On July 13, as SAG-AFTRA leadership declared the union was going on strike, SAG-AFTRA Foundation president Courtney B. Vance and executive director Cyd Wilson drafted a letter to 2,700 of the union’s highest-earning actors outlining the financial need that many would face in the work stoppage.
“Having been through this during COVID and having such a great response from our own membership to take care of their own, when the strike was decided, Courtney and I sat down with our team and said, ‘Here we go again,’” Wilson tells Variety.
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation (a non-profit organization associated with the union, but not part of it) worked to provide financial relief to many of the union’s 160,000 members via the foundation’s Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which will again be used to help actors during the strike.
“We rely on donations and grants to provide services — we have been very fortunate that we raised enough money to be able to cover all of our programs,” Wilson explains. “But when we hit a crisis like this and we’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars in financial assistance, this is when we need our high profile talent who can afford it, who are in a situation to help others.”
Shortly after sending the letter, Dwayne Johnson’s team reached out to say he wanted to help, so he and Vance hopped on a phone call.
“It was a love fest. It’s like, ‘Man, you’re stepping up in a way that is allowing others to know the dire necessity of it,’” Vance told Johnson about his contribution to the fund, noting that the exact sum is being kept confidential, but he was heartened by the A-lister’s generosity. “This is him saying, ‘In such a time as this, I’m here and I’m not going anywhere, whatever you need me to do.’ And that sends a huge message to other folks to do the same thing.”
Wilson explained that the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s grants deliver up to $1,500 per individual member, but in extreme conditions where there are health issues or other situations that indicate an actor is in serious jeopardy, a lifetime member can receive up to $6,000 in emergency financial assistance. Thus, Johnson’s seven-figure donation has the potential to aid thousands of actors. (Wilson estimates between 7,000 to 10,000 members will need these services.)
“It is a call to arms for all of us to know that we just have to step up however you can,” Vance added. “If your step up is $10, step up. Because that $10 is going to help somebody. If it’s $10,000, if it’s $10 million, step up, because we have to. Everyone knows what happens when you go on strike, when you stand for something — as the saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything — you can’t stand unless you have support underneath you, on the side, up top and up front. So Dwayne is letting everyone know, ‘I’m here. What are you going to do?’”
In an interview with VarietyVance and Wilson discuss the financial crisis facing working actors and the impact of Johnson’s sizable donation in helping to support them.
What have the last 10 days been like since SAG-AFTRA members joined the picket lines in respect of the foundation’s efforts?
Vance: We’ve been doing this since 1985, for 40 years, this is what we do. Our mandate and our mission is to be able to help members in times of need and crisis times financially — for their medical bills, their rents, their mortgages and their food. And that’s where we find ourselves once again. They’re on the picket lines, but they still have to be able to pay for things. The union is on the front lines with Fran Drescher doing what they need to do.
How has the financial need during the strike compared to the requests that you saw over the last three years with COVID?
Wilson: It’s very similar. Although SAG-AFTRA didn’t strike until 10 days ago, many of our actors’ productions were shut down during the writers’ strike, so they’ve already been affected since May and we’ve seen an uptick in the number of requests that came in. We’re processing probably five to 10 times (of the requests for financial aid) that we would normally process in a week and think that is going to continue to increase.
We’re in this for the long haul and we have to be concerned that even when the strike is over, that doesn’t mean that people haven’t still been left decided. We have members who obviously need a roof over their heads and food on their tables, but we also have members who are in financial crisis who don’t have anything to do with strikes.
Vance: And it’s compounded by the fact that we’re just coming through COVID. So these folks were just feeling able to get their heads above water, and now they don’t know what’s happening. “Are we going to sink back? And how long is this going to go on?” We’re alluding to the mental and emotional state of people’s situations, which dovetails us to Dwayne heeding the call that went out and seeing the devastation that happened during COVID and the potential devastation that is happening now. He stepped up in a major, historic way to help us because he’s one of us. We support our own.
I hope this is not going to be a long period like the COVID situation was, but no matter how long it goes on — even a week is too long for our membership — what Dwayne did and others like him are doing is to let the membership know, “We’ve got you. You’re not going to sink.”
There’s been a graphic that’s been widely shared that says 87% of the SAG-AFTRA membership does not reach the threshold of making $26,000 a year from SAG-AFTRA jobs to qualify for health insurance — what does that say about the need many people are facing?
Wilson: The general public might think that all actors make millions of dollars, and there are some that do but it’s a very small percentage. But those actors who then went on to win Oscars and have huge success could not make those films and those television projects without hundreds of actors who are behind in the background sitting in the restaurant, that have those bit parts that paint the picture, so that the story can be told. Our stars understand that they cannot make a film without these people. Having said that, as you’re saying these people are making, you know, not enough money to even afford their health care. So the majority of our actors also have second and third jobs — they’re waiting tables, catering, driving Uber. It may not seem like a lot, but when you miss $1,000 to $3,000 a month, you would normally come from a work stoppage, which can become a financial ruin.
How did you react when you learned from Johnson’s donation?
Wilson: It’s the largest single donation that we’ve ever received from one individual at one time. And what’s amazing is that one check is going to help thousands of actors keep food on their tables, and keep their kids safe, and keep their cars running. And it’s not lost on me that he’s very humble about this, but it is a way to get us started.
This is how we did this during COVID — some of the biggest stars in our industry stepped up. For him to step up like this is really going to get us started in the fundraising that we’re going I need to do, because everything we’re hearing and seeing, we feel we have to be prepared that this could go on through the end of the year. We’re going to have to be able to help these people in the long run. We have 160,000 SAG-AFTRA performers and that’s a lot of people who are going to need our help. This donation is the kickstart we need in the first week of what we think will be a long haul.
Vance: When people are in crisis, people step up. It’s that “Field of Dreams” statement, “Build it and they will come.” You have to set it up for people to recognize what the situation is and that’s, I think, why people are giving in the amounts and in the ways that they’re giving. Because people recognize, “That could be me that can’t pay my medical bills” or “That’s my children who have school bills coming up and I’m not working.” 95% of the folks in our industry don’t work regularly; we recognize that.
All that we’re doing is about folks who are on those picket lines and letting the powers that be know that we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we deserve better and won’t settle for less. So I’m grateful to our membership; I’m grateful to our leaders in our organization; I’m grateful to the leaders in the union — Fran Drescher and the negotiating committee. We’ll get there, it’s gonna take a minute but we’re gonna get there.
I want to thank Dwayne for his tremendous generosity, compassion, and initiative to step up in this significant and meaningful way for our community. On behalf of the thousands who will be helped by his historic donation, thank you, thank you, thank you.
For information on the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Emergency Financial Assistance Program and how to apply, visit sagaftra.foundation/emergencyassistance, and to support the fund, go to sagaftra.foundation/donate.
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