On July 14, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) officially joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in a historic labor strike in Los Angeles. A sister union to the WGA, SAG-AFTRA began its own strike after negotiations between the two unions and the trade association for studios and streaming services the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) stalled.
This battle to protect future production jobs has summoned action from union local members across the country. Joining the ranks of those striking members, SAG-AFTRA Nashville President and National Negotiating Committee member Carla Christina Contreras is a working actress living in Middle Tennessee.
“I do all kinds of work behind the scenes on production, but I am an actor first. I love to make people laugh,” she tells FilmNashville Foundation.
“Good Night, Momma! Good Night, Daddy!”
Contreras was born and raised in Los Angeles. “I like to say, ‘On the fringe of Tinseltown.’ I lived in Orange County.”
Contreras’s father was Armando Contreras, a well-respected grip whose name carried weight across the industry. Throughout his production career, Armando worked on many popular films and TV shows like the 1966 “Batman” television series, “Scrooged,” “Life Goes On,” and even Star Trek projects. Her mother—a professional singer—put her career aside so that young Carla Christina could attend auditions.
Contreras first started acting at the age of three, doing work for television commercials. After booking a Barbie commercial at the age of five, her family made the decision to put her acting career on hiatus. “I had just had my tonsils removed and was having trouble talking. My mom was also pregnant, and it was just a stressful moment for my family,” she says.
This hiatus would last for six years, ending when Contreras turned 11.
“It was around then that my dad was key grip on ‘The Waltons,’” she says. “I worked on that show from 11 until I was 16 as one of the community kids. That was when I first became old enough to join the union.”
But at a certain point, Armando didn’t want his daughter in the business, as he had seen it to be a difficult walk in life that could be laden with abuse. He saw how the industry—one noted for its glamour, position, and wealth—broke the hearts of people just like Carla Christina every single day. Joining the union meant joining a cyclical struggle against greedy decisions made in Hollywood.
Temporarily discouraged from acting, Contreras heeded her father’s advice and completed her formal education. She earned a degree in finance from California State University Long Beach (CSULB). She had planned on going to law school to become a tax attorney but decided that law wasn’t for her. She continued the study of acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute for three years.
Setbacks and Back on Set
Her break from professional acting lasted between 1976 and 1985. Getting married to her first husband in 1983, it was his idea that Contreras pick up acting again.
“He used to tell me, ‘Acting is all you ever talk about! Why don’t you get back into it?’” Contreras says. At this point, Contreras was old enough to fully consider the wisdom in her father’s advice. Yes, the entertainment business would break her heart. Yes, it was difficult. But the same could be said for any other business.
In 1985, Contreras re-dedicated herself to a career in acting. Come hell or high water, she would try to make it. Coming out of “retirement,” Contreras earned her AFTRA and SAG cards—separate unions at the time—and got back to work.
It was 1991 when Contreras also discovered her love for music. “ I was working with vocal coach Bob Corff. Corff had me select a genre of music I wouldn’t normally do as an exercise. I had chosen country-western music, which I later fell in love with.”
After picking up music, Contreras moved to Nashville to pursue a record deal as a Southern rock artist.
But six months after moving to Music City, Contreras learned from a fellow transplant that Nashville had a budding community of actors. She describes this talent pool as “small but densely talented,” and one that needed just a little guidance.
Discovering the Nashville film community—which even had an AFTRA Local office—Contreras became elated. She couldn’t shake her lifelong passion for acting.
“It’s a tough business to quit. And I think that’s what my father was trying to protect me from,” she says.
So, Contreras sought out Betty Clark, one of the best agents in the area. Signed to Clark’s Talent and Model Land, Contreras started working again.
It was from Clark’s advice that Contreras co-founded the Actor’s Alliance for the Nashville Film and Video Association in 1993. Formed to educate non-union actors, this organization held monthly meetings to help the area’s talent pool. Contreras explains the benefits of the Actor’s Alliance, saying “Each actor from the state represents the entire talent pool of the state. If one of us makes a mistake, it can impact us all. The Alliance taught actors what to expect through panels, workshops, guest speakers, showcases, and everything else that might help undiscovered talent land a breakout role.”
A Regular Star
Ironically, it was outside of hometown Hollywood that Contreras’s career in acting took off. Once in Middle Tennessee, she booked television movies, bigger projects like “America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back,” “Nashville,” “Army Wives,” and fun indie productions like “Worm,” “Chasing Ghosts,” or “Incognita’s Infamous Adventures.”
“Part of my career growth was just being in the right area, with a great community of people that look out for others. And another part of it was helping to serve other people to grow the market,” Contreras says.
Contreras loves acting. But she has also grown into other forms of meaningful work within the industry. As a writer, she penned the sitcom project “The Dealership.” The project was pitched as a serious idea in 2015 during a Tennessee Women in Film and Media conference.
Contreras says, “I wasn’t ready… but I was pushed into working on it by Nan V. Puetz, the organization’s state chapter president.”
Generating interest at the conference, “The Dealership” was fleshed out as a full project between Contreras, her husband Tim Rumsey, and screenwriter Marti King Young. Contreras took the project to Film-Com in 2019, where she met Jordan McMahon, head of development for Kelsey Grammer’s production company, Grammnet NH Productions. Working with this producer, Contreras and Young spent five months revamping the project during the COVID shutdowns. Later, it was taken to 20th Television (formerly 20th Century Fox Television, now owned by Disney).
“The project was then handed off to the Vice President of Comedy 20th Television. They told us, ‘No,’ for now. But I know that there’s enough interest in that project to shop it other places. We’re reorganizing it as we speak,” Contreras says.
Strength in Numbers
One of the most important roles Contreras has championed to date is that of SAG-AFTRA Nashville Vice President. Taking the key leadership role in 2019, she has helped lead the union local’s efforts in the state.
“After 30 years of living in Nashville and serving SAG and SAG-AFTRA, I think this is my calling!” she says.
But why is union work so important to Contreras?
“Unions do a lot of things,” she says. “One of those things is making members of a community visible. What used to happen in the 1990s in Tennessee is that out-of-state productions would call state officials to inquire about the number of union actors and crew members our state had. We’re a right-to-work, and in years past our actors and production personnel were told that they didn’t have to join a union instead of being told that unions attract work. Because of this, union signups were kept low, and out-of-state productions relying on union metrics would pass over Tennessee since they didn’t think we had a large enough talent pool to support them.”
Touching on the subject of visibility, Contreras states that the general public does not have a full understanding of what SAG-AFTRA does. “In Middle America, people tend to look at actors’ unions as unions for celebrities. But celebrities are the ones who have teams… Yes, celebrities do enjoy protection via SAG-AFTRA. But we exist to protect the journeymen actors whom you recognize in the background without actually knowing their names. Those people don’t have a personal team fighting for them. We’re all they have, and that’s who we’re fighting for!”
Contreras goes on to say that there’s another level of industry discrimination against actors who aren’t familiar names in Hollywood. Terms like “hobbyists” are used to denigrate these actors, even though they may treat their craft just as seriously as someone getting top billing for a film. “These actors are simultaneously being denied visibility by major producers and are getting mocked for it.”
Rise of the Machines
Many issues are on the table for actors, writers, and other personnel joining the labor strikes. Of these issues, the one that’s grabbed perhaps the most attention is the use of AI to replace the contributions of human labor and creativity.
Contreras says, “This abusive use of AI is a threat to actors and writers. What’s even worse though is that some of it is trained on copyrighted content, like that found on an actor’s YouTube channel.”
Prompted by technologies like generative AI chatbots and the deep fakes that have dominated social media over the last few years, collective fears swelled after a revealed proposal by AMPTP to permanently own background actors’ digital rights for one day’s worth of pay.
While actors of every caliber and demographic are worried about AI displacement, some actors are more vulnerable than others. “I don’t want to be replaced by AI,” Contreras says. “I’m an older, middle-aged actress. The parts I’m offered now are more interesting, but women above the age of 40 already face discrimination. Our business is obsessed with youth and beauty. I want to be able to continue to work. Some of these roles face the most risk of being automated away.”
As people around the world are afraid of AI disrupting their work, the union rejection of AI to displace workers now symbolizes everyone’s struggle against technology’s existential threat.
“It’s interesting. As we were striking in Los Angeles… I saw thousands of people passing by. They were honking their horns and waving at us. It was the same when we held our rally on Music Row. So far, it seems that the people paying attention to this are behind us. These people are our audience members, and they’re interested in seeing the work of humans.”
“Hell No! We Won’t Go!”
Protections against AI are simply one demand in a list of many for the SAG-AFTRA strike. “We want revenue sharing,” Contreras says. “We’re asking for 2% of the revenue generated by these streaming platforms.”
The battle for a small piece of revenue is a battle that seems to be revisited periodically by the WGA. During the ‘07-’08 WGA strike, writers were fighting for residuals earned through the sales of DVDs and non-traditional media (internet content).
Direct pay for work is also a sticking point here. Contreras says, “Regarding our minimum compensation, they offered us 5% less compensation over the next three years… it was a kick in the teeth to learn that.”
Healthcare and retirement funding was also a major point of contention. “We’ve been trying to raise the caps. They haven’t raised the caps for healthcare and retirement funding in forty years. How are people supposed to retire properly?”
Working to Work
There’s also the lesser-known controversy surrounding self-taping, and how actors are now saddled with costs from virtual auditions when free physical auditions used to be the standard.
In his story for Variety, Neal Bledsoe writes “What used to cost actors their time and gas money now could cost them hundreds of dollars per audition. Actors had spent thousands turning their homes into home-studios, indentured friends and family as their audition partners, or paid coaches and consultants up to $500 a pop. They were already squeezed by paying their reps as much as 25% of their gross, and the 2017 tax law capped their deductions. But they had done all this self-taping as a temporary sacrifice, just until things got back to normal; instead, it has become the new normal.”
“Self-taping started as a benefit to actors who were stuck at home during COVID,” Contreras says. “I benefitted from self-taping, as it helped me book auditions without having to risk my health for a callback audition. This has created a bunch of problems for people, including an expectation for people to read multiple scenes at once. On average, one audition can take an actor three and a half hours to shoot the time, upload, edit, and submit. That’s work we’re expected to do for free, and it doesn’t even include the time we have to spend learning the lines!”
Helping The Nanny Clean House…
Contreras says that the demands from SAG-AFTRA and the WGA are reasonable concessions necessary from AMPTP for film and television to continue to exist.
The streaming and studio heads, however, did not agree with this assessment of union demands. On July 13, the CEO of Disney ($157B) Bob Iger ($350M) shared in an interview that he believed the striking actors and writers were not being realistic in their contract demands.
Reacting to this, Contreras says “He’s sitting way too far up in his ivory tower to understand what the actors are asking for. And really, that obliviousness is a problem that’s also kind of the theme here. In the LA negotiations before the strike, we were told by AMPTP’s lead negotiator that ‘We were being uncivilized.’ During this time, we had also agreed to have mediators in the room, which we were forced to accept. This was after giving the AMPTP a 12-day extension for the negotiations!”
“The first day that we walked into negotiations, the AMPTP’s lead negotiator told us in so many words that the streaming services were poor, and only had a certain amount of money to work with,” Contreras says.
Calling the AMPTP “ridiculous,” Contreras says that the AMPTP left SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher no choice but to go over their heads and dialog directly with CEOs of different studios.
Contreras commends Drescher for her leadership. “I adore her. What Fran did, Fran gave every person in the room a voice regardless of what their position was. That made everyone feel that their opinion had weight. She also brings levity to our meetings and makes it a rule that everyone put their union politics and in-fighting aside to do the work. For six weeks every day, we had unprecedented unity going into the AMPTP conference room!”
A Hollywood Ending
Much like her father Armando predicted, Contreras’s journey in showbiz has put her in front of many obstacles. While undoubtedly difficult, this journey has also been tremendously rewarding.
The very same could be said for the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes. Mixed in with the struggles of those striking are windows to improve the industry. One of the silver linings Contreras has found in the strikes is that it has created a community dialog regarding the continued operation of projects in the area.
She says that Tennessee has great incentives for both out-of-state and locally created productions now. Being predominantly independent, Contreras believes that the scrappiness of Tennessee filmmakers puts the production community at an advantage if the industry collapsed from the strikes.
“Speaking for my members of SAG-AFTRA Nashville, I can tell you that we’re trailblazers, and some of the things that we do are being duplicated by other locals. We’re going to make something happen. That’s what we’re working on right now,” she says. “We’re working on ways to keep members sharp and still working when we can through indie projects.”
Readers of THE LONG TAKE and the FilmNashville Foundation Bulletin are invited to the Nashville Film/Television Town Meeting at virtual production studio Vū Nashville on July 29 from 1p.m. to 4p.m., where Contreras will deliver the special keynote address.
Information about Carla Christina Contreras may be found also via SAG-AFTRA’s online directory. For further information about SAG-AFTRA Nashville, visit its website and social media.