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The Working Actor

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Dear Michael:

A certain casting office hired me for three days. They fitted me in a period costume and wanted my hair to be all one color; I had to be shorter than 5 feet 5 inches and of white European descent. They paid me Screen Actors Guild wages for the fitting, and I was under the impression I would be paid SAG wages for the days I was asked to work. They then proceeded to pay me nonunion for the day of work, and this was a long day (16 hours), with a $500 difference between the union and nonunion actors. I complained to SAG, and they told me that casting could do whatever it wanted.

I thought that was ironic, since I'm a single parent with a 5-year-old and need to pay a babysitter $10 per hour when I work, and this project is about women in the workplace and women getting a respectable salary. I don't believe this is the director's fault, nor do I believe it's the production company's fault. But this is the second time this casting office has hired me for a particular look, paid me SAG wages for the fitting, and then not paid me SAG wages for a day of work. Some of these casting directors seem to have lawless business practices. They seem to be prejudiced against white women in their 30s. Certain people in the film industry have told me that white women in their 30s don't get SAG waivers! Only pretty young girls in their 20s.

I have some friends who worked a 20-hour day last week. My SAG friends will get paid more than $1,000 for that day. My non-SAG friends will get paid $200. Why the discrepancy?

I am an attractive, reasonably young woman and would like to know what percentage of white women in their 30s are actually working on a daily basis on film and television projects in New York City like I am. I am a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. I understand that SAG doesn't have an open-door policy like AFTRA does. It's a very unjust system, and it seems as if they prevent women from joining SAG. I feel this is a women's rights issue, since I don't see men having the same difficulty in joining. I do not understand how women can continue to be discriminated against.

Chosen for the Part, Not for the Pay
New York

Dear Chosen:

You wrote to us for advice. I'm assuming you want the truth. Here it is: You're way off base on this. If I understand correctly, you're a non-SAG background performer who has somehow concluded that you're entitled to SAG wages. And because you—as a nonunion performer—were not paid union wages, you now claim that you're being discriminated against because you're a woman.

If I've got that right, then I must tell you, you're suffering from a severely misguided sense of entitlement. None of the personal facts you listed—hair color, attractiveness, height, ethnicity, single parenthood—entitles a nonunion performer to union wages. You're right: SAG pay is higher, and there's overtime when the days are long. That's one of the things that a union does: protect its members and ensure fair pay. But you don't get to demand those privileges if you're not in that union. The logic of this is so obvious that I can't imagine how you've missed it. You asked, "Why the discrepancy?" Simple: You're not in SAG.

For the sake of your own sanity, you need to understand this: Show business doesn't owe anyone a living. If nonunion background wages aren't enough for you as a single parent, no one's obligated to compensate by paying you more—though it sounds to me, since you indicated that you work every day, as if you're already doing better than about 100 percent of the actors I know. And if you're seriously complaining about how hard it is for white women in their 30s to get a break in show business, you'll have to take a number and line up behind a whole lot of other folks for whom it's a lot harder.

Without revealing your identity, I asked Grant Wilfley of Grant Wilfley Casting in New York to explain why nonunion background actors might receive SAG rates for wardrobe fittings. He responds: "When nonunion go to a fitting, they do not have to be paid at all. We always suggest to the production that it's a good idea to give them some amount, in that they have gone out of their way to come in for the fitting. Some productions give them the same amount they give the SAG, some give them a quarter of the non-SAG rate. But this does not make them SAG or allow them to receive a SAG waiver."

You're not the victim of discrimination or unfair treatment. The casting people you dealt with were not guilty of "lawless business practices." True, assistant directors don't always dispense vouchers fairly. If you want to call that prejudice, knock yourself out. But lawless? No. And considering all the real examples of prejudice in our country, it's kind of an outrageous claim, as you were hired and then were paid at the union rate for a costume fitting. It doesn't sound to me like you've been wronged or mistreated at all, only that your ideas about what is owed to you are seriously skewed.

Playing the gender-bias card out of turn only diminishes the impact of legitimate claims. For generations, your foremothers have had to knock down walls, push against glass ceilings, and stand up to bullies in their struggle to be equally recognized as American citizens. The inequities, insults, and abuses against which these women fought (alongside the men who joined in their cause) were real. And for you to suggest that your situation is an example of discrimination against women—compared to the plight of those who fell sick and sometimes died in the unsafe working conditions of turn-of-the-century Lower East Side sweatshops—strikes me as an insult to the history of the women's rights movement.

A misguided sense of entitlement won't ever get you what you demand; it'll only make you miserable and bitter. I have never written this advice before in the Working Actor column, but here it is, the most helpful suggestion I can make: Get over it.

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