“It’s so good to see you, someone I can relate to!” Those words, said to me in jest at a fancy Hollywood Hills dinner party in January 2022, came from filmmaker Emerald Fennell. This gathering was filled with famous people whose names I won’t mention but rhyme with Heff Scoldblum, Mud Applecow and Carey Mulligan. (I also realize just how unrelatable that entire sentence is, and I beg your forgiveness. It’s only going to get worse from here.)
Now, you might be asking yourself, “How on earth could a Black man from Compton and a white woman from Hammersmith, London, possibly relate to each other?” Well, we were both very recent recipients of Academy Awards — she won best original screenplay for Promising Young Woman and I won best live-action short film for Two Distant Strangers on an evening in April 2021 that many refer to as “the COVID Oscars.” (“Hollywood’s most glamorous night” was held in L.A.’s Union Station, with only nominees and presenters, and their plus-ones, in attendance.)
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Anyway, Emmie and I — she doesn’t know I call her that — were the only Oscar winners at this dinner, so naturally our two-member club found a corner and dished on all the ways our lives had changed since that fateful night capped an awards season unlike any other, with screenings happening almost exclusively at home and campaigning happening mostly on Zoom.
We were just two of many “COVID-year breakouts,” which is sort of an oxymoron. We both had our crowning achievement take place during a global pandemic, so, due to circumstances beyond our control, we lost the opportunity to truly promote our work and be seen as breakout talent in the ways one normally does in our business when you’re campaigning for award-contending projects.
Many of this year’s incredibly talented Emmy nominees — people like The Bear’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach, The Last of Us’ Keivonn Montreal Woodard and Beef’s Young Mazino — find themselves in a very similar situation. Unable to go out and be celebrated for their incredible talent and hard work, to raise their profiles and continue making their way down the path to stardom — only this time courtesy of an intractable virus known as “AMPTP-23,” which has infected the global entertainment system. Similar to COVID-19, AMPTP-23 has also forced thousands of hardworking people out of work, draining their hard-earned savings and putting some in a position where they may lose their homes … although I don’t think COVID-19 was as excited about the pain it inflicted.
Because AMPTP-23 is hard to stop and seems to be treatable only with self-inflicted poverty, it’s hard to say when, say, Dominique Fishback might be able to resurface to sling fun anecdotes about being afraid to piss off Beyoncé while being brilliant in Swarm or when Will Sharpe will come back to the spotlight to tell us how many takes he had to fight Theo James in the ocean in The White Lotus. I, for one, would love to hear what little gems Jessica Williams might be hoarding about her Shrinking co-star Harrison Ford.
Many of us who crushed our parents’ dreams by pursuing a career in the arts were fueled by our own big hopes that we’ve carried since childhood — learning monologues from your favorite films, delivering your acceptance speech into a hairbrush, practicing your red carpet pose and imagining that one day we might rub shoulders with the likes of Heff Scoldblum and Mud Applecow.
Another spoonful of unrelatable truth: The excitement of being nominated for an Oscar was a bit dampened by the fact that, due to COVID-19, there would be no Oscar Nominees Luncheon where I’d get to eat, hang out with and take a class photo with all my fellow nominees. And on the big night itself, there would be no Vanity Fair afterparty to strut into while hopefully holding a little golden man. The truth is, these are the sorts of moments we all dream of achieving in this business — to be recognized and affirmed for having done great work, and to then have a great time celebrating. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. We’re all competitive and want to win things, and that’s OK — it’s human nature. After all, the first thing we ever did in life was win a race to an egg.
This year’s hardworking and talented crop of new-on-the-scene Emmy nominees deserve their well-earned moment in the sun — and, unlike my COVID-restricted year, the barriers to their having this experience won’t kill Grandma if you take them home. Much like COVID-19, AMPTP-23 is a circumstance beyond our individual control. But for the folks hoarding the vaccine, they can end this unfortunate situation any time they choose and, while there’s still time, allow the dreamers to live the fullest version of their dreams.
Travon Free is an Oscar and Emmy winner whose latest project is BS High, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Festival and will soon be released on HBO.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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