One of the hurdles one invariably faces at some point in an acting career is when and how to join the Screen Actors Guild. Many actors have told me that agents and managers tell them to, “come back when you are SAG,” and that until they are SAG they have trouble being seen for union projects. I’d love to hear in the comments what your experiences have been with this. But in the meantime, how do you join? Well, there are a number of ways, some totally above board, and some a bit shady.
Let’s start above board, because that’s always a nice place to be. The first way in is to do at least one day of work as a Principal Performer on a SAG film, TV show, commercial or video. A Principal Performer is anyone who speaks at least one line of dialogue and is paid scale wages (or more). Once you have done one day of work, you are SAG eligible. This means that you are covered by the SAG contract for thirty days, at which point you must join the union or stop doing SAG work. If you choose to join SAG, you then take your proof of employment and a very large check (currently $2,335 which covers your initiation fee and your first bi-annual basic dues payment), and apply for membership. Be sure to hold onto your pay stub and contract from any union work. You will be required to show it as part of the process.
But how can you work on a SAG project if you are not yet SAG? You have probably heard the phrase “Taft Hartley,” which was an act passed by congress that regulates unions and provides a mechanism for new members to join. What does this mean for you? The catch-22 that is sometimes tossed around, “You can’t do SAG work unless you are SAG, but you can’t join SAG unless you do SAG work,” is not really true. A non-SAG actor can be hired by a SAG signatory production under the “Taft Hartley” rule for his or her unique talents. Sometimes that happens during the audition process. Other times someone who is already on set as an extra might be asked to say a line. Either way, that performer now has Principal status and becomes SAG eligible.
The next way in is through background work. An actor can become SAG eligible by receiving three SAG vouchers for working as a background performer on a SAG signatory production. These do not have to be consecutive days of work or on a single production.
A little background about “background” work: all SAG productions have a minimum number of SAG background performers that they must hire before they can hire any non-union performers. Television productions must hire 19 SAG actors, commercials 40, and feature films 50. Sometimes, if a role requires something unique and difficult to cast, or if one of the union performers fails to show up at the last minute, then a production must give the SAG extra spot to a non-SAG actor. When this is done, that performer is given a SAG voucher and paid SAG rates for that day of work.
Now this is where things start to get a bit messy. Which non-union extra gets given that voucher? Theoretically, the job of choosing falls to the Assistant Director. Some people do extra work for months and months, chatting with the AD any chance they get, hoping to pick up those elusive, yet all-important, vouchers. Some have connections. One of the actors I spoke to knew a prominent television actress from his training. When he arrived in town he gave her a call, within the week he was working as a background performer on her show. He did his three days, and was able to join SAG. Another actor I know was given a week of SAG extra work on a film by someone he knew through the improv world. The casting director wanted people comfortable with improv, just in case the director decided to give them lines. In both cases, these actors were able to circumvent chance and secure vouchers through relationships they had made during their training.
But there is another way people stack the odds in their favor. Some actors pay someone to get them SAG voucher work. There are people in town who, for a fee up front and then a large portion of your daily wage, will get you your SAG vouchers. Personally, I hate the idea of this. To me, it seems like the worst type of preying on actors. We need (or think we need) something. They have a nefarious or nepotistic relationship that gives them access to what we need, and they charge us for it. If you need it really badly and in a hurry, you might get charged double. But with that said, I do understand that actors are under an enormous amount of pressure from agents, managers and perhaps even their peers to join SAG and these people are providing a service.
Emily Hudson (not her real name) needed her SAG card in a hurry. She had done a number of days of work on a show and had been told by the AD that she would be given vouchers. Not realizing that these would be AFTRA vouchers and not SAG, she believed she was SAG eligible and had already told that to her new manager. Not only that, she had booked a SAG commercial, not as a non-union actor who would nee to be brought in under Taft Hartley, but as a union actor. She was afraid to admit her mistake to her manager and instead used one of the pay-for-voucher services. Because it was so urgent, she paid double for her vouchers and got them, just in time. Does she regret paying for them? No, she has easily made back any fees she paid with SAG work that she has done since, but when asked if she would do it again she says she would instead have come clean to her manager. It was a mistake, and the stress of needing to make it all happen in time was not something she wished to repeat.
There is one more way to get into SAG and that is through one of its affiliated performers’ unions. A member in good standing of AEA, AFTRA, ACTRA, AGMA or AGVA can join SAG if they have been in their union for a period of one year and have performed and been paid at least once as a principal under that union’s jurisdiction. What does this mean? If you are already a member of one of the unions and have worked, just get all your paperwork together and head over to SAG.
But what if you aren’t a member of one of the AAAAs? Well, AFTRA is an open union. If you have the money to pay the initiation fee and the first payment of dues (currently $1663.90 total) then you can become a member. You can do this in person at the AFTRA office or online here. Now, this is no small chunk of money, but it is an investment in your career (and as such, a tax deduction). First off, you are now a member of one of the professional performers’ unions. AFTRA, as an open union, may not have the cache of SAG, but if you work in this profession in a variety of media, you are going to have to join it at some point. Much of the voiceover work that I do is covered by AFTRA, and more and more TV shows are shot under this contract every year.
Now if you have joined with the intention of eventually joining SAG, you have a very clearly defined goal and time frame. By the time you hit your one year anniversary as an AFTRA member, you want to have booked at least one principal role under AFTRA’s jurisdiction. I would make a list of all the AFTRA shows and start targeting the casting directors and producers through marketing materials and workshops. (Read Dallas’ articles on targeted marketing here and here) Yes, this process will take longer than paying for voucher work, but all of the money you spend will be money you need to invest in your career eventually, as opposed to just lining the pockets of some less-than-totally-scrupulous “voucher” guy. Not to mention that if you are successful you will have at least one principal credit to go along with your memberships in two professional unions.
I know I am grateful for the protections and benefits that being a member of SAG has brought me. What are your thoughts about joining SAG? At what point in your career do you feel it’s appropriate to do so? How did (or how do you plan) to join?
Image modified from a photo by Kristin Dos Santos