Some 200 New Yorkers, me included, gathered at a prominent cultural center last spring, the men in crisp tuxedos and patent shoes, the women donning sparkly gowns and platform sandals. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we were attending a posh benefit for the arts, or a gala for a rising lawmaker poised to dominate Gotham’s liberal politics.
And you wouldn’t be wrong exactly. We were attending a gala. Only, this was a fake gala staged by a Hollywood production company. The 200 smartly dressed New Yorkers were extras, “background actors” in industry parlance, there to create the blurry impression of a chic shindig for viewers of one of those prestige TV shows that have come to supplant the silver-screen drama as serious American entertainment.
I was one of those extras, accompanying a friend who likes to do background acting once in a blue moon. What I figured might be a fun encounter with Hollywood magic turned out to be one of the most exhausting and miserable days of my life in many years—a throwback to my early college years, the last time I worked a highly regimented, hourly wage job. If anything, the glittering façade and proximity to the stars made the workplace discipline and grinding toil all the more galling.
If anti-union blowhards spent a single shift as an extra, I suspect, they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the current Screen Actors Guild strike as a tantrum by spoiled Hollywood brats.
Our day began at about 3 p.m. at a community center converted to a makeshift base of operations for the background unit. To win approval as extras, we had to get three sign-offs: hair, makeup, and dress. For the men, this was all relatively speedy, but for the women, it was more of an ordeal. Still, at this stage, there was only excitement. We looked good. And word among some veterans was that this would be a quick shoot: How long would it take to film a gala scene taking up just a few minutes of screentime?
The answer: very long—12-plus hours, to be precise, most of it spent standing up, with the assistant directors constantly on the prowl to ensure that no one was shirking.
Upon first arriving at the location, the extras had loftier concerns than the state of our feet. Most were hoping the cameras would catch us near the stars. For my friend and me, there was nothing bigger at stake than bragging rights. But for many of the other extras we chatted with in between shots, this was about trying to land bigger roles. Still others didn’t care: Background acting was how they made their living, and the drudgery had long ago smothered the aspirational factor.
The dream of winning the camera’s gaze sustained us in high spirits for about three or four hours, right about till dinner time. At dinner, the extras were divided into two groups: “Our SAG friends, you will be heading” to Such-and-Such Restaurant, where a nice meal awaited them. “Our non-union friends, you will be heading back to the community center,” where the grub on offer was scarcely better than economy-class airplane food.
I was non-union, of course, but I went to a nearby bistro and had a burger-and-martini dinner. But again, many of the other background actors weren’t hobbyists like me. This was their real job. The per-shift pay—$180 before taxes, plus about $60 for time spent on the mandatory Covid testing—was what they needed to make ends meet. For these workers, cold sandwiches it had to be. That is, unless they belonged to SAG and could enjoy the hard-won fruits of collective action.
After dinner, the process became much more grueling, and all our thought bubbles of stardom dissipated into the unseasonably hot New York air.
Imagine being told to stand in one place, say Spot A, and then directed to walk over to Spot B. Now imagine having to traverse the 100-foot distance between the two spots 30, 40, maybe 50 times—only to then be commanded to walk a different path of similar distance a similar number of times. And then another, and another, and another.
“The length and frequency of breaks divided the collective bargainers from the rugged individualists.”
“Our SAG friends, you can now take a break. Our non-union friends, we’re going to ask that you please carry on.” Just as with dinner quality, the length and frequency of breaks divided the collective bargainers from the rugged individualists. Thirst mounted, calves and knees began to falter, tempers flared up, and still we had to walk from Spot A to Spot B, over and over again.
And we couldn’t quit mid-shift—lest we forfeit our entire pay for the day. I still don’t understand how this is legal, but we were sternly made to understand that in order to receive any pay, we had to be “checked out” at the end of the shift. Walking out even 90 percent into the shift didn’t count. It was all or nothing. My friend and I stuck around to the bitter end, even though we didn’t really need the acting paychecks. Hey, we’d put in the eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 hours—might as well get paid for it. We had the luxury of a choice. Others, who did this for a living, simply didn’t.
The point isn’t that background acting is an especially brutal form of labor. Workers in many other sectors are subjected to far more severe coercion in exchange for a paycheck in the 21st-century US economy. But it is to say that exploitation is inevitable in any labor market where there are far fewer buyers of waged labor power than there are sellers—which is to say, in virtually every such market, no matter how glamorous the commodity or service being produced. Under such conditions, the best and indeed the only way workers can improve their lot in a durable way is by mounting countervailing power against employers as a group, rather than individually.
Unless the American right can wrap its mind around these basic truths, it doesn’t deserve to be called “pro-worker.”