There is no getting around it. Production companies take advantage of actors at every turn. We all have stories about how we were cheated out of overtime, or denied a payment we were supposed to receive for doing something not included in the original job description. We’ve all been there, but sometimes we get stepped on in a way that is so audacious it is almost funny.
I’ve had a knock on my dressing room door after a sixteen hour day, with some third lackey asking me to sign out an hour earlier.
“You’ll still get paid for that hour, we’ll just tack it onto your paycheck for tomorrow.”
What that lackey understood, but I did not, was that he was robbing me of something called golden time. Basically, after a certain number of work hours in the same day, they have to pay your for another day. This is something they like to avoid, and in fact, I have never received golden time. Although there have been a few times when I should have.
In this particular case, I was being ambushed late at night, alone in my dressing room. It was my first day as a co-star on a major tv show. What was I supposed to do? Well, now I know. I should have said, “Let me call the union and see if it’s okay with them.”
He would have slinked back to his cubicle, having failed his mission to steal from an impoverished struggling actor.
Sometimes, they are more brazen, without even the hint of acknowledgment that they are pulling a fast one. I once watched three people from production take black markers and change the lunch times on all the extra’s vouchers, so they would not receive a meal penalty. It’s a small fee they have to pay if they keep you working for more than six hours without a meal break.
They set up a quick assembly line, the three of them, crossing out what had already been written, and taking back the meal penalty that had already been assigned. This was just before we were to be released for the day, so the vouchers were sitting in a neat stack on the sign-out table. Ready to go. Until it was decided they might be able to get away with deleting the meal penalty. It worked. Most of the actors probably had no idea what had just taken place.
Sometimes they are sneaky, and purposely delay payment until after the statute of limitations passes, making it impossible to file a claim through the union. That happened to me on a Burger King commercial. I was originally booked just as background.
“Oh, and they might also have you making balloon animals. Can you bring what you need for that, and whatever costume you wear when you perform as a balloon sculptor?”
This coming from casting. They were not paying me for a special skill, nor was I supposed to be a featured performer, but that is exactly what I ended up being. At the end of the day, I explained to the production assistant that I was only hired as background, but could they at least pay for the props I used? There should be some kind of bump for providing my own balloons, using my own pump, etc.
Sure, the guy said. He was nice. A decent fellow. He checked off the box for props, but since there was no category listed for balloons, he wrote “Other.” He explained that it would ensure I got paid whatever was the highest bump, since we did not specify what prop it was. I figured I might get twenty bucks, and honestly, I was fine with that.
There comes a point when you know you are being screwed, when you tell yourself that any little token gesture makes a difference. At least it will cover gasoline for the drive.
When the paycheck arrived in the mail, there was no bump for the balloons. No payment for special skill. In the past, I have been paid for both of those things, so I was surprised they would try to cheat me out of it now, especially since this was a commercial for a large client with lots of money to spend.
When I called payroll, they could see for themselves that my voucher did indeed list a bump for a prop. They would look into it and get back to me. So they said. The first time I called. Also the second. Then the third. They continued ignoring me until months had passed and there was nothing I could do. Screw you, actor.
On the most recent job I’ve done, the production company simply changed the call time on my voucher, after the fact! They didn’t want to pay me for a fourteen and a half hour day. Which would entail double time. So they changed my call time from 7:00AM to 7:30AM! Didn’t matter at all that I had my signed copy of the voucher with the correct times listed.
When I called payroll, they argued with me, claiming that I only worked fourteen hours. I’m still trying to sort this one out. It’s such a shame that actors have to check every dollar to be sure that they aren’t being shafted. We have to fight for ourselves, on the phone, in letters, and emails. Just to be treated fairly. To be paid an honest wage for an honest day’s work. Actors are notoriously poor. Why step on the lowest man?
Then sometimes, the underhandedness can be just plain disheartening. I had a wardrobe fitting for two days of work on a film this coming week. I had to jump through hoops to get this job, sending in photos of myself in 1950s period costume, with my hair styled in the same period. When I finally made it through the submission process and passed the two phone interviews, I was told they would cut my hair at the fitting. Was I okay with that?
It would mean a period look, most likely shorter than my normal hair style, and could cost me work elsewhere, but hey, bird in hand, right? So I said sure.
At the fitting, they said they were giving everyone the choice of getting their hair cut right there and then, or on set the day of the job. The way they phrased it was strange. Big cheery smiles, looking me right in the eyes. Happy to be helping me, by offering the chance to have my hair cut sooner rather than later.
I have had my hair cut on set before, and was never paid for it, although I knew that I should have been. I figured it was a flat bump, which would be the same for either the fitting or the shoot. So why get a haircut on the day of the job, when there will be lots of other actors going through hair and makeup, and being rushed through, as we always are, when it would be more relaxed and calmer right now?
So the guy cut my hair and I was handed a voucher with a $20 bump. I was content with that, even grateful. When I got the check, however, it seemed I was not paid for the haircut. I called payroll and was told (by an exceedingly rude woman) that the hair bump was tacked onto my day rate. Which was then divided by four, to come up with the two hours I was paid for the fitting.
It turns out that the bump was not a flat fee, but was rather added to my rate for the day. Which means that I was only paid $5, since pay for a costume fitting is determined by taking one quarter of the day rate.
This also means that if I had gotten the hair cut on the day of the shoot, my rate for that day would have gone up by $2o. Meaning that any overtime or double time would be based on the higher pay rate. So the total amount paid for the haircut would potentially be a lot more than $20.
Production knows this. They also know how little we earn, and how easy it is to make that little number even less. An actor who argues risks losing out on future work.
The sad truth is this happens more often than it should. I’ve re-wrtten the ending of this story three times now, not wanting to leave on a pessimistic note. It’s no fun to be constantly on your guard, afraid that someone is cheating you. We all like to think the best of people. We try to create positive interactions with everyone we come across. That way, even if they are doing something wrong, we can still be doing something right.
A phone call from the union put things into perspective. The lady was following up on the claim I filed for the missing half hour of double time. She told me that production companies will get away with whatever they can, and that I should not even try to deal with them directly. She was very nice, but very clear.
“Call me right away. Let me do my job.”
She’s absolutely right. I will.