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SAG Foundation President JoBeth Wiliams Praises the Industry's Silent Philanthropists (Q&A)

JoBeth Williams Headshot - P 2011
Jason Merritt/Getty Images for WIF

Leading the charitable wing of the Screen Actors Guild since 2007, the actress tells THR about the struggles and rewards of her second full-time job.

In her post as president of the nonprofit and philanthropic Screen Actors Guild Foundation, JoBeth Williams manages a slew of outreach programs. Here, the veteran of film (The Big Chill) and television (Dexter) shares the biggest and most rewarding challenges of her guild post.

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The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve been a SAG member since 1979, when you made your film debut as Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend in Kramer vs. Kramer. How did you get involved with the SAG Foundation?

JoBeth Williams: I was on the national board of the guild, and actress Bonnie Bartlett asked me if I knew about the foundation’s work. I didn’t. She told me all about the wonderful programs, and [actor] Esai Morales told me he’d been involved with our literacy program, BookPals. I loved the idea of actors helping other actors. Our profession is so up and down — no matter the level of success, we all go through periods of not having what we need. I really wanted to be involved, so they elected me to the board. Two years later, in 2007, they elected me president.
 
THR: This is a volunteer job. How much time do you spend doing this?

Williams: Right now, I’m very involved as we have a new executive director, Jill Seltzer. I’m also on every committee, so there are some months I’m devoting 30 to 40 hours. I’m on the phone a lot; I’m sending e-mails, trying to get people to come to events and contribute. We are always looking to bring on new board members. And, of course, I’m also a working actress.

THR: The foundation oversees many outreach programs, like BookPals, and provides financial assistance to members who need medical care or can’t pay rent. What is your biggest challenge in managing these needs?

Williams: Funding for all of it, obviously, but also getting our members to even know about the programs. For example, with BookPals, I really hope we get more funding for it. It’s fairly easy to execute in L.A., but we are a national organization, and in certain areas, where there aren’t as many members, we need donations. The foundation is separate from the guild and funded wholly by donations; no dues are used. We are essentially a charity.

We recently did this incredible golf tournament to raise money for our catastrophic health program and had wonderful actors like Ray Romano, Ron Perlman and Scott Bakula participate. Many of them told me, “I didn’t know about the SAG Foundation.” Now Ron wants to join the board. He told me, “I want to get the message out to my fellow actors about these programs.”
 
THR: What areas have the greatest need right now?

Williams: We always have strong need for emergency health care assistance. Also, our literacy programs, like [the streaming video site] Storyline Online, are growing quickly. We get millions of web hits around the world for Storyline. Annette Bening just read a book online, and James Earl Jones did one too. Teachers love it, and kids all over the world can see these incredible actors. It’d be great to get strong funding for Storyline since it reaches so many young people.

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THR: What is the most meaningful thing SAG has done to impact Hollywood?

Williams: SAG established the rules that prevent actors from being taken advantage of. The 12-hour turn-around, meal breaks … things that we take for granted now but you look back on and realize that these regulations weren’t always in place.

THR: What moments during your tenure stand out as particularly poignant?

Williams: When people come to us and say, “I can’t afford to pay health insurance because I’m ill and can’t work.” We’ve had an incredible number of well-known names come to us in times of need — we never say who they are, of course — and that’s always amazing to me. The actor’s life is a roller coaster. You never know when it’s going to happen to you.