On Actors, Acting and Union
Being an actor is perhaps one of the most difficult ways to actually make a living. While there are actors who have forged full time careers in theater, commercials and convention work in cities coast to coast, the vast majority of work lies in Hollywood and New York City.
It may take one or several hundred non-paid auditions to land one day's work. An actor may work dozens of days a year or none at all. Then too, there are the expensive classes necessary to keep up their skills; the cost of professional photographs, video and audiotape, of postage and time spent marketing themselves to potential employers.
Actor Paul Napier, whose credits include portraying the original Mr. Goodwrench, and who remains active on both the SAG and AFTRA boards of directors, tells of his children being asked by their teacher what their father did for a living. Their response was “audition”.
Casting Director and producer Donn Finn says of actors, “They are not acting for a living, they are acting for their craft. What they are doing for a living, besides waiting tables and taking 'day jobs', is auditioning. You might as well call them auditioners”. Finn went on to point out that each actor "should think of themselves as their own little corporation," and part of the requirements to be a successful corporation is to join and participate in one or more professional actors unions. Finn is a casting partner in the office of Mali Finn Casting and is a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at California State University in Fullerton. Recent casting credits include: Eight Mile, Phonebooth, Titanic, LA Confidential, Wonder Boys and The Matrix I,II, and III.
Longtime SAG Board member Joe Ruskin, whose career includes appearances on the original "Star Trek" and many other television and film projects, states that, “Actors live in fear of rejection each and every day. If they are successful they fear it will end, if they are struggling they fear they will have to do something else for a living and give up a very important part of themselves”.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provide this description of the profession of acting:
Acting demands patience and total commitment, because there are often long periods of unemployment between jobs. While under contract, actors are frequently required to work long hours and travel. For stage actors, flawless performances require tedious memorizing of lines and repetitive rehearsals, and in television, actors must deliver a good performance with very little preparation. Actors need stamina to withstand hours under hot lights, heavy costumes and make-up, physically demanding tasks, long, irregular schedules, and the adverse weather and living conditions that may exist on location shoots. And actors face the constant anxiety of intermittent employment and regular rejections when auditioning for work. Yet in spite of these discouragements, the “passion to play,” as Shakespeare called it, still motivates many to make acting a professional career.
Actors need to consider not only membership in one union, or even all performance unions, but also the overall market place in which they compete. There are estimates of four to as many as ten times that number of qualified non-union actors available in the same talent pool. Many times that number consider themselves “actors” and are free to compete for roles in the overall talent marketing. The standing joke in Los Angeles is that every waiter, store clerk, cop or even doctor is really an actor waiting for their break, writers who have yet to have scripts purchased or producers looking for financing.
Actors make judgments and can be called on the carpet when they voice their opinions or present their art in ways that many in the public may disagree with. This is the nature of art, to mirror, to reflect, to comment on and to challenge the world around us.
When on the set the hours are usually long, schedule less than ideal and locations uncomfortable and sometime dangerous. Depending on the production team, actors can be made to feel like cattle or like kings and queens. The environment changes from one job to the next.
And then there is the lack of work. Mel Gibson, already a star, did not sleep the evening prior to the start of the filming of Lethal Weapon because of apprehension at not having been on a set for well over a year.
Actors may classify themselves as a social group, or into smaller sub-sets based on the specifics of how often they perform as actors (full time, part time, occasional, "wanna-be," community theater, hobbyist, has been).
Hollywood, and with it Greater Los Angeles, may be looked upon as a company town for the movie and entertainment industries and the 42nd Street / Broadway Great White Way area of New York a part of that city's identity and chemistry. Actors play a key role in each of these company or trade settlements and how they make their livings effect the social interaction of these communities.
By virtue of the demands of the craft, of the need to study and to observe, working or long-time actors tend to be educated, articulate and well read, defying a social stereotype presented in contemporary media.
Acting is a key part of the larger social world of the entertainment industry, mass communications and leisure aspects of society as a whole.
Do not forget, if your quest to be an artist, that you are dependant on your fellow artists, on the other trade unionist who work in this industry and on the support of others for your own success and well being.
Screen Actors Guild National Director of Education, former Performers Alliance founder Todd Amore, having spent 17 years of his life as a full time actor, spoke to a Nevada Branch membership meeting in May, 2003. He shared the findings of Screen Actors Guild historian Valerie Yaros. Rule One, which now states that union talent does not work nonunion, once spoke of an still echoes anther statement: that union actors work with, for and are in solidarity with their fellow performers, no mater what stature or place in the industry.
Keep that in mind.
First published in 1998 by
Art Lynch, UNLV Dissertation
Updated on a regular basis since