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Fran Drescher Breaks Down the SAG-AFTRA Strike’s Heated First Days: ‘We’re Striking for the Journeyman,’ Not Tom Cruise

"The Nanny" speaks on land barons, new business models and why she is the right person for the job. “I think that the whole world is looking at us right now, because human beings in all different walks of life are being replaced by robots.”

Fran Drescher,Michael Buckner for Variety

Fran Drescher is on a hero’s journey. 

I know because she told me.  

We talked on Monday for about an hour as the actors’ strike moved into a second week. So far, it’s been very dramatic. Last Thursday, the SAG-AFTRA president gave her version of Shakespeare’s Henry V’s St. Crispins Day speech with “we happy few” replaced by all American workers via “I think that the whole world is looking at us right now, because human beings in all different walks of life are being replaced by robots.” The speech launched a thousand labor-supporting memes and left reporters wondering if “The Nanny” was the new Norma Rae. Drescher carried the mojo into the first day of picketing on Friday when she called Disney CEO Bob Iger a medieval land baron for discourse launched from his Sun Valley Summer Camp.

This was all a reversal of fortune for Drescher who had come across as overly optimistic during negotiations and, in her own words, “naïve” about the chances of SAG-AFTRA getting a good deal from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. 

Drescher and the union had been outflanked by the AMPTP who asked for a 12-day extension of negotiations which they seemingly only used to give “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” a final publicity push. But that was a long time ago, AKA five days. Now, she’s surrounded by fans on the picket lines and is booked dawn to dusk on news shows. “I’ll do them from my house, but they have to send a crew and equipment,” Drescher told me. 

Drescher was energetic and focused during our phone conversation except for a comical moment when she lost her train of thought because she couldn’t find her robe. Here’s our talk, edited for length and clarity.

You’ve obviously been involved with the negotiations, leading up to the strike deadline. But I wonder if when you had to step in front of the microphones and give that speech it felt even more real.

No, you don’t know how much preparation we’ve put into this. And well, first of all, I’m used to being in the spotlight. I lobbied and passed a bill in Washington by unanimous consent (Johanna’s Law promoting the education of women on gynecological cancer). I’m a Public Diplomacy envoy (during the second Bush Administration). The U.S. State Department sent me out to allied nations and military around the world. (Along with other celebrities including Cal Ripken Jr.)

I didn’t just pull into this job even though a lot of people may think that. I have been running a nonpartisan administration, to galvanize the leadership of this massive audience towards this seminal negotiation, and I’m calling it the Fran Plan. The secret sauce is a lot of time to listen to everyone.  And that’s why we’ve had such unprecedented solidarity: 100% in the negotiating room, 100% in the boardroom and 97.91% of the membership for the strike authorization vote. 

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What motivated you to run for SAG president, knowing that it would leave you open to the slings and arrows like you got when you went to the Dolce & Gabbana event right before the strike?

I was there for work. 

I know, but others didn’t see it that way.

I never read about myself even when I was an actress. Other people read it. They’re on top of it. Me? I’m on a need-to-know basis. I tell people that the opposition is gonna start to put out trolls to try and bring us down, but don’t read it — and don’t respond to it because it’s all just clickbait. You must be able to differentiate, we have a righteous fight here. If anybody is silly enough to take the side of big business against the journeyman, working class, you’re on the wrong side of history.

Circling back, what motivated your run for SAG president in 2021?

Actually, I got a call. People wanted Rosie O’Donnell. She got a call from my friend Camryn Manheim who said to Rosie, “Would you run?” She said, “No, I cannot. I have a young special needs daughter, but I wouldn’t even be good for it. I’m gonna tell you who would be perfect for it. She’s the smartest woman I know. Call Fran Drescher.”

What did you think you brought to the union?

When we started talking about what we’re going to ask for I was driving home to everybody that this has to be a seminal negotiation. We can’t just make incremental changes because what things are gonna give us more? They’re gonna raise the cap, some residuals, how much are they going to raise the minimum? Again, at the end of the day, we’re moving furniture around on the Titanic.  Because this is a new business model. The whole residual component of the old contract: What is the longevity of the show and the long string of pay, none of that exists with streaming? We have to find the pocket of that money, so we get our rightful share because we’re building this platform and they are building the business on us. 

What I’m hearing is that you were trying to get everyone ready for a big fight, that this was not going to be a minor deal, nibbling at the corners. But then a few weeks ago, you expressed some optimism about where the negotiations were going. And that was followed by, and, this gets confusing, a letter being circulated by many actors saying we’re ready to go the mattresses on this and you even signed it. I wonder if you did feel overly optimistic that they were ready to work out a new deal?

This is my first negotiation. In hindsight, I could see how we were being manipulated. But at the time, I came into it with a certain level of trust, that we would actually be able to make a contract. But whenever we start getting to the meat of these situations, we start to see that we’re getting stonewalled. We’re coming back with open response counter proposals, and so, actually, in earnest we still gave them an unprecedented 12-day extension to come back with something really meaningful. And during that time, they canceled our negotiation meetings. And, again, I thought, maybe they’re duking it out behind closed doors, maybe they’re gonna come back with something that we can really start to roll up our sleeves. They just wanted to get more time to promote their summer movies and they had no intention of using that extension for anything else.

What if one of your members came to you and said, “Well, you’re our president, you’re not supposed to be able to be duped. What would you tell them?

I’m always going to try and give a person the truth. I hoped to avert a strike — that is the ideal. Going on strike is not the original point. That’s when you feel like you can’t make a deal. But if you feel like you can make a deal… Hindsight is always 20/20. But even during that period when they woke up, they said, “We’re still in our room,” talking about how to counter your proposal. So, it’s like, OK, well, maybe that’s good. We wanted to avert a strike, if at all possible. That is the point because most of our members don’t make $10,000 a year, some don’t make $65,000 a year. Most members are working class. So the impact of a strike did weigh heavy on me and the negotiating committee, that a strike would have a profound impact on them. But they did give us unprecedented support to strike if we felt like we needed it. 

Well, that that leads me to my next question…

We gave them 12 days to come up with something. The nerve of some of the things that they’re saying now! That our actions are hurting the business. Please! By the time this comes out, we will have released all of the information about all of the proposals, all of the counter proposals are going to be right there for everyone to see, and that’s gonna cut right through all the lies. 

Remember, Tom Cruise and top people make their own deals. That’s not who we are striking for. We’re striking for the journeyman.

Right. So last week that almost out of a bad chapter of Dickens quote came out last week about management saying they will starve your members out until they can’t make their house payments. But there is a shred of truth.  At some point, they can starve people out. How do you approach that in terms of what you and the union are willing to settle for? You mentioned that most of the rank and file are working class.

But they’re the ones that were pushing us to strike, OK? They’re the ones that are living this level of oppression. They feel like they can’t take any more of it, because they are being economically squeezed out of their livelihoods. If they’re willing to take this huge step of sacrifice, then we’re in it to win it. If this was a different point in history, where the business model didn’t change so dramatically, and suddenly with streaming and digital and AI. It’s a whole new game! If you think that we don’t have to unpack the old contract and change it exponentially I don’t know what to say.

I’ve always been considered an actor’s producer and actress director and an actress, writer, performer,  because I honor the performer! They have to be happy, right? They have to feel love, they have to feel honored. They are the center of the wheel. And they’re getting squeezed out and it’s so wrong. Are they not aware we’re living in a capitalist country, not a feudal country with land barons and serfs?

Speaking of the land barons, I wonder if you have any concern that no matter how the strikes comes out, that you could conceivably be blacklisted at Disney for your remarks about Iger?

I’m in this unique position right now. And it’s very historic. And I really feel like this is my calling. You know I’ve been talking about the hero’s journey a lot. And when we take the hero’s journey, you know that it comes with great sacrifice. You know that you would rather not have to do it. I don’t even get paid! Life has called you to take that hero’s journey. There are times when they feel like, I can’t do it. I want out. And yet, they do it. So that’s where I’m at right now. My speech at that press conference reverberated around the world. It spoke to workers everywhere; it is bigger than the sum of its parts. I’m not going to worry about my career. I’ve had a fantastic career. If anybody in this industry wishes to blacklist me or being on the side of right and good, then whatever. I follow Buddhist teaching or call myself a Jew Bu. I let life unfold. I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not going to speculate. I don’t know where this will lead. All I know is in the now, which is what Buddhism teaches you, to remain present. This is my calling and I’m going to meet this moment. 

You know, Jefferson said — OK, I’m gonna give you a couple of quotes. With style, go with the flow, with principle stand like a rock. I’ve also been quoting Frederick Douglass. I very often get questions like from People magazine or whatever: Who you’d like to meet dead or alive? I often say Frederick Douglass because not only was he an absolute genius and a confidant to Abraham Lincoln, but he said, “Power concedes nothing without demand. Never has and it never will!”

You’ve already talked about how the business model of Hollywood has changed dramatically  almost exclusively at the expense of creatives. One of the refrains from execs is, “We’re still paddling around out here. We don’t know how to make money.” Do you see anybody who actually has it figured out or do you just feel like they keep saying they don’t have it figured out so they can minimize what they give you?

In my experience, it starts when a company decides that they can do everything wall to wall which I think should be actually illegal. Oh, ultimately, they begin to learn that economically that it’s difficult to do that. The greed of these entities and the shiny baubles that they put before the shareholders, obliterates a longer vision, a farsightedness of where this should go or how to manage it correctly. And they just jump in. They sell the shareholders, and all of this is bullshit. Then when they really get into the trenches with the costs, what do they do? They look right away to the performer to squeeze them, because God forbid they should take away from the CEOs. Do they do character driven smaller stories. No! They got all these flying dragons and bullshit and it’s expensive and all the big stars and it’s very expensive and all of that is what they wanted to do. The idea that if you spend 80% on production, maybe spend 79% and we can get our fair share. And the money that’s paid for all this, including the CEO salaries, is in subscriptions! It’s not in episodes or seasons anymore.

[There’s a short pause.] Let me sit down here. I was finding my robe and lost my train of thought.

One of the proposals you offered was revenue sharing based on actors getting 2% of the revenue attributed to a show based on Parrot Analytics Content Valuation Tool. I want to know why you think that number is doable, and why it’s so important to you.

That was something one of our very smart specialists on staff proposed as a means of adapting a type of residual, that would be more in keeping with the new business model. We have made it abundantly clear that it’s not about the number and it’s not about the concept or the mechanism. It’s really because we have said in conversations with the CEOs that we need to get into that pocket of subscriptions because that is the new name of the game. It’s not about eyeballs or ad dollars. We have to get into that pocket now. If you don’t like the idea of doing a third party, even though historically, like with Nielsen stuff, the industry is always dependent on third party, it doesn’t matter. We were more than willing to discuss any structure that would get us into that appropriate pocket to be able to maintain the kind of revenue sharing that we deserve and have been used to in other business models. And they just stonewalled us. And that’s not right, because they’re the ones that change the name of the game. 

We picked up the phone and tried to go over the negotiating people. Because they kept saying “we can’t, we don’t have the power to do that.” I felt like I was talking to Sam Drucker on “Petticoat Junction,” he puts on one hat and he’s Mr. Mayor and he puts on one hat and he is Mr. Postman and then he talks to you like he’s a whole new person.  It’s a new concept of the business model that has to be appreciated, but they refuse.

I want to understand better your style of leadership. You did an interesting thing early in your tenure, when you talked about your opposition to actors or actresses not getting work because they wouldn’t comply with the vaccine mandates. I’m not here to argue either side of that, but obviously, in a place like L.A. [Drescher interrupts.]

No. I felt like the COVID protocols, pre-vaccine, were successful. People went back to work. It was a manageable situation. Then, with the advent of the vaccine, it turns into something else. In California, private business can determine their own health policy. And they decided that rather than constantly be shut down, everybody had to be vaccinated if they wanted to work. Even though there was constant information coming out that you can still get it. And once you got it, are you as good as inoculated by the virus. There was a lot of ifs ands or buts. And the dangerous aspect of it all was that people were being fed different news. There wasn’t one narrative. And since 80% of all ad dollars on most broadcasts comes from big pharma. 

There were a lot of people that were getting one narrative and  then mostly on the internet, a lot of people that were getting another narrative. For me, the bigger question is who benefits from that separation and conflict of information? Because that’s as old as Roman times, divide and conquer. Everybody thinks that they’re hearing the truth. They’re all in their own silo, and it’s very, very problematic. I always felt like the vaccine should be an option. If you want it great if you don’t want it, as long as we follow the initial protocols, that should be enough.

Did you get vaccinated?

I did because I kept losing work! I did it, in spite of the fact that I was a little scared to do it. Because I have my own health issues, cancer survivor, all of this stuff, but I decided to just let the universe help me through this because I don’t know what to do. All I know is that I want to work. 

But a lot of people it was just that they didn’t have a choice. And they didn’t have a career during that time, either as a result, and I always felt like I’m not a dictator. I can only keep bringing the conversation to the board. I’m trying to get them to see that we should push back on this. I was not successful at that. 

You have mentioned before that one of the other things that you’re dealing with is caring for your elderly parents. I wonder if you’ve had to have people help out with that during the negotiations and strike. 

When I came into this new job, [former SAG president] Gabrielle Carteris said to me: family, career, union, in that order. And I’m holding to that. So, I could be in a very important board meeting, any meeting and if see my parents are calling me, I stop the meeting. 

Now you’re making me feel guilty that my mom called last night, and I haven’t called her back yet. 

I listen to my parents like it’s music that someday is not going to play anymore. 

Thanks so much for your time.

Steve, call your mom.

I’m going to call her right now.

[Stephen Rodrick is chief correspondent for Variety, covering stories and longform pieces about Hollywood, movies, TV shows and important figures in the entertainment industry. His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, New York and The New Yorker. He previously wrote for Rolling Stone for the past decade.]