By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Iran hostage drama "Argo" won its second big award in two days on Sunday, boosting its chances of winning a best picture Oscar next month in a race that had been considered wide open.
"Argo" won best cast ensemble, the top prize, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, while Daniel Day-Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence took lead acting honors.
On Saturday, "Argo" won the Producers Guild Award - a key measure of Hollywood sentiment - beating "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," and "Silver Linings Playbook," which are all Academy Award best picture contenders.
"There was absolutely no way I thought we would win this award," the film's director and star, Ben Affleck, told reporters backstage after the SAG win. "Argo" is the true story of the rescue of U.S. diplomats stranded in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Asked about his movie's Oscar chances, Affleck said he was not in the business of "handicapping or trying to divine what's going to happen down the road."
"I don't know what's going to happen, nothing may happen, but it's a wonderful opportunity to be on the ride," Affleck added.
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) ceremony is among the most-watched during Hollywood's awards season because actors make up the largest voting group in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which chooses the Oscar winners. The SAG honors are selected by about 100,000 actors working in the United States.
SAG prizes acting over directing, screenplay writing and other skills that usually factor into the Oscar best picture choice.
PLAYING DOWN OSCAR HOPES
British-born Day-Lewis, who has picked up a slew of awards for his intense portrayal of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's efforts to abolish slavery in "Lincoln," confirmed his status as front-runner for what would be his record third Oscar on February 24.
But the actor played down his Oscar hopes backstage. "Members of the academy love surprises, so about the worst thing that can happen to you is if you've built up an expectation," Day-Lewis told reporters.
Accepting his award on stage to a standing ovation, he recalled that "it was an actor that murdered Abraham Lincoln and, therefore, it is sometimes only fitting that, now and then, an actor tries to bring him back to life again."
In one of the most closely contested categories, Lawrence, 22, was chosen best lead actress for playing an outspoken young widow in "Silver Linings Playbook" over Jessica Chastain's feisty CIA agent in Osama bin Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty."
Tommy Lee Jones, 66, won the best supporting actor trophy for his turn as radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln," beating strong competition from Robert De Niro, who played a gruff father in "Silver Linings Playbook."
Anne Hathaway, 30, won her first SAG award for her supporting role as the tragic Fantine in musical "Les Miserables."
"I got my SAG card when I was 14 ... And I have loved every single minute of my life as an actor," said Hathaway, accepting the statuette.
SAG also handed out awards for performances in TV dramas, comedies and mini-series, and gave a lifetime achievement award to actor Dick Van Dyke.
In TV drama, the British cooks and countesses period show "Downton Abbey" won best ensemble cast. "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston was named best actor and "Homeland's" Claire Danes best actress.
"Modern Family" won the best comedy cast ensemble award for a third consecutive time. Alec Baldwin won best TV comedy actor for the 8th time for his role as an egotistical executive in "30 Rock" and his co-star Tina Fey took the honors for comedy actress ahead of the show's final episode on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, editing by Stacey Joyce)