Fran Drescher’s SAG-AFTRA presidency is her greatest role

Fran Drescher is best known for her six seasons as “The Nanny”: colossal hair, loud clothes, indefatigable moxie, fathomless pluck and, most of all, that voice. It’s a voice of unadulterated New Yawkese that can cause a 10-car crackup, lift fog and part waves, and that resides as a permanent earworm in many of our brains.

Now, as president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), it is that same indelible voice leading the approximately 160,000-member actors union on strike that may last much of the year. Last week’s measured yet fiery speech to rally the troops, a call to the picket lines, her left hand and index finger gesticulating in overtime, was peppered with Franisms: “Wake up and smell the coffee,” “The jig is up” and “What are we doing? Moving around furniture on the Titanic?”

For the 65-year-old veteran ’90s sitcom star, it may well be the role of her lifetime. It’s become The Speech. She’s Norma Fran.

SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher spoke in Los Angeles on July 13 after negotiations ended with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The strike, coinciding with the ongoing Writers Guild labor walkout launched in early May, is the biggest potential threat to the entertainment industry in more than 60 years. Among the many issues are use of artificial intelligence to replicate actors’ likenesses, minimum compensation for background players, and residual revenue from streaming and digital services. Shorter television seasons and opacity about viewership, resulting in decreased compensation for actors signed to series, are also major talking points.

“I feel like I’m being called on the hero’s journey,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday, “and when you’re called on the hero’s journey, it’s not something you necessarily want to do, but when you’re called upon to do it, you do the right thing, and you do it.”

It was 5:40 a.m. in L.A. The voice was a rasp, stretched but still fired.

“I’m exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time. I’m sure it’s not healthy,” said Drescher, who has been the actors union president since 2021. Previous union leaders include Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan and Melissa Gilbert. As SAG-AFTRA president, Drescher has adopted a no-nonsense uniform of black-and-white athleisure, loose hair, an occasional baseball cap. The voice is a constant.

The night before, Drescher had spoken with labor advocate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), their voices redolent of Queens (Drescher) and Brooklyn (Sanders), in a video conversation pickled with “a few shekels” and “use your noodle” and “they came to us with bupkis.”

Drescher has long aligned herself with workers, she said, even when serving as a producer of her hit sitcom. “All the characters I tend to play more often than not are in a class war,” she said, with nanny Fran Fine famously refusing to cross a picket line. They hail from working-class backgrounds, invariably an outer borough, dating to Connie making googly eyes at John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and artist-relations rep Bobbi Flekman in “This Is Spinal Tap.” It’s in her DNA, she said.

“I come from a very provincial background of hard-working people. My dad worked two jobs when I was very young. My mom was a working mom,” she said. “I come from that ethic.”

In recent years, she has become increasingly outspoken on political issues. She was declared an “anti-capitalist icon” by the Cut. In May of last year, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion, she told a New York radio station, “If you’re going to legislate a woman’s body, then you got to legislate the penis that got her in this mess.”

Becoming SAG-AFTRA president was not originally her idea. “I was solicited,” Drescher said. “They gave me three days to decide. I did a lot of soul-searching.”

With the actors strike, “basically the entire business model has changed,” she said. Producers and studio executives, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), “have no feelings. They don’t care. Their entire business model is to screw us so they can look good to their shareholders,” she said.

“The deal that SAG-AFTRA walked away from on July 12 is worth more than $1 billion in wage increases, pension & health contributions and residual increases and includes first-of-their-kind protections over its three-year term, including expressly with respect to AI,” Scott Rowe, an AMPTP spokesman, said in an email Wednesday. “For SAG-AFTRA to assert that we have not been responsive to the needs of its membership is just wrong.”

When negotiations broke down this month, Drescher said, union leadership “called CEOs directly to try to reason with them. We can’t make a living. We’re squeezed out of our livelihood.” She acknowledged that “they will not feel the financial pain before we do” from a lengthy work stoppage.

“We’re starting an emergency fund of millions of dollars. We’re going to do everything we can to keep the morale going, to have a very strategic, very intelligent, very well-planned rollout of the next several months if that’s what it takes to put pressure on these companies to do the right thing,” she said. “But most of my members are used to working second jobs.”

Asked whether there are plans to apply pressure by advising consumers to boycott movies and television, such as skip this weekend’s big-screen juggernaut that is “Barbieheimer,” Drescher said: “We’re speaking to brilliant minds that are coming forward to us because they recognize that this is bigger than the sum of its parts” — people with “very important leadership positions in all different fields,” including politics and law. She is open to talking with President Biden. “Fortunately, we do have a more labor- and union-friendly nation currently,” she said.

Drescher is aware that actors on strike garner more attention than members of other unions. They’re used to the spotlight. Drescher’s voice is unmistakable.

“That speech that I gave reverberated around the world and awakened a workers’ movement globally,” she said. “This is not unique, what is happening to us, but we get the attention of the press. And so we are on the front lines of a major war between greed and workers.” Her speech, indeed, went viral, earning her praise from membership. Variety crowned it “the performance of a lifetime.”

She defended her decision to travel to Italy days before the strike for an event hosted by Dolce & Gabbana, the luxury label she has worn since “The Nanny,” after Kim Kardashian posted an image on Instagram to her 362 million followers. “I was working. I’m a brand ambassador for that fashion company, and I had an obligation to them,” Drescher said. “I worked around-the-clock. When I was done with one job at 10:30 at night, they were starting up in L.A. There’s nobody that was in that committee room that would ever say anything otherwise.” Her days, running late into the night and beginning before dawn, are filled with media interviews.

Drescher is running for a second two-year term as president this September, possibly in the midst of the ongoing strike. She is currently unopposed. “In an unprecedented move, the two major parties in the union are both supporting me,” she said.

“I feel like all of my achievements throughout my career have prepared me for this very demanding role, that it requires a lot of vision, a lot of leadership skills,” she said. “This is kind of like the amalgam of everything” she has done. “I do not get paid for it. It’s completely volunteer,” Drescher said, but she’s on a hero’s journey.

“I think the members feel heard and represented in my administration,” she said. “They’re proud of the way I’m speaking on their behalf.”

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