Actor. Creator. Karate-Chop Expert.
Union vs. Non-Union. ACTRA, or not…
I’m here to set the record straight. After more than a decade acting in Toronto’s film biz, I’ve gained a helluva lotta hindsight.
Have you heard of me? Probably not, and that’s a problem for an actor.
I had the opportunity to go union almost 9 years ago now, and I turned it down based on advice from my then agent, a few casting directors, and the word on the street. It set me back years in my career. Luckily, I had another opportunity to join a couple years back, and I took it.
To all you actors out there, join the union. Do it now.
If you’re a student and are about to graduate from a theatre school, call up ACTRA or EQUITY, and take advantage of the credit they are offering you. If you are established to some degree, do what you can to join. Wait, you’ve heard advice to the contrary?
There is a load of bad advice floating around in this industry. You’ll hear from many many people not to join the union. They are all wrong. They’ve got their own agendas, and their own pockets to line. Agents and Casting Directors are at the top of this list of offenders, sadly. Hell, many times, actors themselves are guilty. You’ve got to take an honest look at the people doling out the advice. Don’t listen to any of them. Listen to me, the actor paying for his mistakes ten years later.
The agents advising you not to join ACTRA, if you look at those agent’s rosters, you’ll see that they are primarily comprised of non-union actors. They are advising you not to join the union because the rent will keep getting paid if you don’t. They’ll be able to keep submitting you for the crappy industrials, and the low pay commercials, and the reenactment dramas, and they’ll continue to earn their 15% without regard to your career. But wait, wouldn’t they make more money if their rosters were working Union jobs? They don’t have the reach or clout to get you into union casting rooms, which are casting basically anything worth a damn.
Same with casting directors. The ones that tell you to ‘stay non-union, because there is more work’ are in it for themselves. They haven’t earned the clout required to land union casting contracts, and so long as they can convince their pool of workers to keep playing in their sandbox, they’ll make a living.
The big casting directors, the ones that are casting the tv shows on tv, and the films you see in the theatre don’t have time or patience or ability to go out and search through thousands of potential non-union actors. They have a very limited budget and very limited time to cast projects. As well, they are bound by existing union agreements, preventing them from even seeing more than one or two non-union types for any audition. At that, they are not allowed to cast them unless it’s proven that there isn’t a similar unionized candidate. So in short, you’ll not get the caliber of work you dreamed of on the non-union side.
Actors are some of the worst offenders on this list. In my experience, the actors giving out the bad advice are the ones who are still non-union. They’ve been following this terrible advice themselves. Or, alternately, they’ve only recently made the switch, and haven’t put in the proper time to network.
One of the common lamentations you’ll hear from actors: “After I joined the Union, I went from auditioning all the time, to three auditions a year, if I was lucky.”
And that is true. Because the actor is now networking in a completely new business. Most of the contacts and clout they’ve gained on the non-union side won’t transfer over, and so they have to start again.
So the question remains…
Why did you become an actor in the first place? If the answer is to be on TV, or be a movie star, or tread the boards at Stratford, staying non-union will not get you anywhere near those goals.
Conceptually, we’ve got to treat union and non-union work as the separate career paths that they are. Non-union work doesn’t bleed over, at least in the film world, to union work. Doing a really great non-union feature film won’t land you a union audition. Why? They are separate businesses, each with their own separate infrastructures, separate needs, and separate mouths to feed.
Another reason why actors give out this bad advice is this ill conceived concept of ‘good enough’. The classic “My agent doesn’t think I’m ready for the union”, or, “I don’t know if I’m good enough for the big leagues”.
Why are you stopping yourself before you start? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in over a decade of performance, it’s that talent is largely irrelevant on the bottom rung of the big league ladder. For a walk-on role, It doesn’t matter if you’re ‘good enough’ it only matters if you’re ‘right’.
Are you physically right for the part? Can you say your lines without sounding like a used car salesman starring in his own commercial? (If you can’t, you should rethink this whole acting thing anyway). If so, then that’s all that matters, at least for entry level work on union projects.
Can you say a line. Can you hit a mark. Do you look the way they need you to on camera. Are you at least somewhat compelling. If so, everything else is beyond your control, and you shouldn’t hold yourself back because you think you aren’t ready.
To relate a story. Over two years, before a certain television show stopped production, I auditioned 19 times for various Actor and Principal roles. 19 times, and I never booked once. On the surface, that looks like a massive failure. However, anybody in the biz will tell you, ‘Shit that casting director liked you enough to call you in that many times. Good stuff!’
Had I been non-union, I’d be lucky to have landed one or two auditions for that show. One or two auditions isn’t enough to build a relationship with a casting director. 19 is. Because I’m union, I’m now on their radars.
Added to that, even if casting likes you, and enjoys your work, it’s largely up to the network. An actor is at least three steps removed from that decision. Don’t stack the cards against yourself before you’ve been dealt in.
So, this ‘stay non-union’ advice is clearly hogwash. But just in case you didn’t get the point, here are a few other reasons as to why you should join the union as soon as you can.
It tells every film maker, casting director, and agent out there that you are a professional in your field. You aren’t a hobbyist. You aren’t a weekend warrior. You are doing what it takes to make this career path work.
Job opportunities might present to those who dabble. Career opportunities don’t.
There is a sense of comradery in the union, (it’s a union after all) that makes networking easier. ACTRA hosts many member exclusive workshops and networking events throughout the year. Feeling alone in the slog? Get in touch with any other professional. Boom. Instant colleague.
Also, let’s face it. If you want to grow as an actor, the best way is to work with people better than yourself. Union actors have all made the professional declaration, and are aware that their skills need to be sharp to compete. The chance of being partnered in a scene with a complete stinker is lowered. (Not gone completely. This is the entertainment biz after all. Sometimes people still get cast with no ability based upon their look or connections).
You get paid…. For your work…. What a concept!
Seriously, being paid a liveable and sustainable wage is so very important for an artist. A decade ago I was happy to live the starving artist’s life. In my 30’s, and onwards? Not so much. Paying rent through my passion and career is amazing.
Also, there is a reasonable assurance that you will be paid for your work. At this point, I’m probably owed close to 20 grand from productions and producers on the non-union side who never paid. (And by that, I mean cold hard cash. That figure doesn’t include the deferred payments. That’s an entirely different level of depressing).
If those shenanigans happen at all on the union side, they’re rarer than rare, as there are safeguards in place.
Protection from Commercial Exploitation:
It happens every day. Films/commercials hire non-union actors for free, or for a very low wage, and have ridiculous usage clauses attached.
Sure, when you are young, a buyout sounds like a great deal. A few thousand bucks in your pocket and your face is on the TeeVee. But when you look at professional rates, or when you receive a residual cheque, you viscerally see how much money you’ve been shortchanged.
Also, let’s face it. Most non-union productions have no protections for the actor on the backend. If the project makes ten million, does the actor get a cut of that? Likely not, as those types of contracts are rarely in place. Actors need to remember that future life of work should be taken into account monetarily. Usage rights ain’t free, and they damn well shouldn’t be.
The big R-word that shall not be named.
I know when I was a youngin’ I didn’t give a rats ass about it. But seeing my parents go through the turmoil, it’s enough to scare the crap out of me. It makes me happy to know that despite my disinterest in knowing how it all works, there is some money, somewhere, automatically put there before I even know it exists. Old-man-me will be happy about this, I guarantee it.
I can’t tell you how many stupid things I’ve done on camera over the years to get the shot. Likely, I’ll keep doing them. But now that I’m in the union, I can at least rest a little more easily knowing that basic safety rules are followed. A stunt is still a stunt, there is still danger, but at least if something goes wrong, I know there’s insurance and professionals on scene to help. Not so on the non-union side. Looking back…. The shots were never worth the risks.
Joooooin usssss! (Sounds really creepy when you say it like that, but it’s for your own good).
Making such a declarative leap is a scary thing, for sure. But the union isn’t the monster under your bed. It isn’t actively working against the little guy. It’s business is to help make ‘the business’ safer for actors. It’s cut-throat out there, and actors need all the help that they can get on that big scary ocean of an industry. If you fly a professional flag, people will treat you professionally. The industry can’t readily tell if an actor is a professional just by looking at them, so make it easy. Let them know. Join the union.
Reblogged this on The Harlton Empire.
Fantastic article! Every aspiring actor needs to read this.
Reblogged this on alexjcampbell.
So how often do you work in the course of a year?
It depends on the year, really. Some years are slower then others. I’m having a good year this year though- 3 principal gigs in the last 6 weeks. Over the long run, I’d probably average a principal gig every 2 or 3 months though.
(Paid work- I do plenty more gigs that are co-ops or self created during the downtime, so the ‘number of gigs’ answer changes depending on for-pay, or for-art.
Quality vs quantity, that’s been my motto the past few years.
Thanks for the question! I hope it helps. Feel free to reach out if you have more.
I have the opportuniny to permit myslef for a union gig – was on the fence. I have no IMDB credits so far. This really convinced me.
Hi. What do you think-does a BG extra need to become ACTRA?I am doing BG acting for 4 years already just because I like it. I am not an actor by profession. Thank you.
Profession aside, if you’re consistently working in the industry, joining the union is the right choice.
(There’s a notable pay increase and increased job security for union background vs non-union.)
Thank you for your very honest writing. I was given this advise multiple times by Casting directors not to join the union, because the union actors are extremely talented, and that the competition is very tight. But there was a strong tug inside me that led me to research more on this, and came across your blog, and I’m thankful I did.
Would you happen to know if an actra apprentice can audition for union roles?
Yes, ACTRA apprentice members are viewed as full union members for all intents and purposes. (The big difference between apprentice membership and full membership is voting rights in union elections, and the per-job permit fees that apprentice members are subject to). Casting will give you preference of engagement- the same a full ACTRA member.
Hope that helps!