Unlike box-office stars, most struggle to get health insurance

While Tom Cruise, Margot Robbie and Tom Hanks make millions, most journeymen actors struggle to qualify for health insurance.

That was the message this week from actors in Beacon and Philipstown who are among the 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists that went on strike last week. SAG-AFTRA joined members of the 11,500-member screenwriters’ union, the Writers Guild of America, who went on strike in May.

“Do I get compensated in a way that puts food on the table? No,” said Christian Campbell, who lives in Beacon with his wife, America Olivo, who is also an actor. Both have long resumes that include appearances on Law and Order, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, NCIS: New Orleans and CSI: Miami.

To make ends meet, Campbell said that he and his wife rely on rental income from investment properties in Newburgh and California.

His best-paying recent gig was a made-for-TV movie, A Killer Romance, that was filmed in November in Newburgh for the streaming service Tubi. “I played an assassin who has sensitive feelings,” he said. “It’s a comedy.”

He worked seven days for $500 a day. “Eighty percent of the work I do doesn’t feel like fair pay,” he said. “It feels like a hobby.”

Members of both unions are demanding better pay and a new formula to calculate residuals. Fran Drescher, the SAG-AFTRA president, told CNN that “everything that you watch, that you enjoy, that you’re entertained by are scenes filled with people that are not making the big money.”

SAG-AFTRA has 36,000 members in New York state. They include Erin Cummings, who lives in Beacon and describes herself as a “journeyman actor.” Her first professional gig was in 2004 on Star Trek: Enterprise, in which she was credited as Prostitute No. 1. “Not Prostitute No. 2,” she noted. “Prostitute No. 2 had a lot more lines.”

While her roles have improved over the years, she said she has a hard time making ends meet. She had more work in 2022 than in the previous four years but only worked on six television episodes, for a total of 30 days on set. The rest of her time was spent at auditions.

Under the existing union contract, she earned $9,200 per episode, minus 10 percent to her agent and 10 percent to her manager.

She and her husband, actor Tom Degnan, are able to scrape by, “but it’s a far cry from a five-bedroom mansion with a swimming pool and a waitstaff that people imagine for actors,” she said. “It’s a very average, modest three-bedroom home for ourselves and our two children.”

Cummings noted that she and her husband do receive residuals, which are smaller payments when the episodes are replayed. But most of those earnings, she said, are from roles she had before streaming services began.

Indeed, how to calculate streaming residuals is a major issue in negotiations. Drescher has said that calculating residuals is difficult because streaming networks “won’t tell us how many people are watching.”

Actor Greg Miller, who lives in Cold Spring, earns most of his income creating multimediapresentations for investment banks.
Actor Greg Miller, who lives in Cold Spring, earns most of his income creating multimedia presentations for investment banks. (Photo by J. Asher)

Also at issue are attempts to use artificial intelligence to replace journeymen performers and extras, said Carrie Gibson, another Beacon actor with a long resume, including playing a barista in the HBO series Barry.

Gibson said that many production companies are asking actors for body scans and the rights to use those digital likenesses in perpetuity to populate backgrounds. “What I love to do is being completely threatened by AI,” Gibson said.

At the same time, the digital revolution has expanded opportunities. Beacon resident Kristina Klebe has dozens of film and television credits dating to 2003. But some of her work these days is as a voice-over actor for video games. This year she will voice Sissy in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, based on the 1974 horror film.

But, like other local actors, she said she spends much of her time auditioning. She supplements her income as a host on WJGK-FM (Energy 103), a pop station in New Windsor.

“I find it so sad that people look down on actors and writers when most of us are low-income workers,” she said. “We are lucky if we get a couple of jobs a year.”

For many working actors, a major achievement is to earn the $26,470 necessary to qualify for health insurance, said Greg Miller, who lives in Cold Spring. Miller said he has qualified in 10 of the past 15 years. Indeed, the union says only 13 percent of its members make enough to qualify for health insurance.

Miller earns most of his income creating multimedia presentations for investment banks. “I’ve never made life-changing money in the acting business,” he said. He sees the strike as “the latest example of the classic conflict between the suits and the laborers.”

“It’s just another moment where the people who have wealth are changing the rules where more money flows to them and less flows to the rest of us,” he said.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Joey Asher is a freelance writer and former reporter for The Journal News.

6 replies on “Actors Say They’re Striking to Make Ends Meet”

  1. Actors chose to enter a career with low pay and no benefits. Change your career, like thousands have to. They should have selected a better career with benefits. [via Facebook]

  2. Literally, who cares. Get a real job to support yourself and make acting your hobby until or if it works out. [via Facebook]

    1. I don’t suppose the negative commentators ever go to the movies, watch television or video streaming, view commercials or instructional infomercials. If you don’t ever consume the product of SAG members’ craft, you have the right to these silly sentiments.

  3. I highly applaud these impassioned comments targeting the SAG-AFTRA strike. The logic is spot-on. After all, any intelligent person knows that TV shows, movies and other scripted entertainments occur through magic and witchcraft. No real work is involved!

  4. Though I don’t always agree with the opinions published in the letters to the editor, I appreciate reading different viewpoints and believe that is an important function of your paper. However, the comments printed in the July 28 issue in response to your coverage of the Writers Guild of America/Screen Actors Guild strike were outliers and struck me as disrespectful and immature. It’s not surprising that these comments came from social media but it is unfortunate that you chose to give them oxygen in print.

    As a theater designer and technician, I am routinely amazed by the effort, persistence and raw skill that performers display while practicing their craft. They minimally deserve as much respect as any studied tradesperson. If readers have contrary opinions over the details of the labor dispute I am happy to read them, but comments that amount to “get a real job” are ignorant and serve no purpose other than to demean the subjects of the article. In addition, you encourage similar responses by highlighting them in your paper. I hope you will use better judgment.

    1. Well said, thank you. I had similar sentiments. I was also more than a little disappointed that no Black/BIPOC actors who live in Beacon were included or interviewed for this piece, especially since I was in a community meeting with the editor about better relations between Beacon residents and the paper.

      Burke has been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 1988.

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