Updated: Feb 2
While mindlessly scrolling through some Reels on Instagram the other day, I came across a remaining-nameless person who was looking for actors for their upcoming film shoot. The actors sought were the background type, and payment was doted as “hang out on set, get pictures with the cast for social media”. No mention of monetary compensation, differed payment (paid later when the project makes money), or even being fed for the day. As an actor who had some really not-great experiences in this business (having a gun pulled on me by an artistic director and his wife), things like being paid with “experience” really rub me the wrong way. Seriously? You’re not even going to feed your actors? C’mon!
I know what you're thinking - 'but we all have to pay our dues. We all have done work for free. That's just how it is.' To which I say... but why? A lot of the attitudes we have towards ourselves as actors and artists and employees stems from precedents set by the gate-keepers and powers-that-be. The adage of being a 'starving artist' eventually just becomes a choice and a lifestyle when in reali
it doesn't have to be if we stop listening to the casting-couch style concessions one is asked to make when one is starting out. Furthermore, and more importantly (for the gatekeepers) and I will say this until the cows come home, but if you can't afford to pay your employees - background actors included - then you can't afford to be in business.
ANYWAY! Having been made to feel a particular way as a result of this Instagram video, I simply commented “Ugh! Pay your actors!”. I’m very much in the mindset that unless those who take advantage of others’ hopes and dreams are called out, it’s never going to stop happening. Could you imagine if a local coffee shop or restaurant was like, “Please come work here; oh, by the way we aren’t paying you in money, we are paying you in experience. Learn a new skill with us!” The amount of broken labor laws that mere suggestion implies is staggering.
The response I received to my comment was also pretty shocking. I’m going to break it down below, but I want you to read it first...
“There is a BIG difference between being an actor and being background. My actors (who have lines) are paid. Background is voluntary. If you want to audition for a ROLE, you can submit through ActorsAccess.com. If you don’t want to volunteer to do background, then don’t. There are plenty of people that want to come to set for experience, and they are more than welcome. I highly recommend you remove that chip from your shoulder and learn who you are dealing with.”
So, my takeaways here are:
Background actors are not actors.
It is totally ok that they are not paying background because they ‘volunteer’ for ‘experience’ and they are not really actors anyway.
I have a chip on my shoulder because I do not find sub-standard work-place conditions acceptable.
People are still making “you’ll never work in this town again” -style threats even after the 2018 #MeToo movement, its subsequent whistleblowers, and all of 2020-2022.
Now before you even say it, yes, I know that is what unions are for, and contracts, and paperwork, etc., and yes, SAG-AFTRA has been mostly quite good at keeping things above-board in a post-2018 industry (can’t really say the same for Actors Equity). However, there are still SAG- contracts that allow for unpaid background, and unpaid crew, and unpaid actors, which is a slap in the face in and of itself, but then there is this:
In a deeper dive into this person's content on their Instagram, they seem to fancy themselves as a figurehead of sorts within the industry - “...learn who you are dealing with.” But from their very own Reels, it appears as if what I am dealing with is yet another industry bully. A lot of their videos are super condescending. One Reel is labeled as “Follow Directions” which states:
“I’m casting someone for a television series to be 5’10” and taller. That means if you are 5’9” and shorter you shouldn’t submit! You know why? Because you’re not 5’10” and taller. It’s really not that hard.”
This is just, in a word, grotesque. This kind of attitude towards people you are hiring for your project or business is exactly the impetus for The Great Resignation. Multiple generations spanning all socio-economic backgrounds are over it and rightfully so. I personally do not want to be spoken to in such a manner in any hiring process or work environment, especially if it is ongoing. That norm beats one down and makes for a toxic work environment. Such trickle-down workplace abuse has brought on a brand-new tsunami of entrepreneurial endeavors from those saying, “no more.”
Fade to what the media has been calling “The Great Resignation,” which is a nice way of saying that the workforce is fed-up with your bullshit as an abusive employer and are off looking for better options where they are treated fairly and valued within their workplace. This tends to be within the service industry specifically, but more broadly, EVERYWHERE! We are seeing it in retail, in corporate culture, and in entertainment. My career spans about 20 years of working within the entertainment industry (and other industries), and the swaths of friends who have either left the business entirely or left New York City, or L.A., or all-of-the-above is growing by the week. A lot of that, dare I say, is attributable to people such as this Instagram person who still believes that experience pays rent. It doesn't, and in an Endemic world, after two years of little to no work, it shouldn't be asked to.
Employers are left at a loss. Franchises across the country are now offering sign-on bonuses to the tune of $500+, hourly rates are being boasted on storefront marquees well above minimum wage, and the chant of “we’re short staffed” can be heard behind almost every brick-and-mortar store-front door. The worker-bees are accelerating their move into an entrepreneurial space, becoming the bosses, and in theory, hopefully, creating the work environment in which they would like to see and have for themselves.
It very much feels as if though there is a new era of employers, producers, CEO’s, bosses coming down the pike who are all victims of decades of workplace abuse, bad attitude bosses, and office culture that devalues and dehumanizes employees. It feels like we are mostly all saying, collectively, “f*ck this” and no longer entertaining the idea that keeping your head down and your mouth shut will garnish you a career. More-so this mindset cultivates the idea that if those causing such negative reactions are in charge, I can say what I want because I would not want to work for them anyway. And why would you?
Being told you are ‘replaceable’ for your entire career, or that you are ‘a dime-a-dozen' devalues and dehumanizes. Being told that you only got the job because “your ass looked good in the costume” devalues and dehumanizes. That example is also very clearly sexual harassment, and a very mild case for why every single theatre, tv, film entity producing anything where humans are present should hire a Human Resources team for the benefit and protection of their cast and crew. Yes, unions should be doing that, but as we have seen, they don't.
So, my advice to those who have branched out, broken off, and sought shelter from their paycheck-to-paycheck captors – do not be afraid. Find your team of people; assemble your squad. Have a plan before you fire the proverbial gun and stay the course. If nothing else, you will have learned something, and accomplished something on your own terms, and not at the hands of perpetrators of the same old shit.
- Edward Miskie is the creative director and project manager at Equitable PR. He is also the author of Cancer, Musical Theatre, & Other Chronic Illnesses, and producer behind Edward the First, & BariToned.