Who Gets to Pick Best Actor? Actually, I Do.

By Hilary Howard

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Things got a little ugly before a screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” this fall at the Directors Guild Theater in Manhattan.

Tom Hanks would be answering questions afterward. And everyone there knew it.

Throngs of New Yorkers — mostly members of the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union for professional film and television actors — tried to push their way into the 436-seat theater that was nearing capacity.

Frantic volunteers tried to keep the peace in a very crowded lobby.

“This is ridiculous,” one man said.

“I’m so done with this city,” another said.

“Excuse you,” snapped a woman to a guy with a huge backpack who had rammed her in the face by simply turning around.

Just as tensions were reaching Scottish soccer stadium riot levels, I heard the magic words:

“Last call for SAG nom comm. Anyone nom comm?”

I elbowed my way up to the front and presented my membership card. A woman gave me the nod. I was in.

Every fall, the V.I.P. treatment is granted to about 625 randomly selected New York actors (and — hi, there — former actors), who are in good standing with the union, to serve on the 2500-member nominating committee (nom comm) for the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Then in January, all eligible union members are invited to vote for the SAG Awards. The televised ceremony, taking place this year on Jan. 19, is considered a pretty good predictor for the Academy Awards, which will happen three weeks later (over 80 percent of the best actress nominations at the SAG Awards, for example, receive Oscar nods).

For many local actors, nom comm is a rite of passage: a legit opportunity to influence the careers of our fellow members. You know, the much more successful and famous ones.

But it is also a commitment. Throughout the fall, there is a screening practically every night of the week, and you must watch the films scrupulously, not for the caliber of the movie, but for the individual and collective performances. It is not exactly passive movie fun.

“What I am finding difficult is separating the acting from the film itself,” said Daniel Weltner, 56, a nom comm guy I met at a screening for “Parasite.”

Mr. Weltner brought up the pressure of winnowing down hundreds of names in the best supporting actor category alone to just five precious spots for the ballot. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I still have 10 names on my short list.”

Nom comm, however, is also a privilege. If you’re on the committee, you get to see movies before they are released, often with fancy receptions and in private state-of-the-art screening rooms. Some of the studios really pull out all the stops.

For example, on most days of the year, unknown actors probably couldn’t get past security on the ground floor to mingle in the exclusive offices of WarnerMedia in Hudson Yards. But on one evening last October, there we were — a motley crew of movie extras, bit players and retirees — gawking at a magnificent panorama of Manhattan, while sipping complimentary chardonnay and nibbling on fruit and cheese in its 24th floor lounge. The movie being screened, maybe a little incongruously, was “Joker.”

On another night, I settled into a plush reclining chair with foot rests at the new Regal Essex Crossing & RPX on the Lower East Side, snacking on free popcorn and a jumbo soda, to watch “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” A woman beside me kicked back, took a sip from her jumbo cup and whispered, “Well they’ve got my vote.” The movie hadn’t started yet.

But the most interesting part of the nom comm experience were the casual, intimate exchanges with the movie stars that followed most of the screenings. In a span of a few months, I watched interviews with Laura Dern, Alan Alda, John Lithgow, Daniel Kaluuya, Nicole Kidman, Timothée Chalamet, Charlize Theron, Adam Sandler, Cynthia Erivo and Mark Ruffalo. And that’s just a partial list.