- Interview by
- Taj Ali
Hollywood is on strike. Actors and performers from the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), alongside writers from the Writers Guild of America (WGA), have combined to picket film and TV studios — the first time both unions have joined forces since 1960. And support and solidarity hasn’t been confined to the United States.
On Friday, around five hundred people joined Brian Cox, Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Hayley Atwell, Imelda Staunton, and Rob Delaney at a London rally in solidarity with striking writers and actors in the United States. Organized by Equity, the British performing arts and entertainment trade union, the rally took place in London’s Leicester Square Gardens in front of a statue of William Shakespeare and surrounded by cinemas, street performers, and sculptures of figures from the world of art and entertainment. The dispute is over concerns ranging from the lack of residual payments from streaming services to the threat that unregulated artificial intelligence (AI) poses to the profession.
Acclaimed actor and comedian Rob Delaney, who hosted the rally, spoke to us about the strike, the struggles of actors and writers, and the importance of solidarity.
What brings you out here today?
I’m a member of Equity, and I’m a member of SAG-AFTRA. And this is a fight that has to happen. Unfortunately, it’s a fight that has to happen anytime a new technology shows up. This time it’s streaming and AI at the same time, so this is a bigger strike, but the template is the same — we withhold our labor, then we win.
It seems like a big part of the dispute is around unregulated AI. Is there any prospect for artificial intelligence being a positive for the industry?
One thing for sure that we know about AI is that it is going to be used to further marginalize workers. So that’s what we’ve got to stop. Can AI do good things? It probably can. On its own, it’s not malignant, but they want to use it to not pay people for the fruits of their labor, so that’s what we’ve got to squash. AI is not necessarily bad, but it needs to be managed. We certainly can’t trust the AMPTP [the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] to do that. It needs our help.
SAG-AFTRA’s vote was an overwhelming majority for strike action — 97.91 percent.
Tremendous. Just tremendous.
It appears that there is a high level of union density within the profession and strong engagement. Why do you think that might be? Is there a history behind that?
Oh, certainly there is. Of course, there’s a wonderful union history in this country as well. I mean, it’s so funny to me that this is the umpteenth action that I’ve been on in this country, and it’s the first one for my industry. Usually, I’m here for nurses, railworkers, and other workers, so this is tremendous. But yes, in the United States, it’s funny because labor history is actively discouraged from being taught in the United States, but when you do even cursory labor history research, you find that strike actions have been wildly successful time and time again. As I said when I was talking earlier, when it was TVs being introduced into homes, then VCRs, they’re always trying not to pay people for work they’ve already done and created, wrote, directed, and starred in, for Christ’s sake.
A lot of the media coverage surrounding this story tends to focus on A-list actors, but I presume things must be even more difficult for those who are new to the industry.
Oh yeah, and it’s all fresh in our memory. I still have anxiety dreams about being able to pay bills, because it wasn’t that long ago that it was very difficult. How grateful I am to be able to make a living from this profession is insane. But there was a long time when I couldn’t pay the bills, and I was struggling.
There’s a bit of a stereotype around actors, isn’t there, that everyone is very wealthy?
Oh yeah. SAG-AFTRA has 160,000 members. There are about two thousand of them rolling in the dough, and the rest aren’t. But they’re doing vital work. Think about when you’re watching a movie and some guy shows up. You don’t know who he is, you can’t remember which episode of Law and Order you saw him in before, but you know he’s going to do a good job — that’s the job of an actor, and that guy deserves good money for it.
One thing that I think is important to realize is that the arts are important. Artists will say that this is stupid or that it doesn’t matter, or they’ll say at the Academy Awards that this is the most important thing that ever happened — neither is true. The thing is, making art is as important as driving a bus. It’s not less important, because a bus driver wants to watch a show at the end of the day. He wants to lubricate his existence with some laughs and art, right? And it’s also not more important, because that bus driver is getting people to work. It’s just as important as anything else. In that sense, the solidarity that we’re seeing today between unions and between industries is gorgeous.
You had assistant general secretary of the RMT union [National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers] Eddie Dempsey address the rally.
That union, of course, is fighting against ticket office closures. A big aspect of many of these disputes is about losing the human element.
Absolutely, automation. Automating ticketing isn’t going to help a woman in a wheelchair who drops her glasses into the tracks. The machine doesn’t care. Same thing here with AI. You’ve got to stay united. It’s so funny, because I’ve spoken at RMT rallies, and now we have Eddie Dempsey speaking here at this.
You have indeed. We’re currently in the midst of the biggest wave of strikes in decades—something you’ve been very vocal and supportive of. Where does that come from?
I guess it’s connected to the NHS [National Health Service] stuff. I’m not afraid of any employer anymore, because I had a son who passed away from cancer, and it just changed everything for me. Being in an NHS hospital ward with nurses who had to live twenty miles away and couldn’t afford to live near a hospital. Having people who were impoverished in the bed next to my son and then from there, I get in a fucking limousine and go to the Emmys, and you’re sitting next to literal billionaires, and so I know there’s enough money to go around. For me, as someone who has had a foot in both worlds, I feel it’s my job to tell people that there’s enough to go around, because I see it. I see the caviar being passed around on a fricking yacht. They’re full of shit. Anybody who knows it needs to talk about it.
During the pandemic, we heard about many companies increasing their profits. I’m interested to know more about what was happening in Hollywood because, of course, you had a lot of actors doing their audition tapes in their own homes rather than at a studio with support from others. Probably a lot of savings, right?
I’m at a point in my career where two things happen when I seek out a role that I want: I get offered it because I’ve been in enough stuff, or I have to tape for it. My self-tapes suck! They’re so bad, because I haven’t made any investment in my house. I have my kids running around. It’s just ridiculous. I’ve been a producer, I’ve been a writer, I’ve casted before. I want to meet them. I want to smell them. Are they a jerk? Are they terrific? Am I going to learn from them? I mean, you gotta meet them. So yeah, self-tapes stink. I get it, they were useful during the pandemic, but you know, let’s have a more judicious mixture now. And again, you can’t trust the AMPTP to make those decisions. We have to help it. I don’t hate the group. It’s like a toddler that we have to guide and help, and it should be grateful.
You had Labour MP John McDonnell here at the rally today. You’ve had a lot of Labour MPs being told to stay away from picket lines. I wonder what your view is on that?
Oh, they’re silly, silly little people, the Labour MPs that don’t come to picket lines and rallies. I feel bad for them. They know because they’re kept awake by a tummy ache at night; they know what they’re doing is wrong, so shame on them. But we’re here if they want to join. They’re very welcome. I’m embarrassed for them. That’s how I feel about them.