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A Working Actor Tells Me What's At Stake
Actor Curt Mega shares his thoughts on the SAG-AFTRA strike.
This week, SAG-AFTRA — a union that represents 160,000 actors, broadcast personalities, and other professionals — went on strike. The strike will bring Hollywood to a standstill and shut down any remaining production that was happening in the wake of the writers’ strike (which itself has been going on for over 2 months). I watched the SAG-AFTRA press conference announcing the strike and broke down some of the takeaways on my YouTube channel.
For Decoding Everything today, I wanted to talk with an average, everyday working member of SAG-AFTRA about what their experience has been watching the strike unfold. What’s life like as an actor these days and why are so many actors ready to go on strike in favor of a new contract?
I was grateful that Curt Mega agreed to speak with me. I’ll leave it to the interview for Curt to explain who he is but in full disclosure, I consider Curt to be a collaborator and colleague on a lot of my online work. In this interview, we discussed why residuals are so important to an actors’ livelihoods, how life as an actor has changed over time, and the nature of the threat of AI. Below is a transcript of part of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
David Chen: Why don't you start by telling people in what capacity you work as an actor?
Curt Mega: I’m a journeyman actor. When I first moved to LA, I booked a show called Glee and I got to work on 17 episodes of that which was amazing. It started as one episode that was just supposed to be a one-off. And then they just kept inviting us back and over a course of four or five years, it ended up adding up to 17 episodes which was literally 16 more than I thought it would be. That was a wonderful experience and definitely set me up to think, “That’s how all shows will go, right?” That's not how all shows go.
Since that show ended I have worked, I would say, pretty frequently. Obviously every actor wants to work more than they do, but I've worked on probably 15 or 20 TV shows since then. On average, I work on 2 or 3 shows a year in terms of being on camera. It's been more some years, like “Oh my gosh, I booked 6 things this year!” Some years it's been less. 2020, there was nothing. 2021, there was nothing. And then I saw a little resurgence.
I had a few opportunities pop up last year and I also work a lot as a voiceover actor and that often is actually more consistent. I do dubbing work. I do animation. I do commercial work. I recently just worked as a commercial actor in a Bud Light commercial. It's such a varied wide range of things, but I would say myself and actors in our range, if you book 3 or 4 projects a year, that was a good year.
And then you supplement. You supplement with all kinds of other work and other projects. But you know, you get to sort of celebrate, “Hey we're doing the thing professionally those 3 or 4 times a year!” and that's usually the average.
What percent of your income does acting make up?
It's definitely changed. When I first moved here, I worked at Starbucks and I auditioned. Then I booked Glee and that was the only money that I made for years. I quickly realized that to be sustainable I would need to cultivate other skills.
It's so funny. I posted a Tiktok today that I think has like 75,000 views now [DChen’s note: It’s up to around 350K views as of this writing] and people are so mad and they're so angry. “These actors!” They keep saying, “Go get another job!” And it's like literally, we do! We all do! It's a baffling comeback.
In the last few years, I actually started my own production company and I started to cultivate my skills behind the camera. I do a lot of editing work. I do a lot of videography work. Especially in the wake of COVID, my income is significantly switched from being predominantly acting with supplemental income [to] now probably, I want to say it’s 70/30 [in favor of] non-acting work.
What do you feel are the biggest issues at stake in the SAG-AFTRA strike?
I know for actors in my ballpark, my kind of position, I would’ve said until today that the biggest thing was residuals. Actors, we book a job and and you're paid decently for the time, but then the idea is it continues to air and you're paid each time subsequently.
Residuals are basically what is paid out to people who help to make an episode of TV or a movie when the work is reused again.
Yeah, and you know that was such a blessing back in the Glee days because you would do an episode and then months later out of the blue, you'd get paid again. So suddenly, those several days of work turned into another several days [worth] of work that sort of happened just because it re-aired.
Do you mind sharing how much a typical residual check was from Glee in the early days?
Yeah. If you would do a daily rate of like $1000 a day, which I know people freak out and they go, “That sounds like a lot of money to me!” Which it is, but if you're only working once every two or three months then that's only $1000.
Not not to mention your agent takes such a chunk, your manager takes a chunk. There's taxes and so on.
Yeah, and then a residual check would almost always be, especially on a first re-airing, somewhat close to your original session fee. If you were lucky enough to have a weekly contract, which is like $3,000 or $3,500, several months later you would get a check for $3,500 and you'd be like, okay, that's rent and groceries and this month just got much easier! That is how you're able to get to certain minimums that are required to make health insurance. To make health insurance, actors have to make a certain amount of money that comes through acting work.
I think it’s around $26,000-$27,000, if I’m not mistaken? [Note: The amount is $26,470]
When I started it was $12,000. When I was on Glee, it was $12,000, so it has more than doubled. $12,000 was much more achievable. If you did 3 or 4 episodes and then you also got residuals, and then maybe you booked 1 commercial or something, you could eke out over that. Now $26,000 feels like, unless you are a series regular, it is almost impossible because of some of the systemic changes they've made to prevent people from getting paid as much.
Do you know anyone who has worked on a streaming show and what has their experience been with residuals?
Just a complete falloff. When I was working on Glee, it was [on a broadcast network]. Glee no longer airs anywhere on broadcast. Fox was bought by Disney. Glee now airs exclusively on Disney and before that it was on Netflix. And let me tell you, when it went from re-aring on network to being on streaming, the checks went from hundreds or thousands to like five dollars. Three dollars. So although I haven't worked on streaming, I have seen those residual checks plummet. And then I've had plenty of friends who've worked on streaming projects and [they’re making] pennies to the dollar [of] what one could have expected.
When [Glee] went from re-aring on network to being on streaming, the checks went from hundreds or thousands to like five dollars.
I think a lot of people are confused. They're like, “So the actors want to get paid more?” and we're like “No, we just want to get paid what we were promised the reairing of our shows would be.” Not understanding, ten years ago, that most of this content would not be re-aired, like a Seinfeld or Friends were for years, but it would all just get shoved onto a streaming service, which was the sort of beacon of “Hey here's how we'll preserve content!” We've seen how that's gone.
Network and broadcast are essentially dying. So few shows get picked up to network or broadcast now. That's virtually gone and so we are left only with streaming, which is fine except that those contracts are not sustainable. That's been the big issue, is saying, “Hey the system has changed, the contracts have not, we need to restructure them.” To which the producers said no, we won't.
The second issue I have been a little less worried about until literally yesterday is the AI thing. AI is such a hot button topic and I have plenty of moral, ethical questions about it. I've definitely been, “Maybe we're overreacting.” Then to hear [the proposal the SAG negotiating committee was presented with], it really starts to make me go okay, maybe this is way worse than I thought it was. Maybe these studios are much farther down the rabbit hole in terms of the investment they're putting into AI.
You're alluding to what happened at the SAG-AFTRA press conference announcing the strike where [SAG-AFTRA negotiator] Duncan Crabtree-Ireland revealed that they wanted to come to an agreement on AI. The studios came to them with a proposal that said if you're a background actor, we can scan your face, use your likeness in perpetuity and pay you not very much because background actors aren't paid very much per day. How did you feel when you heard that?
Surprised because again, I guess I just naively assumed like we couldn't be that far down that path. I just thought, well it's this technology. It’s being entertained and how will it be integrated? And now their reluctance to even engage with it really makes me go, “What truly are they hiding?”
What is going on over there? I am utterly baffled by the strategy. I don't understand what the endgame is aside from, I guess, starving us out and making us homeless. I'm completely baffled as to what it is that they're looking for to be willing to have the conversation. Not even compromise, just even have the conversation about what the compromise might be.
I think people at these organizations would love to be able to create art without the messiness of human creativity.
Here's the one thing I'll say with AI that really concerns me as a voiceover actor. And you all did this. You did this on The Filmcast, showing how accessible it is to replicate people's voices without having them in the room. It is not hard to take someone's voice and copy it and make them say whatever you want. That has implications in the real world that are terrifying. But in terms of artists, that's a terrifying thing to me because a lot of the work I do is voiceover. So then I go, “What's to say they don't just pay a few specific actors to model their voices and then take their voice and then they can just do whatever they want?”
We, as actors, will work on set. A lot of times the audio on set is not something that can actually be used in post. We get paid to come back and we get paid for ADR (automated dialogue replacement), so we can record a nice clean audio pass. Well, what's to stop them from saying, “We don't need to pay you for that. We can literally just have you say whatever we want in a computer.” Those are the things that really keep me up at night and you’re right. I think they want to ultimately have creative freedom without any creators involved and that's why I think the strike is so dire and it's important.
Tell us a little bit about what the mood is in your community of actors. You know a lot of actors, I assume. What is your sense of what their feelings are on the strike?
Listen, we are so comfortable not working.
You're alluding to the fact that it's very difficult as an actor to get a job, right? So the idea of being on a strike is not massively disruptive to your lifestyle, necessarily.
No. I think in fact, people are hyped. I mean everybody for the last three months has been like, “Strike when? Strike when. Let's go. Let's strike!” Because I think a lot of us are like, “We have nothing to lose.”
And I think it's an interesting situation because if you're an A-list actor, if you're a series regular, or you're a movie star, you’re good financially. So yeah, it sucks to not work but in terms of losing your home, you're probably fine. If you're an actor like me and most of the 99% other actors, we all make most of our income without that.
I'm sure there are actors that fall into that category where it's like, “I really need the jobs I’m working on,” and my heart goes out to those people. But I think most actors are really ready to go, “Yeah, we can do this all day. I'm good. I'm happy to not work on a thing if it means we get something better in the future. Because we have nothing to lose except potential sustainability of a long term career.” So give it up for six months, a year. Whatever. I think we're all ready to do that.
Additional Reading Worth Your Time
Variety has more details about SAG-AFTRA’s demands.
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