Through characters as eclectic as a kindhearted drug dealer, a woman heading to court for love, a young man searching for his mother, a psychopath out for blood, a pioneering engineer, and a man advising an unfaithful friend, the eight actors who received the Virtuosos Award from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival made a diverse and illustrious crowd.

Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Simon Helberg, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Janelle Monáe, Ruth Negga, Dev Patel and Aaron Taylor-Johnson starred in movies that dominated the conversation this award season and in many cases conquered the American box office. These breakthrough talents, who ranged from their late 20s to their late 60s, included a Golden Globe-winner and four actors with individual Academy Award-nominations. Here are some highlights from their speeches on February 4, in which they promoted acceptance, questioned outdated points of views, and commented on the human condition.

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

On the Subjectivity of Awards

It’s just wonderful to be in the conversation. It’s subjective. How do you say ‘best anything?’ It’s art. We respond to what we respond to as individuals, and as a collective body. Sometimes it’s your name and sometimes it’s someone else’s name, but at the end of the day, you just want to do work that’s truthful, and that resonates with people. It’s a long process to see ourselves in this work, and it’s the seeds of what it is that inspires us and that keeps us moving forward. We get to explore the human condition, and to get awards for that, it’s all pretty amazing. I would do this for free if I could.”

On His Identity as a Muslim

The Muslims that I know are peace-loving people. Part of the problem is somebody does something stupid in the name of Islam, but those are not the people I know. Somewhere, somebody does something violent, which Islam teaches that you’re not supposed to do. ‘If you kill one, it’s as if you killed the entire world; if you save one, it’s as if you saved the entire world.’ That aside, I have participated in peace marches, and I’ve tried to teach and be part of the conversation, but people don’t show up with cameras for peace marches. They show up for the things when people are hurt, and that’s part of the problem, that those who hurt get all the attention, and peace marches, those don’t sell tickets, so nobody’s really talking about them.”

On Moonlight’s Swimming Scene

“I didn’t know Alex [R. Hibbert, who plays young Chiron] couldn’t swim. He just couldn’t swim. There were 20 people around, so he was fine. He made it out alive! But it worked out beautifully. We were supposed to have six hours to shoot it, but we only had 90 minutes because the storm was rolling in, but it was beautiful, and I think that only added to how organic that scene felt.”

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