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Demanding sex to join the actor's union
By Thomas M. Sipos
Everyone in Hollywood is suddenly discussing sexual harassment in Hollywood. The practice is apparently widespread and widely known. Which begs the question, if sexual harassment is so widespread and widely known, why did everyone wait until now to discuss it?
I can attest to its being widespread and widely known. Even casually accepted as the norm.
Back in the 1990s, I used to work as a nonunion extra (aka background actor), because that's one route into SAG, the primary actors union. (Since merged into SAG-AFTRA.)
Extras get a voucher per day worked. SAG extras get SAG vouchers. Nonunion extras get nonunion vouchers after the daily quota of SAG vouchers is filled. If there are not enough SAG actors available, the remaining SAG vouchers go to nonunion actors before any nonunion vouchers are used. The union quota must be filled.
Once a nonunion actor collects three SAG vouchers, he or she can join SAG. Because of this, SAG vouchers are highly prize. And whenever there is a low supply of a highly prized item, the system of distribution is vulnerable to abuse.
Per union rules, vouchers (and the jobs they represent) are supposed to be distributed on a nondiscriminatory basis, provided the background actor meets the casting requirement (e.g., bearded blue collar types, clean shaved military, posh executives, etc.)
But SAG vouchers have been sold for money or sex.
I often heard that rumor on film sets in the 1990s. I remember a fellow extra complaining about a Second A.D. (assistant director) who was widely known to distribute remaining SAG vouchers to young actresses, provided they slipped into a trailer with him for a quickie. The A.D. and actress were pointed out to me. Other extras confirmed it and thought me naive for not knowing about it. They also complained of other "sex for vouchers" instances they claimed to know about.
I also heard tales of casting directors who sold SAG vouchers for money. One actor allegedly paid a thousand dollars for the required three vouchers. Favoritism and nepotism also abounded. I saw one elderly lady cast as an audience member at a rock concert. The casting requirement was for young rocker types, but this senior citizen was related to a stagehand, who asked the A.D. to hire her as a favor. Like sex and money, blood ties carry weight in Hollywood.
I even heard rumors of truly pathetic actresses who sold sex for nonunion vouchers. Usually, these were newcomers to Hollywood, who thought that being cast as an extra -- even nonunion -- was a really big deal.
Selling sex for union membership (which is what SAG vouchers entail) was a thing in the 1990s. I'm sure it's still a thing today. Actresses (and actors too, I'm sure), sell sex for acting roles, so why not for union membership, which is seen as a stepping stone to acting roles?
Much has been made of the abuse suffered by actresses pressured to sell sex for favors. But they're not the only victims. Nonunion actors and actresses work long hours, for low pay (minimum wage), hoping to luck out with a SAG voucher. When another actor or actress buys a voucher, for sex or money, they are essentially cutting ahead of the line, hurting those who won't outbid them.
Buying vouchers is against union rules. But while rumors of abuse were rife, I've never known an extra to report a violation. Extras, especially nonunion, are at the bottom of the pecking order. None wants to be known as a snitch or a trouble maker. None wants to offend the casting directors and Second A.D.'s who decide who gets hired tomorrow, and who gets the union vouchers.
Thomas M. Sipos's experiences as an extra form the background for his satirical novel, Hollywood Witches. Details at http://www.hollywoodwitches.com/.