Jason Kravets gets a lot out of this: People identify with him — they’re just not sure how that happened. “I’m that guy who looks like the guy I went to high school with,” Kravets says. “People think they just saw me somewhere.”
In fact, they have – on TV, usually as a lawyer or doctor. “I’ve had enough roles that I’ve been in your living room on any given night,” says the veteran actor. “But most people don’t know my name.”
Kravets is one of those actors that union leaders refer to as “skilled workers”—those who tend to work for great pay, and spend at least as much time arranging work as work. They can have a great year, and then a bad year, without much rhyme or reason. “We’re always about to struggle,” Kravets says.
And they, not the big names in Hollywood joining the picket lines, are the heart of the actors’ strike.
Many say they fear the general public will think all actors get paid well and do it out of the love of the craft, almost as a hobby. However, in most cases, it is their only job, and they need to qualify for health insurance, pay rent or mortgage, and pay for school and college for their children.
“We’re all not Tom Cruise,” says Amari DeJoy, 30, who is studying acting, doing background jobs (as an extra) and working as a model to stay afloat, and is considering working as a waitress during the strike. We have to pay rent and bills, which are due first. And your apartment doesn’t care because the check wasn’t for the price you expected.”
In interviews, a few daily-career actors at different stages of their careers discussed their lives and the reasons for the strike.
This check is a penny
Jennifer Van Dyck recently had two checks left in the mail – one for 60 cents and one for 72 cents. But she saw worse.
“The joke is when you get a one-cent check that costs 44 cents to mail to you,” says the veteran New York actor, referring to replay payments and other telecasts of a movie or TV show after its initial release.
However, Van Dyck considers herself lucky. With numerous appearances on the network such as “The Blacklist”, “Madam Secretary” and especially “Law & Order”, where she appeared as a guest star 13 times, as well as doing voiceover work, she has been able to make a living for over 30 years without having to take a job outside the field.
“You just keep jumping around,” she says. “When things dry up in one area, it moves on to the next. It keeps all the balls in the air: theatre, movies, TV, voiceovers, audiobooks. Tour owners call us: Half of the job requirements are looking for work.”
The advent of live streaming has worrisomely reduced the actor’s income, says Van Dyck, because streamers give off little leftovers, if any. And when it comes to negotiating the price of appearing on the show, the studios don’t seem to care if you have 37 years of experience. “They say, ‘This is what we offer, take it or leave it. “
She’s still amazed at the common misconception that actors have to be rich and famous. “The majority of us aren’t,” she says. “But all those other parts[of a hit show]all those other shows that get sidelined or disappear — that’s helpful, too. And those stories can’t be told without[us].”
“Nobody wants to get hit,” Van Dyck adds. But she feels the industry has reached an inflection point. And, “At a certain point you have to say, ‘No diamonds.'” “
This is not a hobby
Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Kravets was bitten by the stage bug early on, performing in community theater when he was ten or eleven years old. He studied theater in college, eventually making his way to New York and then Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, he was lucky, winning a recurring role on David E. Kelly’s The Practice.
Kravets says he would make a lot of money as a real lawyer, but he enjoys playing it. “I like to say I play a lot of lawyers, but I’m never the same lawyer. I play a mean lawyer, a dumb lawyer, a funny lawyer, an obnoxious lawyer, an incompetent lawyer. Every role is different for me.” Most of the time, he’s on a show for an episode or two.
There used to be room to negotiate everything, including billing rooms and dressing rooms, Kravets says, but there is no room anymore: “You negotiate with Wall Street. Wall Street is the bottom line.”
It was the hardest change with all the important hangovers. “I don’t think people realize outside of work how important a hangover is to being able to afford acting,” he says.
And with so little left over from broadcasting, Kravets says he has network shows he did 10, 15, or even 20 years ago that still produce more hangovers than the buzzy offerings he’s given broadcasters the past few years—like HBO’s The Undoing or Netflix’s Halston.
“I didn’t get into this as a hobby,” Kravets says. “I can’t afford to do it as a hobby.”
We put our money where our mouths are
The series finale that changed actress Diane Rodriguez’s career — NBC’s The Blacklist — premiered on the same day that Hollywood left off.
Rodriguez, who played Wicha, star James Spader’s character’s bodyguard, would have loved to take to social media and celebrate her character’s final appearance, but a strike made that impossible. She’s had several new projects booked, but now she’s throwing herself into her duties as strike leader.
She sees the strike as part of a larger labor movement in the country: “I am very much in favor of it because we overwhelmingly feel (like) we are ready to put our money where our mouths are for the greater good.”
Born in Puerto Rico, raised in Alabama, Rodriguez, 41, moved from New York to Atlanta in 2009 for theater work. Around that time, Georgia lawmakers passed generous film tax credits—incentives that brought in business but ensured a prolonged strike would be felt there.
“Atlanta’s economy is funded in large part by movie and television tax credits,” she says.
Rodriguez feels financially secure, thanks in large part to her stint on two seasons on “The Blacklist,” network hangovers and the roles the show has helped her write since.
But she says she could easily have been in the same position as many of her fellow actors who are on the brink of losing their health coverage, unable to earn enough in recent months to be eligible for SAG-AFTRA insurance plans.
What does this mean for work?
Amari DeJoy’s father did not want her to follow him into the entertainment business. “They never do,” she jokes.
But Dejoie, who grew up in Los Angeles, hit it wrong, and started acting and modeling at age 17. Now she’s studying acting, paying $400 a month for classes, and taking whatever side jobs she can, including working as an extra. She has appeared in music videos and at events as a booth model. She is considering a job as a waitress to make ends meet during the strike.
“My dad was part of SAG the other day and his guys paid for a house,” says Dejoie, who ran sit-up classes in Los Angeles last week. “It’s the same business, and (yet) completely different now.”
Her father, Vincent Cook, was the boxing duo of Will Smith in the movie “Ali” and had a role in “BAPS” with Halle Berry. “He wasn’t a major character, but his remnants were great and still are,” says Dejoie, none other than finding out recently, after undergoing a medical issue, that SAG has a check waiting for him. “If it were up to the studio, they wouldn’t chase you down to pay you. SAG would,” says Dejoie.
Dejoie also worries about how artificial intelligence will affect the industry and works as an extra, making about $150 a day to be available for backdoors. Actors fear that studios will want to repeatedly scan and use their photos after paying for just one day’s work.
“Also, if I’m not on the set, I’m not there to make connections for other jobs,” says Dejoie.
More broadly, the idea of artificially duplicating actors’ images makes her fear for the future of the industry she’s just starting out in.
“What does this mean for representation?” Says. “Did you just spend all that time and money on a craft that will someday be finished?”
Rico reported from Atlanta. Associated Press journalists Krista Fauria and John Carocci contributed to this report.