How to Protect Yourself If You’re Not a Member of SAG-AFTRA

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Photo Source: Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

No matter what’s happening in the outside world, the underlying tenets you need to live by as an actor don’t change as much as you might guess. The reason for this is that, as actors, we’ve chosen to place ourselves into an economy where, at all times, there are far more applicants for jobs than there are job opportunities. For that reason, we need to always protect ourselves while simultaneously stretching ourselves to find employment. But how do you protect yourself if you’re not a member of SAG-AFTRA?

As grateful as I am for the protection I get from the union and the benefits that our great union has allowed me over the years, when I was first starting out I felt that many young actors were too obsessed with getting their SAG card. It’s not that becoming a member of the union shouldn’t be one of your goals eventually, but in the beginning your top priority should be more about getting experience. Because the competition is so stiff, and because many people show up to the big markets relatively untrained as was the case with me, being nonunion in the early days allows you shots at projects that may not be quite as competitive as their union counterparts. 

For this reason, when you’re in this stage of your career it’s even more imperative that you watch out for yourself and protect your artistic needs as well as your safety. Without the union standing behind you as your bodyguard, I think it’s wise to join a community of fellow artists and seek out mentors, a well-respected teacher, and/or actors who have either done what you want to do or have coached others (whose work you respect) to do what you want to do. Once you find them, pay them for their services if need be and work on your craft in scene study classes as well as voice and body classes. 

The benefit of being a part of a class, or any artist community, extends far beyond the training. By surrounding yourself with others who are in a similar situation as well as a leader who has more experience than you, you can safeguard yourself against predators and scammers who might be preying on your vulnerability and desire to advance your career. While no one can teach you how to have good taste or protective instincts immediately, by having a tribe of counselors around you to help you decide what’s worth it and what’s not, you can minimize the risks of placing yourself in precarious positions. 

In terms of protecting your artistry, only you can decide what material and which collaborators are a fit for you. No matter how young or inexperienced you may be, you can never forget that you have the power to walk away from any project if your gut tells you that it will be a waste of your time due to artistic differences or, in worse cases, dangerous to your well-being for you to collaborate or perform this material. One big rule of thumb is that, despite what people in power might tell you to intimidate you, one project is not going to make or break your career. 

If you can make wise decisions that keep your safety and artistic integrity intact for long enough, eventually you’ll be in a position to join the union. While attaining union status won’t be the answer to all of your acting prayers, it will make it a lot easier to breathe knowing that you’re protected, financially and artistically, by one of the greatest unions in our country. Until then, keep your eyes open and focused and don’t allow your ambition to outweigh your protective instincts.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Matthew Del Negro
Matthew Del Negro is a professional actor (“Goliath,” “Scandal,” “The West Wing,” “The Sopranos”) and host of the podcast, “10,000 ‘No’s’ with Matthew Del Negro.”
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