Should British Actors Join American Acting Unions?

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Photo Source: Marvel. Pictured – Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange

Things are different in America. Cars, restaurant portions, and slices of pizza are bigger. Nobody minds if you self-promote; walking isn’t a thing (outside of NYC) and, perhaps most disturbing of all, bread comes packed with sugar. But of all the differences Brits encounter, it’s the unions which are the most baffling to the actors outside of the US. If British Equity is a mug of tea, then American Equity and SAG-AFTRA are rocket-fuel-strong black coffees served in gallon cups. As well as being bigger and arguably more powerful, there’s a whole different setup Brits need to get their head around, as well as a vocabulary of acronyms and rules without which you won’t know which auditions you’re allowed in. Thankfully, Backstage UK has done the digging for you, so here’s everything you need to know about unions before heading to the States. 

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Which American unions do British actors need to know?

AEA and SAG-AFTRA are the two unions representing actors across the screen, stage, and radio industries. 

For starters, Brits need to get their heads around the fact that there are two unions dealing with different sides of the industry. In a nutshell, the Actors’ Equity Association (known as Equity or AEA) deals with stage plays and musicals, while joint union the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (referred to as SAG-AFTRA or sometimes just SAG) covers film, TV, radio, and voice work. Together, these two unions perform the functions of British Equity, such as setting minimum pay and contract terms, collecting royalties and representing performers in disputes. Neither union is related to or joined with Equity in the UK.

What are the key differences between the American unions and UK Equity?

American unions effectively run a closed-shop, where it’s not possible to work on a union contract without being a member. Joining American unions is difficult for many actors, not least because of the expense.

The key point of difference between American unions and Equity in the UK is that AEA and SAG-AFTRA effectively control who can perform professionally and, in general, who can audition for projects. If you want to act in credible stage plays or musicals, you’ll need to become an AEA member eventually. If you’re a screen actor, you’ll need to earn your SAG-AFTRA card to access most TV and film.

Unlike in the UK, where Equity no longer runs a closed-shop industry (in which only union members can work), American non-union actors are not able to take certain roles or work on certain projects without becoming a union member. We’ll go into more detail later but for now, hold onto this as a rule of thumb: an actor working on a union contract is a union member. 

Another key difference is that whereas joining Equity in the UK is a relatively easy decision and a straightforward process, becoming a member of American unions is a difficult undertaking for many actors not lucky enough to get a big break. Again, we’ll get into the details of this but it’s relatively safe to say that most serious actors are working to get their union card. 

Lastly, unions provide healthcare plans. That’s right – you’re in the country where nothing comes for free and nearly all healthcare is accessed through private insurance. SAG-AFTRA members can become eligible for union healthcare by earning over a certain amount or working a certain number of days per year. AEA has a similar deal with an organisation called Equity League. However, lose your eligibility or don’t pay your premiums and you no longer have healthcare.

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What does it mean to be ‘non-union’?

For actors, this means you’re not a member of the union and so can only work on non-union productions and contracts. For projects, it means a production does not conform to union pay or conditions and so a member cannot work on them. 

You’ll hear the term “non-union” used to refer to both actors who aren’t members of AEA or SAG-AFTRA and also to projects which have not been approved by a union. For example, New York is home to many non-union theatre productions, and in LA you’ll find lots of non-union films casting. These productions don’t conform to the same rates or pay or offer the same rights as union-approved projects, and so unions advise their members not to accept work on them. Union actors are also encouraged to ask the producers to make the job conform to union standards so they can take it. 

It’s important to note that if a union member takes “under the table” work on a non-union project they’ll lose their membership.

Why would I want to join an acting union?

Unions protect members from exploitation and fight for fair pay, conditions and opportunities across the industry. Some actors build careers without joining either union, but for roles in major projects, most people recommended joining up.  

To get further into this, us Brits need to understand two things. Firstly, a quick history lesson. Back in early Hollywood, studios effectively owned actors and could decide everything from their careers to who they married. After film moguls tried to force a major pay cut on actors after the Great Depression, union organisers fought back by signing on major stars, getting industry recognition, and bringing productions to a halt in their fight for members’ pay and rights. And now, pretty much all “serious” actors are members. All this is to say that in the States, union history and the emotional investment actors put into their industry are inseparable. Ignoring the invaluable work of the unions is offensive to many and the term “scab” is said with real hostility in the US. As there’s snobbery in the UK about who your agent is, in the US there can be snobbery among actors about your union status. 

Secondly, we need to wrap our heads around open auditions. There are lots of benefits to being a member of Equity in the UK but it doesn’t get you in the audition room. In America, a fair amount of productions are encouraged to hold open auditions by the unions. For stage, these can be for principal actors (eg EPAs: Equity Principal Auditions) or chorus members (ECCs: Equity Chorus Calls). Non-union actors can’t book audition slots for these auditions and instead have to queue all day, only to be seen if there are no union members booked or waiting. For great jobs, there’ll be long non-union queues (which start at 4 or 5 in the morning) and the chances of getting seen are slim. 

For screen, there are plenty of non-union jobs in New York and LA. Some actors build screen careers and never join SAG-AFTRA. However, as Backstage Expert Shaan Sharma says: “Non-union projects are the unregulated, wild west of acting,” and you run the risk of being exploited.

READ: How to Join British Equity

Will being non-union affect my chances of getting a role?

In theory, everyone auditioning for union projects stands the same chance of getting hired but in practice, it pays to be part of the union. 

Casting directors and creative teams are looking for talent, not membership status. So, if they love you and can cast you, they will. For screen, this means you’ll undergo a process called “being Taft-Hartleyed.” The name refers to a piece of law and means the producer will tell the union you’ve been cast as a non-member, and the union will decide if you are eligible to join. If so, you’ll have to become a member to accept the role.  

For stage, union members get a huge head-start because they can see what’s casting and book in audition slots. There are a few non-union jobs available on productions in certain theatres, but these roles are highly competitive and are given out on a first-come-first-served basis. If the team loves you but have already given out their non-union contracts, they may not be able to hire you.

READ: Do Theatre Actors in the UK Need to Join UK Equity? 

How do I become eligible to join a US acting union?

Eligibility is through work – and then money.

AEA and SAG-AFTRA have similar criteria to UK Equity but are more expensive to join. Apart from those who get big breaks, actors work for years to become eligible and many only join when it makes financial sense. 

For stage actors, there are three main roads to joining AEA. Either get hired (or “booked” as they say in the US) on a union contract, be a member of an affiliated union (like SAG-AFTRA) for a year, or buy into their aspiring membership package called the EMC program. For screen actors, it’s roughly the same. For non-US citizens, you’ll need to prove you have a visa and the right to work in the US. 

UK Equity is not an affiliated union of AEA or SAG-AFTRA, so your membership does not transfer. However, if you’ve been working solidly in the UK then talk to both membership departments to see if you are eligible. 

The reason you’ll hear about actors waiting to join unions is largely because of the cost. To join SAG-AFTRA you’ll need to pay an initiation fee of around $3,000 (current rates here) and then dues, which are a base figure plus a percentage of your annual earnings. AEA costs around $1,700 to join (current rates here) plus dues. To put that in perspective, UK Equity costs £33 to join and their rates are based on income brackets.

Why do US actors not join the unions even when they are eligible?

Some actors don’t join because of cost. Others work mainly in non-union roles, and some are working to ensure they can build a stronger or different CV before becoming a member. 

There’s much discussion among actors about when is the “right” time to join a union. As well as the eye-watering initiation cost, actors are put off from joining because it means they’ll no longer be able to support themselves with non-union work. If you’ve built your whole career on non-union projects, you’ll need to be confident there’s enough union-approved work for you to carry on paying the bills.

Some actors want to make their own work and a vocal minority, such as Angelina Jolie’s father Jon Voight, believe unions are the enemy of small projects that cannot afford to raise the funds to become union-approved. In reality, both AEA and SAG-AFTRA have low- and ultra-low-budget contracts which allow for productions on a shoestring budget, so if you’re also a writer or director, rest assured that there are routes to getting your project made. 

For others, especially those in the voice-over industry, which is mostly non-union, it can be harder to justify joining a union for the sake of status when, in practice, it bars you from your bread and butter work. 

Many actors may be eligible to join for what they consider to be the “wrong” reasons. Again, using voice work as an example, an actor may have a flourishing career in voice work but almost no screen experience. If film and TV is where they want to end up, it probably pays to get more experience and exposure before making that leap and competing with the big kids. 

To complicate things, there is such a thing as Financial Core (also called Fi-Core or Ficore) which is when an actor pays basic union fees in order to do a union job but does not become a member. In theory, this allows them to do both union and non-union work. Naturally, unions discourage this and there’s a raft of different opinions about how useful it really is.

Read Kimberley Faye Greenberg’s piece on this for a fuller discussion on joining SAG-AFTRA. But for AEA, the answer is relatively simple. If you’re eligible and wanting to build a stage career in the US, why wouldn’t you join and have access to all the benefits of membership?

More for UK actors? Check out the magazine.