‘We can’t pay our rent.’ Actors on the picket line reveal harsh reality of trying to make it in Hollywood

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Of the thousands of striking film and television actors who are members of SAG-AFTRA, vanishingly few will ever see their name on the marquee of a multiplex or listed at No. 1 on a call sheet.

While stars may give Hollywood its glitter, it is the wider acting ecosystem around them that keeps the business running, from character actors, whose faces may be familiar even if their names are not, to unknown day players, stand-ins and background performers.

And while the most well-known actors live in multi-million-dollar houses in Malibu and Bel-Air, for that far larger group of non-famous — or at least not-yet-famous — ones, it has become harder than ever in the streaming era to make it into the middle class, let alone stay there. That’s especially true in a city as expensive as Los Angeles. According to SAG-AFTRA, just 12.7% of its 160,000 members bring in the minimum amount of income — $26,470 — required to qualify for the union’s health insurance.


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Since mid-July, on picket lines outside studios and production facilities in Los Angeles and New York, actors have been hoisting signs and chanting in unison alongside striking members of the Writers Guild of America, urging the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to heed their demands for fair compensation and better job protections in an industry that has been radically upended by streaming.

“You cannot keep being dwindled and marginalized and disrespected and dishonored,” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said in a fiery speech last month announcing the strike. “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 and big business who cares more about Wall Street than you and your family.”

SAG-AFTRA has approved a deal from the studios to end its historic strike. The actors were on strike for more than 100 days.

Nov. 10, 2023

With a range of thorny issues on the table, including pay minimums, streaming residuals and the use of AI, striking actors are bracing for a potentially months-long standoff that, along with the ongoing writers’ strike that began May 2, is certain to inflict serious damage throughout the local economy.

But many see no other choice, believing if they don’t hold the line, Hollywood‘s dream factory could become a nightmare for those trying to enter the business. So despite the financial hardship of an industrywide shutdown, they are determined to persist.

Here are four of their stories:

Brad Greenquist and Sebastian Schier


Two men wearing caps hold SAG-AFTRA signs.
Actors and SAG-AFTRA members Brad Greenquist and son Sebastian Schier on the picket line outside Netflix headquarters on Aug. 1.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Like all actors, Brad Greenquist has had his share of heartbreak over roles that got away.

The veteran character actor’s toughest one came early in his career, when a then-unknown director named Steven Soderbergh wanted to cast him as the lead in a low-budget indie called “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” but was overruled by a producer who wanted a bigger name. The role went to James Spader, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” won the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and the rest is history. Just not Greenquist’s history.

“It’s the oddest thing about being an actor,” he says. “You have to develop a tough-as-nails skin to weather the business, but when you’re practicing your craft, you have to strip all that away and be as vulnerable as a baby.”

Still, Greenquist knows he is one of the lucky ones. At 63, he has managed to make a decent living for four decades doing what he loves, racking up well over 100 credits in film, television and theater, along with a number of commercials and some video game voice acting. While he may never have been chased by paparazzi, Greenquist has developed a big enough fan base from his turn as the spectral Victor Pascow in the 1989 horror film “Pet Sematary” (that’s his bloody face on the poster) and four separate guest appearances on various “Star Trek” series that he can go to the occasional fan convention and sign autographs. And he has built a side career teaching acting workshops, which has helped keep him afloat during leaner times.


When Greenquist started out, it was easier for an actor to get a foothold in the industry than it is today, as studios have pared back their slates, streaming platforms have shortened TV seasons and pay for most working actors has steadily dipped.

“I started out doing movies — in 1986, I got the lead role in a Curtis Hanson movie called ‘The Bedroom Window’ and I was off and running,” says Greenquist, who moved from New York to L.A. in 1993. “In the ’80s, if you had three jobs in a year, you could live off that — sometimes you could live fairly well. The deals were completely different then. But through the years, our pay has gone down, down, down in little increments.”

During the most lucrative stretch of Greenquist’s career, from his late 30s into his early 50s, he averaged around $100,000 in earnings a year, sometimes more, sometimes less.

“I bounced around a lot — a lot of movies, a lot of TV stuff,” he says. “I was playing all these bad guys. I was always getting killed at the end of the episode so I couldn’t come back. But that was fine with me because I was good at it. I could look really scary, and the roles were interesting.” (That Greenquist comes across as genial and warm further attests to his acting abilities.)

Workers in film and TV, most of whom are pro-union, have been trying to make ends meet amid a dual strike of Hollywood actors and writers.

July 24, 2023

In 1997, Greenquist and his wife, who works in publishing, purchased a condo in Santa Monica. “Just by the luck of the draw, it was at the bottom of the housing market, so it was it was pretty inexpensive, and now it’s, like, quadrupled in value,” he says. “We have a lot to be very thankful for because not all actors can do that. Most can’t.”


Greenquist may not be a household name, but even more well-known actors are hardly immune from the challenges of trying to sustain a career.

“You have a few megastars that are really raking it in,” says Greenquist, who recently played the late tennis announcer Bud Collins in the film “King Richard.” “But there are a lot of stars I’ve come across in my career — recognizable names — who, when you sit down and have a beer with them after the shoot, they’re like, ‘I’m glad I got this job because I was broke.’”

If it’s been tough even for them, it’s become nearly impossible for young actors like Greenquist’s 25-year-old son, Sebastian Schier, who is trying to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Schier first caught the acting bug when he was cast at age 8 as Macduff’s son in a stage production of “Macbeth,” in which his dad was starring. In 2014, he earned his first professional credit with a one-line part on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family.”

From there, Schier kept plugging away at audition after audition, trying to hone his craft and gain some momentum.


“I wasn’t necessarily booking a job every year because I was still figuring out what I was actually doing,” he says. “But as the years progressed, my auditions got better and better and casting directors would start calling me more and more.”

Last year, Schier did 100 auditions, 95 of which were self-taped. From these, he booked a handful of small roles on an episode of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” (as College Kid #1), in the Hulu miniseries “Pam & Tommy” (as Doofus #2) and on the Paramount+ series “Criminal Minds” and Hulu’s “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

Given how little such gigs pay, though — often amounting to the equivalent of a run to the grocery store or a couple of tanks of gas — Schier is nowhere near being able to support himself through acting. He shares a house with his twin brother and his brother’s fiancée in Winnetka, chipping in $1,450 per month for rent.

To pay the bills, Schier works as a server in a restaurant. “Very typical actor job,” he says. “I work a six- to eight-hour shift, then go home and have an audition or two or maybe four that I have to research, memorize, figure out costuming and any props, then actually go and shoot. That’s the reality for a lot of working actors. We don’t get a day off.”


Greenquist has faith that his son will carve out a future as an actor. But he also knows that the outcome of this historic strike will play a big part in determining what that future looks like.

“Sebastian is very smart and very determined — many young actors in this environment would just stop and do something else, but he’s made up his mind,” Greenquist says. “He’s going to have a good career, I’m certain of it. But while I’m very proud of him, I’m sure glad I’m not starting out now. I wish him and all the other young actors the best. Because it’s tough. It’s really tough.”

Adargiza De Los Santos

A woman wearing a gray dress and red accessories looks ahead.
Actor and SAG member Adargiza De Los Santos during a pause in picketing outside Netflix headquarters.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When Adargiza De Los Santos was cast last year in the dark horror comedy series “The Horror of Dolores Roach,” playing a grandmother in two episodes, she felt like she was finally arriving after years of struggle.


The show had the backing of big-name players — Amazon Studios, Blumhouse Television, Spotify Studios — and the payday of $10,000 per episode, combined with a few thousand dollars more De Los Santos received for appearing as a nurse in two episodes of “Abbott Elementary” and for a small part in an episode on “Grey’s Anatomy,” would help her qualify for SAG health insurance for the first time in 15 years.

“It was my biggest role, biggest anything,” says De Los Santos, 48. “They flew me out first class. Put me up in a hotel. I mean, amazing.”

De Los Santos needed the lifeline. Since moving to L.A. from her native New York in 2008, she had been making ends meet between small parts in shows like “Criminal Minds” and “Franklin & Bash” with various side jobs, from working as a nanny to making deliveries for Postmates and DoorDash to serving as a concierge at the Grove.

SAG-AFTRA approved side agreements allowing more than 100 independent film projects and series to move forward amid the strike, but the deals have spurred debate.

Aug. 3, 2023

“I was broke,” says the actress, who pays $1,108 a month to rent a studio in Echo Park that she shares with her pit bull-boxer mix, Bella. “I couldn’t afford an Uber to the airport. I had to borrow money from my management company.”

In the end, taxes (both American and Canadian since the project filmed in Toronto) ate up a large chunk of her pay for “Dolores Roach,” and De Los Santos ended up with half of what she hoped to make. Even that took months to receive.


“What’s crazy is [‘Dolores Roach’] is so good,” she says. “It’s just a level up for a lot of us. It gave four of us unknowns a huge start. We’re very thankful for it. But we can’t pay our rent.”

Growing up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, De Los Santos learned early on that she would have to fight for anything she got. Raised by a single mother who worked as a home attendant and a cook, she was helping to pay the rent by the time she was in high school.

“Dude, I’m Latina and my parents came here with nothing,” she says. “You’d better believe that I can make a dollar out of 15 cents.”

De Los Santos studied at the Atlantic Acting School, whose alumni include the likes of Gina Rodriguez, Clark Gregg, William H. Macy and Elizabeth Olsen. One of her teachers was David Mamet, and following her move to L.A., that connection helped her land an audition for a small role in Mamet’s 2013 HBO movie “Phil Spector.”

But getting on the radar of casting directors wasn’t easy.

“I’m not seeing any plus-size, dark-skinned Afro-Latinos anywhere,” says De Los Santos. “As a little girl, I saw no representation of myself. Within the Latino community, we are a marginalized group. We were always the ignorant drug dealers. Things have slowly changed. But Latinos still make like 0.2% of the money in this town.”


To maintain her craft and find a sense of fulfillment between paying jobs, De Los Santos has acted for free in her friends’ short films and volunteered doing theater for LGBTQ youth and for children in hospitals.

“I don’t stop being an artist because someone stops paying me,” says De Los Santos, who is currently working as a cannabis delivery driver to help cover her rent. “I will continue to push to make sure that people in marginalized communities get access to what I have access to, and I will give that away freely.”

But when it comes to working for studios and streamers with billions of dollars in revenue and CEOs earning tens of millions in salary, De Los Santos demands to be paid what she feels she deserves. And, as she and her fellow actors continue their strike, that’s the message she has for those on the other side of the negotiating table.

“You’re not going to break us,” she says. “You think you’ve got us in a chokehold, but you don’t, baby. All we know is struggle.”

Bella Cruz


A woman wearing sunglasses and a cropped top holds a SAG-AFTRA sign.
Actor and SAG member Bella Cruz has been acting since she was 5, and has recently become a strike captain.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Bella Cruz is a survivor, both literally and figuratively, and as difficult as the strike has been, she has gotten through worse.

A native of Huntsville, Ala., Cruz moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago with the dream of making it as an actress, having spent the first part of her career primarily as a singer, dancer and choreographer. With the help of her mother, who set aside her own jazz-singing aspirations to manage her daughter, she attained some success, working with the likes of Missy Elliott, Pink and Mariah Carey, appearing in commercials and choreographing performances for two NBA All-Star games.

Cruz arrived in L.A. with enough savings to buy a house in the Hollywood Hills and a loft downtown.

“Singing, touring, dancing — all of those things used to pay quite a bit of money,” she says. “If you booked a national commercial, you could get away with $30,000 to $40,000.” (Cruz declines to reveal her age, explaining, “I work in an ageist business.”)


Five years ago, still hunting for her big break as an actress, Cruz developed breast cancer, devastating not only for her health but also for her finances. Lacking health insurance, she was forced to sell her house in a short sale to pay for her treatment; in a humbling moment, she found herself signing paperwork during a chemotherapy session.

“I lost everything,” Cruz says. “I didn’t do well with chemotherapy and almost died. I ended up living in my car for a little while. It was just one thing after another. I’m grateful to God that I lived through all that and had the opportunity to build again.”

To get back on her feet, Cruz hustled and networked, and by last year, she had started to gain traction again. A musical TV project she wrote as a vehicle for herself was optioned by NBC, though the network ultimately declined to make it. She wrote, directed and starred in a short film called “180” that has picked up a handful of awards at small film festivals and wrote a screenplay for an independent feature she hopes to begin filming soon.

After years of doing stand-in work between on-camera jobs, Cruz scored significant roles in the Bounce TV comedy “Act Your Age” and the mockumentary series “Underdeveloped,” which is set to be released next month on Tubi. Last summer, she posted a video on Instagram excitedly showing off her dressing room on “Act Your Age,” pretending she was on an episode of “MTV Cribs.”

Still, the acting jobs didn’t generate enough income to cover even one month of the $2,817 in rent Cruz pays for her downtown L.A. apartment. For appearing in four episodes on “Underdeveloped,” which was initially slated for Hulu, she expects to earn around $600 but has not yet been paid.


To make ends meet, Cruz took an office job last year doing technical writing for the child care advocacy nonprofit Crystal Stairs. But she hoped to leverage the experience and connections she was gaining to score more lucrative acting and writing work.

“I was going to use that momentum coming into this year to really take off,” Cruz says. “I was going to continue writing and use those relationships and start submitting things. We had a lot that we were doing to solidify my career, and the strike just derailed all of that.”

Serving as a strike captain on the picket lines has given Cruz a way to channel her anger at what she sees as the greed of the studios and streamers. “They are beholden to their shareholders and do not care about art or the people who create it,” she says. “It’s just diabolical that you would think that you should pay yourself and your executives millions of dollars while the rest of us starve.”

In a statement released at the outset of the strike, the AMPTP laid responsibility for the shutdown on SAG-AFTRA, saying it had offered the union “historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, and a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses for SAG-AFTRA members.”

Cruz was deeply disheartened to see SAG-AFTRA grant side deals under an interim agreement to dozens of independent projects featuring stars like Anne Hathaway, Paul Rudd and Matthew McConaughey.


In a message to members, the union’s negotiation committee called the side deals a “vital part of our strategic approach,” saying they could help direct work away from non-union productions and bring competitive pressure on AMPTP companies.

But Cruz sees it differently.

“People turned down jobs to stand in solidarity,” she says. “It’s a slap in the face. A budget of $20 million — that’s not an independent production. I have an independent production. People are so beholden to rich and famous people.”

Still, Cruz is trying to maintain a sense of gratitude and hope.

“Sometimes I can get into a really dark place if I think about all that I accomplished initially at a young age,” she says. “I do want to get to a place where I’m just acting. But I am fortunate in that I am a creative and all I do are creative things.

“I have sacrificed a lot for this dream,” Cruz continues. “I believe that everything has a purpose and, while this might be a tough time, I do think that eventually we’re going to prevail. If we band together, we’re going to get what we need.”