When I first came to LA one of my biggest hurdles was trying to find a way to get into the Union. The Screen Actors Guild. I mean, if you’re not SAG then are you even a real actor in Hollywood? Being a SAG actor means you are part of the Union. You get the benefits like health insurance, working on Union sets with a rep that comes around every so often to check if there’s smoke being used, if you’re getting over time, are using your own wardrobe and with good food thrown in. But ultimately the truth is there is far more non union work up for grabs at the moment.
I was very lucky and had an AD friend who guided me through getting my SAG card so I could work at Disney. Ultimately she has been my guardian angel and the reason I’m not pole dancing on Sunset Blvd. Although I’m sure I’d rock that pole- just saying.
There are a couple of ways to get your SAG card. The easiest is to join Central Casting. This is basically a placement agency for background and Stand In work. I feel the rule in visual terms here is, in any other professional you’re climbing the ladder, in our mad profession, you’re on a wheel of fortune. You learn a lot being involved on a set in any capacity. Yes, you are the bottom of the wheel as BG, but hey, you’re on set!
You can’t work on a Union TV show or a studio movie without belonging to the Union. You can do some extra work if you are not in the union but you cannot have a speaking role in a major production. There are non-union productions that hire non-union actors (like student films and low-budget features) and that is a great way to get practice in front of a camera.
You need to earn 3 BG UNION vouchers to become SAG eligible, This means you have to work on 3 separate SAG or AFTRA shows which offer you a SAG or AFTRA voucher. Here comes the complication of the two Unions. They have technically merged into one Union, SAG-AFTRA, and are recognised as such. Except, oh, when you’re working and with your health insurance. The shows are still split between SAG shows and AFTRA shows. You can work on many different sets, some AFTRA and some SAG. The amount of money you earn on either will eventually allow you to become eligible for either the SAG Health Insurance or the AFTRA Health Insurance. I am with AFTRA health insurance, due to my work through Disney, which you pay quarterly, but I am member of the SAG-AFTRA Union. Go figure. They’re still sorting out the details of this new merger. I recently read that they are now beginning to link the SAG and AFTRA health insurance: “beginning July 1, 2014, members with earnings under SAG-AFTRA contracts may be able to combine their earnings reportable to each plan in order to meet the dollar earnings requirement for SAG-PHP Plan II eligibility (currently $15,100).” Once you have earned your three vouchers you become SAG eligible. Then you have some time before you become a “must join,” in which case you fork over your $3000, don’t eat for a year, and wholla, you’re Union. Then you pay your quarterly dues based on your earnings.
Now standing in line to register at Central is a bit like watching paint dry. Put your day aside, bring a book, your Green Card and your sense of humour. They register 2 days a week. Once you have registered you’re good to go. It’s a great way of earning cash whilst auditioning, and who knows, if you stand out enough, they may even throw you a line or two on set. FYI, you can’t do Stand In work if you’re not SAG, as far as I know. Ultimately, none of us want to be background or Stand In’s forever. I know some actors that have been doing it for 10 years. WHAT! But here’s the rub. It helps you meet people, navigate the Hollywood gauntlet a little better and definitely puts food on the table and, more importantly, wine in the fridge. Seriously, it’s the only reason I have survived here financially as long as I have.
I have gone from swallowing my pride and working as a background performer, to working as a Stand In on two different Disney shows. Now the thing with Stand In work is that you get to work your way up, slightly. You can become the “weekly” stand -in. i.e. you work Monday to Friday and make about $600 an week. Then you get your “bumps” for reading at the table read for a character that isn’t cast yet, doing a run through as a character for the Network and Producers, overtime on shoot days, and I was lucky enough to get cast for a Voice Over character on my current show. Now this seems slow progress and it is very humbling, BUT I use every opportunity thrown at me here. Remember those Network Producer run throughs…. The CD is present at those, as well as most table reads. So basically you are getting a free audition. So much so, that I was called in to audition for a different Disney show by the CD of this show.
You also get to work with a variety of directors. It’s a very educational experience learning how different directors work. Some don’t prepare much and rely a lot on the DP. Some have all their shots planned out and run the day super efficiently, which generally means a lot more scenes gets shot and an earlier wrap time for you! Either way, it’s a fascinating classroom. You also never know what projects they are working on next.
This goes for the AD’s too. AD’s mostly work from show to show. After your season ends, you have to find a new way of making ends meet. It’s always good to have a magical AD in your corner who might request you for his/her next show. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, which level your wheel of opportunity has turned to, if you bring that work ethic, professionalism and SA etiquette, they’ll remember you.
I recently signed with a new commercial agent. In our conversation he did say that it was becoming trickier for Union actors to work in the industry. There seems to be a very evident budget issue in Hollywood at the moment. Movie stars are doing TV shows, TV stars are doing Commercials, and thus us poor saps are struggling to get auditions altogether. Just look at stars like Kevin Spacey doing “House of Cards” for Netflix, Claire Danes doing the TV series “Homeland.” Samuel L Jackson and Alek Baldwin doing TV commercials. There are more Movie Stars at the Emmys than ever before. So where does that leave us?
Yes, Union work is slim, but you do have the option of becoming FICORE. This is not advised as SAG doesn’t like it much. Basically it allows you to “lower” your SAG status, whilst still retaining Union benefits and allowing you to work on Union and Non-Union jobs. It’s a good option in the current climate, although frowned upon by SAG-AFTRA. But ya gotta eat! It’s better than the alternative of being a Union actor and then taking Non-Union work “under the radar.” If they catch you, you’re up for a hefty fine and an interview with the powers that be.
It’s really a catch 22. I would say when you start out here, get as many credits under your belt first, then look at becoming SAG eligible, and then stay SAG eligible for as long as you can. This allows you to still work Union and Non-Union jobs. Until you become a “must join.”
As a Non-Union actor, you will probably get paid less, but there are more work opportunities, so it’s 6 of one.
Some Agents/ Managers only prefer to take on Union talent, but I think more and more understand the lack of Union work out there, so I don’t feel it’s a deal breaker.
I like being SAG. It makes me feel like I’ve made a good step towards my future here as an actor. There are ways you can create your own work to become SAG too. Write and register a SAG webisode or short film yourself, find someone who is shooting one. Be enterprising. Where there is a will there’s a script, there’s a credit, there’s a job, there’s a voucher, there is your first step at becoming a Union actor in Hollywood. Be brave. Be fierce!