Trans actor Lio Mehiel explains why Hollywood strikes are vital for workers everywhere
If you’ve been following the Hollywood strikes, you’ll probably have seen clips of actors walking out of film premieres and writers picketing outside studios.
Rarely does the world see unionised workers striking in as great a number – and with as much visibility – as American writers and actors have been doing over the past few months.
It started with the Writers Guild of America in May, and, by July, the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) members had walked out too.
Shows have gone off the air and some of the world’s most famous figures have traded the talk-show couch for a picket line.
Much of the media spotlight has been on the biggest stars, but the reality is that it’s the everyday, jobbing actors who are suffering the most as a result of worsening conditions in the entertainment industry.
For Lio Mehiel, a Puerto Rican and Greek trans-masculine actor, artist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, that’s why the actors’ strike is so important. Speaking to PinkNews, they paint a picture of an industry where the value of actors and writers is constantly downplayed. Quite simply, they have had enough.
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“The strike going on in Hollywood – the actors’ and writers’ – is not just about Hollywood, it’s about the entire economic system in the US that is no longer functioning,” says Lio, who is still supporting the walkouts after their film Mutt was given an interim agreement by SAG-AFTRA.
The problems, they insist, are numerous. Billionaire and millionaire executives are hoarding wealth while the people whose creativity they’re profiting off struggle to get by, Lio claims.
Actors such as 13 Reasons Why‘s Tommy Dorfman revealed their earnings to show just how measly the fees they’re commanding can be, while some of the cast of Orange is the New Black have also been open about the poor pay they received while working on one of Netflix’s biggest hits.
Much of the issue comes down to residuals: long-term payments made to people involved in film and television projects. The idea is that the creative minds involved in the industry should get paid over a long period for a project’s success.
But since the dawn of streaming, residuals have been getting worse and worse.
“I receive residual cheques from studios for shows that I’ve done that again have huge populations of people watching them and the residual cheque is for $7.94 (£6.40), and I’m getting that every couple of months,” Lio goes on to say.
“I don’t even understand why I’m receiving that money – what can I do with this? I can buy one latte. Great.”
Many Hollywood creatives can’t survive just by acting
Lio argues that high-ranking executives in big studios are “alienated from what it’s like to be a regular person living every day in our country”. The discrepancy between what the men in offices make and what jobbing actors and writers earn is enormous.
For example, Disney chief executive Bob Iger pocketed $45.9 million (£36.8 million) in 2021, while actors such as Lio work several jobs to make ends meet.
“I think the number is something like 80 per cent of people in our union, SAG-AFTRA, don’t have health insurance,” Lio says.
“They don’t qualify to receive health insurance from the union because they’re not working enough hours or making enough money to be able to do that … That’s a significant portion, and we have something like 160,000 people in our union.”
Lio’s experience – and the experience of the vast majority of actors – is far removed from the A-listers who command a hefty salary, or share in the profits, for their work.
“I’ve never been able to just be an actor. I’m always having to tutor, walk dogs, be a Zoom producer. Actors are really adaptable and resourceful, so we make it a part of our culture to have all these millions of jobs just to stay afloat.
“But then you have to ask the question: ‘If a [chief executive] of a company that is solely based on our work is able to make millions of dollars just in their bonus, why do I have to have three, four jobs and not have health insurance in order to live out my dream?’
“We have this narrative that actors have the most-fun job in the world and, in one sense we do, but we shouldn’t have to be punished [for that].”
Ultimately, Lio, who was also seen briefly in Dear Evan Hansen and one episode of Tales of the City, wants to see the entire economic structure of Hollywood overhauled to make a better industry for everyone.
“They cry that they’re poor and that they don’t have the money and yet they’re still getting these bonuses and these massive salaries. It’s a pretty simple redistribution of wealth and restructuring of the business model around actors’ participation.”
The strikes are, as Lio argues, bigger than Hollywood. The issues facing writers and actors are some of the same as those endured by employees all around the world.
“This labour movement happening in Hollywood is a microcosm of what needs to be happening across our economic system,” Lio says. “People need to start realising that the freedom we want, as [activist] Angela Davis says, is a constant struggle.
“Our generation is not used to labour movements as part of the common lexicon, but we actually need to be engaged all the time, to have the freedoms we desire.”
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