standard awards show -- emotional winners (including "The Reader's" Winslet, named best supporting female actor), earnest tributes (to James Earl Jones) and a few minor surprises (including "Doubt's" Meryl Streep, for female actor).
Though the Shrine audience stood as one to applaud "Slumdog Millionaire" and the late Heath Ledger for his supporting actor win for "The Dark Knight," the 120,000-member guild remains deeply divided.
SAG has not had a contract with Hollywood's television and movie producers for seven months, and negotiations for a new pact appear hopelessly stalled over how actors should be compensated for performances in new media, such as "webisodes" created for the Internet.
Two factions inside the guild's board of directors are battling over the union's leadership and contract strategy, with a block of big stars suggesting a threatened strike should be abandoned. A year ago, when the Golden Globes were derailed by a 100-day screenwriters strike, the SAG ceremony became the season's first true star-laden awards show.
This year's SAG event offered a brief respite from the guild's many problems, but the labor worries didn't disappear completely.
Taraji P. Henson, the only actor nominated both for film and television acting -- for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Boston Legal," respectively -- said that the glitter of an awards show might seem like a shallow pursuit given SAG's labor dispute and wider issues of the economy.
"Those are obviously more important, and I don't for a moment forget that," she said on the red carpet. "But I am also an energetic optimist. We can solve these things. They should get me in the room. I could help straighten it all out. I have no doubt."
"Mad Men's" Jon Hamm, whose television series won for dramatic ensemble, said backstage: "It's a difficult time for the union, for unions in general. It's challenging. If anything, the events of the last four or five months have put a light on the fact that even in the roughest of times, good things can come."
Yet television viewers might not have known there was much internal dissent within Hollywood's biggest talent union.
The winner of the evening's first trophy, "30 Rock" comedy star Tina Fey, was one of the few actors who made a televised comment about the labor stalemate.
"I want to thank Alice for her patience," Fey said of her young daughter. "And someday, she'll be old enough to watch '30 Rock' reruns on the Internet and understand where Mommy was going at 6 a.m. every day for all that time. And she'll look up at me and say, 'What do you mean you don't get residuals for this?' "
The often outspoken Sean Penn, named best actor for "Milk," opened his acceptance speech by saying, "Thank you and good evening, comrades." But the line -- which he apparently was directing at Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly -- was about all Penn had to say that could have been interpreted as vaguely political.
Even Sally Field, a frequent guild firebrand (who has publicly opposed a potential SAG strike) and award winner for the TV series "Brothers & Sisters," steered clear of any union pronouncements, offering instead an array of predictable platitudes, including "I am so proud to be an actor" and "Thank you for this -- it means so much to me."