News & Features » Miscellany

As their six-month strike ends, actors go back to their real jobs.

Striking Out

comment
In the last television commercial she did before the strike, Richmond actress Bridget Gethins played a kooky aunt who talked baby talk. This summer, she spoke Shakespeare. Gethins, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, was barred from starring in radio and television commercials during the union's recent strike against the advertising industry. The bitter impasse began in May and lasted until last month. Gethins says she never expected the standoff to last so long - or teach her so much. "It really took me by surprise," she says. "Something like that happens and it's very catastrophic, and your eyes are opened." It also forced Gethins - and a number of local union actors - to explore other areas of their careers while the union worked out its grievances against the ad industry. After going without work in June and July, for example, Gethins landed a role with the Richmond Shakespeare Company. In August, she joined its nine-week regional tour of "Romeo and Juliet." "I literally ended the tour the week the strike ended," she says. "The timing couldn't have been any better." On May 1, the Screen Actors Guild - along with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists - began its strike, charging that the rules governing how actors are paid for commercial work were outdated and unfair. The ad industry disagreed. The strike lasted 26 weeks. Only in late October did the union reach a tentative resolution with the ad industry, allowing actors like Gethins to return to work. By the end of this week, union actors are expected to vote to officially end the strike. Richmond may not be L.A. - where the SAG strike reportedly cost Southern California an estimated $125 million in lost production - but its effects were felt. About 100 unionized actors call Richmond home. Several advertising agencies are signed to union contracts. Still, Virginia's status as a right-to-work state, as well as its distance from the hotbed of the controversy, muted the intensity of the strike here. The Martin Agency, for example, called the strike period "business as usual." Some nonunion actors found jobs they might not otherwise have landed. And some union actors found time to find other things to do. Mark Joy, who supported the strike, is a well-known Richmond actor who played a starring role in the John Waters movie "Pecker." He played a principal character in the film "Dogma," was a guest star on "Law & Order" and is a seasoned movie-of-the-week actor. But Joy's quick-paying commercial work was put on hold when the strike kicked in May 1. With his extra time, he did something he'd always wanted: He earned his certification as a physical trainer. "I had been a member at American Family Fitness for several years anyway," says Joy, who lists weight training as a special skill on his 8-by-10 glossy. "I went ahead and did the required studying and passed the course," he says. So in addition to his theatrical work in film and television - which was allowed during the strike - he was able to supplement his paycheck with a part-time job at American Family. Besides the added income, he says, "it was an enjoyable diversion." Although the strike frustrated Richmond actor Charles Wise, he says it caused little hardship: "I really didn't suffer any. There could have been more money. I couldn't say I saved much." Fortunately, though, Wise could count on his other source of income as a painting contractor and renovator. "Like everybody in entertainment," he says, "you have to have more than one iron in the fire." Wise also is experienced in industrials, or corporate in-house training films. Such work was allowed under strike rules. "That's given me the bulk of what I've been able to do in the last year," he says. The strike also gave Wise the time to pursue an interest in acting in independent films. Last week, he started shooting a small-budget movie in Maryland, "Everything's Wonderful." While many local union actors halted their work in commercials, production continued. That left some agencies looking for creative ways to get around a lack of union actors. And it left nonunion actors with an increase in opportunities. Virginia Bertholet, supervisor of the broadcast department at The Martin Agency, says the agency was able to locate some new, nonunion talent. In one case, Bertholet suddenly found herself on the other end of the microphone. Instead of merely producing a television commercial for a watch company, Bertholet became the voice-over talent for it. "We just kind of tried it and it worked," she says. The commercial currently runs internationally. "We really didn't feel like [the strike] got in our way," Bertholet says, even though Martin continued to support the position of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Still, she says, the experience reinforced her notion that union-level talent is "the best." Actor Joy, naturally, agrees. "The agencies will go back to their A-team," he says. "There's no doubt about it." But there is disagreement about whether the grueling six-month strike was worth it, and about how it will ultimately affect the industry. Besides, the curtain may not have come down on the strikes. Recently, SAG began negotiating a new contract with the Association of Talent Agents trade group. Last Monday, in the far West End offices of Uptown Talent Inc., Gethins was back in auditions. She joined a roomful of women hoping to land a role in a Virginia Lottery commercial. Of course, the end of the strike hasn't ended the stress for the actor. "I am freaking out, hoping that within the next six weeks I can make my health-insurance quota," Gethins says. According to the actors' guild, Gethins must make $7,500 from acting work under union contracts by the end of the year before her insurance kicks in. "But I think that I may fall short," Gethins says. "I'm out pounding the pavement right now." But Gethins is happy it's all over - even if it means the nerve-wracking wait to hear whether she got the Virginia Lottery part. "I am not living 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,'" Gethins says. "I am just a regular working

Add a comment