On a hot Tuesday morning in early September, actor Esther Cunningham, 29, is one of a few dozen people marching in the NBC Universal Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists picket line. She walks back and forth with the group, holding up her “SAG-AFTRA on strike!” sign and chanting, “What do we want? Contracts! When do we want them? Now!”
SAG-AFTRA actors have been on strike since July 14 after negotiations opposite the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to produce a new TV and film contract for the next three-year cycle. Among those on strike are the many extras who fill screens countrywide, performing nonspeaking parts, often in the background of a scene.
That’s the group Cunningham currently falls into. A freckled brunette and Cincinnati, Ohio, native, Cunningham moved to New York with her husband in October 2020 to pursue acting full-time. She’s since made a living as a background actor in shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Succession,” “Law and Order: Organized Crime” and “Blue Bloods.” Days on set can be grueling but getting an opportunity to work on so many shows has been “dreamy,” she says.
For Cunningham and artists like her, this moment in the industry is particularly watershed. Whereas extras are often needed and paid for days at a time on a project, the AMPTP is lobbying to scan their likenesses, use that scan for the remainder of a shoot and pay them for just one day of being there. For its part, SAG-AFTRA is trying to set up “about three and a half pages of guard rails” around the use of tech like AI for this kind of purpose, says entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, including written consent from the background actor before they get scanned.
“My body is my line of work,” says Cunningham. “If that’s taken from me by a body scan, then I have nothing new to offer.”
A lifelong drama kid, Cunningham studied theatre at Wheaton College in Illinois and graduated in May of 2016. At that point, she wasn’t ready to take the plunge as a full-time actor. “No newsflash to anyone but it’s not a very stable career,” she says.
Instead, she returned to Cincinnati to try out other possible careers. She tried being a barista, did administrative work in an office and taught beginner Latin at the Christian school where her parents work (“that was the extent of my nepo baby,” she says). She even got an internship at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati where she performed and…