The Strike Is Impacting Me In Many Ways
— Not Just As An Actor
Danielle Duke is a 23-year-old actor in New York City. The Cleveland, Ohio, native has been acting since the age of 6, and she has appeared in four short films since 2021. Duke hasn’t joined SAG-AFTRA because of the membership fees, but she supports the strike because of the union’s desire to fix the residuals process and to build safeguards against the threats of artificial intelligence.
Tell me a little bit about your foray into the industry.
It’s taken so long. It’s truly one of those things where you have to love what you do because what you go through is really a lot. I didn’t book my first film/TV professional gig — a true crime show on ID Network — until probably three years after I moved to the city. Granted, half of that time was the height of the pandemic. But it takes a lot to get your feet muddy in the industry: getting your name known, having your own separate brand, then having casting directors know you, talk about your work and recommend you.
Our generation has lived through a series of devastating events, including the pandemic. Can you tell me what it was like to get to New York, to be hustling, then all of a sudden, the world stops?
It sucked. It was so deflating, in a way, because I finally got into a great groove. I was about to shoot a low-budget short film which was my first big booking since I moved here. I was in the doors of agencies, getting representation, so the ball was rolling. Then all of a sudden, it stopped because of the pandemic. I was like, “Oh my God, are you kidding me?” I just had to do what everyone else did. Stay safe, of course, and just study up any way I can. Keep my creativity alive by writing, by picking up monologues, by watching movies and TV shows, expanding my craft in any way I could. During the pandemic, TikTok blew up, so I was like, “OK, well, let me get to know how social media works and how it can be used to enhance my platform and my career, even though I can only stand still right now.”
Tell me about the jobs outside of entertainment that you’ve had in the past few years.
I’ve done front desk work. I’ve done temp work, cater-waiter work, nannying. I did food delivery during the pandemic for people who were in need and couldn’t leave the house. I’ve also done assistant jobs in fashion.
Journalists hear all the time, “You can’t be in this for the money,” but we want to be able to pay our bills. How has the notion of a “starving artist” been normalized or exacerbated by the behavior of studios and streamers?
We starve because we’re artists that love our craft. But we also deserve a living wage and being able to live a full life on top of it. I think there’s a looming sense in the air that everyone’s replaceable. There’s still that weird aura that you should be grateful you got anything because “10 other girls would want that part over you.” Of course, you should be blessed with every opportunity that you’re gifted — but there’s still that cutthroat-ness of “Oh well, you don’t want it? 10 other people do, so move it or lose it.”
Could you describe the process of joining SAG-AFTRA, and when you started to notice chatter within the community that a strike was pending?
I’m SAG-AFTRA-eligible, but I’m still non-union right now. The reason why I haven’t joined is because of the dues and heavy entry fees, which is something I think is very important to note. Before the strike was official, the most chatter I heard about it from my colleagues was, “The inflation in the residuals is kind of wonky now. How are we navigating this? How is this going to be fair for us as the actors, the talent, the crew, etc., not just the people who are higher up?”
I’ve worked on some SAG-AFTRA sets, and what has affected me the most is the residuals. That’s really why I support the strike. With all these streaming services — and it’s just not equivalent to “the olden days” of cable TV — it’s starting to get really unfair. It’s affected my paychecks, my colleagues’ paychecks, and all around the industry. Now since I’m non-union, my agency has contacted me, and they’re only submitting me for SAG-AFTRA projects, because a lot of non-union, micro-budget films don’t have agency fees.
Actors joined writers on the picket line in July in what has become the biggest Hollywood labor fight in years.
I’m having to go back to square one, which is self-submitting myself for projects and being my own boss. I do not want to complain about it because I do find this strike so necessary, but it’s just crazy how I’m back to square one again. Then, this whole new AI technology is really freaking me out. I got a little glimpse of what AI casting directors could do and in a way, it’s inhumane. I am very on edge about that, and I know a lot of my colleagues are nervous about AI casting.
In what ways has this strike forced you to adjust your career trajectory?
I’m getting paid to do more influencer work, too, and influencers can’t be paid to promote any type of movie, TV show or anything that’s under SAG-AFTRA. So the strike is also starting to affect my other branches of being a creative professional. It’s almost a weird spiderweb I feel like I’m in. Everyone right now is taking it day by day. I’m also just doing it project by project. “OK, a modeling gig. Cool. If I get it, I’ll really look into whether it could possibly affect me or not.” That’s just kind of how I’m living my life right now.
One of the portions of myself I love, which is being an actor, has to be put on pause right now, because we got some stuff to figure out. So let’s just enhance one other portion of me, which is my modeling, commercials or influencing. Because I still love those parts of me! Everything’s happening for a reason, so I just focus on this and have hope.
“We starve because we’re artists that love our craft. But we also deserve a living wage and being able to live a full life on top of it.”
On the note of hope, what does this strike indicate about Gen Z being able to achieve our dreams as a generation?
I always forget how much in any creative, artistic realm that there are people out there who think it’s child’s play or pity work and don’t value it as much as someone who works on Wall Street. I’m fortunate enough where I’m surrounded by so many lovely creative people that I forget that there are people like that out there. When the strike happened — then when the negotiations list was shared online and the public saw how much was rejected by the AMPTP — it’s really depressing. Who’s to say what our dreams are, and what we want in our lives, right? It fills my cup to be an actor just like it fills someone else’s cup to be a broker. To see how capitalism, and sadly, in my opinion, greed, can be so dehumanizing in an industry that’s supposed to be humanizing, was really a bummer. The world revolves around entertainment, in my opinion, so it’s still a shame that some people don’t value it for what it should be.
Let’s talk about the concerns regarding AI. As talent, what is your hesitance? Can you describe what you saw during a casting process that was so startling?
In this ad I saw on Instagram, it was just an AI tool that could help you weed out auditions. Let’s say the casting director or the program says, “I only want to see blond girls for this role.” Then, the AI wipes out all the submissions that aren’t blond girls, which could make sense. But wigs are a thing. If it’s about hair color, that’s an easy fix. Someone can dye their hair. So the AI tool is not acknowledging talent. Sure, we only want blond girls for this role, but this brunette would have been best-suited for the role — yet since she wasn’t blond, we didn’t get to see her. Then, my friends who are nonbinary and go in for a plethora of roles, I don’t know what they’re gonna go through. That worries me.
I’ve only seen physical traits that the AI is swiping away, which is really unfair. Because, at the end of the day, it’s about the talent of the human. What even is a beautiful person to anyone, let alone a robot. It’s just bizarre to me. Then I’ve heard murmurs about studios body-scanning you for your likeness — and who owns you at the end of the day. AI is seeking the physical over the talent, which I’m not a fan of.
Duke has taken on multiple other jobs in order to support her career: "I’ve done front desk work. I’ve done temp work, cater-waiter work, nannying."
What are your ultimate hopes for the strike negotiations?
My hope is, of course, that everything that we requested gets approved or very well-negotiated. I hope to get back to work as soon as possible, but I do believe that we deserve a fair living wage.I’m willing to wait a little bit if that means that when we come out of the hole we’re in, we’re so much better. My hope is just that after this strike, not only creatives, but also people outside of Hollywood who don’t have a connection to the creative world, start seeing actors and creatives as people who work a job and not just pursuing a phony passion.
What do you want people to know about this next generation of filmmakers, actors and screenwriters?
We now understand the power of diversity, and the power of having such a wide range of representation across the board. We’re not a shy generation either. What I’ve learned is we’re not afraid to tell a story, even if it’s going to rattle some people, even if it’s gonna make someone think a little bit differently. I’m most excited just to get my hands and feet dirty to affect generations after ours — and show a world of art unlike ever before. Though the strike is an unfortunate event, I truly believe that after the rain, there’ll be a rainbow.