For actors in WMass, SAG-AFTRA union strike about ‘the little guys’

In a few weeks, Ellyana Stanton plans to join the picketing in Boston alongside supporters and her fellow members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. She hopes to draw attention to the effects of low wages on actors with smaller roles in TV and film.

For the first time since 1960, members of the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA are striking at the same time. Both organizations are seeking wage increases and protections against artificial intelligence.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s really the little guys who are keeping this industry running, and we need a wage increase to keep up with inflation,” Stanton said. “Inflation has impacted everyone, but really the background actors, the stunt performers, we all drive ourselves to and from work, and sometimes that’s two hours away, each way, and with gas prices and everything, we’re looking for an overall increase in wages to keep up with the cost of living in today’s time.”

Stanton said her per diem has not increased since 2001.

She started acting in her early teens as a background actor and then began her feature film career in a small role in the 2010 movie “Edge of Darkness,” which was partially filmed in Western Massachusetts and starred Mel Gibson.

Although her scene as a news reporter was ultimately cut, she said she learned a lot from her experience. She has since booked a majority of her work as a commercial actor for a variety of products and businesses, including Bank of America.

Stanton said the strike is having an immense effect on the film industry in Massachusetts.

“This time of year, Massachusetts would be booming. In fact, we have about four productions that are ready to go, if and when this strike comes to an end. And Massachusetts is really growing as a whole for productions. A lot of us are eager, especially after the pandemic shutdown, to stay consistently working. And so I think that, you know, a lot of us would love to get back to work, but we’re not willing to work in poor working conditions.”

The four Bay State productions, according to the Massachusetts Film Office website, are “Urban Ed,” “Fakes,” “The Greatest Ever” and “Blue Hawaii.”

Stanton said, although the strike is for the background performers, stunt performers, stunt coordinators and everyone involved with the production of a film who is not in a leading role, she appreciates the power of the most famous actors and the solidarity that they show when they picket.

All in the same business

Actor Ayana Brown, a resident of Springfield and SAG-AFTRA member, echoed Stanton’s sentiments.

“We’re all one entire union,” Brown said. “The union is for the A-list actors all the way down to the local actors … actors that make smaller salaries. … They could easily sit back and say, ‘This doesn’t really affect us. We’re gonna sit back and see how this works for everyone else.’ But like I said, we’re one union, and we’re all in the same business, whether it’s Denzel Washington or Ayana Brown.”

Ayana Brown

Ayana Brown, a resident of Springfield, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. (James Foster / Special to The Republican)

Brown grew up in Amherst and started her acting journey in theater before beginning a career in TV and film in 2006. She started out as a background actor and joined the guild within the year. Brown then turned to principal work and has been acting ever since.

As someone who has been in the business for 17 years, Brown has experienced many of the industry’s shortcomings, especially those pertaining to actors of color.

“I’m an African American actress, and something that I noticed very early on, and I’m actually glad it’s on the table for negotiations, was that a lot of the hair and makeup artists were not as well-versed with dealing with people of color with our textured hair or our skin color, and it actually is something that we’re asking for in our negotiations — you know, that we have qualified hair and makeup artists who can style different hair types and also people who can work with different skin tones.”

Brown said that, although she would like to, she won’t be able to join the picketing in Boston and New York, since she works a full-time job. However, if there was a picketing event in Western Massachusetts, she would gladly attend.

About artificial intelligence

As with many industries, actors are becoming increasingly concerned about the rise of AI and it being used to replicate their image without compensation. Stanton expressed concern about the mental welfare of actors whose images might be purchased but can be used for years in the future. In a business that often focuses on youth, she was especially worried about how actors might see themselves when their image from 20 years prior is still used on-screen.

While no feature film and TV jobs are available during the strike, Stanton encourages actors to stay away from non-union jobs, suggesting her fellow actors turn toward commercial acting and appearances in independent films.

“I’d love to get the word out there that commercials are still able to be run. Those aren’t the contracts that we’re striking. Industrials and corporate educational videos are still able to be done. Independent — not Netflix or HBO — but independent movies that are able to sign a contract with the union — which is very easy — are still able to get done. But what we’re fighting against is these multibillion-dollar companies — those are the guys we’re really fighting up against.”

The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes are expected to continue for weeks, with some actors, including “Succession” star Brian Cox saying the strike could last until the end of the year.

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