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March 07, 2018

Lights! Camera! Activism! SAG-AFTRA member helps lives on and off the screen

Lights! Camera! Activism! SAG-AFTRA member helps lives on and off the screen

“Joy Billings. 44-year-old female. Triple zero. GSW to the chest. 18 gauge IV in the right AC. No drugs given for protocol."

While the average person may not know what that means, for Courtney Rioux, a seven-year member of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents actors, announcers, broadcast journalists, recording artists, and voiceover artists, among others, it’s just another day on the set of Chicago Med.

“After all these episodes, I am used to all the technical medical jargon,” said Rioux. “What’s tough is when I have a lot of lines and a short period of time to say them. If I’m going to a room in the back of the [Emergency Department], it’s fine. But when I’ve got two paragraphs, and we’re going from the entrance to the first room in the ED, that’s when it’s tough. My mind has to work in overdrive, and I have to speak quickly!”

Since 2014, Rioux has appeared on the “Chicago” series of shows produced by Dick Wolf, which includes Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med.

“My first TV job was a paramedic on Chicago Fire, and then they used me as a paramedic on Chicago PD. Then Chicago Med started using me. Now that I’ve been a recurring character on Chicago Med for three seasons, they gave my character a name. I’m Paramedic Courtney, which makes it pretty easy to remember,” she joked.

When Rioux arrives on set, she signs in and goes to her trailer to put her costume on before heading to hair and makeup. From there, she waits to be called to set.

“The actors have rehearsal with the director, then with the camera crew to find out where the cameras are going to be and what marks we need to hit as we move around the set,” she said. “Then we head back to our trailers while the crew sets the lights, the sets, the cameras. We shoot the scene a few times as a wide shot first. Then they move the cameras around to do close-ups on individual characters. So, we run the same scene over and over until they get everything they need. It could take three hours or ten hours to shoot one scene, which might only last a minute or so in the episode.”

Rioux earned her first union card through the Screen Actors Guild, while working on a series of demo commercials for a household cleanser. Her first AFTRA job came as an extra on Saturday Night Live.

“In New York and LA, extra work on tv shows are under the SAG-AFTRA contract. I did a couple of those jobs on SNL and started earning points toward my AFTRA card. When I came back to Chicago and booked a radio commercial, that’s when I officially got my card.”

She continued, “I never made a living as an actor until I joined SAG-AFTRA. Not only did it raise my wages as an actor, but there was a different feeling of respect on set. That’s when I felt for the first time that I was a professional.”

Rioux knew she wanted to join SAG-AFTRA early. Union membership runs in her family, so she knew a union contract would benefit her throughout her career. Her father and grandfather were both members of the Carpenters union, and two of her aunts worked for one of the locals. Her uncle, Richard “Buzz” Rioux, is a former president of IBEW Local 134, and her cousin is a partner at a labor law firm in Chicago.

“Unfortunately, there are actors who would do this work for little to no money just to get themselves out there,” Rioux stated. “They don’t understand the effect it can have on the industry as a whole. It would be a race to the bottom if not for the standards that are laid out in the contract for both the actors and the production companies. Thanks to our contract, there is a designated place for actors to get dressed out of view, and an appropriate place for hair and makeup. We also have hourly minimums and scheduled breaks. Through the union we get health insurance and a pension. There’s also safety guidelines while on set, thanks to our union. You don’t think about how dangerous a set really can be, and unfortunately, actors, especially stunt people, can get hurt if proper procedures aren’t followed. There are so many things that most of us wouldn’t even think about today because they are rights the union already fought for and continue to preserve. Those kinds of things are really important to ensure we as actors don’t get taken advantage of. And I haven’t even talked about other perks like the free workshops and classes SAG-AFTRA offers.”

While Rioux has been a member since 2010, she did not get actively involved with her union until 2014. That’s when the union asked her to participate in a workshop that teaches Taft-Hartley actors, nonunion actors who are eligible to join SAG-AFTRA, about the benefits of union membership. From there, she joined the committee that plans these events and then the Communications Committee. In July 2017, she was elected to a two-year term on the Chicago Local’s Board.

“I didn’t know that I could or should be involved in any way other than paying my dues.” she said. “I like being involved in the union because every time I go to a meeting for anything, I learn so much about my own business as an actor, about the union, the rights we have, what the contracts cover. But it also feels really good to give back to something that has given me so much in my career. I recommend to everyone to get involved in your unions, whatever industry it’s in, because you never know what you’re going to learn, what experience you will have, or who you are going to meet.”

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