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SAG strike talk has actors nervous

As the economy reels, many top performers show little appetite for another clash with the studios.

By Scott Collins

December 12, 2008

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When Hollywood writers began a strike a little more than a year ago, movie and TV stars went out of their way to show solidarity with the mostly unheralded scribes who craft their lines. Former "Seinfeld" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus lugged a picket sign. Jay Leno passed out doughnuts to writers outside studio gates. Dozens of actors shot brief but stylish black-and-white Internet films supporting the scriptwriters.


FOR THE RECORD:
Actors' strike: An article in Friday's Calendar section about the prospects for a work stoppage by the Screen Actors Guild said that for a strike to proceed, 75% of the union's membership must vote yes. In fact, 75% of the overall votes must be yes. —



Now the Screen Actors Guild is pondering its own walkout, possibly as early as next month. But the deepening recession has dampened the militant pro-labor sentiments many celebrities freely espoused last year. With the entertainment business and its tens of thousands of workers still reeling from the three-month writers strike -- and with the larger U.S. economy shedding more than half a million jobs last month alone -- many top performers show little enthusiasm for another smackdown with the studios.

The chill was palpable as Hollywood celebrated the Golden Globe nominations Thursday, setting up the Oscar race for such contenders as "Revolutionary Road" and "Frost/Nixon." Earlier this year, with stars bailing on the ceremony in the depths of the writers strike, NBC offered a truncated, little-watched Globes telecast.

Next month's Globes look safe to happen before any walkout could occur. But stars are nevertheless nervous about the long-term effects of a boomerang strike.

"You can't ignore what's happening in the economy," David Duchovny, star of Showtime's dark comedy "Californication," said Thursday after receiving a Globe nomination for best actor in a comedy or musical television series. Duchovny was one of many stars who showed up at picket lines last year to support writers. "Everyone wants to keep on working. Even with what little work there is, to have none would be disastrous."

Jimmy Smits, a longtime TV star who headlined CBS' since-canceled drama "Cane," said that an actors' walkout would not be "prudent," even though SAG and the studios are contending over "really serious" financial issues. "I don't see it happening," Smits said of a strike. "Middle America is going to have a hard time with a bunch of actors out there striking when there's so much hurting going on."

The A-listers' shift could highlight a split within SAG's 120,000-member union. For all their visibility, celebrity actors make up a tiny fraction of the union's membership, the vast majority of whom do not have regular employment on union-contracted shows. Because these nonworking members do not face the prospect of a lost paycheck from a strike, they are generally more receptive than busy actors to anti-studio rhetoric from SAG's leadership.

That rhetoric has ramped up in recent days. After months of negotiation, SAG and the studios have hit an impasse over a new deal that would cover such issues as residual payments for movies and TV shows streamed over the Internet. The union announced this week that it would mail out ballots to members Jan. 2 for a vote that would authorize a strike. Seventy-five percent of the membership must vote "yes" for a strike to proceed.

"SAG members understand that their futures as professional actors are at stake," SAG President Alan Rosenberg said in a statement. "A yes vote sends a strong message that we are serious about fending off rollbacks and getting what is fair for actors in new media."

To be sure, the recession hasn't made all the leading performers strike-averse. Some actors express frustration with studio negotiators who they believe are trying to give performers a raw deal by cutting back on current compensation.

"How can you exploit people's work and not pay them any money?," said Melissa George, nominated for her work on HBO's "In Treatment." "The myth is that we're asking for more. We're just asking to keep [the contract] as it is, not more. That's not being greedy."

Others are pro-labor on principle.

"I'm a union guy," said Blair Underwood, likewise nominated for "In Treatment." "So if the union decides to strike, I'm gonna have to be out there picketing. One or 2 percent of actors make a living in this game and we as union members need to be respected in terms of residuals and the ability to make a living."

"At the end of the day I will support my union, whatever they decide," said Anne Hathaway, an award contender this year for the film "Rachel Getting Married."

But top-tier performers are facing a much more awkward position than last year. Sympathizing with the writers during their walkout was relatively pain-free because the actors' own economic position was not directly at stake.

That helped many actors to walk hand-in-hand with the striking writers. As British actor Tom Wilkinson said last December, "If actors can't have solidarity with writers -- the people who put the words in their mouths -- then who can they have solidarity with?"

Now, however, the global economic meltdown has stoked fears that a SAG strike would deal a devastating financial blow not just to performers but also to everyday production workers still trying to recover from the work slowdown caused by the writers strike.

Indeed, with the stock market hammered and money from hedge funds and other private sources drying up, some worry that the survival of the entertainment industry, or at least a large portion of it, is at stake.

"The industry is in such a state of flux, because of the economy and because things are underperforming at the box office," said Irish actor Colin Farrell, Globe-nominated for the comedy "In Bruges." "A lot of films are falling apart. . . . I have a lot of friends who are excited to go to work on certain things and the gigs are falling apart. Some pieces are falling apart very close to principal photography. Climate-wise, it's a worrying time for the industry. I don't know that a strike at this time wouldn't be a counterproductive thing."

Wilkinson, like many of his peers who threw their support behind the writers last year, sounds much more circumspect this time around.

"I don't really know the ins and outs, since I'm over here in the U.K.," he told The Times Thursday. "But I don't think there'll be a strike. Actors don't like going on strike. And this financial climate will make it worse. . . . Everyone is hoping for a solution."

Collins is a Times staff writer.

scott.collins@latimes.com

Times staff writers Greg Braxton, Maria Elena Fernandez, Chris Lee, Stephanie Lysaght and Denise Martin contributed to this report.