By Crispian Balmer
VENICE (Reuters) – A strike by Hollywood actors kept most stars away from this year’s Venice Film Festival, and even the few A-listers who did venture into town seemed guilty about being on the red carpet rather than the picket line.
On the last full day of the competition on Friday, Oscar winner Jessica Chastain told reporters she was “incredibly nervous” to come to Venice to promote her independent movie “Memory”, even though she had a waiver from unions to attend.
“Some people on my team advised me against it,” Chastain said, adding that she had decided to come to give vocal support for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).
Actors went on strike in July, joining writers who had walked off the job in May, to demand that streaming sites and film studios improve their contracts and impose curbs on the use of artificial intelligence.
“I am here because SAG-AFTRA has been explicitly clear that the way to support the strike is to post on social media, walk the picket lines and to work and support interim agreement projects,” Chastain said.
The strikes have shut down both television and movie productions in Hollywood, but some projects that have no affiliation to the big studios, like “Memory”, are receiving passes to keep on working or do normal promotions if they comply with the most recent union demands.
Venice’s artistic director Alberto Barbera had predicted that the actors of just three of the 23 films in competition would not be able to come to the festival because of the strike.
That meant the likes of Emma Stone, Michael Fassbender and Bradley Cooper, stars of “Poor Things”, “The Killer” and “Maestro” respectively, did not show up, as predicted.
However, many other A-listers in smaller or foreign productions also did not go, including Lea Seydoux, Penelope Cruz and Liam Neeson. No official reason was given, but one festival insider said she believed it was out of solidarity.
A number of independent films, such as Ava DuVernay’s “Origin”, also did not present their top-billing actors because the producers had not signed the latest union demands, fearing this might hamstring them as they sought distribution deals.
Without their actors, the directors did most of the talking and were regularly quizzed about the dispute.
Some came out fully supportive of the stoppage. “I’m totally behind the unions’ hard work to fight for fair compensation,” said Sofia Coppola, in Venice for the premiere of her latest movie “Priscilla”.
Other directors were less forthright.
“I can’t say I have answers or real suggestions,” said Wes Anderson, who brought his short feature “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”, but had to walk the red carpet without his cast, that included Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel and Ben Kingsley.
Some of the actors who did make it to the festival wore T-shirts promoting the strike, as did the president of the main jury, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.
Herself wearing a union T-shirt, Chastain said on Friday actors often felt they had to keep quiet to safeguard their future job prospects, but added that this was a mistake.
“That is the environment that I think has allowed workplace abuse to go unchecked for many decades. And it’s also the environment that has saddled members of my union with unfair contracts,” she told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala; Editing by Alison Williams)