Thanks to the merge of SAG and AFTRA into one union, there are now only two actor unions: SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Arts) and AEA (Actors Equity Association). The first has jurisdiction over film, TV, radio and multimedia including the Internet. AEA, often referred to as ‘Equity,” covers live performance such as theatre. We, as actors, are very fortunate these unions exist. They have fought hard to increase our pay, improve working conditions and provide benefits such as health insurance and pension. They also host many workshops, panels and classes to help us improve out craft and function more effectively within the business of the entertainment industry.
That being said, no one was born with a union card in their hand and many, if not most, teenagers are non-union. With the dawn of the Internet, independent film, reality TV and the explosion of grass roots work in general, there’s a lot of non-union work out there. Teens can cut their teeth in a non-union setting and learn a lot about being on set or the commitment and dedication of being in a play. There is a lot of very reputable non-union work available, but because there is no union governing them, there are also many projects where you are not well taken care of during production, the schedule is crazy and/or disorganized, and you may never get paid. Some projects never even get made.
Your parents can help you navigate these murky waters on a project-to-project basis. Try to check out a production company online and through social media. If it feels sketchy, walk away. There will be other better projects. If you want to be a professional actor, eventually you will need to join the unions. In the meantime, take as much work as you can. Every job is a learning experience.