Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I feel like Charlie finding a golden ticket!

I should probably explain... SAG is an actor's union; the Screen Actors Guild. Strikes in recent years have created a lot of non-union work, but at the end of the day, real actors, most movies, many TV shows and even commercials are SAG. Although the union dues are crazy expensive and the industry is rough right now, people my age and above really need to be SAG to get an agent and manager.

How do you join SAG? If you're cast in a speaking role on a SAG project you must join as a result of the Taft-Hartley Act. The trouble is, it's a catch twenty-two; to get auditions for things on which you'd be Taft-Hartley-ed, you need an agent. But to get a good agent, you need to be union. You can also join through sister unions including AFTRA and Equity. Both these ways have lots of rules and regulations that I don't completely know.

I opted to turn to a third option, in which I feel I'm taking matters into my own hands a bit more. Background work. While it's a necessary evil that many people refuse to do, it does offer three benefits. 1. I'm paying my bills by being on set. 2. I'm learning from being on set. 3. I have the opportunity to join SAG by getting vouchers.

Ah, the voucher system... It's very broken, but the least of SAGs worries right now. Most positions on set are free-lance. Everyone from the sound guy to the Teamsters to the production assistants work different shows everyday and are hoping to land a regular position. That means we're paid per day on a voucher. One of the "you might be doing background..." jokes is "if your bank suspects you of small check fraud" because every single day of work is a separate pay check. (Yes, it's annoying.) Anyway, non-union vouchers are usually the color blue and union vouchers are usually yellow; most background are on a Willy Wonka quest for the golden vouchers!

After you acquire three union vouchers, you are then eligible to join SAG. How do you get a union voucher? Well, that is the million dollar question with no good answer! Sometimes it's luck. Maybe you replaced a union no-show, maybe the production had to pay a certain quota of actors on SAG rates and you were at the right place at the right time. Sometime it happens because you do something special. Like everything in this town, it seems to have a lot to do with who you know!

It's frustrating because I've met people who have their vouchers, but no interest in acting. Or, on a movie shoot people get SAG vouchers, then they're called back for continuity purposes for multiple days and they end up with well over the needed three vouchers. It makes people like me who have been working for five months and gotten none want to pull our hair out!

I've heard you need to be assertive; let the A.D. (assistant director) know you're trying to join and ask your P.A. (production assistant) if any vouchers are available. That's much easier said than done. Crew and background are usually kept separate and PAs usually don't have them to give or the authority to do so and are annoyed with being asked all the time. All too many P.A.s are on a power trip and being asked only feeds their ego. It's awkward and you're left feeling really desperate and sounding pathetic.

So how did I come by mine? By luck I was able to let my situation be known in a way that felt natural, not forced. Monday I was replacing someone on the FOX show "24" as a worker in the CTU. I immediately got a good vibe from the background point person and as he searched for that person's voucher I asked, "are they yellow?" The answer was no, so I joked, "aw, stupid so-and-so, what good are they?!" I know it sounds contrived, but in the moment it wasn't quite as bad as the usual background groveling. He laughed.

Later on set I learned it's a good show for getting vouchers, it has a lot of regular background and supposedly he'd even asked who needed them. I mentioned in my last post that the P.A. had been with the show from the begining, even had an office and that in many ways it was one of the nicest sets I'd ever been on. As it turns out, he's not a P.A., at least not anymore. I guess the show requires a lot of continuity among its extras so he has the rare title of "background coordinator," with responsibilities that would normally fall on the 2nd 2nd. (That's not a typo and means the third assistant director; why isn't it 3rd A.D.? No one knows...)

Later Monday he asked if I could come back today and of course I said yes. Only two or three of us were recalled. It didn't make sense to me that a "matching shot" wouldn't include the people I was right next to on set, but I certainly didn't question it. I knew in my heart there would be a yellow voucher waiting for me today. Somehow, I just knew! And there was!

He said it was because I'd filled in at the last minute, but that wasn't really the case. It wasn't a "rush call" and it wasn't in my control. Rather, he liked me and he actually had the ability to give me a SAG voucher, unlike most powerless P.A.s. And no, amazingly, he's not a creep trying to abuse his power like many of them seem to be. He treats everyone with respect and has created a what feels like a legitimate work environment. The crew and regular background are friendly with one another; the background knows what to do and where to go, which is vastly different than most sets I've been on. We chatted quite a bit today about my guy and our big move and I learned about his position, how he got his office and his recent attendance at the U2 concert! Now we're facebook friends.

As I suspected, it wasn't even a matching shot; they didn't need me for continuity! Sometimes the director changes the shot and doesn't need us; in some cases I've heard extras are called in just in case... In my five months that's never happened. I've always worked. Sometime you sit around for hours to work only fifteen minutes, but you work. Today there were only seven or eight extras total and a few of us didn't work at all. How funny, my first day on a SAG voucher and my first day not doing a damn thing!

I was there for eight and a half hours, just thirty minutes shy of awesome union overtime. Usually that's annoying, but I was making double the non-union rate. Tomorrow I'm working the show again for a different scene at a different location, using my car. He needed non-union cars, so I know I won't be getting voucher number two, but I'll take the work!

I was already getting burnt out on background and a little downtrodden, but this feels amazing and refocuses my plan of action! Two more golden tickets and I can join Willy Wonka and the other umpa-lumpas in the acting factory!

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Congratulations on yellow #1!