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To Join or Not To Join? The New Actor's Dilemma

Anyone who wants to be a serious actor in this town will need to join that benevolent behemoth known as the Screen Actors Guild. A fractious and sprawling organization made up of 118,000 members, SAG includes everyone from the Tom Cruises and Michelle Pfeiffers of the world to bit players who have worked a mere handful of jobs as extras.

Newcomers may be startled to realize that 70 percent of the Guild's members earn less than $7,500 a year as actors—which proves that being a union member does not guarantee you work. When you join, you will find yourself in a large and competitive talent pool where you will struggle to find jobs. In your first years as a union member, you may work less than you did before you joined.

Yet being a union member still offers you countless benefits from a powerful organization that has been in the business of protecting actors from employment abuses since 1937. Not only does the union guarantee you a solid wage when you do work but it also offers you myriad workplace protections you would not otherwise have, guaranteeing you meals and breaks and limiting the hours and conditions of your work. As anyone who has worked on a student film knows, working without a union contract to protect you can mean long hours, little pay, and uncomfortable if not hazardous conditions.

But the key reason many actors join the unions is simply this: respect. "I definitely feel like, if I am trying to make a submission as a union actor, I am taken more seriously," said actor Evie Peck. "Being in the unions is sort of a representation of wanting to have a professional career and really work in your chosen field."

Being a SAG member benefits actors in a very direct way, financially and on the set. "They are the ones who keep track of your residuals, your pension plan," said Peck. "They are really good with sending you updates on how much you've made. They are going to look out for your finances and make sure if you work over time, you get overtime, you get your breaks—just little things that you take for granted. Not being in the unions is OK when you are starting and gaining experience and practicing your craft. But you can still do that once you are in the union, and you can actually make money."

And most agents and casting directors prefer to work with union talent, pointed out agent Bonnie Howard, who counts a few "developmental" non-union performers among her clients.

The Way(s) In

There are three ways an actor can join SAG. First, an actor gets cast and hired to work in a principal or speaking role for a producer who is working under a SAG contract. Second, an actor completes a minimum of a year's membership in any of the affiliated performers unions. Or third, an actor is cast and hired as a background performer for a SAG-signatory producer at full SAG rates and conditions for a minimum of three days' work. For each of these days, the actor receives what is called a SAG voucher. Once an actor has collected three vouchers, he or she can join.

By far the most common current mode of entrance is via the three-voucher system—a system widely viewed as problematic.

"The vast majority of people who come in these days come in by getting three background vouchers," said SAG member and 8-year board member Eugene Boggs. "And the practices that revolve around that are inherently corrupting. If you have production assistants and assistant directors who have the power to give people these vouchers, there is a great desire to get them. They are sold, bartered. There are lots of problems with it. But some people within the union see the three-voucher system as being a good revenue raiser, and they don't want to lose those initiation fees. So they want to keep it, even though it's creating, in many ways, a more cutthroat work environment for the union performer, because more and more people [are] joining and competing for fewer and fewer jobs that are available."

Current SAG President Melissa Gilbert recently called the three-voucher entrance system "horrendously corrupt."

"It's something we've heard about for a long time," Gilbert told Back Stage West, "and everybody has finally thrown their hands up and said, 'Let's start anew.'" Yet Gilbert said she has left the business of proposing change in the hands of SAG's extra-working members, reasoning that they are the performers who understand the situation best. SAG spokesperson Ilyanne Kichaven said that background community has yet to propose any changes. Kichaven would not discuss any potential ideas for reform.

No Rush To Join

No matter how an actor chooses to join the union, it can certainly take awhile. Patience is key.

It will most likely take at least three years. Peck waited five years after joining AFTRA before joining SAG, using that time to become immersed in L.A.'s Equity theatre. Yet, Peck insisted, she joined as soon as she could. She cautions actors to be careful about taking too long.

"If it's taking a long time, you have to figure out why," said Peck. "You have to figure out why you aren't getting in the union, and then change your approach. The fact is, if you want to work and make money in the business, you've got to be union."

Yet actors should know that doing non-union work when they start out is an extremely important part of their development. "I always suggest to people that they do as much non-union work as possible," said casting director Billy DaMota, "because there is a lot more non-union work out there for actors who are just starting out: student films, short films, non-union features, low-budget fare, all the stuff that comes out in places like BSW.

"What happens when actors join the Guild is that they are not able to do that work anymore," continued DaMota. "And if they are just starting out, and they joined the Guild, it becomes that much harder to get the hands-on experience they need as a young actor. And by that I mean understanding how it works on the set, where the lights are, where you stand, where the camera is. Doing non-union work gives actors an opportunity to develop a tape or demo reel. And what's great about non-union work is, that you don't generally have to compete with union talent—well, you do, because some of them will do it anyway—but if you are a well-trained actor, the chances of you working non-union are pretty strong."

Howard pointed out another advantage of working non-union, at least for a little while. "If they don't join SAG right away," she said, "there's a much bigger commercial world open to them." The agent reminds actors that once they get their first union job, they can work non-union until they get that second job, at which point they must join the union.

She added, "I also advise my clients, as long as they are SAG-eligible, to put 'SAG' on their resumé because they are just a credit card away from being SAG. All they have to do is pay their dues and they are SAG."

Indeed, a credit card might be the way many actors pay SAG's hefty entrance fee of $1,356 plus first semi-annual basic dues, including $100 plus 1.85 percent for first $200,000 earned.

The Non-Union Temptation

Immediately after you join the union, you will probably face the most challenging part of your entire career.

"I call it the limbo zone," said DaMota. "It's the hardest part of actors' careers, because usually they are not represented, or they are represented by a low-level agent, and they've just become union, and they are competing in a market with people who have worked for years. It's a really hard time. You come out of it eventually, but you have to build a foundation, and then you have to build upon the foundation. Sometimes it can take three years to break into any substantial roles at all. So it becomes about whether actors can survive that emotionally—whether they can handle that 'not really getting play yet' feeling."

At this stage it can be a temptation to work non-union, something the union prohibits with SAG's Rule One. SAG can fine members who are caught violating that rule. Yet many actors take the risk.

"Unless you are working constantly as a union member, you are going to do non-union work," said one actor who wished to remain anonymous. "At times that's what's going to be available. And if you are going to say, 'No, I'm never going to do non-union work,' you are not going to work much unless you are already well established and you've got union work all the time."

Despite SAG's launch last year of its Global Rule One Campaign, many actors see that SAG does not have the resources to pursue every violation.

"Most people in the union who are not working constantly will do non-union work here and there," said the actor. "I don't think SAG can track that down. It's very time-consuming and would take a lot of money. It's different if it is a big project that could afford to go union and they really are violating actors' rights. But if it's projects that are not hurting anyone and just providing jobs for actors, and it's really for a reel or demo, it doesn't harm anybody, and I don't think they go after stuff like that."

DaMota said union actors doing non-union work was a "pervasive" problem. "I could put out a non-union breakdown right now," said DaMota, "and I would get 20 percent union submissions—people who want to work under the table. Global Rule One is a joke. There is no enforcement, and as long as there is no enforcement, there is no rule. If SAG went to every non-union set in town and asked to look at all actors' time cards—if they did the kind of research they should be doing—it might work. But they don't. They may bust one guy who is a high-profile actor who does a non-union film, but that's it."

There are even agents who will send union actors to audition for non-union jobs—though most reputable agents will not. "I would never cooperate with any union person doing non-union work," said Howard. "I think it is sabotaging yourself."

Don't Be Hostile

Union actors who decide they would like to work non-union have a legal option they may pursue: They may elect to file "financial core." Becoming financial core means that you are a "dues-paying nonmember," said Kichaven. You can still work union jobs and collect pension and health benefits, though you may not participate in any of the Guild's programs, such as casting director workshops or seminars. You are also not allowed to vote in SAG elections.

DaMota warns actors against going financial core. "I don't think it's a good idea for someone just starting," he said. "It's not something the union approves of or condones. You can't just go say, 'Hi, I want to be a union member, and I want that financial core part, too—that part where I can work on everything.' You have to file something with the Guild, and it is considered a hostile action. I don't ever recommend that.

"Now you might talk to casting directors who say, 'Screw the union, actors need to work.' And on some level, that's kind of true," DaMota continued. "Actors need to work. But when you go financial core, you open the door to condoning every kind of non-union work, which hurts every union actor."

Most actors want to work union. The pay is better, the treatment is better, and many actors realize that becoming a union member is one of the first major turning points in their careers—the moment has come to leave the chaotic, underpaid world of non-union work behind. And those first tough years as a union member are, in a sense, a rite of passage for the serious actor.

"There has to be a jumping-off point where actors don't do non-union work anymore," said DaMota. "And that's the day they become a 'must join.' When you take that second union job, you have basically blossomed. Now whether you have grown to fruition and become as evolved as you can be is another story. You've got to work for that. But the fact is, joining the union is sort of your coming-out party. It's your bar mitzvah. It's your coming of age. You have to move into the real world of adults now. That's where there's no turning back.

"And frankly, yes, it's hard for actors to get work," he continued. "But the union has been such an important part of protecting the rights of actors for 75 years. If you compromise that as a young actor by continuing to do non-union work, then you make the union weaker. And when the union becomes weaker, it becomes less able to protect you." BSW

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