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Bowling for Disrespect, Vote Yea

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Dear Tombudsman:

Last summer I worked on an independent film—a small, one-line part. After my scene was filmed they wanted to shoot some "extra party scenes." The scenes were shot in a bowling alley. The director asked me to bend over and tie my shoe, then grab a bowling ball and throw it down the lane. Naturally I assumed that he was going to use it in some of the bowling shots.

Last night I was at the screening for the movie. Was I surprised when I saw that close-up shot of me tying my shoe while two guys were looking at me and talking about women getting fat!

It's no secret I am a plus-size actress, but I don't play the fat-girl parts and that's my choice. I choose not to work or work less rather than take work where I'm ridiculed for being big. Because I feel my weight gain is a temporary situation (I've already lost 22 pounds), I refuse to be cast in an unflattering way, so my choice is to turn those kinds of parts down.

I'm upset because I was never made aware that they were going to focus on me while talking about fat women, and I would've liked to have been notified of what they were doing so I could decide if I wanted to be portrayed in that way. My character was not described at all as being a fat customer; I was just a customer. That I'm pleasantly plump is just coincidental. I am a non-union actor, and this film was non-union, so I guess anything goes there, huh?

Does the Guild have any guidelines about character descriptions or misrepresentation of characters? Do the producers or directors have to tell you exactly what they're going to do with your character and have your consent? Can they cast you as waitress No. 1 and then in the editing change your character to "ugly waitress" without your knowledge, because they think it will get more laughs? I felt betrayed as I sat there next to my husband and saw myself being the focus of a conversation about fat women, especially as I had no idea this scene even existed. It would be different if they said, "Hey, you're 'Fat Girl No. 1,'" or something. But my girth was never discussed in my character description. Should I have asked the director what he was going to do with shots of me bending over and tying my shoe?

Is there a way I can protect myself in the future from something like this happening again, or is this just something within the industry that I'll have to get over and deal with?

D.A.

Los Angeles, via the Internet

Dear D.A.:

It's very hard to protect yourself entirely—especially, but not solely, in the non-union world. Basically you had a director who wasn't treating an actor with respect. If he were, he would have taken you aside well before the shot and explained to you what he was planning. He should have put a casting notice out beforehand and hired an actor who was comfortable doing that kind of thing. I don't know whether it was outright deception, but it was wrong.

When you and I spoke on the phone, the very first thing I asked you was whether you had seen the entire script. As I suspected, you were given access only to the sides from your first scene. The additional scene was a complete surprise, and that wouldn't necessarily have been a bad thing if you were given the appropriate information. You weren't, and that's unprofessional, to say the least. Whether the director planned this beforehand or had some kind of last-minute on-set idea to add that shot, you should have been given a full description and the option of walking away. I don't think the director would like you filming him against his knowledge if he was having a terrible day on-set and then airing it on a bloopers show. You took the high road by not confronting him in public at the screening, as you told me you were considering for moment or two. I applaud you for treating him better than you were treated.

I also admire that you have a focus on how you want to be seen, and I'm sure if this were a union project you would have been afforded much more protection. However, there's no guarantee. When you work as an actor, there is an implicit trust between you and the director. A classy director—and that's most of them, by the way—won't break that trust. Nevertheless you have to always stay alert to avoid being put in precarious positions. Who would have thought an innocuous shot of someone with a bowling ball would be used for a stupid joke?

I got some information from SAG: While the producer and director certainly have certain rights, in a situation like this the Guild would have gone to bat for you. A film that falls under union jurisdiction brings with it an expected level of appropriate treatment of talent, and thankfully it's usually met. And on a SAG film your character would need to be described and credited appropriately.

But let's examine this for a moment using your "ugly waitress" scenario. Even in a union film if a director, perhaps later in editing, decided to have an off-screen character yell, "Hey, ugly, get me a hamburger," what could you do? It was already shot. You could appeal to the union, but that probably wouldn't happen until after the scene was on the big screen. So again, in the end it comes down to that trust thing and the character of the creative team. Deal with pros—and as your career goes forward it's easier to know them— and you'll likely avoid this kind of nonsense. By the way, SAG told me nothing like this has been reported in more than 20 years. It's much more likely in low-budget non-union work, as you found out, and it's where most actors find out right from wrong.

In the future, D.A., always get try to get the full script. Perhaps the bowling scene wasn't even in there, but it's another step in the checks and balances. Furthermore if you get the feeling that you are going to be portrayed in an unflattering manner, speak up. Some actors hesitate to do so when the cameras are nearly rolling, but you cannot allow yourself to be taken advantage of. In retrospect, sure, you could have asked the director what he was doing, but the onus is on him to tell you what he was doing. As far as you knew you were just knocking a few pins down while some conversation was going on in the distance. Not many people would have thought there was any reason to ask a question. In the non-union world more of this kind of stuff is possible, but smart actors can avoid a lot of crap by keeping their eyes and ears open. Here I don't know if anyone would have seen it coming. That's why that trust thing is so important.

Whatever the case, it's over and I'd let go and learn from it. I hope the director gets a copy of this letter so he thinks twice before trying something like this in the future. The ironic thing is: In Hollywood he could have found plenty of people who would have been fine with doing the bit, if only he'd thought about that first.

Dear Tombudsman:

Thank you for your response to B. Murphy's letter [BSW, 12/5/02]. I, too, remember talk about whether all SAG members should be allowed to vote on certain issues—in particular whether actors who are not represented by agents should be eligible to vote on the ATA agreement. Some said the proposed agreement "didn't affect" unrepresented actors. I believe, however, that the agreement was rejected partly because of concern that it would indeed adversely affect unrepresented actors, making it even harder to get an agent. It's already hard enough.

Even if those unrepresented actors were wrong and the agreement wouldn't have made their agent quest more difficult, certainly their right to vote on the issue still counts. After all, it is to be hoped that they will all have excellent representation in the very near future, and they should have a say in SAG's agreement with those potential representatives.

Petrea Burchard

Los Angeles, Calif.

Dear Petrea:

Well put. At the end of the day a member is a member is a member, and each one, not to mention the other 98,000, deserves an equal vote. Perhaps many aren't working actors, and maybe thousands who do try to work don't have an agent, but it's irrelevant. As long as the Guild invites new members in and takes their dues, it must allow full voting privileges no matter what that particular person achieves with his or her career.

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