Should you join SAG-AFTRA? – Face to Face – Part 1

Written by | The Business of Acting

We start our discussion on whether or not to join SAG-AFTRA, by introducing the experts and hearing their opinions on the subject.

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: Tell us about yourself.

SD: I am Susan Dolan and I am the President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) for the Utah and Idaho branches (Editor’s note:  Susan’s term has since ended). I have been an actor—making a living as an actor—since 1983. I went to school, got my undergraduate degree in Michigan, and then went to New York and worked at the Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman. I had a wonderful experience there. I then went to graduate school in Utah, where I continued my training, and then moved to LA and commuted for a couple years between LA and Utah—always working as an actor. So it’s been my livelihood, not a hobby, though it’s had all the fluctuations that everybody has. And during the course of this, I’ve been a wife and a mom.

RG: Since you are the President of the Utah and Idaho branches of the Screen Actors Guild, I would say that it is a safe assumption that you are, yourself, a member?

SD: Yes, of course (laughs). Ever since The Velveteen Rabbit, that I did way back in 1984 with Marie Osmond.

RG: Why are you a member?

SD: (Big sigh and laugh) OK, there are many, many reasons. The first is that I have a fundamental belief in the idea that we have to be doing things as a group. We have to support each other—especially actors who work for so many different people, so many different producers. We need to support each other because individually we have little leverage, and the producers know that. We just witnessed it during our negotiations about how little leverage we have as individual actors but as 120,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild.

RG: Is that the membership throughout the US?

SD: That’s the national count; we have a lot more leverage and we can actually improve our working conditions and our wages and give ourselves an opportunity to have a pension and health plan. There’s no place else we can get it as actors. But it’s not just our pension and health; there are a lot of other little deals and discounts that we can get as Screen Actors Guild members—free legal advice, movies, grooming discounts, all kinds of things—and if you want to take a look at those, you can go to and see all those little kinds of perks and membership benefits that are available. A huge thing about it is that with iActor, which is our online casting service, any casting person can go on now and register and see their Station-12s. They can quickly access talent all over the country. They can find exactly what they’re looking for. So, as actors, we now have a toll where we can put our headshots, our resumes, and our demos out there in a national database that protects us from some of the craziness out there—iActor is a huge benefit.

RG: For people just getting started, can you explain the answer to this question for us: Can someone simply walk into a SAG office and join?

SD: No, you can’t. I always really encourage people to get training and, obviously, I came from a base of a lot of training. Someone can’t just decide one day that they want to be an actor—there’s a little more to it than that.

RG: I use the analogy that a musician can’t buy a piano and think they can play Carnegie Hall. It’s like the old story of the guy who asks someone on the streets of New York: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And the person responds “Practice, practice, practice . . . ”

SD: Exactly. That’s exactly right! And I feel that, in addition to that, not only is learning about the acting craft so important, but hopefully, along the way, you’re getting some professional opportunities. That’s how I started. I was in my MFA program before I ever shot a commercial or even really knew about the film side of things; then all of a sudden I went “Oh, wow! There’s all this other work out there that’s available!”  So then you start to learn and learn more about the business side of things. That, unfortunately, sometimes is learned in a hands-on sort of way because there just aren’t enough good classes out there, which is why it’s so wonderful that you have launched this resource.

RG: What are the legalities of joining SAG?

SD: What people have to do is one union job and the non-union people who do that one speaking part now have the opportunity to join.



RG: Tell us about yourself.

JO: I’m an actor who started as a stand-up comic. I really got started in high school. Besides comedy, I also did impressions. I did a lot of plays but never really thought of myself as an actor until I found out about movies and commercials being made in my community. So I got an agent, started going on auditions, and started acting.

RG: I know you want it made clear – you are not against SAG as an organization, you just do not feel the need to be a member while working in a right-to-work state. Is that right?

JO: I used to be a member but just couldn’t pay the dues once my kids were born. Now, it’s not necessarily the dues – it’s the back fees that I owe. Plus, here, regionally, it really doesn’t do anything for me.

RG: What do you mean by that? A lot of people are under the impression that to be in a SAG movie with SAG wages, you need to be a member of SAG.

JO: No, you don’t, not in a right-to-work state. (Editor’s Note: Visit The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, to view a listing of  states that are right-to-work) I haven’t been a member for years. I’ve been out of the union for probably twelve years and I’ve gotten a lot of movie parts. If (not being a member of SAG) has affected me in an audition, I’m not aware of it. I suppose there’s a possibility.  I was second to a guy they hired for The World’s Fastest Indian.  I had a final callback with about five different types of reads for that nice part. But they went with someone else. They hired an LA actor and it was someone you would recognize. I can understand why they hired him. But I’m the only one in my area who was up for that part. So, I don’t think it makes a difference to them (if you’re a member of SAG).  If you’re here in a right-to-work state, you’re a good actor, and you do a good job, they’ll take you in a minute, because it saves them per diem, hotel, flight and all that stuff.

RG: So by not being a member of SAG, in a right-to-work state, do you work more- because of the non-union work?

JO: Oh, yeah, yeah, you can.  Absolutely.  You can, even if you are a member of SAG. It’s just not – I mean if it’s something SAG might see, or if it’s something a SAG member knows about, you wouldn’t want to do it. I did it in the past, but they were just local commercials. I work on non-union stuff all the time.

RG: How much of your work is non-union compared to the SAG work?

(laughing) Well, right now, it’s 0-0 because of the economy! But that varies through the years because I’ve gotten older. A lot of the voice over stuff has gone away. The whole thing has changed. And I’m out of the demographic where I can do a lot of TV commercials. But the local commercials don’t pay that much anyway. The overall amount of money you can make off of SAG work with the pension benefits – and if you make enough money with the insurance – that weighs heavily – plus residuals.

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

Click here to read part 2, Susan and Jeff discuss the technicalities of SAG-AFTRA and more. This is can’t miss information! 

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Last modified: October 24, 2018

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