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Fran Drescher Gets Candid About the SAG Deal, AI, and Vaccine Mandates

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A
fter four long
months marching on Hollywood picket lines, bargaining inside hostile negotiating rooms, and giving Buddhist sermons, Fran Drescher can finally exhale. 

Through the 118-day actors’ strike, The Nanny star turned SAG-AFTRA national president, joined by SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, has served as the face of the 160,000-strong union and says she uses the Nineties sitcom’s message around unity and acceptance in her leadership. “I can be exactly who I am,” she says in her raspy Queens accent, “and still rock a red lip and hold a plushie toy.”

On Dec. 5, Screen Actors Guild members approved multi-year contracts with the Hollywood studios and streamers, or the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), by 78.33 percent, with 21.67 percent dissenting. Lauded as the “billion-dollar deal,” which will run through June 30, 2026, actors will receive residual and minimum wage increases, along with certain AI protections. 

But Drescher has not been free from criticism. Before the strike began in July, she faced backlash for cheesing next to Kim Kardashian during a Dolce & Gabbana promotional trip and following the strike’s end on Nov. 8, actors spoke out on the then-tentative deal’s AI provisions. 

Despite this, Drescher felt certain that SAG-AFTRA members would ratify the agreement. During an interview this week following the deal’s approval, she says the vote and turnout was a sigh of relief. (The vote received a 38.15 percent turnout, compared to the 27.15 percent of members who ratified the TV/theatrical contracts in 2020.)

“Even the naysayers will see the benefits of it as they work the contract themselves,” Drescher quips. 

As Drescher reflects on the months that upended the film and TV industry, she tells Rolling Stone about the “Venus and Mars” energy in the bargaining room, how Disney CEO Bob Iger ignited the “hot labor summer,” and the possibility of a book documenting her SAG-AFTRA leadership.

The deal was ratified Tuesday night. How are you feeling? Is this what you anticipated?
I don’t get a lot of opportunities to rest on my laurels. It’s all going to flood over me at a time that’s not immediate. In the immediate, I’m actually just putting one foot in front of the other and making sure that I represent the union and my position as best as I can so that the communication that goes out to the world is the right one. It’s a lot of pressure, but I think I slept better last night than I’ve slept in many months because it was over and it’s done. Now we can experience it, live it, and build upon it.

SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher (C), SAG-AFTRA Secretary-Treasurer Joely Fisher (L), SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (Upper Right) and other union members pose for a group photo at a press conference discussing their strike-ending deal with the Hollywood studios on November 10, 2023, in Los Angeles, California.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

I want to talk about two major points that led both SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP to reach a tentative agreement: the streaming bonus and AI protections. What was the last piece that SAG-AFTRA needed from the AMPTP on AI? 
What we needed was that we get compensation and consent and that they had to tell us in very clear language what they would use it for on a particular job specifically. [It] could only be used for that one job. We went from not having any protections — they would be pulling our members off to go get scanned and think that was OK and they could just use it in perpetuity — and now we’ve put it into the members’ decision. They’re in the driver’s seat now.

As we know, 21.67 percent of members voted against the deal. Justine Bateman has criticized the AI provisions, SAG-AFTRA board member Matthew Modine said “consent is surrender,” and some actors I spoke to still have concerns. Do you have anything to say to these actors that are still worried about losing their voice and likeness during productions?
Even [AMPTP president] Carol Lombardini said that Duncan Crabtree-Ireland — she is fully aware — is always the smartest one in the room. So don’t trust them either and then don’t trust your negotiating committee who gave blood, sweat, and tears for a year of their lives sacrificing so much for them, fought so hard to get a billion-dollar deal that was three times bigger than the last contract and bigger than the last three contracts put together. [They] filled page after blank page with new language and recognized for the first time performance capture. For 21 years, they’ve been trying to get that into a contract and we got it in.

Some people get very obsessed on one thing and are willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. In two and a half years, we’re gonna roll up our sleeves and go right back into it but in the meantime, we went from nothing to putting our members in the driver’s seat when it comes to AI. The things that have been brought up seem like this is not what you obsess on unless you’re an obsessive personality. What I do feel is that the majority of the members understood that this is going to benefit our members in a way that has never been achieved since the 1960 contract, which got us pension, health care, and residuals. That is not something that you walk away from because to walk away from a deal like this makes you look like a fool and not to be taken seriously.

The streaming bonus, what’s been nicknamed the “Robin Hood fund,” gives performers on heavily-watched streaming shows a bonus. I understand 75 percent of the fund will go to actors on those high-budget streaming shows, but who will get the other 25 percent?
That hasn’t been decided yet. I think that we need to really think about how it will be best used, who will benefit. Obviously, it’s going to be people that are on that platform. We haven’t really thought about the best and most fruitful way to distribute that money, but we will and it will be what’s most beneficial for the most members. 

When the women would cry over an issue that they were passionate about, my heart broke for them. I listened with great empathy, and I wanted to fix it. I wanted to make it better. When the men were very aggressive and fist-pounding, I couldn’t even hear that.

I want to talk about the secret sauce you used in the negotiating room: your heart-shaped plushie, Buddhist mantras, and feminine energy. How did these practices help you reach this deal?
If someone is angry and fists pounding on the table, and acting like they’re gathering their things because they’re gonna march out any second and whatever it is, shouting, [there’s] all of this really aggressive male energy not only in the room, frankly, but in the negotiating committee room. Men generally, in my observations through this experience, react very differently than women. Mostly, all the tears that happened were from women and when the women would cry over an issue that they were passionate about, my heart broke for them. I listened with great empathy, and I wanted to fix it. I wanted to make it better. When the men were very aggressive and fist-pounding, I couldn’t even hear that.

When you say men on both sides were shouting and pounding on the table, were you referring to a specific person? 
I’m talking about gender at large. There was nobody specifically that I would say was more physical or more offensive or anything like that. I was just able to passively observe the way the same problem is dealt [with] between men and women, and it has nothing to do with their intellect. There were really smart people in the room, men and women. But, it’s Venus and Mars, baby.

You questioned if Disney CEO Bob Iger was an “ignoramus” after he called actors’ demands unrealistic. How did you feel about comments around the deal being too far or too much for actors?
Look, Bob and the rest of them I’m sure would be very charming at a cocktail party, but he actually helped ignite the Hot Labor Summer because his comments were so tone-deaf, in the way that they showed the inequity between the highest-paid at the company and our members who are struggling to make a living and get medical benefits. So, it was what he said in contrast to my speech that bookended the whole conversation in a nutshell and triggered the Hot Labor Summer around the world.

‘The Nanny’: Nicholle Tom, Madeline Zima, Charles Shaughnessy, Benjamin Salisbury, Fran Drescher.

©CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection

In an email chain, you said you were willing to go on strike in 2021 over Hollywood’s vaccination mandates. Why is that?
I didn’t think that vaccine mandates were something that the employers should have imposed on our members. I thought it should be an option. I thought that the original pieces that were put in place for COVID protections were working long before the vaccine was introduced. Those protocols should have remained in place and the vaccine should have been a personal choice.  But no matter how many times I brought it to the board as a single-item discussion, no matter how much I presented them with video from doctors that disagreed with the vaccine, or articles that showed how companies were managing differently, the majority of the members on the board voted not to go up against the employer.

I had to get on with the business of being president and solving many, many other problems — successfully, I might add — but I could not become a one-issue president. There was too much at stake, too much to do, too much to fix, and too much division to the degree of great dysfunction. 

With the actors’ strike behind you, are we going to see you on screen soon?
I’m supposed to do the sequel to [This is] Spinal Tap. I’m also supposed to do another independent film with Ben Affleck and Adam Sandler. That all went on the back burner during the strike. I’m sure they’ll circle back when the time is right to pick up those little movies. My writing, I’ve been neglecting. I feel like there’s for sure a book about this whole experience. 

I don’t know whether I’m gonna dive into another sitcom because I like climbing new mountains and something like this that I’ve accomplished and being seen through a new lens — which didn’t surprise any of the people that know me very well but certainly did surprise everybody that only knew me as the Nanny — I could see myself doing something where I can apply more of my skills to influencing the way people think in a new and fresh way. Maybe a new 21st-century Fran Drescher-style Barbara Walters. 

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