Should you join SAG-AFTRA? – Face to Face – Part 3

Written by | The Business of Acting

We wrap up our series on the pros and cons of joining SAG-AFTRA.

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

Editors note: The union is SAG-AFTRA which stands for Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, but our contributors often refer to the union by just SAG.


RG: Before you go on, please elaborate on what some of those benefits are…and I’m talking beyond health insurance, pension, and welfare…

SD: People who work on a Screen Actors Guild project and don’t join are, in effect, free-loading and taking advantage of our residual structure, our wages and working conditions, our overtime – all of the things that we have fought for and have gone on strike for. They are taking advantage of all of those things, but for them, it’s “Me, me, me – I’m only going to watch out for me.” The bottom line is that in a right-to-work state, if every person who was SAG eligible joined the union tomorrow, our market would change instantly. And I see it happen constantly. I saw it with Actors Equity (Editor’s note:  The stage actors’ union). The Salt Lake Acting Company, several years ago, signed a small professional theater contract with Actors Equity. Our number of Equity talent increased by at least five times – then Sundance, and a number of theaters, signed the contract because they wanted to hire good talent – and they realized “I need good talent – all this good talent – they’re union.” We have an enormous talent pool that is so professional – so good at what they do, and I’ve see them in action – they’ve played my husband a million times. I know these guys know how to work, but they continue to think in their head that they will do better if they are not union. However, they need to look at what they are really making on that day (of a non-union job). If they do a job that is paying $500 for the day – that is already cheap – but they’re not even making $500 – their agent is probably taking 15% not only from the producer, but 15% additional from the talent.

RG: I would like to point out that on a union job, the agent can ONLY take a 10% commission…

SD: Exactly, and that 10% – on a union job – is paid by the producers. It is sent to you, the actor, in your check, and you pay your agent. In a NONunion situation – and I do nonunion print work because it helps me make a living, but I know the math. If I do a print job – let’s say I get paid $1,000. First, my agent takes $150 from my check, and they are also paid $150 by the producers, so they have now made $300. From there, I’m getting no FICA taken out, I’m getting no unemployment insurance taken out, I’m getting no pension and health. That 15% that the agent took is, in effect, the equivalent of my pension and health, which is very important to me as an individual. So a lot of the folks who are nonunion say “Well, I’ll just keep getting Taft-Hartleyed, and sometimes I may get my health insurance, and sometimes I may not…but I’m going to do all this other work because I can’t make enough money (if I can’t do nonunion work)”…all of those jobs that are nonunion right now would turn union. We have contracts that fit most any budget, with wages that are paid accordingly.

RG: I’m glad you touched on that. A lot of regional commercials and small film production companies assume that on their minimal budget, they could never afford to pay SAG wages to actors.

SD: We have several contracts now – we have the ultra-low budget, we have the low budget – we have all kinds of contracts, but the bottom line is that you can pay as little as $100 per day on a very small film, maybe from a filmmaker who is just getting started. (Editor’s note:  Under this contract, if an actor is not SAG, they have no obligation to pay the actor at all.)  Again, when an actor works on that project, not only are they being paid according to a contract, but they know that if that film were to take off and become the next Blair Witch Project, or whatever, there isn’t any residuals(unless that was agreed upon). Blair Witch Project, which by the way, was done nonunion, so those people didn’t make anything additional when it became incredible successful throughout the world. On a union film, if that film takes off, and you were paid very little, you have the opportunity to get residuals, to get contributions into your pension and health because SAG’s legal staff has fought for those things on our behalf.

RG: You just mentioned the staff that works hard on members’ behalf. Where DO those SAG dues go? I assume that as President of the Utah and Idaho chapter of SAG, that you are paid a good salary?  

SD: (laughs) No, it is an elected position – a volunteer position. It has been amazing to me, since I’ve been in this position, to see the amount of volunteer hours people put into all of this. My term ends soon (Editor’s note:  Susan’s term has since ended.), and I just can’t do it after that – it just takes too much time. You have the grassroots volunteers that work in each branch, then we have a wonderful support staff that is paid. Those folks work so hard on our behalf, and most people have no idea how much they do. They help us with membership. When people have a question that I am not in a position to answer, I can go to our regional rep. I can always tell people that there are people who are only a phone call away.

To view more information on these SAG-AFTRA branches go to 

RG: Another good point for actors to know about SAG. We have seen a lot of film companies show up, set up offices, hire a crew, cast a film, and start shooting. Two weeks later, when the crew’s first check is due, they disappear into thin air, never to be seen again. The crew will never see pay from that film, but, assuming that it was a SAG film, the actors WILL – care to explain that?

SD: Yes, the actors are protected. So many films start without being fully funded. I think most are well intentioned – the net result is that they get excited and get a lot of people involved. They also have the casting director start casting. According to SAG, an actor has been HIRED once they sign a deal memo and receive a script; at that point, whether you ever work or not, they HAVE to pay you. Even if they have a limited liability that has just been set up for a month, if they have signed a SAG signatory agreement, they have posted a bond for circumstances just like these. I have personally never had a situation where I have not been paid.

RG: Let’s talk about some of the smaller benefits that actors receive on a SAG set. The average actor may not be aware, over the course of a day, how many times their working conditions or pay have been affected by SAG rules.

SD: For example, they have to feed us in a timely manner – every six hours. And this is no small thing. It’s very stressful working on a set; there are times when things aren’t going really well, where they may be tempted to cut corners or work us too long without feeding us, but they can’t because of the SAG rules. That’s part of what has been negotiated over the years – they have to give us breaks, and they have to give us overtime. Children work with us – I play a mom all the time – and when children are working with us, those children not only have to have schooling on the set, but they also can only work a certain number of hours. Also, if they release us at, say, midnight, they can’t bring us in until noon because SAG has negotiated a twelve-hour turnaround – we have to have time to go home, rest, and regroup.

The unions originally started because there was so little concern for the working conditions and the hours. Another thing about SAG is that you get paid in a timely manner. If you do a nonunion project, you will probably get paid in about two months, but on a SAG project, you must get paid within 10 days.

RG: All of these times we’ve mentioned that producers MUST do everything according to SAG rules, the readers need to know that there are financial implications for the producers if they do not follow the SAG rules.

SD: Absolutely.

RG: In the regional market, do you think that there is any leeway in when an actor joins SAG? Do you think that people need to automatically join when they receive their first Taft-Hartley?

SD: I think that the first thing for any actor to look at is training, training, training! In addition to having some real solid training, and I don’t just mean a weekend workshop – I mean SOLID training, it needs to be a choice to truly become an actor. There are people in New York in LA who are dying to get Taft-Hartleyed, because they can’t get HIRED without being union…

RG: There, they can’t even get an agent…

SD: That’s right, because in those markets, agents recognize the tremendous need for professionalism, and being a union member is a key to that. However, it is SO hard to get Taft-Hartleyed in LA or New York, because there are SO many people to fill those roles. (Editor’s note:  And the producer will be fired for not hiring union talent.) In the regional markets, they may not have the same access to SAG actors – so because it IS easier to get Taft-Hartleyed, they have a sense that it isn’t that big a deal to be able to join the union. But again, the more people join, the more SAG work there will be.

I do think that people should wait to join until they’re sure it’s what they want to do. If they are 10 years old, and Mom and Dad brought them to an audition, and they happen to get the part…and they’re not that interested, they should wait to join. On the other hand, there are young people who know they want to act at an early age. Haley McCormick (you can see Haley’s credits at:, whom I mentored, just knew that’s what she wanted to do. She’s in college now, and that’s what she’s doing. She’s created a professional theater group. It was important for her, at a young age, to get her SAG card – and she had a recurring role on (the TV show) Everwood. Even people who are older and get their first Taft-Hartley need to take a look at whether or not this is what they want to do for the rest of their life. When I got my SAG card, I already had all that training, and I had gotten enough experience to know that this is what I wanted to do.

RG: Do you have any final thoughts for the actor reading this? I encourage anyone who wants to act to give it a whirl – but with the disclaimer that if there is ANYTHING that they want to do as much as acting, they should pursue THAT!

SD: (laughs) Great advice. In fact, I’ve often tried to think if there is anything else I want to do, but I haven’t been able to figure anything out! There are and always will be difficulties in making a living as an actor. There is that stability that people like to have as far as income and stability goes, but there are also things that are out of your control. You can audition and audition and have the role down cold and not get the part – or you can get put on “right of first refusal,” somewhat putting you on hold but with no real obligations – then you get a call from your agent and you find out that the director’s wife got the part or whatever. So, there are things that make it difficult – you really have to be able to handle rejection.

As a woman, you have to be able to face even more rejection. When I lived in LA,  which was in 1994-95, I was told that 80% of all roles went to men – and all you have to do is watch a movie and look at that token woman. Fifteen percent of the roles go to women 23 and under, and the remaining 5% – that little 5% – is there for women like me. So it’s a difficult thing. As we know in society – and I’m fighting this – I’m on the National Women’s Committee, and we’ve been fighting this discrimination against women (it’s another really great part of being a member of the Screen Actors Guild) – there are national committees that are working on behalf of all types of minorities, like people with disabilities. SAG has always been supportive.

RG: What can acting bring to someone’s life?

SD: My favorite thing is that it is an on-going opportunity for a learning process. You learn about so many things – it may not be anything you’d ever had interest in before, or knew anything about – but because of your role, you find out. You learn. So you start doing research and gain an understanding of another phase of history and why people behaved in certain ways. It leads to understanding people better and the psychology of people. You have to create somebody who’s real – you have to look at things through different eyes, and once you’ve done that professionally, you can bring that understanding into your own life.


RG: From what you have seen, what do you think the future holds for regional actors?

JO: That depends on what happens to the economy. I can’t speak for other markets, but this market is well-liked by filmmakers. About five or six years ago, we were the fourth best film market in the country. I believe that our state tax incentives will bring producers back. Plus, we have at least two or three full-time A-list crews. We have the scenery – you can go from desert to mountains in less than an hour – and there are a lot of experienced actors here. I think it will be good.

RG: How long have you been acting?

JO: Since junior high – and that was 40 years ago. I’m 56. So I guess I did my first  play back then – it was The Honeymooners. I had a drama teacher that got the rights to The Honeymooners. We did the full thing…that’s what inspired me, for what that’s worth (laughs). We had the June Taylor dancers – and I did the “Alice – right to the moon!” My first movie was about 29 years ago.

RG: Do you have any advice for people just getting into acting?

JO: DON’T. (laughs) No, if it’s your passion – but you have to be realistic – go for it. If you have an agent that’s getting you out there and you’re not getting booked – or even getting callbacks – there’s something wrong. It may not even be your acting. Maybe it’s your look, maybe it’s your voice.

Because there are a lot of actors. There are hundreds of actors that could pull off most any role on a TV show you just watched. It’s a combination of things that get you the part. It’s like there may be three guys that are up for the part, but they’ll look at one with a lot on his resume and say “This guy will at least hit his mark. You know he’s not going to make us waste money.” So it’s a Catch-22. So much of it is getting the right audition at the right time. One guy will stand out for some reason and they’ll make him a star. You see it all the time. I see a lot of comedies, and you see the same guys over and over. If they’re not the star of one movie, they give them a side role or a cameo – they all take care of each other.

RG: Do you have any final thoughts?

SD: It’s a tough business to get into and people take things so personally.  There are people who are so passionate about acting – but God bless them – that’s not going to get them any major part or move them ahead to stardom. There’s just something that comes off with the person  who will make it – it’s a confidence – a look.

RG: Do you think there’s hope for anybody wanting to act?

SD: Other than me, no. So everyone else should quit.

The views and opinions in this article are solely those of the interviewee.

That concludes our series on joining Screen Actor’s Guild! If you have a topic you would like discussed on Face to Face, please email to share your topic!


Join the newsletter

Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Last modified: October 24, 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *