Spotlight

For working-class actors like Jennifer Pierce Mathus, the SAG-AFTRA strike meant everything

Jennifer Pierce Mathus is among the thousands of actors who could not participate in film and television productions while SAG-AFTRA held out for a fair deal from studios. The union reached an interim agreement with the studios on Nov. 9.

(Courtesy of Josh Stringer)
Jennifer Pierce Mathus is among the thousands of actors who could not participate in film and television productions while SAG-AFTRA held out for a fair deal from studios. The union reached an interim agreement with the studios on Nov. 9. (Courtesy of Josh Stringer)

A normal day for Jennifer Pierce Mathus probably looks hectic to outsiders.

The Arkansas native does freelance communication work for a museum, administrative duties at a restaurant in her home of Oxford, Miss., and also walks dogs regularly. On the side, she has been crafting and creating things with friends.

They are all merely side hustles, however, to support her true calling of screen acting.

Mathus, along with thousands of striking artists in Hollywood, put her career on pause from July 14 until Nov. 9 to push the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) into compensating the talent pool better.

"We (were) fighting for the survival of our profession," Mathus said. "I believe everyone deserves a living wage."

In early May, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) initiated its first strike in 15 years after raising concerns over compensation not keeping up with inflation and film studios threatening to use artificial intelligence to replace staff writers. The WGA and AMPTP reached an agreement ending their dispute on Sept 27.

In mid-July, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) also entered into a strike. SAG-AFTRA showed solidarity with the WGA and raised similar concerns over low pay, decreasing residual income in the streaming era and using actors' likenesses without consent and compensation.

Media coverage of the labor dispute focused primarily on big-name, affluent actors on the picket line speaking on behalf of working-class actors like Mathus, who lack platforms to share their experiences with the public.

The actors reached an interim agreement with the studios on Nov. 9.

Similar to the writers, SAG-AFTRA's agreement includes increased baseline compensation, more restrictions in place against AI and higher residuals, which is the income actors and writers earn when a film or show they contribute to re-airs on television or streaming services.

Mathus' grievances included multiple unpaid residuals that she filed claims on.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," she said of the reached agreement. "The negotiating committee won on several major fronts for working actors -- higher base pay, self-taping guidelines, streaming bonuses, etc. There's still quite a bit of online discussion that I've seen among union members, however, concerning the AI guardrails established in the contract and whether or not these new guidelines provide enough protection for actors."

ACTING IN ARKANSAS

Mathus spent her childhood in Jonesboro. She became interested in theater at a young age, writing plays for her classmates, then directing the productions and acting in them. When high school rolled around, she got roles in bigger productions. It quickly became clear that her childhood hobby was something more significant.

"I was cast as the lead, Anna, in a high school version of 'The King and I,'" she said. "I was a junior in high school, and it was my second play that I had auditioned for. I was in the wings, stage right, waiting to go on, and I was looking at the audience. It was a sold-out crowd, and I knew immediately that this is where I needed to be."

She took a break from acting in college to focus on her studies in communications and broadcast news, which included a broadcast media summer internship at the White House during the Clinton administration. Mathus hoped to draw on her acting experience to get an edge in this career field, but became disillusioned by the work.

"It was a particularly scandalous summer," she said of her time in Washington, D.C. "I saw probably the worst of broadcast journalism. I saw [people] digging through garbage cans looking for anything. And I was like, 'If this is the goal, I don't want any part of this.'"

After college, Mathus moved to Little Rock and eventually worked as a public relations manager at Heifer International. Over time, acting played a stronger role in her daily life. In Little Rock, she joined an independent theater troupe called "Red Octopus."

Throughout her 20s and early 30s, she did community theater, sketch comedy and commercial work. She credits commercials as a reason why screen actors like herself break into film and television. After working on indie film projects, she finally got cast in a 2011 SAG feature, "The Last Ride."

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES

With more than 10 years of work, Mathus recently accrued the necessary credits to join the union. Her goal was to join this year to celebrate her 50th birthday, but the work stoppage put a temporary pause on those plans. She is waiting for membership to become a financially viable option again.

In the strike, actors sought a deal that more accurately reflected the time-consuming nature of the job, such as the submission of self-tapes for auditions.

In regions like the Mid-South, where the acting community is much smaller than in L.A. or even Atlanta, actors must build home studios and invest in editing equipment. Mathus shares a studio with her husband, Jimbo Mathus, who is a musician.

Mary Hollis Inboden, Mathus' acting buddy who was a series regular in "Kevin Can F*** Himself," constructed a similar setup in her Jonesboro home. Even after investing in quality equipment, both actors emphasize that the time and effort put into shooting auditions can be very difficult.

"The inconvenience for me is more on the number of pages I now get per audition and sometimes technical instructions for the self-tape that make me almost want to throw the towel in," Inboden said. "Even something as simple as a full body shot can be terribly hard depending on your setup."

Among the things SAG-AFTRA fought for was the elimination of quick turnaround times. In some cases, actors like Inboden have to enlist the help of friends and family to put together auditions.

"These are volunteers, they are not actors," Inboden said. "They have jobs and lives, and I want the bosses to remember that. We actors have bent over backward to accommodate -- they can bend a little too."

When on-screen productions stopped, Mathus and Inboden confided in one other, often discussing their situations. Over time, Mathus found an actor community in Atlanta that she stays in contact with through social media and ongoing Zoom workshops. A reliable support system has been essential for managing her entire career, not just the past few months.

Screen acting has transformed into a legitimate career for Mathus. To date, she has appeared in more than 30 projects, including a supporting part in the film "Dark Places" and roles in episodes of "True Detective" and "Good Girls." Even as more roles come her way, side hustles remain necessary.

"Some years have been great," Mathus said. "I consider it a win if I, as a professional actor book, let's say, four union jobs in a single year. That's a huge year for an actor. But the money is not what people think it is."

One of her primary jobs outside of acting is with friend Emily Blount, who in 2016 opened Saint Leo, an award-winning Italian restaurant in Oxford. Mathus has helped with administrative work since the beginning and Blount has been accommodating to Mathus' schedule.

"The good part about her work with us is that if she is gone on a shoot, the work -- filing, spreadsheets -- can wait," Blount said. "Or I can easily absorb what she does for a short period of time. We have lots of flexibility."

Support from Mathus' husband has been another constant. The couple has bonded over their artistic endeavors while navigating their respective variable incomes.

She believes her marriage has made her more privy to the toxic relationship between America and its artists.

"I don't believe artists should have to starve, but this is not a country that has been very kind to its artists," Mathus said. "So it's kind of like we're sticking it to the man, and we're sticking together to fight it out."

The labor dispute in Hollywood has only underscored the need for creatives to challenge power brokers.

"I think this strike has galvanized our resolve as artists, frankly, to continue to demand equity and respect within this industry," she said. "The work of human actors matters to people and working actors deserve a fair and equitable contract.

"The studios will always have to reckon with that."

  photo  Jennifer Pierce Mathus is among the thousands of actors who could not participate in film and television productions while SAG-AFTRA held out for a fair deal from studios. The union reached an interim agreement with the studios on Nov. 9. (Courtesy of Josh Stringer)
 
 

Upcoming Events