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Anthony Rapp on the SAG-AFTRA Strike

Members of SAG-AFTRA, an American actors union, protest and strike on July 17, 2023. (Janine and Jim Eden)

By Julien Torres

In July 2023, for the first time in decades, actors in Hollywood went on strike citing low pay in their residuals, the fear of artificial intelligence, working conditions, and Hollywood studios’ abuse of workers.

Many actors in Hollywood have seen their residual checks, recurring payments for work in TV or film, shrink over the past decade. Many rely on these checks to survive gaps between jobs. Many actors fear that AI’s ability to accurately copy an actor’s likeness could impact their future income. The concern is that studios could hire and pay an actor for one film and then scan them for their likeness to reuse in other films with little or no compensation.

AI could give the studios the ability to use an actors’ likeness and voice in any film or commercial they want to without consent, while simultaneously allowing studios to pay lower residuals. AI could then potentially leave thousands of actors without work after one role. “If you get cast in a Marvel movie, and they can get an AI scan of you, they can use your likeness in any movie they want,” said Anthony Rapp, star of Star Trek Discovery and an executive community member of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents actors and others in the entertainment industry.

“The tech is changing so rapidly,” said Rapp. “We had no protection of our likeness.” SAG-AFTRA didn’t simply look to stop the use of AI in Hollywood, but instead to guarantee that actors be compensated and asked for their permission if their likeness is to be used. This went hand in hand with the goal of raising residual pay.

When the strike ended on November 9, SAG-AFTRA attained all that it desired and then some from the studios. But it did not come without negotiating and months of protests across the country. Rapp described the negotiating process with the studios over the summer. “They didn’t come back to us for weeks and weeks after we went on strike, and when they did, they did it unseriously,” he said. In the meantime, Rapp kept himself occupied by performing on Broadway, since those actors are under a different union.

Once the strike ended, many actors returned to work. Rapp went on to film Star Trek Discovery. He described the gains that the actors made in their new deal with the studios. “There was a major lift to what studios gave in pensions,” he said. According to a SAG-AFTRA press release, the union secured more than a billion dollar increase in new wages and benefit plan funding. It made other gains in consent and compensation guidelines on the use of AI, among other goals.

Now thanks to the new agreement between the actors and the studios, more actors can afford to be in between roles and rely on their residuals as they search for new opportunities. And overall the workplace for actors on set has gotten better.

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