Dispatches from the SAG-AFTRA Picket Line

By Perry Yung
December 20, 2023
Essays

When our union, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) went on strike on July 14th this past year, in addition to health care, streaming residuals, and wage increases, the most important thing for me as a POC artist was artificial intelligence.

Studios want control of our image and voice. From a financial point of view, the option to adjust our speech, our faces, and our inner worlds saves time and money for the studio. But what they fail to recognize is the importance of all the idiosyncratic, personal, human nuances that make or break a performance.

Every actor is different and our individuality is our superpower. Hollywood has come a long way since films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and characters like Fu Manchu—instances of blatantly racist caricatures of Asians, typically played by white actors with prosthetic tape over their eyes. Still, as a Chinese American actor, I see the encroaching possibility of AI becoming a new kind of “prosthetic” that serves to flatten, distort, and dehumanize all of us. Can SAG-AFTRA prevent this new form of tape from forming over our eyes?

Day One:

On day one of the strike, as I stepped onto the picket line, I bumped into Kenneth Lin, a former writer on MAX’s martial arts crime series “Warrior,” based on Bruce Lee’s writings. I play Father Jun on the show. Lin is a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and was there picketing in solidarity. The WGA had already been picketing for 72 days before we actors went on strike.

One of the episodes Lin wrote in season 1 of “Warrior,” The Blood and the Shit, captures aspects of the Chinese American experience perfectly, full of lines like, “I’m a Chinaman who’s never been to China.” I remember thinking Lin brought his own authentic feelings, experiences, and sensibilities to the script. In doing so, he gave a tremendous gift to us Asian American actors who understood how rare this moment was—a Chinese American writer on a TV show created in part by Chinese Americans.

Aside from Lin and I, there were only a handful of other AAPI picketing in front of the Paramount offices in Times Square that first day. Over the next week or two, I picketed at other sites–Rockefeller Plaza for NBC, Union Square for Netflix and Discovery, and Herald Square for HBO and Amazon. I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of AAPI actors and writers grow with each action.

You may wonder why I was taking count. As someone who has been in the minority my entire life both as an Asian American and as an artist, I am always looking for kinship.

On that first day of the strike, standing alongside Lin and clocking the demographics, I couldn’t help but think about what a profound impact Bruce Lee had on Hollywood in the ‘70s. His success, which felt overnight but was actually the result of a lifetime of grit, was a game changer for AAPI culture. When he succeeded, we all won.

Day 15:

The SAG-AFTRA picket line wasn’t just any picket line. Many of us acknowledged and recognized one another from TV shows or movies, yet the hierarchy typically found on set didn’t exist here. I saw A-listers, B-listers, character actors and background actors, all marching side by side. I marched next to F. Murray Abraham one day and Richard Gere the next.

Fans and photographers started to appear on the sidelines to get autographs and selfies with us. It was a family and a circus all at once. The organized chaos reminded me of the landmark 2022 film, Everything Everywhere All at Once. I had faith that everything would eventually add up to a win for all.

Day 78:

Nick Sakai, Sibyl Santiago, and I organized an AAPI rally day—we still represented a small fraction on the picket line. Two nights before, I ran into one of our community’s most prolific and award-winning writers, David Henry Hwang, at an Organization for Chinese Americans banquet celebrating, among other things, the political activism of the Hong Kong American actor, Tzi Ma.

Most people aren’t aware that Ma, in addition to his phenomenal acting career, has been an outspoken activist for most of his life. His most recent action was speaking at City Hall opposing the new Jail being built in Chinatown. Ma told me a story about the time he was protesting the war in Vietnam and photographer Corky Lee taught him how to avoid the draft by claiming a medical issue.

I asked Hwang if he would speak at our rally and without missing a beat, he showed up front and center announcing that the WGA had just ended their strike after 148 days with huge wins, especially with regard to instituting guard rails for AI. A huge applause erupted when he proclaimed that the WGA could not have done it without SAG-AFTRA’s solidarity.

Also speaking was newly elected WGA East president, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. She happens to be the first woman of color to hold this position. Local SAG-AFTRA President Ezra Knight, and actors Joel De La Fuentes, Celia Au, Ivory Aquino and I, also spoke. Knight said our diversity was a SAG-AFTRA “superpower” in a moment when the world was watching.

As I stood, inspired by the speakers before me, I could feel the precipice we were on. Though it was a specifically AAPI rally, that day, we were surrounded by a collage of races, genders, and ethnicities. This was a moment of true representation and solidarity.

If this group of actors and writers in New York City was who we saw in TV and film, both in front of and behind the camera, we will have achieved major gains in representation.

I say “if’‘ because the fight for representation in our industry is always more complex than simply being given a seat at the table. What we see on screen is often decided on the whims of producers, directors, or editors—many of whom do not represent us.

We, as actors, only have control of one aspect—what we offer to the camera when a director yells “action.” It takes a lot to hold on to one’s intentions and authenticity on a film set and when it comes to AANHPIA representation, writers and actors have to remember to hold onto our superpowers.

Day 118:

On November 8th, a tentative agreement was finally reached. Our membership was given until December 5th, 2023 to vote on ratifying the new contract.

So far, from what I understand, when it comes to AI, producers are required to get permission to scan and make replicas of us on any given job. If permission is granted, producers are required to provide actors with a negotiated usage fee each time their likeness is used.

Under this agreement, I would be getting paid to allow producers to control my image, voice, and decide on my acting intentions and create an inner world completely unrelated to my own. It is unclear the extent to which an actor has control over how their image is used in these negotiations.

Some see these AI guardrails as a positive, believing it means they’ll get paid without having to actually work. And that might be fine for the white actor who never felt dismissed by Hollywood and who doesn’t recognize the historical oppression and purposeful distortion of BIPOC and women in film and media.

But for an actor like me, it means all the hard-won strides we have made in representation will now be in the hands of studio CEOs, producers, and directors.

We saw the outsized greed and hubris of Hollywood during this strike. It lost over $6 billion and 45,000 jobs when they could have simply paid $45 million to meet the demands of the strike from the get-go. Shareholders and those working for them in late stage capitalism do not care about people.

Unions are the peoples’ only power against the ever increasing greed of capitalism. Without unions, it’s just us against a machine designed to continuously exploit human labor. There is no other structure of support for the individual in our society that will protect workers’ rights. Having said this, I do assert that there are also good people on the other side—compassionate, visionary producers that have created great TV and film because they themselves fought the battles.

If Asians are truly only 7 percent of the population in this country, many American audiences will only know Asians through entertainment. On TV, we have played sidekicks, nurses and doctors, even wise-cracking next door neighbors, or drinking buddies. But in reality, most Americans will never have an Asian neighbor and may never work alongside an Asian person.

Therefore, we must aim high in what we show in our media. We are not simply fodder to further a trite storyline. We are Michelle Yeoh. We are Ke Huy Kwan. We are Oscar winners. That is why it is imperative to support the WGA alongside SAG-AFTRA. Together, we tell our stories with authentic representation. Our stories help unite human beings in a fabric of society we all knit together. And in doing so, we also help make our communities safer. Let’s stay vigilant as these AI contracts continue to evolve. Let’s not allow them to put a new form of tape over our eyes.

—Perry Yung is is an actor, activist, and musician who is best known for playing Father Jun in MAX’s “Warrior,” produced by Justin Lin and Shannon Lee. His directorial short film “Stop Asian Hate Love One Another” will hit the festival circuit in 2024. He is originally from Oakland, California where he was born down the street from Bruce Lee’s martial arts studio.

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