Nyong'o won for supporting actress at the 20th annual SAG Awards in Los Angeles on Saturday for her performance as the singular slave Patsy in Steve McQueen's historical drama "12 Years a Slave." She thanked McQueen "for taking a flashlight and shining it underneath the floorboards of this nation and reminding us what it is we stand on."
The Kenyan actress, who has been hailed for her red-carpet grace this awards season, recalled her celebratory phone call to her father when she got the part - her first feature film.
'"Daddy, do you know who Brad Pitt is? I'm going to be in a movie with him!'" recalled Nyong'o. "And he said, 'I don't know him personally, but I'm glad you got a job.'"
Leto was honored for supporting actor for his performance in the Texas HIV drama "Dallas Buyers Club," in which he plays the gaunt transsexual Rayon. He dedicated the award to those who have died of AIDS and to "the Rayons of the world."
Two big-screen veterans won awards for TV films: Michael Douglas for HBO's Liberace drama "Behind the Candelabra," and Helen Mirren for the biopic "Phil Spector," also on HBO.
"I am not here without Matt Damon," said Douglas, after making a gay sex pun that made his co-star wince.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been a mainstay at award shows recently, both for her acclaimed HBO series "Veep" (for which she won an Emmy) and the romantic comedy "Enough Said" (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe). She won a SAG trophy for female actor in a comedy series for "Veep," and slyly mocked the award season crush by first thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press and then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
"It's hard you know because it's awards season and things get confusing, much like elections," said Louis-Dreyfus. It's the sixth SAG Award for the former "Seinfeld" star, whose "Enough Said" co-star James Gandolfini was nominated posthumously for his supporting performance.
The ABC sitcom "Modern Family" enjoyed another round of awards, winning for ensemble in a comedy series and taking the male actor in a comedy series honor for Ty Burrell.
Coming two days after Academy Award nominations, the SAG Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium just south of downtown Los Angeles, are particularly monitored for predicting Oscar momentum.
Actors make up the largest branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so SAG members have perhaps more sway in determining Academy Awards winners than any other group.
The five nominees for SAG's top honor, outstanding performance by a movie cast, are: "12 Years a Slave," ''American Hustle," ''Dallas Buyers Club," ''August: Osage County" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
SAG and the academy don't always agree: Neither "August: Osage County" nor "The Butler" were nominated for best picture, and "The Butler" was snubbed entirely. The effects-heavy, sparsely peopled "Gravity" was predictably overlooked by SAG (except for a best actress nomination to Sandra Bullock), while it garnered 10 Oscar nods.
But the SAG Awards will give a window into support for Oscar favorites "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle." Nyong'o's honor came over "Hustle" co-star Jennifer Lawrence, the only individual nominee for the con artist comedy.
The SAG Awards are one of the more collegial stops on the awards circuit, with winners almost uniformly express gratitude for an honor chosen by their peers. A good speech like Nyong'o's can help stoke Oscar support.
SAG's lifetime achievement award was given to Rita Moreno, the 81-year-old "West Side Story" actress whose career has spanned Broadway, television and music.