by Maria Prudente
In late 2014 I was hired to play friend #3 in a new commercial for Garnier Nutrisse, the at-home hair color line. The company offered me a payout of $100 for my likeness, which they would use online and elsewhere.
I spent that paycheck on a cab to and from the shooting location in a desolate area of industrial Brooklyn that inspired “A Clockwork Orange” kind of anxiety. This is a risk that many actors have to take, particularly actors who are nonunion or work without talent representation. The marketing team had chosen one of YouTube’s top fashion and beauty bloggers to “star” in their commercial. Her mother sat next to me on set.
“Do you do this for fun?” she asked.
“I’m sorry?” I replied, crumpling my script of “Pygmalion,” which I’d been memorizing for my scene study class. As I searched for the irony in her face, all I could think of was how I’d spent my childhood on stages, lived in a crowded hostel to study Lee Strasberg’s “The Method” at 16 before finally moving to New York to attend musical theater school. “No, this is my job.”
Around that time, casting directors began asking for an actor’s number of YouTube subscribers or Twitter and Instagram followers. They no longer wanted trained performers; they wanted personalities. Someone who could help market their product online in perpetuity.
In 2023, the value of personality over performer is now one of many threats to the integrity of actors, with SAG-AFTRA members joining the Writers Guild strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
SAG-AFTRA has trenchantly described how streaming services and AI technology are transforming and threatening the existing creative landscape of Hollywood. But this dispute is not at its heart about new technology or AI. The crux of the union’s argument is that actors finally deserve proper compensation for their work. Our profession isn’t suddenly in crisis in 2023. Actors have always been in crisis.
An actor is out of work 90% of the time. Most spend much of their days working a job that has nothing to do with their skill set or passion so they can pay their rent and utility bills. It’s not implausible to watch someone on an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and then spot them dressed as an elf at Christmastime when heading up an escalator at a department store. It’s also not implausible to see an actor make their debut on Broadway one year and then find them passing hors d’oeuvres at a Tony awards after-party the next.
Unless it’s a contract for a long show, an actor seldom gets an opportunity to work numerous times in a row. Even if they do, if they’re new to the industry they often start off nonunion, have to work in low-budget productions and get paid little. I can’t count the times I’ve been on a set where we shot hours past the time we were scheduled to wrap filming.
Though I mainly worked in film and TV, I never joined SAG-AFTRA. I was part of Actors Equity, the theater union. Actors join these unions hoping to work on large-scale projects and make more money, though sometimes the union card makes little difference. I once did a New York play production with a contract where both union and nonunion actors could work on the same show — but union actors like me received $300 for three months of rehearsals and performances, while nonunion actors got nothing.
Actors have long been conditioned to feel grateful that they are being included and paid for it. We learn very early on to settle for little if it means getting to do our art. We tell ourselves that the job may come with a small paycheck, but the exposure may lead to bigger and better opportunities. Streaming hasn’t helped; in today’s market, commercial and critical success often fails to translate into fair pay. An actor can fall into the aspirational loop for years without ever getting ahead, struggling to make ends meet. Some decide to give up on their passion altogether.
“Do you do this for fun?” was a question I grappled with for many years. An honest answer would’ve been: “No. Being poor all of the time, being unable to do the kind of work I want to do every day, and being looked over for roles because of YouTube stars like your daughter is not what I would call fun.”
When I took a lengthy break from acting to go back to school, I had a revelation. I’d spent all that time trying to make myself seem exceptional and essential because I was in an industry trying to make me and so many others like me feel small.
Actors have always been worthy. That’s why SAG-AFTRA members are willing to strike, to sacrifice the pay and exposure they need right now. They’re tired of always getting a bad deal.