What the SAG-AFTRA Strike Means For Emerging Entertainers

Uly Schlesinger, 26 years old, started acting in high school. Since then, he’s starred in HBO Max’s popular queer coming-of-age TV series Generation, and landed a leading role in Jerry & Marge Go Large next to Bryan Cranston, Annette Bening, and Rainn Wilson. Now, with a few major productions (and a CELINE campaign) under his belt, he finds himself, like so many working actors, at the center of a complex moment in Hollywood.

If you haven’t already heard: The SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) union, whose membership is around 160,000, went on strike on July 14th. The strike is part of a larger and ongoing dispute between the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) to do with labor, and fair pay.

While Hollywood is basically a metonym for the glamorous life — sunshine, infinity pools, Gucci dog totes — its engine of writers, supporting actors, and other behind-the-scenes talent is mostly subsisting on proverbial peanuts.

For those like Schlesinger to take part in the SAG-AFTRA strike alongside the WGA — to be part of a moment in history that will prove pivotal for everyone involved — is powerful. Of course, it’s one thing to take part as an actor with years of TV series and movies behind them. It’s another to be an up-and-comer, when the years (months or even days) ahead could potentially make or break a career.

We reached out to Schlesinger, who is currently striking in Brooklyn, attending pickets and journaling, to get a snapshot of the strike from his perspective.

I’m a member of the Screen Actors Guild because joining gives you access to their pension plan and their health plan, and it gives you protections as an actor on set. It works like any other union: they represent your best interests as a working artist, who is providing a service to a larger company.

It’s a tough industry. It’s an aggressive industry, and I think what has brought us here, to the point of striking, is what every industry is increasingly facing: how to deal with AI, and workers wanting to be paid a fair compensation for their labor.

I got into acting by accident. I had to fill an arts requirement in high school and it was the only thing open. Being on stage was an incredible feeling that I hadn’t found in anything else. That electric feeling was something I wanted to chase and explore.

My very first role was Soldier #2 in Antigone, a bold choice for a high school theater production. I had two lines. I had watched movies and TV, but it had never occurred to me that acting was a thing people actually do. I still don’t know if I can do it, and whenever I book anything, I’m terrified. I don’t know if I’m any good at acting but I love doing it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

I’ve gotten very lucky in my career and have worked with immensely talented people like Bryan Cranston and Anette Benning. I was a series regular on a TV show produced by Lena Dunham, Generation, where I played Nathan. It was an incredible experience I’m still processing years later. The fact that I’ve gotten to make any kind of living off of acting is something that I feel incredibly blessed by.

Still, the financial aspect of being a working actor can take a toll. I think people see an actor like Tom Cruise’s pay on a Mission Impossible movie and think every actor must make millions. For the most part, we’re working for crumbs.

Most of us have to work a regular nine to five job. I am a receptionist at a hair salon. Working five days a week to be able to support myself, if I get an audition, I don’t have much time to set aside to put in the effort that I would like to. When I book something, if it’s shooting a show for eight months or even taking two weeks off, I don’t know if I’m going to get the time from my job, or if they’re going to keep me after that.

I met some people recently in the days leading up to the strike who had just joined SAG. Of course, the strike is scary and a little frustrating for them. They’re trying really hard to break in, and then everything is halted. That can be disheartening. Some people had a major project shut down in the middle of shooting, or in the midst of trying to do press. I feel for those people too. There are a lot of projects I auditioned for that I can only hope are still thinking about me when things start up again.

This affects all of us in our day-to-day lives in the sense that acting is what we love to do. Acting is one of the things that I care about more than anything in the world. It is a truly historic moment, to be striking at the same time as WGA. That hasn’t happened since 1960.

I think about that high school kid who signed up for an acting class to fulfill credits. Who had no idea what life had in store for him. If we saw each other now, I think we would tell each other that it’s going to be okay.

As told to Sarah Gerard exclusively for Highsnobiety.