This is a long post, but an important one. As actors, we have to be aware of what we’re owed for our acting work. Too often we think that because we have a union contract, we’re going to get everything that’s owed to us. But although mistakes happen, most of the pay shortages are honest mistakes, not a producer trying to cheat us.
The three examples that follow all happened to me while I was working under SAG-AFTRA contracts. If you’re working on a non-union project, you’re kind of on your own, but you might be able to use some of what follows as a guideline to negotiate for more money.
I was on a premium pay cable show, working as a day player. I worked on a Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. However, they didn’t get one of my scenes shot that week, so they asked me to come back the following week and work on Wednesday (I ended up also working that Thursday, as well). So, how many days of pay did they owe me? Five? When I got my paycheck that’s what they paid me for, based on the paperwork the assistant director turned in to the payroll company. And many actors, especially if they’re new to union work, would be very happy with the check.
But ... they owed me for two more days. They owed me for Monday and Tuesday of the second week (even though I didn’t work those days). Why? There’s a union rule that if you work (as a day player) and the gap in-between your work days is less than 6-10 days (depending on the type of project), you have to be paid for the days off (not counting weekends). That’s so that a production can’t string you along working one day this week, then a couple of days the following week, then another day a week later, etc. That kind of schedule can foul up other projects that you might be able to work on. Would the union have caught the error? Maybe, but maybe not.
I called the payroll company, who then contacted the production company and got it straightened out within a day. They apologized and I got the check for the two additional days a couple days later.
Another example: I was working on a major film and as we were shooting, the director got this idea. He wanted me to be jerked off camera at a particular moment in the scene. So the stunt guy came over and put a harness on me, under my coat, with a leash that he would use to pull me out of frame.
Of course, we actors want to be good sports and do whatever the director wants. And, it was an easy stunt – no danger – but it was a STUNT! That means stunt pay. I jokingly said as the harness was attached – “So, I guess I'm doing stunt work, huh?” The director got it and turned to his assistant saying, “Make sure Michael gets stunt pay for this.” Everything was friendly – no hassles – but if I hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have gotten what was fair for the work I was doing.
One last example: I was called in for some post-production work, for what I was told would be ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement). That pays a half day’s salary (what I got per day on the shoot). But they had me do some new scenes – with dialogue only. And that pays a full day’s salary because it’s a new scene – doesn’t matter that it’s only dialogue.
Finally, be aware that if you’re doing background work, there are a number of “pay bumps” you’re due for working under certain conditions, like if you have to work in a scene where they’re using smoke. Even though it’s fake smoke, you should get a little extra pay for that. There are some other bumps as well – just ask one of the other extras; they know all that stuff. And no – principal actors don’t get the same bumps as background actors get.
This was along post, but I like knowing that we actors get what is fair for our work. If you finish shooting, and then realize that you should have spoken up about something that might be extra money, first call SAG-AFTRA to verify it, then call either your agent, or wait for the check to see if they paid you the extra, and if not – call the payroll company.
And be nice – they’re only going off the paperwork that production sent to them. Payroll companies are usually very good at taking care to get you your full pay.
The Actor's Guide To Auditioning