Fran Drescher Explains the SAG-AFTRA Strike

SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents some 160,000 performers, went on strike on July 13, joining the WGA in the organizations’ first concurrent work stoppage since 1960 and effectively bringing Hollywood to a standstill. The most prominent—and also the most unmistakable—voice in this fight belongs to Fran Drescher. Elected SAG-AFTRA president in 2021, The Nanny’s flashy girl from Flushing proved her union-organizer chutzpah in a press conference announcing the strike. “We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,” Drescher said. “They plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them.” It was time, she proclaimed, to tell the studio bosses: “You people are crazy!” At one point, she even invoked the storming of the gates of Versailles.

Her performance lit up the internet, going viral in real time. Memes circulated. Fans swooned. And Drescher suddenly became the poster girl for a Hot Labor Summer already in progress. (Along with the writers, whose strike is now deep into its third month, California hotel workers picketed over the long Fourth of July weekend and 340,000 Teamsters employed by UPS could walk off the job as soon as Aug. 1.) It’s a role she’s happy to fill—not out of vanity, but because she knows workers across industries will benefit from the exposure. “We get the press,” Drescher tells TIME. “So, OK—let me be the face and the voice of this awakening.”

Not that Drescher’s professional responsibilities end when the cameras stop rolling. It’s all she can do to make sure someone walks her dog while she’s running around from the picket line to the bargaining table to events for her nonprofit, Cancer Schmancer. (She’s a survivor of uterine cancer.) “This is my life now—I’m pulled from every direction,” she says. “And it’s forcing me, as a Buddhist, to stay in the moment and be present now, not get ahead of myself.”

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Union work takes precedence, of course, over everything besides Drescher’s elderly parents, who are proudly tuning in to watch her represent her fellow actors on shows like Morning Joe. In fact, it occurs to Drescher as we’re chatting that she should make sure her assistant sends them a pair of SAG-AFTRA T-shirts—size XXXL, “because then my mom will wear it like a little house dress and my dad, he’ll wear it like a little nightshirt.” (She promises to post photos.) It’s a fitting way to thank the systems-analyst father she credits for instilling in her the ability to see what’s broken about the Hollywood ecosystem. “I have his skill set, even though I don’t apply it to a career like he did,” Drescher says. But now she’s putting it to work in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). “They didn’t think that Morty Drescher’s daughter was gonna crack the code on what’s wrong with the old contract!”

Over the phone from Los Angeles, Drescher discussed the strike, how the entertainment industry’s embrace of streaming and A.I. have hurt actors, and why she’s thrilled to see vintage Nanny stills making the rounds on social media. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation.

TIME: It can be hard to reconcile reports of A-list stars like Tom Cruise and Will Smith commanding tens of millions in salaries with the news of an actors’ strike. Why has a union representing such an apparently lucrative profession taken such a dramatic step?

Drescher: Those big, big stars that earn seven and eight figures—they’re the engine that makes it all run. They’re the thing that draws people into the theaters, and allows everybody below them to work and make a living. So I have nothing against them. But 86% of the people in this 160,000-members-strong union make not enough money to even be eligible for health benefits. [That threshold] is actually quite low. It’s like $26,000; that’s almost like a part-time job.

Most actors are what we call journeyman actors. They’re hardworking people that just want to pay their rent, put food on the table, and be respected and honored for their contribution. And those are the people we must strike for. Because when the opposition is saying that if you’re a background person, we’ll scan your image and pay you for one day, but then we’ll own your likeness in perpetuity—where does that leave that performer who’s made a career out of being in the background? What does it mean to the person that gets the base salary? [The AMPTP] are offering not a cost of living increase, which would be 11%, but 5%—which would, in real money, give us less than we made in 2020. We are so far behind inflation, it isn’t even funny. [Editor’s note: In a statement released on July 17, the AMPTP disputed SAG-AFTRA’s characterization of its AI proposal and said it is offering an “11% pay increase in year 1 for background actors, stand-ins and photo doubles.” The statement does not explicitly address cost of living.]

This contract, the foundation of it was forged in 1960. That was so far before anything that we’re dealing with now: streaming, digital, AI. It’s a completely different industry. They have disassembled the old business model. It demands a whole new, reinvigorated, restructured contract.

People do realize, I think, that this is a tumultuous time in Hollywood. We’ve watched linear TV’s bumpy transition to streaming and movie theaters struggle amid a pandemic. But what do you wish the public understood about how this changing economy—and particularly streaming—has affected the actors who make the films and shows they love?

Well, let’s look at The Nanny. That was a completely different business model that was predicated on the longevity of a show that went from network TV into syndication. It went on cable, it was sold around the world. And there was a long tail of revenue upon which residuals were based. And as long as there were eyeballs and ad dollars on television, you would do between 22 and 28 episodes a season. And if the show was a success, it would go between six and 10 seasons. So over the course of time, the performer was able to make a living—even if you had a small part, even if you weren’t a regular, you would get residuals throughout the years, because the show continued to make money. That’s the way it was back in the day. And that’s what came out of the 1960 strike, when Ronald Reagan was in my job.

Now, the whole model with streaming is, there is no tail of revenue. There’s no transparency as to how well the show does or how many eyeballs are on it. And [the business model is] not predicated off of that anyway, because the name of the game is subscribers. Algorithms dictate how many episodes a season needs to be before you reach a plateau of new subscribers and how many seasons a series needs to be on. That reduces the amount of episodes per season to between six and 10, and it reduces the amount of seasons to three or four. You can’t live on that. We’re being systematically squeezed out of our livelihood by a business model that was foisted upon us, that has created a myriad of problems for everyone up and down the ladder.

Would it be fair to say that streaming has pushed actors who might once have sustained themselves working on a single TV series into a sort of gig economy?

Yes. But there’s so many people champing at the bit for any given part. You’re lucky to get on one series! Who gets on two or three at the same time? But that’s why, in our Netflix contract, it was so important that we make sure they don’t force actors to be exclusive. It’s essential that they don’t have exclusivities on us and then take 18 to 24 months to write the next season. What is a person supposed to do? They’re completely insensitive and disrespectful. They dishonor those that are the foundation of their entire business.

To return to AI, SAG-AFTRA’s characterization of the AMPTP proposal that you mentioned, for scanning background actors, has been described as “dystopian.” Do you think this technology is purely a job killer for actors, or might there be a fair way for studios to use it?

We want to put barricades around it. Right now, it’s a free-for-all. And people don’t always do right by you. The mentality of this industry is: Let’s scrap them wherever we can get away with it. But consent and compensation must be in the DNA of this new invention. That’s what is required. Even the biggest stars are reaching out, because it’s a threat to them also. Our livelihood is our likeness—the way we act, the way we speak, the gestures we make, that’s what we’re selling. And that’s what they want to rip off. Well, we’re not going to do that. “You just have to trust us.” No, we don’t trust you. I know who I can trust in my life, and it ain’t you.

You’ve been especially vocal about insensitive comments from studio heads. You called Bob Iger’s characterization of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA’s demands as unrealistic “repugnant and out of touch,” and said: “If I were that company, I would lock him behind doors.” On a psychological level, can you wrap your mind around how a guy who stands to make up to $31 million this year could shrug off the plight of journeyman actors?

I have nothing against capitalism. But when you become intoxicated by the money, to the point where you stop feeling respect and compassion for people up and down the ladder, it becomes like a sickness. That’s where I draw the line. And that’s where my members are right now. They are already feeling the squeeze. The CEOs aren’t—on the private jets and the billionaires’ camp and the designer suits and the yachts and all this. They are doing bad things to good people.

On a personal level, I’m sure you’ve heard by now that your speech on Thursday was a big hit on the internet. On social media, people have been passing around a still from an episode of The Nanny where your character says: “Never, ever, ever cross a picket line.” What has it been like to see these moments from your early career rediscovered?

When I see it on the internet, I’m proud that it’s there. I came up with that strike episode for The Nanny. The Beautician and the Beast also has a Norma Rae scene. And I’m enjoying all the creativity of the people that are putting together things that are in support of this righteous strike. We stand on the front lines of a whole labor movement that stands behind us. But everybody stands to benefit from our success, because everybody is in jeopardy of being replaced by AI, or being undercut or underpaid.

Would it be correct to infer from that image that labor issues have been at the forefront of your mind throughout your career?

Without question, because I come from a humble beginning. I’ve never been an elitist. I treat everybody the same. We all should. We all feel. We all hurt. We all love. We all get sick, we all get well, laugh, cry, and we all want the same things for our children. But, you know, people, when they have success, doesn’t mean that they have inner peace. So they act like they’re all that, and that superficially fills some kind of void in them, which is always gnawing at them. When people in powerful positions, like these CEOs, behave poorly—when I look at those people across the negotiating table—I’m thinking: How could you do this? Your whole job is to screw us. That’s the wrong side of the table.

I guess that’s why we need unions in the first place, right?

Really! I mean, Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And who knew better than him?

Fran Drescher Explains the SAG-AFTRA Strike

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