Alicia Witt on the Actors Strike: “The Streamers Need to Share”

Alicia Witt is one of the many actors using the power of her voice to send a message amidst the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. “This actor strike is so very crucial,” Witt tells American Songwriter.

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Starting in July 2023, members of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union went on strike in a labor dispute against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Among the issues they’re fighting for are receiving proper residuals from streaming services and not allowing the use of AI to replicate an actor’s likeness without compensation.

The 2023 strike calls back to when Witt launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2017 to raise funds for an album. The project was successfully funded and resulted in her five-song, 2018 EP 15,000 Days, produced by Jacquire King who’s worked with the likes of Kings of Leon and Shania Twain. The Kickstarter forced Witt to answer to people wondering why a famous actress was trying to raise money for an album. “It’s not me saying I can’t afford my life, it’s me saying, ‘I’m not a label, I’m looking to the public to help be able to spend the kind of money I’d like to spend on this record,'” she explains.

Witt used it as an opportunity to educate the public on what it actually means to be a working actor, a role she’s reprising with the strike. Witt, who was discovered as a child actress by David Lynch who cast her in Dune when she was eight years old, is transparent about how guest starring in an episode of a popular TV show can pay a flat rate of $5,000-$7,000 per episode. “You make money that lasts long term when you’re on a series that runs for many years. Generally speaking, people with big names make a lot of money,” she continues. “Residuals are a main thing that we are fighting for.”

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The actress, whose other credits include The Walking Dead, The Sopranos, and Orange is the New Black, notes that actors who don’t have a recognizable name could get paid as little as $500 for a day of work on set, and though an episode they appear on could run on TV for years, they may not see the residuals from it.

“What if that series becomes a huge hit and the network that airs it ends up making millions of dollars? This isn’t just a ‘what if,’ this is actually what’s happening,” she affirms. “That same actor whose face is now on a billboard for a hit show on a major streamer could be working as a barista struggling to pay their bills with no health insurance, and that’s not right. The streamers need to share when they are making that much money. Even when it’s not a huge hit, they’re still making a massive profit, and that needs to be shared.”

She states that SAG-AFTRA actors are asking that only two percent of the total streaming revenue be divvied up between the actors. For Witt, the issue is personal not only as an actor, but a singer-songwriter. In 2021, she took a step back from acting to focus on her album, The Conduit, and her book, Small Changes: A Rules-Free Guide to Add More Plant-Based Foods, Peace and Power to Your Life. But she was delivered a life-altering blow when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of the year. She spent the first half of 2022 undergoing treatment and had to continue working in order to keep her health insurance. She went into remission in April 2022.

She says that residuals used to count toward an actor’s health insurance, which is no longer the case, taking a toll on both working and older actors. “It’s gotten to where it’s really hard to earn a living as an actor if you’re not working on just a fraction of the projects that are available, and if you’re not in the blessed position to make enough money to pay bills with,” she describes. “The goal of SAG-AFTRA [in actors not speaking of credits past or present] is to really drive home to all of the producers and the networks and the streamers that they are negotiating with how much we the actors give them in terms of free publicity. When our voices are silent, we’re demonstrating that they’re not going to have as much buzz.”

As the strike continues, Witt is setting her sights on music. Her new EP, Witness, is out on August 25.

Photo by Jeff Fasano/Courtesy of Alicia Witt

Disclaimer: A previous version of this story stated that Witt went into remission in June 2022.

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