“Meryl Streep said to me, ‘This is great, now go run for president,’ ” the president of Hollywood’s largest union laughs over the phone on Thursday afternoon, just one day after the union’s negotiating committee — led by Drescher — announced that they had reached a tentative three-year contract deal with Hollywood studios after spending 118 days on strike. “I don’t want that job. Oh boy.”
Instead, Drescher says, she is eager to find “something where I can leverage this for the greater good.” This is referring to the new name recognition and standing that the woman once synonymous with The Nanny has amassed after leading SAG-AFTRA’ 160,000 members through its stand against the changes that streaming platforms have wrought on the industry, and promise-slash-threat of AI. She’s raised many eyebrows over the course of the strike — asking if Hollywood’s top mogul Bob Iger is an “ignoramus” in an interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders, bringing a heart-shaped plushie into negotiations with industry CEOs, appearing at a Dolce & Gabbana Italy event mid-negotiations — and also won many new fans with her impassioned fight for an industry that is more hospitable to working actors.
In a wide-ranging interview on Thursday, Drescher talked about the provisional deal that finally brought Hollywood’s double-strike era to an end, the fiery, viral speech she improvised at a press conference, her future plans and why SAG-AFTRA may be entering its “golden age.”
What are you most excited to have accomplished in the deal?
The new stream of revenue for members on SVOD is very important and really a big accomplishment. And I think that the AI protections remain something that we are constantly going to have to monitor and fight for the level of protections whereby our members will not be duplicated or synthesized in any way without consent and compensation. So those are very big and absolutely had to happen or it would have been a deal-breaker.
What did you fight hardest for in this deal?
I feel like our lowest-paid members who are part of the background community did very well and feel like they’ve been more represented in this contract than ever before. And they actually ended up with the largest minimum increase of any of us at whopping 11 percent. That makes me very happy.
What percentage increase did the other performers, who are not background actors, get?
They broke pattern, which also set a new precedent because we ended up getting more than the Writers Guild or the Directors Guild at 7 percent. And the [benefits] contributions will be more, the caps [on how much an employer can contribute] will be more, we carved a new inroad of revenue on the streaming platforms and we really boxed in as best as we could. We got everything we wanted with the AI protections, which was key. Plus we’re going to be meeting with the AMPTP twice a year to make sure that our finger remains on the pulse of the progress, and also to align ourselves on the same side with regards to federal regulations and protections against piracy.
Is there anything that you didn’t get in this deal that you’d like to fight for next time?
There’s things we’re already thinking about and planning on. Performance capture for the first time is in the contract, they’ve been fighting for that for 20 years, and now they’re in the contract. But we want to include motion performance and facial performance, and so our intent is next time, we’re going to include those two types of performers in the language specifically. There’s also the people that do audio description: That has never really been regarded by the AMPTP as something that is in the contract made SAG-AFTRA performers and needs to be recognized as such. So that’s something that we would definitely want to go back [to]. There are aspects of auditions and interviews where self-tape is the way that the audition and interview happens. And we still want to continue to protect people from a type of casting process that puts a big load on the performer that used to be the casting directors’ responsibilities.
We got some stuff, but we want more. I think that now that we’ve gotten this stream of revenue for the [performers] on the streaming platforms, which never existed before, we will want more, more to spread around to all the members on the platform. Right now it’s a 75/25 split of this new money: 75 to the people in the shows that get 20 percent of the audience, and they deserve to make more money without question because those shows in linear TV would’ve been into syndication and there is no syndication in streaming, they’re in a vacuum. And right now it’s 25 percent that will be distributed to the other people; most likely it’s going into a fund. And as with all funds, half of the trustees will be our people [SAG-AFTRA representatives] and half will be AMPTP representatives.
Was there a specific moment during this strike when the importance of it — and the importance of your role — dawned on you?
Look, we’ve been at this a very long time because it starts with Wages and Working Conditions meetings at Locals around the country where members are able to express what they feel needs to be in this contract. And all of that gets vetted and eventually ends up in what’s called the plenary, where me and my negotiating committee vet all of that stuff and discuss — that used to be a one-and-a-half or two-day process. And with me at the helm, it was eight days [on the schedule] and every community within this contract was heard, was listened to, was spoken about by experts representing that community. None of that had ever been done before. And so it joined us as a negotiating committee together in solidarity because we had a greater capacity for understanding each other and more compassion. That’s the Fran plan, and the secret sauce is time and patience. Nobody was used to that, but they came to like it very quickly because, A, actors like to speak, and, B, when you feel rushed and when you feel marginalized and when you don’t think that your needs or feelings are fully being heard, it only creates dysfunction within the room.
So what we do is we, listen, I often read Buddhist offerings, wisdom, and we became a family of people that, two years earlier before I became president, hated each other. So we went from complete partisan dysfunction to people that fought for a Unity ticket in this last election. It was working, we were entering into a new sensibility of our union and I believe that the negotiating committee has become an unlikely family and the nucleus for what is going to be the golden age of SAG-AFTRA. That continued even through the strike, the talking to everybody and really unpacking it all. That’s why by the end, when we got two last pieces in place [in the new contract], the fund for the new revenue and the last piece of the AI package, we knew that we had done our jobs, we did it well. When I said, “Can I pass this motion without objection?” the room was silent. And that in itself is historic and a triumph.
So was that a moment when all of this really hit you?
I have to say that it was when I made that speech way back, the day when we [SAG-AFTRA] said that we’re going on strike. We went into the press room and I gave that speech that went around the world and ignited a workers’ movement — that was when I knew this was a historic moment. I always knew this had to be seminal, this negotiation. But that speech and how it resonated with people made me realize that this was bigger than the sum of its parts. What we were doing was important to more than just us because the eyes of workers around the world were watching, were with us, and were inspired by us. You can see how many strikes and big wins came subsequently to our going on strike.
And we heard that you improvised that speech — you had a speech ready, but you extemporized.
I had no speech ready. I didn’t even know I was making a speech when I walked in. I thought we were just going to take questions and they had something prepared for me on the podium. And I quickly looked and I said to Pamela Greenwalt, my chief of communications, “I really can’t read this. I’m just going to speak from the heart.” And she said, “You do whatever you feel you need to do.” And that was what came out of my mouth. I tell you, the gods were with me.
THR and others reported on how A-lister actors like George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Reese Witherspoon and others sought to offer new ideas while negotiations were at a standstill. How productive were those conversations and will you be taking them up on their offer to pay more in dues at a later date?
I don’t know how much later it’s going to be. A lot of those A-listers first contributed an enormous amount of money into the [SAG-AFTRA] Foundation to help members who needed financial assistance through this strike, so that was one really wonderful thing. And then [their offer] also to lift the cap on what people earn in relation to what they pay in dues we are also going to take advantage of. The thing that I explained to them was that when it comes to benefits like health and pension, by law, those contributions can only be made by the employer. So the money that we would benefit from in raising their dues, we will put to good use. I already have an idea of what we should do with it, but it’s not going to resolve what is problematic with the contract. But we can start an independent program to help people with that money who maybe don’t qualify, let’s say, for the benefit health plan. And I would like to devise a privatized available health benefit, a health policy, private, for a lower premium, and then perhaps with that money we can help co-pay the premiums. So something like that would be an amazing thing.
George Clooney said to me, “I would’ve bet my house and lost it, that you would never have been able to get more than over a billion dollars with this deal.” And each of them [the A-listers] in their own way were helpful: They did a lot of backchanneling, calling their connections at the CEO level of the AMPTP, and I think that even in the almost 12th hour, backchanneling was being done on that last piece of AI. And it was really when we already disbanded our meeting and said, “Let’s pick this up in the morning,” that Duncan [Crabtree-Ireland, the chief negotiator of SAG-AFTRA] got a call from Carol [Lombardini, the president of the AMPTP] indicating that they were going to put in that last piece. And between getting the fund and getting that last piece, that made all the difference.
We’ve reported that the studio side seemed taken aback by your negotiating style, including the plushie and saying inspirational quotes. Do you think you were breaking from the traditional negotiating patterns they’re used to, and do you think that helped SAG in any way?
I am a very authentic person and I think that they were disarmed by the fact that I wasn’t playing a corporate game and I wasn’t trying to emulate masculine energy. And I think that the typical attempts to discredit the woman in leadership did not work because I turned it into a women and girls empowerment movement that said, “I don’t have to emulate male energy.” I can lead with intellect and empathy and compassion and morality, and I can be me and I can still rock a red lip. And I think that that’s very liberating for women because that’s the lowest hanging fruit, let’s discredit the woman leader. She’s either too much or not enough. And nobody ever discussed Duncan on those terms. So I had to turn it on its head and make it an empowerment thing. And in that moment, they actually gave me a gift because I realized there’s something else going on here and I have to call it and turn it around and make it about female empowerment. And I hope that by example, I am showing the women and girls out there that are my fans that they can lead and they can still be exactly who they are and not apologize for it.
Once the strike is over and if the deal is ratified, what are your top priorities to accomplish at the union as Hollywood gets back into gear?
I had galvanized the [SAG-AFTRA] Green Council before the strike that included the MPA and our sister unions to come together for the first time with one objective: to develop eco-responsible entertainment by choosing a mission that met the criteria of being demonstrative onscreen, doable on sets and practiced in the homes of viewers around the world. So we are going to continue moving forward with that now that this is behind us. We have a lot of stars from our member body who are engaged in this, who are environmentalists, and mission number one is going to be trying to eliminate single-use plastic and replace it with reusables onscreen, behind the scenes and in homes of viewers around the world.
Also, I want to give seniors back their residuals. And I am being told that with this seminal deal that we just closed that we’re going to be able to do that because there’s going to be more money being contributed into the funds.
Beyond your work at SAG-AFTRA, do you want to keep acting in the future or do you have any other aspirations to be in other fields, like potentially politics?
I was set to do two small films this past summer, which of course got shoved. One was with Adam Sandler, the other one was for Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, and so I didn’t end up doing those. I probably will when it all comes around again. And I don’t really see politics per se, but I do see myself doing something where I can leverage this for the greater good and be able to use my sensibility, which I think people respond to because it’s more authentic than maybe they’re used to from a lot of people that are out there. So I don’t know. Now that it’s over, I can think about it all and see what this was meant to do. Because life unfolds and I’m sure it will present itself to me. Meryl Streep said to me, “This is great, now go run for president” (laughs).
Are you considering that?
No, I don’t want that job (laughs). Oh boy. But I do think that we’ll see. Time will tell.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.