Not long ago, the actor and writer Tavi Gevinson got an audition for a movie—a supporting role in a comedy. Like most auditions nowadays, it was a self-tape. This was eight o’clock on a Wednesday night; the tape was due Friday morning. Gevinson was in an Off Broadway play in the East Village, so she asked for an extension. She was sent three scenes, totalling nine pages, plus boilerplate instructions. (“Please have another person read the other character’s lines offscreen.”) She spent the next few days memorizing and preparing. The following Wednesday, between an appointment and her show that evening, she borrowed a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, since she didn’t have time to go back home to Brooklyn. She did her makeup in the bathroom, rearranged the living-room furniture, perched her phone on a stack of books against a windowsill, and FaceTimed on her computer with an assistant at her agency, who would be her scene partner. (“I feel bad asking my friends to read with me at this point,” she said.) They spent an hour or so doing takes, then Gevinson spent more than an hour comparing them and choosing the best ones. Soon after sending the tape off, she learned that another actress had been offered, and had accepted, the role days earlier.
In some ways, this is an audition story as old as time. Auditions are a brutal fact of life for actors, save for the élite few who are “offer only”—and even Gevinson, who at twenty-seven has appeared on Broadway, on “Gossip Girl,” and on magazine covers, isn’t among them. Actors know that the math is against them, that auditions are the crucible that separates the starry-eyed from the stars, or at least the employed. Actors take audition classes. They find day jobs with flexibility. They calm their nerves, or try to, and hope against the punishing odds. In other ways, auditions are nothing like what they were twenty years ago. Picture a waiting room with a bench full of nervous actors, getting called in one by one to stand before yawning people in folding chairs behind a table. That mostly doesn’t exist anymore: the pandemic has turned remote auditions from an option to a default. The indignities, it seems, have only multiplied. In 2020, the actor Lukas Gage was on a Zoom audition and overheard an unmuted director observing how “these poor people live in these tiny apartments.” What’s stayed the same is that auditions are among the most fraught and personal kinds of job interviews.
But what if they’re not that at all? What if auditions, as a group of actors are arguing, are work that should be compensated? A few months ago, an actor friend told Gevinson about the concept of “audition pay.” “I thought, We’ll never get that! Auditions are job interviews! I don’t mind everything I have been putting myself through since I was sixteen, to do this work for all these nice people! And it’ll never happen, basically,” she recalled. But the more she looked into it the more it made sense. “They’re actually not job interviews. If they were interviewing me, I would go in and have a conversation with someone, or maybe show them a portfolio, which I guess is my reel.” She knew from experience that auditions require an immense amount of work—in time, in artistry—and that, thanks to self-taping, she was essentially running her own production shop. She is now part of a cadre of SAG–AFTRA members who are pushing the cause of audition pay in the run-up to the guild’s contract negotiations with producers, in June. They just launched a Web site under the banner “Auditions Are Work.”
Their trump card, as they see it: audition pay for screen actors has been required for eighty-six years, but few seemed to notice until recently. In 2019, the actor Charlie Bodin, whose credits include Octavia Spencer’s boss on “Truth Be Told” and Joan Crawford’s dentist on “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was paging through an old SAG contract he’d found in a library. “I had hung up my waiter’s apron for about ten years at that point,” he told me. “I realized I didn’t know anything about our contracts.” He’d got most of his union news from literature in audition waiting rooms. Now, opening to random pages of the novel-size contract, he noticed benefits he’d never heard of—say, travel provisions he could have claimed for “Transformers,” in which he played a military tech. “I was, like, ‘What the hell else is in here?’ ” He started buying old union magazines off eBay and, developing a “new love for spreadsheets,” created an extensive chart comparing every version of the SAG basic agreement throughout the decades, clause by clause. (Along the way, he became a “thirties-film junkie.”)
Bodin’s most startling discovery was that SAG’s very first contract, from 1937, guaranteed pay for players who were called to do “tests” for films they weren’t used in. Ten years later, the word “Auditions” was added in a subheading, along with the line, “If the player is not given employment in the picture, the player shall receive one-half (1/2) day’s pay.” Except for “player,” which now reads “performer,” the line has gone unchanged, if largely unheeded, in Schedule A 15(B) of SAG–AFTRA’s standard contract. Actors began circulating Bodin’s chart, and, last September, in a blog post titled “Audition Pay: The Biggest Secret That Shouldn’t Be a Secret,” the actor Shaan Sharma wrote, “The current scale day rate is $1,082, so for every audition you have but where you didn’t book the job, you’re owed $541.” This, he calculated, would amount to “hundreds of millions of dollars of additional earnings in performers’ pockets every single year.” If few people file for audition pay, Sharma figured, that’s only because they didn’t realize they were owed it or feared retaliation.
The guild, far from embracing this discovery, called an emergency meeting and, in late September, posted a notice acknowledging a “lack of clarity” around the issue. It listed a handful of circumstances in which actors can claim audition pay, including when they are “expressly” required to memorize lines or when they’re made to wait for more than an hour. Since then, actors have been noticing disclaimers on their audition instructions saying that they don’t have to memorize lines—which the audition-pay advocates see as a technicality, since anyone who wants to get the part is going to memorize anyway. The guild pointed out that the industry has changed since 1937, when actors were practically owned by the studios, and warned that across-the-board audition pay could have “negative consequences, including a reduction of access to casting opportunities.” A casting director I talked to, Henry Russell Bergstein, echoed that worry. “It’s already so prohibitive to produce indie films and all that stuff,” he said. “If you started paying actors, my fear is that we wouldn’t be able to audition as many. Producers would cap the number because of cost.” Plenty of actors are sure to agree.
The “Auditions Are Work” group, however, says that self-tapes have tilted auditions into something akin to a lottery. When casting people are in a room, they can see maybe thirty to fifty people in a day. When they’re getting self-tapes, they can easily solicit a hundred to five hundred submissions per role, meaning that the chances of getting a given role are vanishingly small. “Everyone’s doing more labor for a smaller chance of actually being employed than ever,” the actor Thomas Ochoa said. Others doubted that casting directors really watch all the tapes. “Casting treats tapes like Tinder: swipe left, swipe right,” one actor complained. In a recent Deadline piece, the casting director Alexis Allen Winter admitted, “Do we watch them all? Yes. Do we watch ALL of them all? Not all of the time.” (Bergstein told me, “Listen, I watch all the tapes,” but he limits submissions so that he doesn’t “go blind.”) This can lead to tricky cost-benefit analyses. The actor Christian Telesmar was recently asked to audition for the lead role in a Mike Tyson bio-series, even though he knew that he was an extreme long shot. Was it worth spending the hours preparing a tape? “Sometimes you have to choose between three auditions, two auditions and eating, or one audition, eating, and taking care of your family,” he said. “If you were getting paid for this, it’d be a lot easier to make those choices.”
On top of that, actors now have to provide resources that have traditionally fallen on casting offices, including equipment, space, and people to read with. Variety recently estimated that outsourcing scene partners to auditioners has saved producers some two hundred and fifty million dollars annually. “It creates a whole culture where all of us have to have a clutch of collaborators who are willing to be our readers,” Ochoa said; think of all the boyfriends, roommates, and UPS guys dragged into audition scenes. Caryn West, an actor in her sixties, who has joined up with the millennial-skewing advocates (“I’m the old broad of the group”), told me that she has had to instruct older actors on what lighting equipment to buy and how to upload videos online. “I have seen many meltdowns of very famous people,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been a techie-nerd therapist to the stars.”