Can non-union actors work on a SAG film?

Yes, but not on all the SAG Agreements.

There are three “mixed cast” agreements:

  • Student Film Agreement
  • Short Project Agreement
  • Ultra Low Budget Agreement (features)

The first two are for short films, either a student short film or non-student short film.

Conspicuously missing from this list is the New Media agreement. I don’t know why they don’t allow mixed casts on New Media, since that seems most likely to be a low-budget affair, but the rules don’t always make sense.

Working with a Mixed Cast Agreement

If you’re working on one of the contracts that allows for union and non-union performers, then the process is pretty straightforward. You apply to be a SAG signatory and then have all of the SAG actors sign the standard SAG contracts.

Non-union actors are not governed by any of the SAG rules, although it’s easier to just treat all the actors the same and give them their proper meal breaks and all that.

If you don’t know in advance what the union status will be, you can wait until you’ve completed casting before applying for SAG. The risk here is that you wait too long to lock down your actors and you want to cast a SAG actor at the last minute and haven’t started the paperwork (which should be started 4-6 weeks before shooting). So, applying for SAG gives you some optionality in the casting process.

What about “SAG credits”?

To get into SAG, non-union actors have to work on union projects.

This process is referred to as Taft-Hartley. Basically, Taft-Hartley says that when you can’t find anyone in the union who can perform a role, you can get an exception for someone not in the union.

Once the actor has worked that first union job, they’re “Taft-Hartley’d” and are eligible to join the union.

Sometimes actors think that they can get into SAG by working on a SAG short film. This is not true. They don’t get a “credit” or Taft-Hartley’d since it’s a mixed cast agreement. They would just work as a non-union actor.

If you’re working on a Taft-Hartley Agreement

If you’re using one of the SAG agreements that doesn’t allow a mixed cast (e.g. the New Media Agreement) and you want to use a non-union actor, you have to submit a Taft-Hartley report within 15 days of the non-union actor working. To qualify for a Taft-Hartley exception (remember, the union really wants you to hire someone in the union), there must be something unique about the performer that you’re bringing on.

These include:

  • A child under age 18
  • Special skill
  • Unique physical appearance
  • A famous person portraying themself

There are more (see a sample Taft-Hartley report for the full list of qualifications). The restrictions seem onerous at first, but there’s a catch-all one that just says “First employment of a person who has training/experience as a professional performer and intends to pursue a career as a motion picture performer.”

So basically someone that’s taken an acting class and wants a career in showbiz. Who doesn’t?

Except wait, not if you’re New Media and deferring pay:

According to the note at the top of this PDF, they’re not accepting Taft-Hartley reports for New Media contracts if pay is deferred.

Need help producing an indie low-budget project with SAG? I wrote a comprehensive guide to SAG for indie producers, with an explanation of the new SAG short project agreement, plus a detailed checklist for keeping track of the entire SAG process.