Tom Bergeron, Kathy Connell, and Courtney B. Vance
Courtney B. Vance
When the 27th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards are presented April 4 on TNT and TBS, they will honor individual and ensemble performances by actors in motion pictures and television, plus action stunt ensemble performances in both genres. But the show will also honor another tradition that has been a part of its mission since the first ceremony in 1995: benefiting the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, the nonprofit affiliated with SAG-AFTRA that provides professional development programming and classes and financial assistance to the union's members.
And never has the awards' support been more crucial. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March and subsequent shutdown of film and television production, many SAG-AFTRA members have been struggling to make ends meet. Particularly as side work such as the time-honored actor's job of waiting tables has also been affected. The Foundation's Disaster/COVID-19 Relief Fund — recently expanded to help those affected by the brutal winter storms — has, at press time, distributed more than $6.2 million to 6,800 members since last March; previously, $300,000 to $500,000 a year was the norm.
"The Foundation helps the membership in times of need, and boy, is this ever a time of need," says Courtney B. Vance, the Emmy- and Tony Award-winning actor (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Broadway's Lucky Guy) who is president of the Foundation. "When COVID hit, a hundred percent of our membership was out of work. It's wonderful to be able to help people."
As luck would have it, Vance had been president only since November 2019, following a ten-year run by JoBeth Williams. She had been setting up a restructuring for the next president involving the Foundation's Entertainment Industry Council and Actors Council of leading industry executives, producers and artists, and Vance had yet to meet with them.
"I said, 'There's no time for that! We need the money. The people are out of work, and there's no work for them,'" relates Vance, who had been wrapping his own work on Nat Geo's series Genius: Aretha (now streaming), playing Aretha Franklin's preacher father, when he was told on March 12 — his birthday — that he had to leave the set and go home.
"They all responded," he says. "We raised millions of dollars. The agencies stepped up, and Netflix and cable stations and companies stepped up. It was an outpouring. We all realized that without actors, we're nowhere. I'm grateful we were able to weather that storm, but now we're in a place that could be more dangerous, because people get complacent and think, 'We've made it, everybody's back to work, we don't have to give any more.' But that's not the case. That's why we're gearing up for the SAG Awards, as a major fundraiser for the Foundation."
The Foundation was launched in 1985, and the SAG Awards show was intended not only to provide financial support, but to create a greater awareness of the organization. "Our being able to work with them and bring attention to them and the work that they do was very important," notes Kathy Connell, executive producer and a founding creator of the Awards.
That said, "The SAG Awards has been able to provide a lot of money to the Foundation," Connell adds. "When we started the show, we were just happy to have a little money left over after printing and sending ballots to 75,000 eligible voters. We had to grow who we were and what we were over the years."
The number of Awards voters has increased over the decades — this year, there are 129,500 nationwide — and so has the support from sponsors. The format is different for 2021, of course: the show airs virtually and is one hour long. The traditional nominee bag will be augmented with gifts from sponsors designed, says Connell, "to let them know we miss them, and we wish we could have them there in person, but to have a cozy night at home."
Each nominee also receives a "Watch Box" with a sponsor's wine and accessories, gourmet snacks, the awards program and a ballot. Additional Watch Boxes can be purchased for directors, writers, producers or anyone else associated with the nomination, for $250 each, with proceeds benefiting the Foundation. And all sponsors donated money to the Foundation.
While Vance is, as he says, "gearing up" for the SAG Awards, he has been working steadily on behalf of the Foundation since March, recording a video appeal for donations, writing personalized messages to hundreds of donors and interacting with the Actors Council, among other endeavors to bolster the organization.
One of his more visible projects is video "Fireside Chats." Posted first weekly, then monthly, and for 2021, quarterly, they're inspired by the radio addresses President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave from 1933-1944 to keep the public informed about World War II, and calm fears and anxieties about the economy and other matters.
Similarly, Vance also delivers words of encouragement, in quiet, comforting tones. "People felt so blessed that they had somebody to talk to them, to make them feel it's going to be okay," says Vance, referring to FDR. "A lot of times, if you just talk to people, they will be able to be okay. They understand, 'We're in this together. We're going to get through this together.' It's that calming of spirit and letting them know that somebody cares."
Another prominent SAG-AFTRA member who cares is Tom Bergeron. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the former host of Dancing with the Stars and America's Funniest Home Videos has raised funds for the Foundation by recording more than 800 videos via Cameo, a website and app that provides fans the opportunity, for a fee, to receive personalized video messages from stars of television, film, music and sports. After Cameo takes its cut, Bergeron donates his share to the Foundation, a total, so far, of more than $60,000.
"I've been exceedingly fortunate in my own career, and when the pandemic shut all production down, well, that's a pretty big hit — a lot of people out of work, worried about how they're going to pay the rent or the mortgage and put food on the table," Bergeron says. "Given that I didn't have any of those worries, I thought, 'What can I do that would be a fun way to send money to people who need it, but also indulge my need to be on camera?' Cameo had reached out to me in the past, but I just wasn't interested, and now I could see that there would be a real benefit to it."
Bergeron records the videos on his iPhone, primarily in his Los Angeles backyard. They average about a minute long, "depending on my fatigue level," and include birthday and anniversary greetings and congratulations on job promotions, but no commercial endorsements. "It's fun," he says. "It's loose and improvisational, which is the way I like to work.
"One of the sweetest ones," he recalls, "was a family who had moved from the United States to Australia, and the young son was having a lot of difficulty reorienting his life, being in a new country, leaving everything behind. The dad asked me if I could offer him a pep talk. So, I told him how many friends I had in Sydney, Australia, and how cool it is — I love Australia. I got the sweetest response from the dad, who said, 'That was the first time I'd seen him smile in months.'"
Bergeron and Vance both hope that other members, particularly SAG Awards nominees, will also turn to Cameo to benefit the Disaster/COVID-19 Relief Fund. "It really is just a few minutes to raise a lot of money and help our fellow union members," Bergeron says. "They should look around, look at their lives, think about what they have and about their fellow union members who don't have that, [take] a seat, put on a smile and record a few Cameos for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation. How about that for a pep talk?"
Two grateful recipients of Foundation $1,000 emergency grants would certainly applaud that idea. Both were already aware of the Foundation and had participated in some of its offerings; now moved online because of the pandemic, Foundation programs include screenings and panels, career retrospectives, voiceover training, audition preparation classes and a children's literacy program whose videos average 18 million views globally per month.
"When the pandemic hit, the Foundation sent emails and alerts right away to let us artists know that help is here, if you need it," says Turron Kofi Alleyne, a member from Orange, New Jersey, whose credits include For Life, Forever and Person of Interest. I said, 'Yes, yes, yes!' My family needs it. I was grateful that SAG-AFTRA came through; I'd applied for unemployment in April, and it didn't come through until September."
Alleyne, who is married with three children, used the grant, he says, "for basic needs — food, groceries, basic necessities." Looking back, he recalls watching a video Vance had recorded about the relief efforts. "You're not talking about just an individual — there are a lot of single artists out there, but there are also people with families. They've helped out so many people. It's such a big, huge deal. I'm grateful to be part of a foundation that really helps out its artists."
Los Angeles actor Melanie Cruz, whose credits include Scandal, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Big Love, still has a part-time day job, but had also worked as a bartender and server before lockdown. Her grant, she says, "is the thing that keeps you from drowning. It's like the scene in Titanic, when they're holding on [in the ocean]. It keeps you from slipping off."
The Foundation has filled another purpose beyond the financial, she adds. "When acting came to a screeching halt, [because of the other Foundation programs], it's still being able to feel that you're part of that community: I am an actor, I'm not just sitting here in L.A. for nothing. That was really instrumental in having things to look forward to, feeling like you're an ongoing part of the community. It can be very easy as an artist to feel alone."
The actors' sentiments mean Mission: Accomplished for the SAG Awards. "I'm very grateful to have seen the growth of the show, and how we've worked hand-in-glove with the Foundation and our sponsors to support our members," Connell says. "To lock down production for months and months at a time, and with many of our members working in other areas which were closed as well... The importance of being able to support our members is critical."
The 27th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will be simulcast Sunday, April 4 on TNT and TBS at 6:00 p.m. PT/9:00 p.m. ET, with a TNT encore at 8:00 p.m. PT/11:00 p.m. ET.