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How Do I Join the Screen Actors Guild?

Background Actors and Union Vouchers

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It's award season - the time of year when Hollywood's elite walks down the red carpet, smiles for the media, and brushes up on their acceptance speeches. They make it look so glamorous and so deceptively easy, when in truth becoming a Hollywood star -- or even a humble actor making a living wage -- is one of the most difficult ambitions in America.

So, how do you become a working actor in the motion picture and television industry? It takes talent, connections, luck, and a whole list of other things that could fill a books (and overflow this simple blog entry). But the first item that aspiring actors should strive for is simple: You need a S.A.G. card.

What's a SAG card? It signifies that you belong to the Screen Actors Guild. Having one opens up so many possibilities: higher pay, benefits, potential agents, potential auditions, potential connections with casting directors.

Your Big Break?

The next obvious question: "How do I get a SAG card?" The simplest way is the most difficult: Land a principle role on a union television show or film. Just about any speaking part will do. The problem of course is that most casting directors will select talent from actors who already belong to the union. This doesn't make it impossible, but it certainly makes it extremely unlikely. (Unless you have an uncle who is a big-shot Hollywood producer. In which case, why are you reading this, go to your uncle's mansion and ask to star in his next film.)

Extra Work:

Working as an extra (or "background artist") is not the most spectacular end of the thespian's spectrum. However, it does provide a slight chance of getting into the Screen Actor's Guild.

The Screen Actor's Guild specifies that all union productions must hire a certain amount of SAG Members as background actors. For example, during a film shoot, a union production must hire at least 50 SAG members as background.

What happens if a only 49 SAG members show up? That means one lucky non-union actor will receive a voucher. They will be paid union scale for that day. Best of all, if a non-union actor earns three vouchers, they are then qualified to join the Screen Actors Guild.

I've known some people who have worked as extras for years, and have yet to receive a single voucher. And I know many actors who earned three vouchers in less than a month.

Tips for Getting Vouchers:

Non-union actors who hope to receive vouchers should try to work as often as they can, and make as many good connections as they can. Here are a few tips:

  • Be kind to the people above and below you.
  • Avoid gossiping with fellow extras.
  • Arrive early to the set.
  • Be professional and polite to the crew.
  • Do not ask for autographs (Be cool).
  • Be attentive - you never know when they might need you.

And one of the most important tools for a professional extra: A diverse wardrobe. Some film shoots hope to save money by casting background actors who already have proper wardrobe. So, if you have a business suit, a doctor's outfit, a security guard uniform, or anything else - good! Casting directors will make a note of the different types you can play. The ore versatile your wardrobe is, the more likely you'll get hired for the background.

With a little luck, before you know it, you'll have a SAG card. Keep in mind, that getting into the Screen Actors Guild does not mean instant fame and fortune. Thousands of people are in the Guild, many of which do not make a living wage. However, the SAG card gets you one step closer to your dreams, and believe me, it is a very big and important step.

Are you already a member of the Screen Actors Guild? Share you story? How did you get your SAG card?

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