The first week of December 2019, I joined SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). SAG-AFTRA makes it possible for film, television, and commercial actors to receive decent pay to make a living, have healthy working conditions, not tolerate sexual harassment (especially now that the industry is starting to shift to side with and defend victims due to the me too movement and Weinstein sentencing), and the list goes on and on. I do think it is very valuable and helpful for us actors in show business where there is a lot of shady stuff around. It is such a reassurance to have someone looking out for you. One of the biggest perks of joining though is being able to be considered for bigger opportunities for success. Being a non-union actor is great for some people and I wish you all much happiness that are content with non-union work. However, for those like me that want to make a living acting in film, television, and commercials in Hollywood, being non-union feels like you are stuck in a ditch off the 10 and no one sees you, and you see all the union people in cars racing by you but you aren't allowed onto the freeway or into the gated communities where they are driving. (Okay, not the greatest metaphor, but it paints the picture.) Studio productions generally only hire union actors. Only union actors are considered for most well-paying and well-known commercials, films, and television shows the general public sees. That means managers and agents will want their clients to be union in order to audition for and book one of these gigs, for the most part anyway, as there are always exceptions. An easy in is if you have super special skill you can do or have a unique physical trait that makes you really stand out. But if you are like me, you may not have anything like that to bump you up to be noticed. In general, the bigger projects and better paying projects are union. It's not cheap to join and joining means you can't do any more non-union film, television, or commercial work. Teachers and industry people generally advise actors to not join until they have a great reel and some experience on their resume. The biggest kicker though is even if you are ready to join, it is not usually a straightforward, quick, or convenient undertaking.
Joining this exclusive club was a HUGE deal for me - a big-dreaming actor that has been acting in home movies since before she can remember and ambitiously submitting pictures and letters to huge film and television production companies her whole childhood and adolescence, and then headshots, resumes, and reels as an adult with the big doors of the industry always remaining closed. This dream of breaking in and really working as a professional never subsided by doing the only opportunities available for me - student, low-budget indie or unpaid gigs, theatre, or making my own projects - and don't get me wrong, all were great to learn from, humbled me, and I loved pretty much all of the experiences, but they were never the main goal for me. Now the goal of the big industry doors of opportunity opening for me is starting to be achieved. I can now be a real contender to find professional work as an actor in Hollywood and no longer have doors closed just because they considered me an amateur. I have viewed joining it as a moment of maturity, professionalism, and crossing a huge threshold in my acting career to be a true working actor that is taken seriously and respected in the industry. I just want to do what I love - acting! - here in Hollywood, to be able to make a real living doing it, and make quality art that inspires and moves people. Joining this union makes that possible. I'm so grateful!!! After working for years as an adult transplant actor in LA with no industry connections after studying acting for 5 years in college with no health insurance or retirement plan, and not being paid for taking off customer service day job shifts for numerous student films, or not having the benefits of a union set such as a proper meal instead of a bag of chips to sustain me through a 12 hour shoot day a few times, I am happy to not do anymore shady auditions, unpaid, student, or non-union projects anymore. I don't have FOMO at all. I have more than enough non-union experience, more than enough reel footage, and finally enough confidence now. Thankful for my journey and so thankful for all the projects I've done and people I've worked with on non-union stuff, but I am ready to feel like I am out of the rut of the non-union ditch. I know the union isn't perfect and I don't put it on some crazy high pedestal, but joining literally is life-changing for me to be able to actually start to make my dreams a viable reality. I am also so appreciative for the peace of mind of the protection that being in the union comes with. That's so important. And, who doesn't want free screeners, to be able to vote for the SAG Awards, and to attend panels about the life of working actors to learn from the ones who are really doing it? I am so grateful and relieved!
Here following is my long and arduous story of joining the union:
1st chance - THE MAGICAL MOMENT OF THE MERGER
I could have joined back while the SAG and AFTRA merger was happening (it was a rare time of a few months when you could slip in by joining AFTRA by just paying $1000), and a few of my fellow actor friends did. I chose not to because I took the advice of my acting workshop coach at the time super seriously, as he had advised me to work non-union for longer. I had enough experience and enough on my resume, I think I could have joined and been fine now in retrospect, but I didn't because I wanted to do more non-union work to up my confidence when moving to Chicago or the west coast.
2nd chance - LUCKY (OR UNLUCKY) TAFT-HARTLEY
After college and before moving to Los Angeles that I had decided upon, I had thrillingly auditioned for a supporting role in a union feature shooting in Oklahoma called The Veil, but was not cast. (my chance #1 1/2). I did non-union background work that was fun for the film, and got non-union paystubs, no vouchers. Months later, to my surprise - 3 months after moving to LA, I got Taft-Hartley'd!!!
...or so I thought.
This is what happened: I self-submitted and was booked for background work in the film Checkmate. I wasn't paid for this long night shoot that I had taken off work at my day job at Regal Cinemas LA Live for. I originally was just doing it for one union voucher. When it was about time to get background out on the set, they asked if any of us background females would like to be bumped up to a principal actor and be Taft-Hartley'd - (meaning I would become SAG-AFTRA eligible without having to get 3 vouchers; a shortcut; I could just pay when I became a must-join by booking a union gig. SAG-AFTRA eligible is a sweet spot where you can be considered for and audition for union and non-union work, and agents find that desirable - at least, that is what I was told.) - if we would kiss another girl...I raised my hand. It would be worth it!
Turns out the director said they didn't need women making out in the background after all. But then we were all given the Taft-Hartley paperwork to sign at the end of the shoot anyway! I was expecting only one voucher at this point and was naturally thrilled to be told I would become SAG-AFTRA eligible from this one shoot. How lucky, I thought!
After not hearing from anyone a couple weeks after the shoot, I started to get worried. I was supposed to receive something in the mail but never did. Was there a time limit on me becoming eligible from this? Countless phone calls going in circles that led nowhere for months. 9 months after the shoot, I trespassed on the studio lot to confront the producer myself. I was that angry and frustrated at the whole situation. I needed answers. Naturally, I was caught and told to leave. 3 months after the lot incident, I was still calling asking for my answers, and I finally got to speak on the phone with someone involved in the production - 2nd AD, I believe, but I might be wrong. They said the practice of the paperwork was not sound and the paperwork had never gone through to SAG-AFTRA. The person telling us we were Taft-Hartley'd was fired. If the paperwork would have been approved, they told me it would have had to go to SAG-AFTRA within 15 days of the shoot, and that had never happened. They never took action to notify any of us background actors. So here I was a year after that shoot that excited me so much, trying to pry open a door that was sealed shut from me long ago.
3rd chance - VOUCHER DIFFERENCE
Years passed becoming content with my non-union status and taking the pressure off myself about joining asap. It had only brought me frustration and disappointment. I would join when I was meant to join, I thought. I focused on creating a theatrical one-woman show, theatre, taking classes, submitting for almost everything, and doing more student films for more reel footage. A co-worker at one of my day jobs, Sweat Yoga, had become Fi-Core, meaning still paying the union fees to audition and be in union projects, but auditioning and acting in non-union projects too. She said it was because there weren't enough union commercial jobs. A rebel of the union. I understood why she did it for herself and was happy for her confidence in her decision, but I decided for myself that I would never do that. I would rather have security in my acting career that I worked so hard for and the chance for booking really well paying union commercials, rather than being paid a couple hundred here and there for non-union commercials and jeopardizing my union status. It seemed like moving backwards in career growth and stability. Around this time, I also heard about lots of actors making their own web series' and filing it under SAG-AFTRA New Media to become eligible. I worked multiple day jobs all the time and had my own personal stuff going on that needed a lot of time and energy, so I never took the time to really think about doing it because I felt I didn't know enough and it would have required lots of time, although I could have done it. I see that looking back now.
One day I self-submitted to be a background actor on Westworld Season 2, and I was booked for 3 days of work. It wasn't clear if I was booked as a union or non-union background actor. The background casting director called and yelled at me the night before the first shoot for missing a fitting that I was never informed about, so I didn't even ask. It was a grueling long 3 days, but was neat and I enjoyed it. I received my vouchers and was so happy! I had 3 pink vouchers for each day doing background work on a union production - I got vouchers, so they must be union vouchers, right? No one explained any of this to me...Hope and excitement rose in me that this actually just happened. I could turn these in and I would be eligible! That had to be the case...On the third day after receiving my last one, I decided to ask just to be sure.
Before I walked up to one of the desks or a PA to ask, another actor that they had paired me up to sit by during the shoots by came over to say bye to me. He was excited and showed me his voucher....but it was green. Why were mine pink and his green? I asked him about the difference. He pointed to fine writing on it - he was booked as UNION on his 3, and I was booked as NON-UNION on my 3. We did the same thing - how could this be?? Stumped, I asked how he did that. He said he knew the background casting director and had asked him to book him as union background, and it had worked. Good for that actor! But damn...the man who had yelled at me. Maybe he didn't like me and it was to spite me, or maybe you really do have to request being booked as union doing background work in order to get it when you are a non-union actor. Regardless, my third time was not a charm.
4th chance - NEW MEDIA BLESSING & PERSISTENCE
A couple years pass. We are now about 5 or 6 months ago in this year 2019. I heard in 2018 from all the actors in my classes and saw online that SAG-AFTRA has honed in on and changed their New Media agreements. Too many actors were taking advantage (back when I could have been one of them) and joined without actually producing their projects, etc. I totally understood why SAG-AFTRA was changing the stipulations after hearing that. It was now required to pay for insurance and payroll, you must pay your actors - no deferring of payments, and apparently there was no more "Eligibility" status. So now in order to produce your own web series to join, you have to fork over lots of paperwork and most likely thousands of dollars...and must pay to join immediately after everything with the project is approved by SAG-AFTRA in order to join. They explicitly state that you will not be approved if you are doing this just to gain eligibility. Intimidating. I would never do a whole web series only for eligibility; I would want to create and produce a good web series in addition to gaining eligibility. But would they see that? It was all very confusing sounding and seemed like even if you did everything right, they could still deny you membership. That was a bit of a bummer, and it seemed like it would be too hard to even try that route.
However, I had a lucky teammate in this endeavor - my friend Jill Tenney. Jill is a powerhouse actor and creator and was working on funding for a comedy web series that she had cast me in ahead of time. We had filmed promo videos for crowdfunding for it and really had a lot of fun with the character named "Mercredi." She wasn't sure if she was going to end up producing the series as union or non-union, and I didn't mind either way; I was just happy to be along for the ride. My friend Megan DeHart and I were already writing a web series of our own as well, and I was open to doing background work through Central Casting to receive vouchers too. I was just enjoying building my new foundations of my craft. I didn't want to ever get my hopes up or get impatient about becoming eligible, because every single time I had before, it never worked out and I was back to square one.
Jill told me one day she wanted to produce a separate web series focused on my character. WHAT?! How awesome! I was starting to do my spiritual work more solo and had more free time on the regular, so I decided to help her produce it. We decided to make it union, and I became the SAG-AFTRA signatory. I persistently demanded clear precise answers from SAG-AFTRA the whole time. I had more than just me to push for this time. It took a lot of fearlessness and I had to have a bit of a bite to my emails to get anywhere, but I tried to remain sweet and thankful, because ultimately I really was. The filming was a blast! Mercredi's Monde is the series, released all October 2019. Also around this time, I had been cast in a 99 seat Equity theatrical production called Constantinople (my possible chance #3 1/2), and it was an amazing experience, but I didn't get any Equity points through it so I knew I couldn't join SAG-AFTRA through this play (Actor's Equity Association aka AEA & SAG-AFTRA are sister unions and you can be eligible to be in one by being in the other). Jill's web series ended up getting approved by SAG-AFTRA though, and Jill and I turned in our employment verification materials, which also got approved!!! So grateful for Jill!
Funny side story on that - the day before I was told I was approved and eligible and must set an appointment to join, I had a strong urge to call SAG-AFTRA and check on it. We had been waiting over a month and were told it should only take 2 - 4 weeks. Just figured they were backed up but since I work as a psychic as my day job, I have learned it is worth it to listen to my intuition. I followed it and gave them a ring. Funny enough, my employment verification materials were in completely the wrong department on the wrong floor. I had dropped them off at the right place in person, but someone had moved them. If I had not called, they might still just be sitting on the wrong floor and then once found would be unapproved because the wait would have been too long...you never know...just glad I called and that the person I was on the phone with really helped me out by looking. Needless to say, I am glad I listened to my intuition and Jill and I got to join from this awesome project!
Moral of the story: Over a span of 7 years from 2012 - 2019, a dedication to pursuing my career growth as a union actor paid off. I've had people, mostly the people closest to me, ask me to give up my Hollywood dream numerous times. It hurt so much. I hit rock bottom with that, and it took a lot of self-work, but I've learned not let what other people think of my acting career or me define it or me. I've also had many "well meaning" people of personal and professional relationships telling me critical and belittling advice. Most of the time in my adult life, they thought I failed at acting because things didn't take off right away and advised me to switch my focus to only direct, write, read tarot cards, become a nutritionist, or get a responsible day job for myself in an office... yada yada yada. It really did a number on my self esteem for many years and also made me an angry defensive person when it came to my art. Thank God I didn't listen to any of them and healed myself. Their demeaning judgements were only a reflection of their world view and belief in themselves. I need no one else's approval now. Much healthier! Only I know my potential and depth of my passion. I decided to and knew I would become a working actor; committing to this career path wholeheartedly when I was 16 years old, and I'm still just as passionate about it now if not way more. Of course I appreciate support, and you get what you give, hence giving support begets support. However, I don't seek it outside myself now. Healthy boundaries and sense of self are a must in this profession. Such a weight off my shoulders no longer listening to people who don't understand me, trying to please others, prove my worthiness, or make them proud. I make myself proud and happy by following my joy - that, to me, is success. And I learned to be happy for and celebrate other actors and artists too because their path is not my path. Comparison is the thief of joy. The competition is a thick battle ground here, but getting caught up in that kind of critical thinking pattern about yourself and others it will only make you miserable in my experience. Putting too much pressure on anything ruins it and I learned that the hard way. Persistence is key - got to keep going for the long haul. Confidence too; not in a way where I am better than anyone, but confidence in how I am different, unique, how I stand out. And gratitude. I realize now I matured and wizened so much as a person and performer during all these years; I wouldn't change anything if I had the chance. Happened as it was meant to. Some good things take time for some people. Nothing ever happens until you are truly ready for it. This is my passion, my calling, what makes me really happy, and what I want to inspire others with. I am thankful I pursued it and am continuing to pursue it.
In conclusion, thank you for reading this. Thank you to all who support me on my journey (I greatly appreciate it!!!! <3) and thank you to all who support artists. It's usually not an easy path. Please actors, some advice for you to take or leave - don't care what others say when they expect you to be on TV in something they know and if you aren't, they think you should stop pursuing your dream, or if they say you should only give it a year to "make it" in whatever area you are in - psshhhhhhhh. I once read every overnight success is 10 years in the making. Seriously though! And I hope this clears up some confusion and hopefully inspires any actors out there wanting to join. You can do it! As long as it lights up your soul, and you know this goal is for you, keep going!
Much love and gratitude,