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Sunday, January 11, 2009

AFTRA / SAG and Getting Upgraded

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There were a couple of questions recently posted to the actor’s forums, and I posted some answers that I wanted to repost here. They both are in regard to what constitutes an upgrade from background to principal on a TV show.

Question 1)
I was talking to a friend yesterday who said he did work on one of the NYC soaps, so I told him about on of my background scenes on the show. We did a meeting room scene, and we had to say "Hi, Ted," when the character introduced himself to the group. When I told this story to my friend, he said that this means I'm not an extra, I was U5. I told him I was hired as an extra, it just so happened we had to speak due to the scene. He said, “If you speak on camera, you're U5 no matter what the scene.”

Is this true? I think he's wrong, but I kind of hope he's right.

TAE Responds:

Hi, there. Your best bet would be to call AFTRA on this one, but I think you are correct- you were background. In my experience, background talent can speak on camera and still be considered background, as long as the dialogue being used is what would be considered "crowd" noise. For example, if you were in a scene where you are in the background playing a protester, the producer can ask you to shout and you would still be considered a background. My guess is that, since yours is a group scene and everyone said the same thing at the same time, this role would still be considered background.

But, call AFTRA and explain the scene to them and see what they say. And, congrats on your role!

Question 2)
I'm beginning to think that some featured background work that my son did on an episode of a television show should have been bumped and paid as principal. He ended up with more screen time than any of the actual paid principals got, though the only sound they used was laughter. He had special effects makeup and was highly recognizable as a specific character. I know that's probably considered part of the job but I was actually surprised they didn't offer even a little more for the wearing of the SFX makeup.

I'm probably dead wrong on this - advice? (Also too when is it too late to question this with SAG? It's been almost a year now...)

TAE Responds:

As far as I know, there is no rule in SAG for film/TV background work that states that if the actor is recognizable or has a lot of screen time, they get bumped up to principal. I think there is something like this in commercial contracts, where if a background actor gets a certain amount of screen time they would be upgraded to a principal contract. But in films and on TV, an actor can have an individual role (for example, a teacher in a classroom,) have multiple closeup shots, and it would still be covered under the regular background actors contract (as long as no lines were added.) As you mentioned, background casting directors call these types of roles "featured background" and they do not necessitate an upgrade, even if the role requires advanced makeup or hair styling.

I always think it is worth calling SAG when you have a question like this, if only to let them know that a) their rules may be unclear, and b) that you think actors who do this type of work should be considered for an upgrade. Prior to calling, you may want to check his pay stub and see if he was given any kind of bump in pay for the makeup (similar to getting a pay increase if you wear multiple changes of clothes.) Off the top of my head, I can't think of a rule that allows for that, but be sure to check before calling SAG anyway.

I hope this is useful- best of luck to you!

Have a comment or question? Leave it by clicking below!

Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has done national tours of plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. To learn more, check out

3 COMMENTS - Click to READ:

Abundance Bound said...

Hi, It's actually Adam here. I work as an AD, and Erin, you are correct in everything you said. For the first question, background actors in a group (being defined, I believe, as more then 3) can be asked to say generic things. This only changes if you are being given a unique and specific line to say to an actor, at which point you will be (generally) told "You are being upgraded", and will be put on a principle contract from that time on (you will also get your background pay up until that point).

As for the second question, you are absolutely right that, in commercials, recognizability is a key factor in getting an upgrade, but it is only one of three that must be fulfilled in order to be paid as a principle (the other two being foreground, and interacting with the product or a principle). For Features and TV, no such requirement exists, I am afraid (otherwise half the people in Star Trek would have been principles...).

Anyway, hope that helps


Erin Cronican said...

Thank you, Adam! It definitely helps (and it certainly doesn't hurt that you told me I was right! hee hee hee...)

Robert said...

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