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Members of the Writers Guild of America and other unions picket outside of NBC Studios on May 17, 2023. They were joined two months later by SAG-AFTRA actors, calling for better pay and royalties from streaming media and for job protections against artificial intelligence.

Members of the Writers Guild of America and other unions picket outside of NBC Studios on May 17, 2023. They were joined two months later by SAG-AFTRA actors, calling for better pay and royalties from streaming media and for job protections against artificial intelligence.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang

Chicago SAG actors and WGA writers remain steadfast during Hollywood strikes

Five years ago, Vasily Deris turned 30 and decided to leave his family’s restaurant business to pursue acting full time.

“I auditioned for an agency here in Chicago. I went on my first audition for [Showtime’s] Shameless. I booked it,” Deris remembered. “Now I’m pounding the pavement … just trying to make it.”



SAG-AFTRA actor Vasily Deris.

SAG-AFTRA actor Vasily Deris.

Tyler Core

Since then, the Bridgeport resident has appeared on shows like Chicago Fire, Apple TV’s Shining Girls, and most notably The Bear on FX.

He was hoping the hit show would open new doors for him, but then the Hollywood strikes began in May. Now, he is one of the more than 160,000 SAG-AFTRA actors in the strike against Hollywood production companies. They’re joined by more than 11,000 writers in the Writers Guild of America (WGA), picketing over better pay and royalties from streaming media. They also want assurances that their work and likeness will not be replaced by artificial intelligence.

This week, more than 100 days into its strike, the WGA was expected to respond to the latest contract proposal from the studios, according to reports.

As the strikes wear on, actors and writers in Chicago say they are worried and tired but steadfast in their fight against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Locally, there have been numerous rallies and protests throughout the city since both strikes began.

For Deris, the past few months have been busy: He does patient-doctor simulations for med students at the University of Illinois Chicago, works as a server at a restaurant and music venue in west suburban Berwyn, and sings at weddings on the weekends.

“I’m exhausted … but I like money and I like working,” Deris said.

Despite his past roles on TV shows that viewers can watch in perpetuity on various streaming platforms, the residuals he gets are paltry.

“I got a penny for a deal … and I got three pennies for another deal,” he said. “A Shameless one came through for $6.62.”

Deris said gone are the days when residuals could provide decent payouts. He said his fiancée, actress Sophie Grimm, was able to buy a car with the residuals she saved up from the TV commercials she did as a child.

“That is what the norm was supposed to be, maybe not make a living off of your residuals, but if you did something that sold very well … residuals used to be able to take care of you on a rainy day,” Deris said.

Joining him in the strike against the studios is WGA writer Nambi E. Kelley. For her, the conversations over AI are deeply concerning.

Members of the Writers Guild of America and other unions picket outside of NBC Studios on May 17, 2023.

Members of the Writers Guild of America and other unions picket outside of NBC Studios on May 17, 2023. They were joined two months later by SAG-AFTRA actors, calling for better pay and royalties from streaming media and for job protections against artificial intelligence.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang

The Chicago-bred Kelley, who got into TV more recently after working in theater for many years, has written for Showtime’s The Chi, Fox’s Our Kind of People, and Apple TV’s upcoming Lady in the Lake. She was also serving as co-producer on Peacock’s Bel Air when the strike put everything on hold.

Kelley said she recently took an aspiring artist to breakfast, and the woman asked her about the strike.

“And I was like, ‘Well, you know, there’s a real possibility that what I do as a writer, producer, actor could be obsolete,’ “ Kelley said. “I have to be real about that.”

WGA writer, playwright and actress Nambi E. Kelley.

WGA writer, playwright and actress Nambi E. Kelley.

Kelley, who said she has a recurring health issue, is also worried about losing the medical insurance she has through the WGA, which requires writers to earn at least $41,773 a year to qualify. She said the union has offered mitigation plans, including loans for COBRA, but she is still worried that as the strike wears on, she may lose coverage.

WGA strike captain Zayd Dohrn said in an email to WBEZ that many writers share Kelley’s fears, adding that COBRA is cost-prohibitive for many people in the union. He added, “It’s entirely the fault of the AMPTP that we’re in this situation. If they would respond to our reasonable demands, we could all get back to work and working writers wouldn’t have to worry about losing health coverage.”

Deris, who has coverage through the Affordable Care Act, said he is one of about 87% of SAG-AFTRA members who earn less than the required $26,000 a year from acting to qualify for the union’s medical insurance.

He said he sometimes wonders if he should return to the family business. But he has found strength through Chicago’s artist community — and the city’s unions, from the plumbers to the electricians. “I felt supported with that, and I just feel a part of a community that I know we are going to fight and figure this out,” Deris said.



WGA writer and strike captain Zayd Dohrn speaks at a protest outside NBC Studios on May 17, 2023. He said many writers are concerned about losing health insurance as a result of he strike.

WGA writer and strike captain Zayd Dohrn speaks at a protest outside NBC Studios on May 17, 2023. He said many writers are concerned about losing health insurance as a result of he strike.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang

Kelley said she feels fortunate to have her playwriting career, as well as teaching, to keep her busy and earning a living, but “people don’t understand the nuts and bolts of what it is to make a living as a creative person.” She also said that while the pay for TV writing is “night and day” compared to theater, the majority of writers for Hollywood shows are still underpaid for their craft.

Although she is established enough and is no longer “scraping together coins … I’ve had temp jobs, I was Beyonce on a float [putting] on gogo boots and an Afro wig for Mike Myers getting his star on the Walk of Fame. I’ve had catering jobs. I’ve done artist residencies,” Kelley said.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.

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