We're all aware of the financial strain of the economy, which leads to my question: Does the Screen Actors Guild realistically expect struggling, out-of-work actors to turn down nonunion work? Times are hard, and SAG isn't making it any easier.
I talked to SAG about its financial assistance program and was told that I did not qualify because I've been a member for less than five years. I cannot help but express my disgust at that response. I have not had a SAG job since 2007. I understand and am down for solidarity in the arts, but who is SAG to tell me to turn down a paying acting job just because it can't have jurisdiction? Is it wrong to take a paying nonunion job during these desperate times?
—Bewildered and Out of Work, Los Angeles
First the harsh realities, then some brainstorming.
I have to tell you (and I know you don't want to hear this, but it's important), in addition to being a violation of what we call Rule One, it is also absolutely wrong, unethical, unprincipled, and not in your best interest to accept nonunion work if you're a SAG member. These are times when it's hard to look at the big picture, but try. If SAG members accepted nonunion work, producers would get the impression that SAG rules could be ignored, which would eat away at the union's strength and effectiveness. They could start producing nonunion, knowing they could still get SAG actors. Out the window would go health insurance, protections against unsafe working conditions, overtime, residuals, and pay standards. Violating Rule One would hurt not only the union but us—your fellow actors.
Harsh Reality #2: You don't want to get caught. It's a big deal. You could potentially lose your union status. And the harshest reality is this: SAG isn't responsible for keeping actors working. We enter this profession knowing it offers no security, predictability, fairness, or guarantees. SAG isn't the bad guy. Unions have improved—not worsened—the actor's lot. Though it's certainly regrettable that you've yet to qualify for financial assistance, the fact that the guild even has a financial assistance program is a huge benefit. Don't blame SAG because the economy is bad or because there aren't enough jobs for actors. There never have been and never will be.
Okay, none of that helps with your situation, I know. So now what?
Well, you could resign from the union. If you're not working at all as a SAG member, it might be worth it. Of course, at some point you may choose to rejoin, and that's a steep fee. But if things are so bad that you're considering violating your union agreement, this might be a step you need to consider, and I say that with no judgment. In some circumstances, it's the smart, honorable move. But be sure; it's kind of a radical step.
Meanwhile, you need to do what a lot of us have been doing: diversify. Expand the circle of things you do to make a living. Look, I'm a fairly successful working TV actor, and just between you and me, I've been looking under every rock for new sources of income. I'm currently teaching, writing, taking in housemates—whatever helps pay the bills. Last week, my old proofreading job called and asked me to fill in for a few days. I accepted. This is the state of things, the times in which we live. We have to be resourceful, and we have to get past any pride or sense of entitlement and get out there and look for work. As tough as that may sound, it's still better than committing SAG's unpardonable sin by working nonunion.
I wish the news were better, but hang tough. Maybe things will turn around soon. I read something recently about a lunar eclipse that's supposed to change everything. Who knows, right? But what the hell. It doesn't cost anything to be optimistic.
Four years ago, I started acting in New York City. After taking classes, I freelanced with an agent I met at a showcase, and I was really excited that my hard work was paying off. This agent, who worked at a small agency, took my headshot proofs to pick out one shot that he liked best. I called every week to 10 days to follow up, and I always got the same response: "I haven't had a chance to look at them." Or I got his voicemail. Then I called again, only to be told he no longer worked with the agency (he now works at a bigger, better, very well-known agency). He must have thrown my proofs out in the process, because I never saw them again.
Is this normal? Do reputable agents not return materials to actors? I was beyond livid, to say the least. I have an appointment with one of the junior agents at the agency where he works now, and I'm nervous about the whole thing. He's the head of the youth/young adult department, so I know I'll have to meet with him. Do you have any advice on how to handle this situation? Do you think this audition is a waste of time considering that he dropped me before he could even really start working with me?
—Peeved Over Proofs, via the Internet
Your former agent's failure to look at your shots, return your proofs, or say he was moving has nothing to do with whether he's at a reputable agency. It just has to do with very bad manners. His behavior was inconsiderate. There are inconsiderate people at all levels, unfortunately.
Now, if you want to cut him a break, you could factor in that he was about to leave the agency and might have been unusually stressed or preoccupied. It doesn't excuse the behavior, but you might feel better to know it wasn't any personal disrespect toward you.
But if you're thinking of working with this new agency, meet with him first and talk it out. As potential business partners, it's important to establish a collaboration. Just tell him, in a calm and businesslike way, that you didn't appreciate his conduct. This will give him an opportunity to explain himself and, if you work together, discourage him from being so cavalier about your partnership again.
I certainly don't think it's a waste of time to meet. After all, he really didn't drop you; he just moved on from his old agency. Still, it sounds like you'd be better off elsewhere. Get the picture?