10 Steps to Check Off Before You Join the Union
Updated: Jun 6
How do I know when I am ready to join SAG-AFTRA? Joining the union is just one of many milestones that a professional working actor will undertake. But, while the benefits are many, the challenges of undertaking a more competitive tier are not to be taken lightly. For most, the choice to join, and the choice of when to join, is a deeply personal one. We at BFT always want to empower the actor to make the best choice for them and approach decisions in your career from the perspective of a business CEO. Do your research and do what you feel, in your gut, is best for you.
Before taking the leap, let’s dig into some questions to ask yourself before you join the union.
As you get closer to joining, ask these questions:
1. Am I Eligible to Join SAG-AFTRA?
1. Be a member of an affiliate/ sister union (ACTRA, AEA, AGMA or AGVA) and be in good standing, and up to date on your dues for 1 year.
2. Book a Principal role in a qualifying* SAG-AFTRA production.
3. Work 3 background roles on qualifying union projects and receive a voucher** for each.
*Note: Not all SAG-AFTRA films will qualify, many ULB, New Media, and Short Films won't be able to offer membership eligibility.
**Note: Background Actors are never guaranteed vouchers on union productions in right to work states. Vouchers are limited.
2. Am I Ready to Stop All Non-Union Gigs?
Global Rule number 1 is you can’t work any non-union work once you join SAG-AFTRA. Period. That means you can no longer work with your buddy, with whom you love writing and producing your own indie projects, unless you go through the red tape of making those projects SAG-AFRA. If you still need or want to work those non-union jobs: Don’t join the union.
3. Is My Resume Competitive?
You’ve topped off everything you’d like to do at the non-union level and have booked several meaty roles in union projects or paid indie films. Think of your ideal resume... not only should it be formatted correctly, but you should have major roles in larger tier projects. Think: Lead billing in indie projects, some studio-level projects, a few TV credits (maybe even on major streaming networks). These sorts of credits will be what your fellow SAG-AFTRA members will have on their resumes. How does your current resume measure up?
4. Do I Have a Complete Reel?
Union actors will have competitive reels, so you don’t want to be competing at a higher tier without this basic tool. One or two low budget student films won’t cut it at the union tier. Ideally, you should have enough footage for a comedic reel and a dramatic reel.
5. Are My Headshots Competitive?
We’ve covered what to look for in #headshots. But it's worth repeating, if you’ve not updated your headshot in over a year, or if you’ve recently moved to a new market, it's important that your headshot is competitive for the market you are in.
6. Have I Got a Solid 3-6 Years of Training? Am I Solid in My Craft and Technique?
It's hard to measure this, but it’s one of the most important factors to consider. The union actor pool is fierce. Many actors have BFAs and MFAs and conservatory training. Or they have the equivalent of studying at the top-tier instructors / schools (Strasburg, American Academy of the Dramatic Arts, Tisch, New School, etc...). When you join the union, expect to be up against the best, and the greats. You are never ‘done’ with training. But you should feel confident, and ready to tackle any audition. Turnaround for auditions will be fast, and you have to know that you’re fully in control from rehearsal to audition to heading to set.
7. Am I Financially Ready to Pay Initiation Fees and to See a Drop in Bookings?
While each union job you book will pay more, it’s pretty common to see a decline in bookings when you join the union. Especially at the commercial level. Where you might have been auditioning 2-8 times a week when you join, many actors will see a pretty steep drop-off in auditions (and, by extension, bookings). Depending on your market, there are just more non-union jobs than union ones. And you might find you go on less auditions for a while, while you start to build relationships with new CDs who cast at a higher studio level. Depending on your state, initiation fees range from $1,000-$3,000. And that’s not counting yearly dues. While there are payment plans available, be sensible in your finances. If you don't even make $1,000 a year acting, consider how wise it will be to make the investment of spending $3,000 on joining the union.
8. Do I Have Well-Built Relationships with Filmmakers and Casting Directors in My Market Who Can Continue to Cast Me When I Go Union?
If you've only recently moved to this market, and not really booked any jobs with your regional Casting Directors at the non-union level, it’s pretty safe to assume that, once you join the union (and therefore cost the productions more money), you won't suddenly start booking jobs. Similarly, if you are booking some good indie projects and built some relationships with CD’s or Directors, check and see if any of those folks are regularly offering SAG contracts. (You may be a fierce booker, but if every project you’ve done is created by a filmmaker who doesn't know how to make a SAG film, then you have to be prepared to let those relationships go, and start from scratch with ones that will be able to hire you as a union actor.)
9. Is My Current Agent SAG-Franchised*?
(If not, are you willing to leave them upon joining?)
Once you join SAG-AFTRA, you can only be repped by a SAG-Franchised Agent. If you are unsure of your current agent’s standing, call your local SAG-AFTRA office, and ask. They will be able to confirm if that agency is Franchised / in good standing with the union. If they are not, you should be prepared to professionally (and politely) leave your agent. Getting union work without a rep can be a challenge, so you should get ready to start targeting and submitting to SAG-Franchised agencies. Also, even if your rep is franchised, joining the union changes how they submit you and their commission rates. So be sure to touch base with your agent before joining. It’s just good form.
*Agencies can be SAG-Franchised or ATA and still represent Union actors. Also, if you live in a right-to-work state where there are NO SAG-Franchised agencies (like in Montana or Alabama), then you are allowed to be repped by a Non-SAG Franchised agent, as none are available in your market. But if you look for representation in another state, where they exist, you are required to only sign with a SAG-Franchised Agency as a union member.
10. Am I Booking More Union Projects Than Not?
While this won't happen in union states like CA and NY, in right-to-work states (click here to see the full list), you’ll find you can become eligible and remain eligible inevitably with no rush to join or ‘must join’ status to force you into joining.
But does that mean you shouldn’t join?
For some actors, you may continue to book union gig after union gig. If you’ve worked on 6+ union projects and the bulk of your resume is union work, you absolutely should be itching to join for karma, if nothing else. It’s okay to wait for competitive materials and finances to be in order before joining but, if you are building a career of union work and reaping ALL the benefits of the union and still choosing to put off joining, that is, in our opinion, bad form. When your career is in good shape, do the right thing and thank the union for providing you with safe and protected jobs on set by supporting them and joining.
There is no one-size-fits-all. Some actors, in their particular market or demographic, may absolutely need to take the plunge to join the union before other actors would remotely be ready in other markets. And while there are lots of anecdotal examples of exceptions to these above scenarios, our goal is to teach a process that best describes the universal gains that come from going union. Our goal is always to help you continue to work, and have a sustainable acting career with longevity, regardless of your union status. The union’s goal is to protect you and provide excellent projects working at a consistently high-quality level.
Oftentimes, making this choice is both scary and exciting, but seems hard to identify when you are ready, precisely. Be sure to chat with your agents. They know your work, and know your market, and should be a part of the conversation. And be sure to consult with your teachers and coaches. We can take an unbiased approach and help look over your package and materials and help give you sound advice in navigating this decision. At the end of the day, it's your career. Do your research, get your stuff together, and make the leap when you feel hungry to do so.
Ready to join? Start here.
Clare Lopez is an Actress and Director of Education and Outreach at Book From Tape Acting Studios. She is deeply passionate about supporting fellow actors in their craft, and loves using storytelling to educate, elevate, and empower others. Email Clare