Before the SAG-AFTRA protesters came into view, their rallying cries echoed loudly and powerfully: “PAY YOUR ACTORS, pay your actors, PAY YOUR WRITERS, pay your writers, ONE DAY LONGER, one day stronger!” Actors, writers and creators in the TV and film industry, all from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, marched together to achieve equality and equitable compensation for all.
The premise is simple: no one should work for free. As the cost of living continues to rise, so should compensation. Receiving minuscule residual checks has caused significant hardship for many, to the extent that a staggering 85% of those in the television and film industry cannot qualify for basic health insurance.
So, why do individuals choose an entertainment career, fully aware of the sacrifices it entails in the pursuit of success? The exact reasons others opt for professions in medicine, law or business: It’s a deep-seated passion, the driving force that wakes them up each morning and where their voices resonate the loudest. Ultimately, these protestors want to emphasize that their creativity, hard work, dedication and longevity of their work are worth being recognized and compensated.
To delve deeper into the SAG-AFTRA strike, we spoke with Charles Andrew Gardner, a multifaceted individual — an actor, educator, entrepreneur and esteemed President of the Chicago Local SAG-AFTRA chapter. With over six years of dedicated service in his current role, he’s served four consecutive terms, passionately advocating for the rights and welfare of those in the entertainment industry.
Interview with Charles Gardner
Nicole Joseph: What kind of work do you engage in? Let’s set acting aside for a moment and delve into your entrepreneurial journey.
Charles Gardner: I create ideas. I solve problems, and I’ve always been a creative, innovative thinker. One of the businesses that I’m starting is a tea company called The Actor’s Cup. It’s a line of drinking tea that’s specifically brewed to give actors a competitive edge. So, working from a holistic standpoint while helping you remain calm, creative and focused while supporting your vocal and emotional health.
Nicole Joseph: That’s amazing. The concept of a tea tailored for individuals who find solace in their voice while promoting mental well-being is quite intriguing. Now, let’s shift gears. What initially drew you to acting, and why is it such a significant part of your life?
Charles Gardner: I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and I saw a play at ETA Creative Arts over on 76th off Chicago when I was nine years old called “Kasimu and the Coconut Palm.” It was a play all about enjoying the process and, being where you are, and knowing that where you are is exactly where you’re supposed to be at any given moment. Yeah, I absolutely loved it. And I begged my mom to put me in classes, and she did. And so that’s how I got my start.
(Charles goes on to share that he continued acting at Whitney Young High School, Gallery 37, and studied acting while a student at Northern Illinois University.)
Nicole Joseph: You wrote and executive produced a short film. Talk about how important it is to be able to write the stories that inspire you.
Charles Gardner: I think that it is really important to write a story that inspires you, that inspires your truth, and that speaks to your authenticity. And when you’re in that lane, when you’re in your passion, when you’re on purpose, the byproduct of that is inspiring and moving to others. But you gotta be able to talk about what’s important to you. You got to talk about the questions that keep you up at night. I think one of the big purposes of art is to entertain. However, if I can make people think a little bit differently, which shifts their perspective, then I’ve done my job!
Nicole Joseph: Could you please share your journey to becoming the President of the Chicago SAG-AFTRA chapter?
Charles Gardner: I joined SAG-AFTRA in 2012. If I’m involved with something, I really want to be involved with it. And so, I ran for the board in 2015 and got the position as a local board member. When I was on the board, I realized that they knew what they were talking about. They took their union activism to a level that I hadn’t thought of, and they got the job done right. However, I knew that there were changes that I wanted to implement and there were mindsets I wanted to shift. So, I ran for the presidency in 2017 and was elected.
Nicole Joseph: Why is being part of a union important, and what are the benefits of union membership?
Charles Gardner: Bargaining. Collective bargaining and realizing that it’s more than just me. You know, when I was coming up, I got really empowered to be an individual as an actor. But I didn’t understand the power of SAG-AFTRA until I came back from college. There are 160,000 members nationwide in SAG-AFTRA. While I’m on strike, it can be hard for me at times, but I know that I have a big family around me that’s supporting me. That’s right there with me. That’s going through the same ups and downs, and that’s still resilient. Also, protection is good insurance. It’s the right kind of rules and regulations that honor the work that you do.
Nicole Joseph: Charles, thanks for your insight on this matter and for leading with confidence and grace.
Understanding What’s Next
Numerous individuals have endured and continue to bear the consequences of the strike. After a long and challenging battle for fair treatment, SAG-AFTRA reported that industry CEOs have withdrawn from negotiations. This has left many feeling that their hard work, dedication and artistic value remain unrecognized. Despite the exhaustion, the spirit of resilience prevails among those involved in the fight, driven by the belief that their collective efforts will yield positive outcomes.
Two resources, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation (sagaftra.foundation) and the Entertainment Community Fund (entertainmentcommunity.org), may offer substantial assistance to those currently grappling with challenging times.