On an unseasonably cold and rainy day in the summer of 2012, I arrived to work promptly at 5:30 a.m. in downtown Brooklyn. I was one of about 100 background actors—colloquially referred to as “extras”—prepared to work on a commercial that day. Unlike most working actors aspiring for bigger roles, I was just there to earn more money and to ensure my rent checks wouldn’t bounce.
At lunchtime, after almost eight hours of work, fresh fruit, pasta salads, a vegetable platter, and sandwiches were laid out in a small tent. We were hungry, cold, and ready for a nourishing break. But I quickly learned this spread was only for the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors. Us non-SAG, non-union actors could only watch our co-workers eat.
Later, we were offered McDonald’s hamburgers. A few of us vegetarians banded together and asked the production assistant if there was a meatless option. He told us that there was, and brought a smaller McDonald’s box. Inside the buns: a piece of cheese, a squirt of ketchup, and a pickle. It would still be another five hours before I could go home for real sustenance.
Those who are not in the entertainment industry may view extra work as exciting—getting to be on-set with movie stars and seeing behind-the-scenes action. There is a persisting myth that doing work as an extra may lead to a foot in the door, in part perpetuated by famous actors, like James Dean and Renée Zellweger, who once did background acting. Brad Pitt has joked about attempting to sneak lines in his earliest jobs doing background work. But these gigs are more incidental than a step towards larger roles.
The main difference between principal actors and extras is that the former have speaking lines, while the latter do not. While both can theoretically join SAG, it is much more difficult for background actors to become members. The notion of paying one’s dues by putting up with degrading behavior in acting mirrors other exploitative practices in the industry, like executives who mistreat writers’ assistants, script coordinators, and other aspiring employees, who work overtime for little while dodging staplers thrown at their heads or no pay waiting for a big break.
While the entertainment industry has finally begun to address some of its abusive and unfair labor practices through movements like #MeToo and #PayUpHollywood, background actors are still deemed marginal. That non-union background actors don’t have the negotiating powers to set working conditions, like those in SAG or IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees—a union comprised of technicians, artisans, and craftspeople in the entertainment industry), is an outcome of a long labor fight in Hollywood, in part shaped by their very own co-workers on set.
The Elite Drive to Unionize Hollywood Actors
Though attempts to organize actors in Hollywood began in the early 1900s, SAG officially formed in 1933, but since its inception, the place of background actors has been marginal and precarious. “When the Depression hit, you had studio heads asking top talent to take a pay cut,” Kate Fortmueller, a Professor of Entertainment & Media Studies at the University of Georgia explained. This enraged many working actors and galvanized them to start a union. The natural place for their organizing efforts were the Hollywood actors’ clubs, some of the only spaces where actors met free of the supervision of producers. “In large part because people began organizing through social spheres,” says Fortmueller. “Extras were not really a part of that conversation.”
Fortmueller’s book Below the Stars: How the Labor of Working Actors and Extras Shapes Media Production, which comes out in July, examines the relationships of actors’ labor unions in the entertainment industry. Important to this history is the particular way hierarchies were formed between on-screen actors and their background counterparts. As historian David Prindle has noted, even the naming of SAG as an artistic “guild” rather than a labor union was a class-based distinction that distanced them from working-class unions.
In 1946, extras, who did not see their interests represented in SAG, formed their own union, Screen Extras Guild (SEG), with hopes of addressing two main issues: underemployment and poor compensation while working alongside SAG. “But SAG’s shifting priorities made it hard for SEG to align with them,” Fortmueller said. The advent of television production and reruns put the question of residuals at the forefront of SAG’s interests. “Actors, writers, and directors were fighting for residuals, and the extras were looking to get more regular working days. These differences in priorities lead to the two groups hemorrhaging.”
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 made organizing more difficult for all American workers by outlawing secondary strikes and boycotts, making solidarity across unions increasingly difficult. In Hollywood, registered and suspected communists were blacklisted from studios to dissuade organizing efforts. And because union membership was made mandatory after 30 days on sets, producers would hire low-wage non-union extras for short periods of time. This prevented them from joining the union, in turn keeping their wages low.
Throughout all of these negotiations, background work was constantly degraded. Famous directors like Robert Altman referred to extras as “unskilled people,” and prominent actors like Charles Heston, Clint Eastwood, and others fought to oppose a potential merger between SEG and SAG. The president of SAG, Ed Asner, then openly supported left-wing movements in El Salvador, and a lot of the anti-merging rhetoric was shrouded in red baiting. Heston called Asner “communist swine” and insinuated that extra work could be done by animals.
When the SAG-SEG merger failed in the 1980s, SEG began conversations with the Teamsters—a 1.6 million member union. The Teamsters represented other workers in the industry, including about 3,000 studio drivers, and many other types of unions, like the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the United Furniture Workers. With union membership in sharp decline for several decades, mergers were seen as vital to mere union survival, not merely contracts promising better pay and employment regularity. But those efforts crumbled too, and when SEG could not reach an agreement about working conditions with the Association for Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in 1990, all extra work in California was made non-union by default. Two years later, SEG dissolved altogether.
SAG actors thereafter were able to get extra work, and would sometimes do so to make additional money and qualify for health insurance and other SAG benefits. In 2012, SAG merged with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), though many refer to the union as SAG, and being SAG-AFTRA or SAG remains advantageous for background actors.
The State of Extras Working Today
This distinction between SAG and non-SAG has helped maintain infighting and fractures in solidarity while those making the greatest profits, studio and production heads, go relatively unperturbed.
As it stands now, after producers fulfill their SAG quota, they can cast non-union background actors at a much lower pay-rate and provide on-set amenities at a cheaper price. Production companies in some sectors sometimes prefer to over-hire non-union actors and extras to cut costs. And film scholar Emily Carman argues that typecasting in the early 20th century cemented industry norms that limited acting opportunities beyond extra work for Black people in particular. Non-union actors are in a peculiar bind; without SAG membership, they may be denied benefits, protections like ways to file grievances and healthcare, and steady wages, but precisely because non-union jobs are paid at a lower rate, they are more plentiful for non-union actors.
New York-based actor Emily Nash transitioned from background acting to commercial work to better earn a living. She has been getting steady work but has been cautioned by many to not join SAG despite being eligible. “I asked [my agency] about SAG but they cautioned me against it because about 90 percent of the [commercial] work is non-union. There is SAG work out there but there is just so much less of it.”
It’s that hope of experiencing Hollywood glamour that keeps many extras going: Nash remembers meeting an aspiring actor and admirer of Keanu Reeves who paid her own flight across the country to be in the background of John Wick, reporting, alongside Nash, to a big club in Times Square around 4 a.m. to work 12-hour days in high heels filming an action sequence.
Los Angeles-based actor Claire Glassford joined SAG as soon as she was able, especially after experiencing callous conditions in the form of absurd hierarchies as a non-SAG extra on Boardwalk Empire. “There were even really strict restrictions about union actors eating before you.”
Joining SAG, even when actors want to, can be what has been described as a “vicious cycle.” To get chances to audition with many casting directors, actors need notable credits and an agent, but they cannot usually get those credits unless they are in a union. Glassford was lucky enough to get a Taft-Hartley waiver, which is a fast track to joining the union. (Occasionally, if a non-union employee works a union job, they can get “Taft-Hartly’d” in later, although production companies often tend to avoid this from the outset if they can.) SAG membership but for Glassford, it was a better deal.
The dehumanization of extras can sometimes result in unsafe working conditions. For his first feature, New York-based SAG actor John Barrack noticed that non-union actors were forced to stay outside sub-zero temperatures at 2 a.m. “Because I was part of the principal cast, I could go inside a nearby shop and go warm up,” he recalled. At a later job, Barrack showed up to a shoot and a production van crashed into his car while he was looking for parking, and the driver, confusing him for an extra, told him “extras cannot not park on the street,” instead of expressing concern about his safety. Later in the same day, an extra fainted after standing under the lights too long.
With masses of unorganized workers relegated to tenuous circumstances, exploitative working conditions in an already exploitive industry are easier to enforce. Unionization for all workers—not just above the line speaking actors—would ensure better wages, steady work, and health care, among other protections. And setting a high standard for general working conditions, like being able to file grievances, could improve the on-set experience for everyone—if you give those in power less space to be abusive in any manner, everyone wins. After all, who wants to see their fellow workers shivering out in the cold?
“Until this point I think people have often just thought, ‘Oh, that’s just the way it is,’” says Glassford. “But we’re in this moment questioning all of these kinds of things about power in the industry so maybe it’s time to think about all actors as well.”
Follow Hannah Borenstein on Twitter.