Joining the Unions
No matter what your feeling is about unions, to have a successful career as an actor you need to belong to one or both of two unions: the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) and Actor's Equity. As the name suggests, SAG is for those in the movie business, while Actor's Equity is primarily for stage and television performers. Another union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) is, as of this writing, in talks to merge with SAG and become a larger and more powerful union.
The Screen Actor's Guild
SAG was founded in Hollywood in 1933 to protect the rights of actors working in the movies. You may think that movie people back then lived the proverbial life of Riley, but their lot was not so shiny in the so-called Golden Age. Just as in any business then or now, those men in suits tried to give the working stiffs the business. The actors fought back to secure certain rights like reasonable work hours and a minimum wage, called “scale” in Hollywood lingo.
The minimum wage in SAG is certainly a little better than the kids working behind the counter earn at the local McDonald's. Currently, movie and television actors with speaking parts are paid $636 a day or $2,206 a week. They also have health benefits and a pension plan, and they receive what are called “residuals.” This is payment for reruns. If you are on a hit show that goes into syndication, you can do quite nicely with residual payments.
If you begin to work on a mainstream movie, you will have the opportunity to join SAG. Their Web site (
Paying Your Dues
Joining SAG is not cheap. As of this writing, actors must pay an initiation fee of $1,310, plus annual dues of $100. In addition, members pay percentage dues of 1.85 percent of all earnings under SAG contracts up through $200,000, and 0.5 percent on earnings from $200,001 through $500,000. This may seem a little steep when you consider that 80 percent of SAG members make less than $5,000 a year from acting jobs, and fewer than 5 percent of members earn more than $35,000 a year. This places the likes of Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford in the extreme minority of SAG wage earners.
Actor's Equity (
Like SAG, you are eligible to join if you have been hired for an acting job. In fact, you are more or less required to join. The initiation fee is also high—$1,100—but you have two years to pay it in full.
The minimum weekly salary for actors in Broadway productions is currently $1,252. Off-Broadway performers get a minimum wage of $440 to $551 a week. Regional theaters across the country are obliged to pay their actors $500 to $728 per week. The union for dancers in opera, ballet, and other dance troupes is the American Guild of Musical Artists, Inc., while dancers in musical theater also join Actor's Equity.
Community theaters are a great way to get started in acting and to have a lot of fun at the same time. For a list of local community theaters, check out the community theatre listing at