When Screen Actors Guild president Fran Drescher announced that the union’s more than 160,000 film and TV actors would be going on strike beginning Friday, among the most alarming revelations was that during negotiations, Hollywood studio executives had reportedly proposed replacing background actors with likelinesses created by artificial intelligence.
At a press conference announcing the strike, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the executives had “proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want, with no consent and no compensation.”
It sounded like something out of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” — and in fact, AI was part of a central storyline in the sci-fi anthology show’s new season last month. But the threat of AI is becoming very, very real, and its potential to replace creative work is one of the key issues galvanizing the striking actors. Actors are joining the 11,500 film and TV writers of the Writers Guild of America East and West already on the picket lines since May 2.
“If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines,” Drescher said in a fiery speech Thursday.
The AI proposal endangers the livelihoods of a crucial type of working actor: the background actor. You may not recognize their names and faces, but they’re essential to making shows and movies look and feel real. Background actors who reached out to HuffPost Friday — several of whom said they were en route to the picket lines in New York and Los Angeles — sounded the alarm about what the studio executives’ proposal would mean to their work and survival.
“Someone scanning my image, paying me one time, using it in perpetuity? Hell no!” said Lance Beasman, a Baltimore-based background actor who has appeared in shows like “Veep,” “House of Cards,” and “We Own This City.”
Many warned that it could mean the beginning of the end of background acting as a career.
“I am sure that the feeling is unanimous among background actors that being scanned and having our likeness used in perpetuity for a one-time payment of approximately $200 is horrifying,” said Christopher Cosmo, a New York-based background actor who has worked on shows and movies like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Law and Order,” “Joker,” and “Dr. Death.” “Regardless of the amount of money paid, it would be a non-starter. It would be the end of background acting.”
Working background actors comprise a crucial portion of the SAG-AFTRA membership, affecting the availability of benefits and pensions and the strength of the union’s collective power. If AI were to replace background actors, “SAG membership would be drastically reduced, and the union’s power would be irreparably diminished,” Cosmo said.
Background acting jobs can help people pay the rent and gain crucial experience on film and TV sets. Cecil Castelucci, a Los Angeles-based writer of novels, comic books and operas, used background acting to make ends meet while breaking into writing. She has appeared in shows like “Mike and Molly,” “You’re the Worst,” “Sex and the City,” “Girlfriends” and “Gilmore Girls” — and ironically, the Steven Spielberg film “AI: Artificial Intelligence.”
“The AI news has me spitting mad, and I’ll be out on the lines,” Castelucci said.
While background acting is no longer her primary source of income, “I keep my SAG card active for many reasons, one of them being that cobbling an art life is hard, and I knew it was something that I could do should I need a bag of groceries during lean times,” Castelucci said.
In addition, being a fly on the wall on film and TV sets was an essential training ground for her as a storyteller. “I feel that it is an apprenticeship to film and television making in a way that school can’t teach you. You learn to observe and know what makes a great set or a terrible one, what an actor at the top of their game, or just starting out, does to bring a character alive by watching them do take after take and how they work their craft,” Castelucci said. “And you see firsthand how a great director tries to weave a story and steer the ship. It’s a masterclass for anyone in the field and vital to making the magic.”
As Shamma Casson explained, background acting is a lifeline for actors just starting out.
“At some point, I would like to break into bigger parts and more speaking roles. For now, though, background work and my serving job are my bread and butter. Using AI to replace me and my fellow actors would absolutely put us out of work,” said Casson, who has worked on the CBS series “Bull” and the M. Night Shyamalan film “Glass.”
She added that with the AI proposal, she’s deeply concerned that actors will not have a say in how their work is used. “Using my likeness as a woman without my consent troubles me for any scenes I do not agree with,” she said.
“At the end of the day as a society, what jobs will there be left? Like, what jobs are you going to leave for the humans?”
The AI proposal portends a grim future, elements of which are already here. Artificial intelligence and the threat it places on artists’ livelihoods has already been central to the writers strike. Writers proposed protections around the use of AI, such as rules prohibiting the use of AI to directly write film and TV scripts, write source material for those scripts, or writers’ work being used to train AI. But studio executives rejected those proposals and instead offered “annual meetings around the use of technology.” Writers have pilloried the response as insulting, noting that it doesn’t even acknowledge the problem.
The use of AI is already happening in many creative industries, like media and publishing. It’s no longer a matter of when but how and to what degree it will continue encroaching on people’s work and livelihoods. And AI already seems to be creeping into parts of acting: Several background actors pointed out that they’ve seen elements of AI already being used in voice acting and video game acting.
An L.A.-based background actor who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal said he and other non-union extras were essentially required to be scanned while working on an upcoming Netflix series. Dressed in tuxedos and gowns for a party scene, the extras went into production trucks, where production assistants scanned them “like they would for the characters on Marvel and stuff, the action figures,” he said. “And that was that.”
“There was no answer about why or if you couldn’t. It was just like: ‘Just get scanned.’ They wouldn’t answer what it was for,” he continued. “For me, like, it was going to make the PA’s life bad if I just didn’t get scanned. These are non-union extras: We’ve got nothing. We’re the littlest of the little people on the set.”
He initially got into background acting to make extra income for his family since his day job running a clothing brand took a major financial hit during the pandemic. As a “Star Wars” fan, he was excited to land a background role in the recent “Obi-Wan Kenobi” series.
He acknowledged that “I don’t have that much skin in the game because it is sort of like a side hustle sort of thing,” he said. But the more he has done background acting, the more he has noticed how it’s a warm and vibrant community of people within the entertainment industry.
“You get to see how it all works, see some famous people, and meet the most eclectic group of people in that background holding room, from, you know, would-be future superstars, to people that have just been happy to do it for 30 years,” he said. “For people that work in the background, it’s the people. You meet so many different types of people doing it for different reasons. And it’s sad that they’re gonna take that away.”
“It’s just a weird industry to try to work in: It’s just constantly sort of kicking you in the gut and, like, trying to get rid of you,” he continued. “It’s just, I don’t know, disheartening, to say the least. At the end of the day, as a society, what jobs will there be left? Like, what jobs are you going to leave for the humans?”
Sometimes, all you can rely on is gallows humor. He joked that in his recent background role, “I’m very well dressed. I’m in a tuxedo. I look great. Like, who knows the parties I’ll get to go to in 30, 40 years? But I’d like to know though. That’d be cool!” he said with a laugh. “You have to laugh about it because it’s like, when you’re at the end, like, what are you gonna do? We have literally no power. So you know, it’s good to see the unions sort of flex that power. I was overjoyed to hear it come up as an issue yesterday. Like, oh, yes, the little people. They’re remembering us.”
“People are not realizing, like, this is an entire part of the industry that could be taken away. And we have no rights — like, I have nothing, no claim on anything. It would just be: poof, my job is gone.”
Like the aforementioned actor, Myndi Schmid, a Chicago-based background actor and stand-in, is not a member of SAG. But she stressed that SAG and WGA’s fight is everyone’s fight.
“Sometimes, [the studio executives] like to talk about the other people who are not in the unions ‘being hurt by this.’ And it’s like, no, I stand behind [the strikes]. We’re all fighting to take care of all of us in the industry,” she said.
In 2017, Schmid began background acting to make extra money during graduate school, working on shows like “Empire,” “Work In Progress,” “Chicago Med,” and the short-lived “The Big Leap.” During the last few years, background acting has become her main job. She is what’s known as a “core” background actor, meaning that she appears in most episodes of a show and plays the same character. Lately, on “Chicago Med,” she has played one of the main ICU nurses, and on “The Big Leap,” a worker in the show-within-a-show’s production office. Background actors lend a sense of authenticity to shows and movies, as she explained.
“It feels like you would have that same person always sitting at that desk. Even if I don’t have a scene, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, these are the same people that would be around you,’” Schmid said. “What makes background acting so important is, like, you don’t even realize that these details are happening. But it does make the show feel more real when you have the same people.”
It’s hard to imagine the extent to which AI could transform background acting, and Schmid said she’s deeply concerned about a lack of rules that could result, if the unions don’t win important safeguards. “I’m in the background a lot, and so like, could you just take me from an old episode and use that? I don’t know. It’s just really freaky.”
With the alarming AI proposal, “people are not realizing this is an entire part of the industry that could be taken away. And we have no rights — I have nothing, no claim on anything. It would just be: poof, my job is gone,” she said. “I love my job. I love being a part of making the magic happen. And it’s the human element that I love so much, right?”
“Background culture, it is a very specific culture, and you can’t really understand it unless you’ve done it. The very cool thing is we are booked because they need a variety. So they are looking for people who look like regular everyday people, and they want people that are diverse. So you meet people who have unique, interesting stories,” she continued. “I would never meet these people otherwise. I never get to know people from all different walks of life, all different races, all different ages, who stumble into this usually as a second job, or a lot of people are retired. Some people are students. A lot of people are creative people. So it’s such a cool energy to be around — and to think that would just be gone is very heartbreaking.”