“Getting into the union”
If you decide that being a union movie extra suits your plans better than being non-union, good luck. It’s not easy for a movie extra to get into the union, but there are two ways of doing it. Getting into the union in either of the below manners is referred to as being “Tafted” or “Taft-Hartleyed”.
- Three SAG vouchers
The first way is to work on three union vouchers. Whenever an extra is cast, whether union or non-union, a voucher is issued with necessary information, which is signed at the end of the day and submitted back to the casting company so that the extra can get paid. Union extras get union vouchers, and non-union extras get peasant vou… we mean “non-union” vouchers. If a union movie extra is cast and the voucher is issued but then that union rascal doesn’t show up, the voucher still has to be filled in order to meet the SAG minimum number. Therefore, they’ll take one of the non-union extras and get him or her to work on the union voucher. Do that three times and you can join the union. As you can surmise, this is not going to happen until you’ve spent an awful lot of time working as a movie extra. The best way to try to get a union voucher is to suck up to the A.D., and your ability to hit it off with him or her will be dependent on looks and attitude.
- Saying a line
The second way to join the union is to be a non-union movie extra who is required to speak a line for some reason. Non-union movie extras are not allowed to say lines, but under certain circumstances it can become necessary for them to do so. When this happens, the non-union movie extra will simply be told to say the line, he or she will do so and be paid as an actor for that day. All subsequent work the movie extras do in that role, SAG will fine the production for using the non-union person in a speaking role, but the non-union movie extra will then have the opportunity to join the union. This sounds rather easy, one line and you’re in! But it’s not. It’s a real problem for the production to use a non-union movie extra in a speaking role with SAG watching and breathing down everybody’s neck, so a SAG movie extra will always be used for speaking parts if one is available. A non-union extra will only be asked to say a line under extraordinary circumstances, such as if all of the SAG movie extras turn out to have the IQ of lettuce, or if one of the actors decides he or she wants to interact with a non-union extra during a scene.
The decision of whether to be a union or non-union movie extra is actually a pretty easy one, because it’s really tough to get in the union. The basic distinction is this: union extras get paid more but non-union movie extras often get more work. Union extras also get benefits, such as health insurance, and they are generally treated better on the movie set. Some commentators suggest that non-union movie extras get so much more work that if you want to make a living as an extra you’re better off staying out of the union. Others disagree, saying that the difference in wages is sufficient to outweigh the slight increase in work for non-union movie extras. If or when you get the opportunity to join the union, you’ll have more experience with the industry and you’ll be able to make a more informed decision.
Screen Actors Guild (known as SAG), is the union for both actors and movie extras. SAG requires every film and TV show to have a minimum number of movie extras who are union members. Since union extras have a higher base rate of pay and receive more benefits, a production will usually only hire the minimum number of union movie extras and give all the rest of the jobs to non-union movie extras. This is why there is more work for non-union extras. SAG extras are always treated better, they get the best jobs and they get hired first, but there are fewer jobs to go around.