By Matt Donnelly | Variety
The Sag-Aftra foundation has tapped actor Courtney B. Vance as its new president.
The Emmy winner for “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” succeeds outgoing president JoBeth Williams, as the charitable arm of the actors’ union seeks to expand awareness and funding for programs that benefit its 160,000 members across the country.
His hire represents the next phase in a plan to make the SAG-AFTRA Foundation “part of the industry fabric,” Vance tells Variety, after a decade of infrastructure development under Williams (“The Big Chill,” “Poltergeist”), as well as executive director Cyd Wilson.
“There’s the union side to SAG-AFTRA, which handles the industry and negotiates health care and pensions. It is so necessary, but what happens to performers when they’re on the way up, or on the way down? Who is there for you?” says Vance. “When you start to hear about the cases of members in need, who have turned to our foundation and received this support, their lives change. And we want to keep changing lives.”
The foundation operates on a $6 million annual budget and provides aid to all SAG-AFTRA cardholders. Services include emergency health and financial assistance, disaster relief and artistic and business education programs.
In between his own acting gigs, Vance says he’ll use his profile to bring a level of visibility to the foundation that’s on par with similar initiatives in the music industry.
“Look at the Recording Academy and MusiCares. Everyone knows that MusiCares supports recording artists, and it does incredible work providing life support,” he says. “We’re moving to set that up, to help in all aspects of the performer’s life.”
The foundation has also created two powerful advisory committees independent of its board of directors. The Actors’ Council, with celebrity names like George Clooney, Viola Davis, Cate Blanchett and Kerry Washington, will be tapped to record PSAs and host events throughout the year to promote the foundation’s programs. The Entertainment Industry Council includes the likes of industry heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney Studios chief Alan Horn, Universal motion picture chair Donna Langley and Warner Bros. Entertainment CEO Ann Sarnoff, all of whom have pledged an annual financial commitment to the foundation.
Vance and Wilson also have designs on making the foundation’s annual gala, the Patron of the Artists Awards, a must-attend on the awards-season circuit. Past honorees include Spike Lee, Judd Apatow, Ted Sarandos and Megan Ellison.
Tales of the foundation’s support for actors are compelling, though admittedly hard to find in a Hollywood landscape rife with causes and increasingly urgent matters — such as calls to donate to the American Red Cross in light of California’s recent wildfires, or supporting the ACLU as it battles abortion restrictions across the country.
In a video testimonial on the foundation website, actor Steve Carell shares a story about his friend and sketch comedian Joe Narciso, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the start of their careers. The foundation made it possible for the Narciso family to stay in its home and covered his treatment expenses, including the brain surgery that allowed him to recover most of his motor functions.
Vance cites this as one of many examples of intervention the foundation provides. He was also flabbergasted at how much free education is provided and underused, from access to casting services and workshops in voiceover, to scholarship programs.
The actor, currently working on J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele’s “Lovecraft Country” for HBO, says he was inspired by the many peers he’s seen ascend the ranks of the union and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He also has the seal of approval from his wife, award-winning actress and director Angela Bassett.
“‘You love a project’ is what she said to me. But at the same time, she said, ‘What an honor and a responsibility’ — to rise to the occasion and take over a leadership position.”
“Our children are teenagers now,” Vance adds, “so it’s time to step up.”