Good Morning,

I have been acting for eight years: background work, movies, TV, and a featured role (speaking) in a commercial for the Veterans’ Administration.

Please advise the most efficient method to obtain the required three SAG vouchers to become a union member.

While on set, I respect everyone’s responsibilities and am not comfortable in asking the ADs for a SAG voucher.

Please advise of the optimum format for me to proceed.

All best and thank you for your time.

Paul Bartlau

Hi Paul. Thanks for writing.

Okay, assuming you want to score SAG membership so that you can continue to do extra work but at the “union level,” let me mention just a couple of cautions. One: It’s just as difficult to become a member of SAG when your ultimate goal is to continue doing extra work as it is when your goal is to be a principal actor. Two: In general, nonunion extras work more and eventually earn more money per year than SAG extras (simply because there is more work out there for nonunion extras than SAG extras on any given set). I totally understand the desire for union protection, health benefits, respect, etc., but in case it’s a money thing driving your desire to be a union extra, I wanted to point out that you can earn plenty of money as a nonunion extra and save up to buy private insurance just fine!

However, I’m going to assume that your desire to join SAG has less to do with your work as an extra and more to do with your pursuit of principal acting work. Honestly, if you’ve only had one speaking role (in that VA commercial), I’m going to say that it’s probably too soon for you to become a member of SAG. You have great “credits” listed at your webpage (Iron Man, Heroes, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Ocean’s Eleven, Judging Amy, etc.), but that’s all extra work. And, as you probably know from having been on so many sets, extra work and principal acting work are valued very differently.

That’s part of why it takes three SAG vouchers (and usually after having done dozens upon dozens of days of extra work) to even become SAG-eligible. The work of a principal performer is valued at a greater level than that of the background performer. An actor can become a union member via Taft-Hartley simply by working in a principal role on a project at the SAG Modified Low Budget level or above. Likewise, an actor can have a principal role in a SAG commercial and become a member of the union just like that! Because these roles are principal roles, the union membership happens without an actor having to earn three vouchers, like with extra work.

Now… how to earn your three SAG vouchers? Great question. I’ve known people who earned three vouchers their first three times on a set doing background work. They knew people. They had relationships. They showed up early and left late and were completely professional and became rewarded for both their behavior and their relationships by way of SAG vouchers. I’ve also known people who earned their three vouchers by begging, offering incentives, staying persistent and trusting that their continued requests for rewards would be — well — rewarded! Yes, I’ve heard the tales of completely inappropriate behavior in exchange for SAG vouchers too. No, I would never recommend such a thing.

In my opinion, the fastest, most efficient way to become a member of SAG when the move is no longer premature is to simply show up, do good work, and repeat. When it is TIME for you to be a member of SAG, you will book the role that earns you your SAG card. You will nail a commercial read. You will be Taft-Hartleyed on an indie film. You will do such good work in the background that three SAG vouchers will just float into your hand without so much as a sideways glance toward the AD who holds that power.

But when you’re looking to make a premature move (to become a member of SAG before you’re truly ready to be one, career-wise), it is almost impossible to get your vouchers. Think about that. It’s very handy that it’s too difficult to join SAG before being ready, for most people! So, let’s say you’re not ready to be a member of SAG anyway. You have very little experience in principal roles. Yes, you have TONS of experience as an extra, a background artist, atmosphere, whatever you’d prefer to call it! But in Los Angeles, it’s just not the same as acting in principal, speaking roles even in microbudget indies, nonunion spec pilots, or student films. (You can see from this week’s column how “specialists” aren’t the norm in other markets and background work is something working actors regularly do outside of LA. But in LA, it’s all about specializing. And once you’re branded as a career extra, it can be almost impossible to unbrand yourself.)

Here’s a great question: How much TAPE do you have on yourself, in speaking roles?

If the answer to that question is “very little,” then I recommend you get OFF the background artists circuit and start working in speaking roles in student films. Do spec pilots and spec commercials, nonunion. Try web series! Find as much work as you possibly can that yields TAPE of you doing principal roles. And then, when you’re sure you’re very good and your on-camera work is enjoyable, begin pursuing roles at a higher level. Begin pushing into the next bracket: Roles that will take you to the SAG membership status you so desperately want today.

I think it’s just too soon, perhaps. Yeah, you’ve got eight years of “experience,” but not eight years of ACTING experience. You have very little recognized training and you’ve become a professional extra. And that’s a wonderful career choice for a great many people. Lots of folks enjoy spending time on many sets per year, earning money, making friends, and then getting to play a game of “spot me in this scene” when the finished product hits theaters or a TV screen. But I know very few career extras who transition easily into the world of the working actor. There are two different skill sets at work, here.

Obviously, my readers will correct me via email if they care to share tales of working their way up from career extra (and I’m talking over five years of steady background work, here, not just a year or two) to working actor. But I’m going to stick by my guns and say that my advice to you is that you pick your road. Now.

Either stay on the road to career extradom (which is the one you’re already on) and stop worrying about scoring SAG vouchers; just enjoy the cool job you’ve got and have fun meeting people. Or hop off that road and onto the one that leads much more quickly, much more efficiently to SAG membership and a career as a working actor: Be a working actor. And yes “working” in this example means working for tape, working for credits (real credits, speaking role credits, IMDb credits, NOT extra work credits — which don’t belong on an acting resumé ever), working for relationships with people who are also on the rise and happy to network with you (as opposed to big, studio players who don’t see the value in you as an up-and-coming actor they can put in a speaking role someday).

You’ve got a great look and obviously enjoy this pursuit! It’s time now either to shift gears into pursuing a career in acting or to stick with the career you’re already pursuing: one in the background. There is no one who can tell you which of those two career tracks is going to be more exciting, rewarding, or personally fulfilling for you. But you can’t chase both dreams. And thinking that doing background work for nearly a decade is the road to becoming a working actor is probably just gonna leave you disillusioned and disappointed. Nobody wants that!

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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