Actors struggling with the career and personal effects of the coronavirus pandemic got some practical advice and sound wisdom from actor Amir Talai and a group of talent agents, experts and SAG-AFTRA insiders who gathered Wednesday night for an online forum called “Our Industry and the Covid Surge.”
“The majority of us are very much hanging on by a thread – emotionally, financially and sometimes physically. The pandemic kind of confounds description,” said Talai, a veteran film and television actor whose credits include Bosch, Family Guy, American Dad! and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and who also serves on the board of SAG-AFTRA’s Los Angeles local. He noted, however, that he was not speaking for the union.
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Many actors face the conundrum of wanting and needing to work, but don’t want to risk their lives to make a living. Talai said: “I’ve had actors tell me, ‘I will be furious if they shut down production. I am desperate right now.’ And I’ve had other actors tell me, ‘I am furious that they haven’t shut production down because there’s no ICU beds available.’”
His best advice, he told viewers on the Zoom meeting, is that “for people who want to work, audition for union work and accept union work. And for people who don’t want to, don’t audition. Hold your horses. Talk to your agent and book-out.
“If you have booked work, but no longer feel comfortable doing it, that’s more complicated. But every person I’ve spoken with has told me that it’s possible to get out of work you’ve been booked to do. Co-stars and series regulars are getting out of coming to set. It’s possible, but the way you have to do it is to communicate. Everyone up and down the line understands that this situation is unprecedented. It’s natural for you to be fearful that you’re not gonna be empathized with, but I promise you that it’s much more likely that you will be.”
A viewer asked if employers will be requiring cast members to be vaccinated before being hired now that the vaccine is becoming more available. “That’s a good question that doesn’t have an answer yet,” Talai said. “These conversations are absolutely going to be had between our union, and other unions, and our employers. But can it be required? According to some federal guidance that was put out in mid-December, employers may fire, or refuse to hire, people who don’t get vaccinated. It’s a workplace safety issue. “
He noted, however, that SAG-AFTRA “has not put out any specific guidance on this, but certainly that conversation is going to happen.”
A Covid compliance officer who took part in the forum said that there have been “very few” outbreaks on set in Los Angeles, with “outbreak” defined as three or more people who test positive on the same production. “We’ve had very, very few that I’m aware of. Individuals have tested positive, but an outbreak that was actually traced to the production itself has not happened. I may be wrong about it being zero, but it’s very low.”
A talent agent on the call said that a shoot for Super Bowl commercial was shut down last week in Los Angeles after a hairstylist tested positive for Covid-19.
But a member of SAG-AFTRA’s commercials committee noted that the well over 1,500 commercial productions have been individually cleared by the union’s commercial staff. “From the get-go,” she said, “all the commercials that have been produced during the pandemic have been individually cleared by staff. So they’ve gone through all their protocols with staff, and staff has said, ‘No, that’s not good enough,’ or ‘Yes, this is OK’ in order to get approval to have the production actually go forward.”
Other topics discussed included safety protocols, pay for actors during mandated quarantining, and unemployment insurance. Judging by viewer responses, the forum was a huge hit. “Thank you for this!” a viewer wrote. “Incredibly helpful.”