In November 2020, the actor Lukas Gage was auditioning for a role via video link when he heard the producer make some disparaging remarks about the size of his apartment.
“These poor people who live in these tiny apartments,” the producer said. “I’m looking at his background and he’s got his TV and …”
Gage, who at that time had had a four-episode arc on HBO’s “Euphoria” among other small roles, interrupted the producer — British director Tristram Shapeero, who later apologized for his remarks — to let him know that he was not muted and that Gage could, in fact, hear him.
“Yeah, I know it’s a sh—y apartment,” Gage said. “That’s why — give me this job so I can get a better one.”
Shapeero replied, “Oh my god, I am so, so sorry … I am absolutely mortified.”
“Putting together an audition tape can often take up an entire day and involve setting up a studio space for sound and lighting.”
“Listen, I’m living in a four-by-four box, just give me the job and we’ll be fine,” Gage responded.
Gage kept his sense of humor, but he also decided to post the video on his Twitter account to show how actors are sometimes treated from the moment they audition for a role — and perhaps to remind people to make sure you’re on mute if you’re trash-talking someone on a Zoom
It’s three years later, and members of the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild are on strike, looking for more pay, better working conditions and stricter rules around things like the use of actors’ images in the age of artificial intelligence and the lack of residuals from streaming networks.
The perils of the online audition
Meanwhile, Gage’s 2020 online audition is resonating again.
For a working actor — who, like the majority of SAG-AFTRA members who may not be an A-list star — simply getting in front of a producer as Gage did can be a long and difficult process. And since the start of the pandemic, the nature of auditions has changed dramatically. This has come to symbolize the uphill struggle actors face from the moment they hear about a role.
In May, Ezra Knight, New York local president of SAG-AFTRA, asked members to authorize strike action, saying contracts needed to be renegotiated to reflect dramatic changes in the industry. Knight cited the need to address artificial intelligence, pay, benefits, reduced residuals in streaming and “unregulated and burdensome self-taped auditions.”
In the days of live auditions, actors would read for a role with a casting director. But several actors told MarketWatch that it’s become harder to make a living in recent years, and that it all starts with the audition tape, which has now become standard in the industry.
By the time Gage got in front of producers, for instance, he had likely either already delivered a tape and was put on a shortlist to read in front of a producer, or the casting director was already familiar with his work and wanted him to read for the part.
But an audition tape can often take up an entire day to put together, actors say. When the opportunity to audition arrives, actors typically have to drop everything they’re doing — whether they’re working a side hustle or taking time off or even enjoying a vacation.
They need to arrange good lighting and a clean backdrop — Gage’s TV set became a distraction for the producer during his audition — set up the camera, and scramble to find a “reader” — someone to read the other roles in the scene, preferably another actor.
Then the actor has to edit the audition to highlight their strongest take and upload it. There are currently no regulations on the amount of pages a casting director can send to a candidate, and actors say there’s often not enough time to properly prepare.
“Unfortunately, it’s been going in this direction for some time now,” said Cadden Jones, an actor based in New York who has credits on shows including Showtime’s
“Billions” and Amazon Prime’s
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“This was the first year I did not qualify for health insurance in decades,” she told MarketWatch. “I just started teaching.”
To put that into perspective: Members of SAG-AFTRA must earn $26,470 in a 12-month base period to qualify for health insurance. The median annual wage in the U.S. hovers at around $57,000, based on the weekly median as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jones and her partner, Michael Schantz, an actor who works mostly in theater, are starting a communications consulting company to increase their income.
“Most if not all of my actor friends have had to supplement their income since the pandemic,” she said. “We’re in trouble as a community of actors who used to make a good living doing what we do. It’s not like any of us lost our talent overnight. I, for one, am very glad that we’re striking.”
But Jones said that, with the auditioning process taking place mostly online since the onset of the pandemic, casting agents — who work for producers — are able to see more people for a given role, making the competition for roles even more intense.
“‘This was the first year I did not qualify for health insurance in decades.’”
“We don’t go into casting offices anymore,” Jones said. “All the financial responsibilities have fallen on us. The onus is on us to create our auditions. It’s harder to know what they want, and you don’t have the luxury to work with a casting director in a physical space to get adjustments, which was personally my favorite part of the process — that collaboration.”
She added: “Because the audition rate accelerated, the booking rate went down dramatically for everybody. But don’t get me wrong. Once the strike is officially over, I want all the auditions I can get.”
SAG-AFTRA has proposed rules and expectations to address some of the burden and costs actors bear when it comes to casting, including providing a minimum amount of time for actors to send in self-taped auditions; disclosing whether an offer has been made for the role or it has already been cast; and limiting the number of pages for a “first call” or first round of auditions.
Before the negotiations broke down with the actors’ union, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents over 350 television and production companies, said it offered SAG-AFTRA $1 billion in wage increases, pension and health contributions and residual increases as part of a range of proposals related to pay and working conditions.
Those proposals included limitations on requests for audition tapes, including page, time and technology requirements, as well as options for virtual or in-person auditions, AMPTP said. The producers’ group characterized their offer as “the most lucrative deal we have ever negotiated.”
Jones said she doesn’t blame the casting directors. It’s up to the producers, she said, to be more mindful of how the changes in the industry since the advent of streaming, the decline in wages adjusted for inflation, and poor residuals from streaming services have taken a toll on working actors.
Bruce Faulk, who has been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 1992, said that for work on a one-off character part or a recurring role on a network show, he might receive a check for hundreds or even thousands of dollars in residuals. And — crucially — he knows how many times a particular show has aired.
Residuals are fees paid to actors each time a TV show or film is broadcast on cable or network television. They are based on the size of the role and the budget of the production, among other things. For shows that air on streaming services, however, residuals are far harder to track.
What’s more, residuals decline over time and can often amount to just a few cents per broadcast.
Faulk sympathizes. “A lot of checks from HBO
for ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Gossip Girl’ I get are for $33,” he said. “I never know how many people watched me on ‘Gossip Girl’ in the three episodes I’m in. All we know is whatever the streaming services decided to announce as their subscriber numbers.”
Like Jones, Faulk said this will be the first year he won’t qualify for SAG-AFTRA health insurance, which covers him, his wife and his son. This is despite him having worked enough over the past 10 years to qualify for a pension when he turns 67. “Mine is up to $1,000 a month now,” he said, noting that the pension will keep increasing if he keeps getting acting work.
Schantz, who had a three-episode arc on NBC’s
“The Blacklist” in addition to his other TV, film and theater credits, finds the recent shifts in the landscape for actors somewhat difficult to reconcile with the way people turned to TV and film during the loneliest days of the pandemic.
“One of the most concerning things I can think of right now is the conversation around value. How does the broader culture value storytelling and the people who make stories?” he said. “The arts always tend to fall to the wayside in many ways, but it was striking during the pandemic that so much of our attention went to watching movies and television. There’s obviously something inside of us that feels like we’re part of the human story.”
Actors battle other technology
While big companies like Disney
Amazon and Netflix make millions of dollars from films and TV series that are watched again and again, Schantz said that actors are unable to make a living. “No one wants to go on strike,” he said.
Those five companies have not responded to requests for comment from MarketWatch on these issues.
Since his audition tape went viral, Gage has booked regular work, and he found even greater fame when he went on to star in Season 1 of HBO’s “White Lotus.” In 2023, he will star in nine episodes of “You,” now streaming on Netflix, and in the latest season of FX’s “Fargo.”
Earlier this year, he told the New York Times: “I had never judged my apartment until that day.” He added, “I remember having this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach afterward, like, why am I judging where I’m at in my 20s, at the beginning of my career?”
“‘There’s enough Bruce out there where you could take my likeness and my voice and put me in the scene.’”
But advances in technology are not just hurting actors in the audition process. A debate is raging over the use of AI and whether actors should be expected to sign away the rights to their image in perpetuity, especially when they might only be getting paid for half a day’s work.
“AI is the next big thing,” Falk said. The industry is concerned about companies taking actors’ likenesses and using AI to generate crowd scenes.
“Even an actor at my level — that guy on that show — there’s enough Bruce out there where you could take my likeness and my voice and put me in the scene: the lieutenant who gives you the overview of what happened to the dead body,” he said. “At this point, I could be technically replaced. We have to get down on paper, in very clear terms, that that can’t be done.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers also said it agrees with SAG-AFTRA and had proposed — before the actors’ strike — “that use of a performer’s likeness to generate a new performance requires consent and compensation.” The AMPTP said that would mean no digital version of a performer should be created without the performer’s written consent and a description of the intended use in the film, and that later digital replicas without that performer’s consent would be prohibited.
“Companies that are publicly traded obviously have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, and whatever they can use, they will use it — and they are using AI,” Schantz said. “Yes, there are some immediate concerns. Whether or not the technology is advanced enough to fully replace actors is an open question, but some people think it’s an inevitability now.
“To let companies have free rein with these technologies is obviously creating a problem,” he added. “I can’t go show up, do a day’s work, have my performance be captured, and have that content create revenue for a company unless I’m being property compensated for it.”
Schantz said he believes there’s still time to address these technological issues before they become a widespread problem that makes all auditions — however cumbersome — obsolete.
“We haven’t crossed this bridge as a society, but God only knows how far along they are in their plans,” he said. “All I know is it has to be a choice for the actors. There has to be a contract, and we have to be protected. Otherwise, actors will no longer be able to make a living doing this work.”