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The Working Actor

Practical Core, Tricky Interview

Practical Core, Tricky Interview
Dear Jackie:

Now that Actors' Equity jobs are in decline, I've been doing some research on "financial core." I know it's a touchy subject, and no one seems to want to talk about it. I've read a lot about it, but most of the information online refers to the Screen Actors Guild and the moral implications.

In particular, I'm wondering what it means in terms of auditioning for Equity productions. If you are fi-core, do you still get the same advantages when auditioning as when you are in the union? Apparently, you have to return your Equity card, so how do you audition? I want to know the practical implications of going fi-core, not the moral ones. There's plenty of info on the morality of it all!

I know that some pretty prominent actors are fi-core, and it seems there are some good reasons to be, given the lack of Equity work available and the budget cuts happening all over the country. Of course, I understand the argument that it undermines everything the union fights for, but an actor's goal is to work!

—Wanting to Know My Options, New York

Dear Wanting:

Financial core (which is a status that all union members, not just actors, have a legal right to adopt) was formalized through Supreme Court decisions in two cases: National Labor Relations Board v. General Motors in 1963 and Communications Workers of America v. Beck in 1988.

In brief, those decisions clarified the right of individuals to refuse union membership while still working union jobs—thereby benefiting from the union's collective bargaining. Those workers can be required to pay union initiation fees and dues used for collective bargaining activities but not additional sums used for other union activities. As a result of these decisions, union members who opt to take their "Beck rights" or "go financial core" become "dues-paying nonmembers." They can work union jobs, benefiting from collective bargaining, but they are no longer union members, so they relinquish all other membership benefits.

In terms of Equity, that means actors who go fi-core give up their Equity cards and the right to preferential treatment at Equity principal auditions (EPAs) and Equity chorus calls; the right to vote in union elections; the right to attend union meetings, seminars, and workshops; and every other union perk not related to simply working union jobs. As nonmembers, they can also do nonunion work. The same principles apply to SAG and AFTRA.

You said an actor's goal is to work. I'd counter that actors can work a lot—if they're willing to work for free. If the goal, however, is to make a living working as an actor, then we depend on the collective bargaining of our unions. Without it, producers would be able to set any pay scale and working conditions they want. Yes, prominent actors would fare all right—Brad Pitt would still make a good living—but the rest of us would compete with each other down a steep slope into paltry wages and dismal working environments. If you think I'm exaggerating, investigate pre-Equity conditions, when actors weren't paid for a rehearsal period that was entirely at the discretion of producers and had to purchase and maintain their own costumes. Sounds a bit like a lot of nonunion theater today, no?

Union membership isn't right for everyone—athletes and other nonactors who work in SAG commercials, for example—but those are the exceptions. I know you don't want the moral argument, but I think it's in line with the practical one. Going fi-core weakens the union that actors depend upon for living wages and decent working conditions. No, one actor's status won't bring down the entire establishment, but I honestly don't believe that middle- and lower-class actors could survive the widespread adoption of fi-core.

Dear Jackie:

I recently had an interview with an agency. I thought I was going in to read for the legit agent, and he was there, but the commercial agent was also there to see me. The thing is, I don't want to do commercials. Actually, I only want to do theater but am willing to do television and film, if the project is a good one, to pay the rent. Anyway, it was really awkward. They asked me if I was interested in commercials, and I said no. Then the commercial agent looked irritated and I felt bad. So I just kind of sped through the rest of the interview and left.

What should I have done?

—Broadway or Bust, New York

Dear Broadway:

Actors have the right to pursue only the types of jobs that interest them. Agents have the right to work only with clients who will make them the most money possible. You see the conundrum.

Before getting to your question, I want to suggest that you rethink your stance against commercial work and your reluctant willingness to take television and film jobs. Have you tried commercial and TV/film work? Or are you basing your choices on theater experience only? Are you morally opposed to commercials, or do you just see them as unworthy of your time? Being a working actor is incredibly difficult. Be sure you are clear on your reasons for making your path that much harder.

All that said, I understand that you were caught off-guard in the interview. This is a delicate situation, because if you gave the commercial agent the impression that you find that line of work beneath you, you may have come across as a snob—to both agents.

It's water under the bridge, but I'd suggest you take a more proactive stance in the future. Be sure your submissions specify that you are looking for theatrical representation, and when you get called in for an interview, ask the person setting the appointment whom you'll be meeting with. If he or she mentions a commercial agent, clarify that you are not looking for commercial representation at this time.

If the commercial agent is present at your interview, don't feel the need to tell him or her your preferences. Some agencies invite all their agents to client interviews, so he or she may be there only to weigh in with feedback for the other agents. If asked directly about commercial representation, repeat that earlier phrase: "I am not looking for commercial representation at this time." If asked to elaborate, keep it positive with something like: "I really want to focus on theater for the time being."

Using phrases like "focus on," "at this time," and "for the time being" helps give the impression that you aren't objecting to another person's line of work, just proactively pursuing specific goals. It also keeps the door open if you should someday change your mind.

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