INTERVIEW: A Leading Role

New Screen Actors Guild President Melissa Gilbert wants the union to speak with a single voice. First she'll have to weather a bitter election challenge.

By DARRELL SATZMAN, Staff Reporter

Advil and Alka Seltzer.

That's the cocktail Melissa Gilbert credits for sustaining her through the first hectic weeks as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Since defeating actress Valerie Harper last month in a bitterly waged battle to head the world's largest performers union, Gilbert, who as a child star endeared herself to millions as the precocious Laura Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie," has been caught up in a whirlwind.

SAG's elections committee is conducting a review of the results following challenges filed by several unsuccessful candidates, leaving Gilbert waiting to see if her election will be invalidated. At the same time, she is addressing a laundry list of problems facing the guild.

Among her challenges: ratcheting down the acrimony at the notoriously fractious union, building up its pension fund badly depleted in last year's strike against advertising agencies advocating solutions to runaway production, and preparing the union for its next round of contract talks in two years.

Question: The recent election was acrimonious, even by SAG standards. Why?

Answer: I can't tell you why the election was bitter. Historically it is my understanding that the SAG leadership has been divisive. I think that as actors one of our greatest strengths is that we are passionate people, very fiery, very much in touch with our emotions. We tend to get fired up.

Q: Beyond passion, are there other reasons for the divisiveness?

A: Press leaks. It's ridiculous the amount of stuff that gets out there. I really have no problem with us being a house divided that's what democracy is. But I think we make a huge mistake allowing us to be perceived that way by the public. We show our weaknesses. People don't take us seriously, which is unfortunate.

Q: Bob Pisano, the new SAG executive national director, is saying much the same thing. How are the two of you working together?

A: I think Bob is an incredibly brilliant, very fair, very honest man and I think he will do nothing but benefit this guild. He's the right man for the job and I rely on him tremendously for advice and to help me get things accomplished. I think the overall perception of Bob by the leadership, the board of directors and the officers, is that he is a reasonable man.

Q: The elections didn't result in a clear vote of confidence positions were filled by your supporters as well as those of Valerie Harper. Does that make your job more difficult?

A: I think it's indicative of what I was saying during the campaign: We need to be inclusive and hear all the different voices. I think the membership really agrees with that and they didn't just vote one solid slate.

Q: What's at the top of your agenda?

A: To strengthen this guild on a national level so that we can actually affect some change in this business. This has become a business of vertical integration. We're no longer dealing with studios and networks, we're dealing with multinational corporations and we need to be able to respond and to be leaders, not followers. We need to reach out and embrace the national factions of this guild.

Q: How are you prepared to deal with the inevitable criticism?

A: It rolls off my back. Nothing affects me, honestly. I couldn't care less so long as the work gets done.

Q: You've been a member of SAG for a long time but it's only recently that you've become politically active. Why?

A: I've been a SAG member since I was two. My initial activity came when I was involved in a lawsuit with the National Enquirer and SAG got involved in support. I pledged to help in any way I could and I got involved in privacy issues. (Gilbert's four-year libel suit with the National Enquirer filed after her ex-husband Bo Brinkman was quoted in the paper as saying Gilbert was a "deadbeat mom" was dropped in 1999 in a confidential settlement.)

Q: How do you view the efforts of talent agents to extend their services into the realm of producers and managers? Past President William Daniels was very critical of this.

A: It's something we have to examine much more carefully. We need a comprehensive study that will give us an idea of what will happen (if those rules are loosened) and what the ramifications of that are. There's a lot to be examined, but let's examine it instead of just saying 'no.' That's the wrong attitude.

Q: In your campaign, you were critical Daniels' performance. Why?

A: (Daniels) had never been to a board meeting and he was not familiar with the workings of the guild or the producers. I've been on the board for a year and worked with the union for years before that, and there's still a lot that I don't know. So his learning curve must have been horribly steep. I don't think he knew what he was getting himself into and I don't think he'd ever do it again. He hated it. Here was man who had very few enemies to begin with. Unfortunately, because of the position he was in, he set himself up for a lot of criticism.

Q: What about runaway production? Has the problem been overstated?

A: No. It's a crisis. But I think we need to stop focusing on the idea of fighting other countries. What we need to do is focus on being competitive. All of the creative guilds and businesses that are affected by runaway production need to put up a united front to bring attention to passing legislation on a national level. And you need to allow the states to add to that and to do things on the local level to make filming more attractive. If I can help bring together a coalition of the guilds then our voice will be heard, because it's difficult to get the attention of the legislators.

Q: What other big issues does SAG face?

A: I know people are going to cringe, but we have to begin thinking about getting ready to start contract negotiations with studios and producers...And our pension fund is in trouble. In the last two years there's been very little coming in and a lot of money going out. That, added with the rising cost of health care, has created some real problems.

Q: Are you satisfied with the contract SAG negotiated earlier this year with the producers and with the resolution to last year's strike by commercial actors?

A: We got the best we could under the circumstances. There was this cry during the campaign that these two contracts were the greatest contracts the guild had ever signed. Well, I hope so. I'd hope they were better than the last ones and that those were better than the ones before. I'd hate to think we were going backwards.

Q: But in both contracts the guild didn't get what it initially demanded?

A: It never does. That's what negotiation is about. You start high and you work your way to common ground.

Q: Several candidates have challenged the election results because a signature line was omitted on New York ballots. Do you think the election could be nullified?

A: That would be up to the Election Committee. It's out of my hands. I don't have much to say about it other than right now I am president and I am going to stay president until somebody tells me I'm not. That may make some people unhappy, but somebody's got to do it and if there's a crisis I am here.

Melissa Gilbert
Title: President
Organization: Screen Actors Guild
Born: 1964, Los Angeles

Education: High school, graduate of Buckley School
Career Turning Point: Moving to New York in 1987 to perform in an off-Broadway production.
Most Admired Person: Husband Bruce Boxleitner
Hobbies: Needlepoint, reading, cooking and baking
Personal: Married, four sons

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