29-year-old background actor on the SAG-AFTRA strike: AI might imply ‘I’ve nothing new to supply’

Sep 19, 2023 | blog

On a scorching Tuesday morning in early September, actor Esther Cunningham, 29, is one of some dozen folks marching within the NBC Universal Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists picket line. She walks forwards and backwards with the group, holding up her “SAG-AFTRA on strike!” signal and chanting, “What do we want? Contracts! When do we want them? Now!”

SAG-AFTRA actors have been on strike since July 14 after negotiations reverse the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to provide a brand new TV and movie contract for the following three-year cycle. Among these on strike are the numerous extras who fill screens countrywide, performing nonspeaking elements, usually within the background of a scene.

That’s the group Cunningham at present falls into. A freckled brunette and Cincinnati, Ohio, native, Cunningham moved to New York together with her husband in October 2020 to pursue appearing full-time. She’s since made a dwelling as a background actor in exhibits like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Succession,” “Law and Order: Organized Crime” and “Blue Bloods.” Days on set may be grueling however getting a possibility to work on so many exhibits has been “dreamy,” she says.

For Cunningham and artists like her, this second within the trade is especially watershed. Whereas extras are sometimes wanted and paid for days at a time on a undertaking, the AMPTP is lobbying to scan their likenesses, use that scan for the rest of a shoot and pay them for simply sooner or later of being there. For its half, SAG-AFTRA is making an attempt to arrange “about three and a half pages of guard rails” round using tech like AI for this type of function, says leisure lawyer Jonathan Handel, together with written consent from the background actor earlier than they get scanned.

“My body is my line of work,” says Cunningham. “If that’s taken from me by a body scan, then I have nothing new to offer.”

‘It’s not a really steady profession’

A lifelong drama child, Cunningham studied theatre at Wheaton College in Illinois and graduated in May of 2016. At that time, she wasn’t able to make the leap as a full-time actor. “No newsflash to anyone but it’s not a very stable career,” she says.

Instead, she returned to Cincinnati to check out different attainable careers. She tried being a barista, did administrative work in an workplace and taught newbie Latin on the Christian college the place her dad and mom work (“that was the extent of my nepo baby,” she says). She even received an internship at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati the place she carried out and labored backstage.

But nothing fed her like appearing. She realized each that she wished to do it full-time and that if she caught round, there would not be too many alternatives to do it domestically.

During the pandemic, she received a New York Times notification “that New York rent is the cheapest it’s ever been,” she says. That felt like an indication from the universe: It was time to maneuver to New York.

‘I actually wish to be on “Maisel” and “Succession”‘

Having heard about background work all through her years in leisure, Cunningham started perusing websites like for alternatives when she received to New York. “I really want to be on ‘Maisel’ and ‘Succession,'” she says she thought. They have been two of her favourite exhibits and it will be “really fun to say that I worked on them.”

When she began reserving gigs within the spring of 2021, they ended up being the primary two exhibits she appeared on.

“Maisel” was “a pretty brutal day,” she says of the season 4 shoot. It was 16 hours altogether. “We were out at Coney Island at the beginning of May. It was cold. I was in little shorts. We were all sunburned by the end of it.”

But she beloved it.

Cunningham (entrance) on a season 4 episode of “Succession.”

Photo courtesy Esther Cunningham.

Every week later, her first “Succession” shoot was shorter, only a few hours. It was for a scene in season 3 of the HBO drama by which principal character Kendall Roy, performed by Jeremy Strong, “is walking into the big gala,” she says. “He’s like, ‘F— the patriarchy!’ So I got to see him improv a few of the different variations.”

Cunningham shortly started filling her schedule with background gigs, working as much as three days per week on varied shoots. As of June 30, the minimal pay for an eight-hour union background job is $187 (earlier than taxes), or about $23 per hour. The ninth and tenth hours pay time and a half and any hours labored past that pay double.

On a day by which you are bused to a special metropolis, rain holds up capturing and possibly you get just a few hours of time beyond regulation “you can easily make $500,” says Cunningham. “You have a couple of those good days per month and then you have a couple of your base pay days per month and I was pretty much splitting the bills with my husband,” she says. Cunningham’s husband is a full-time bartender.

Being on set exhibits you ‘how totally different actors behave’

It’s arduous to say how many individuals do background work within the U.S. Estimates are “usually in the tens to hundreds of thousands,” says Kate Fortmueller, affiliate professor at Georgia State University and creator of “Below the Stars: How the Labor of Working Actors and Extras Shapes Media Production.”

Some get into it as a technique to make a little bit further money. Others hope it’s going to be a springboard to raised appearing gigs. For Cunningham, past only a paycheck, it has been a useful alternative to be taught. “Being on a variety of different sets really shows you how different actors behave, how different directors behave, and you get this prime viewing of the world,” she says.

It’s additionally been a technique to meet mates and like-minded collaborators. She’s at present engaged on two internet sequence, “For/Closure” and “The Go To,” each of which have given her a possibility to behave extra prominently and each with folks she met on set.

For her and others like her, the specter of dropping ongoing background alternatives extends far past the paycheck. It’s about dropping a complete ecosystem of colleagues and studying alternatives that construct them up as artists.

“My whole New York network has been built through background,” Cunningham says.

You ‘might see the writing on the wall’

Cunningham on a shift at Dawn’s ‘Til Dusk with a coworker.

Photo courtesy Gili Malinsky

A number of weeks earlier than the strike occurred, Cunningham began on the lookout for different work. “You kind of could see the writing on the wall with the [Writers Guild of America strike],” she says. She received employed as a barista at a swanky Brooklyn espresso store, Dawn’s Til Dusk, and began working there in July.

These days she slings espresso three to 4 days every week. After suggestions and taxes, she brings in about $21 per hour, which has helped offset the lack of revenue from the strike. She additionally just lately picked up a part-time workplace gig. She tries to make it to the picket strains twice every week.  

In phrases of appearing, she’s engaged on these internet sequence and is taking an appearing class at Act First Studios. She additionally dove again into theatre in New York this summer time, performing on the Chain Theatre’s one act competition in June and the Blank Page Theatre Co.’s Summer New Works Festival in July.

As negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP stay at a standstill, Cunningham is worked up about her varied appearing alternatives and revved as much as preserve preventing for the working situations she believes extras deserve. Still, she misses being on set “every day,” she says.

“I’m ready to go back.” 

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the guardian firm of NBC and CNBC.

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