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In August, a high-profile actor was on the set of a film when he came down with COVID-19 and was hospitalized. The star, known to the cast and crew as being dismissive of vaccines and masks, was said to be unvaccinated. The film shut down for three weeks, but not before more than a dozen crewmembers got sick, sources say. Ultimately, the stoppage resulted in a seven-figure hit for the production company. The Hollywood Reporter is withholding the actor’s name because he didn’t flout any specific protocol on the project. The actor’s rep declined to comment.
Though Hollywood might appear unified when it comes to embracing such COVID-19 preventive measures as vaccines, the reality is more divided, mirroring the broader American population, where 44 percent are not fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. In the film and TV industry, there are no universal vaccine mandates in place, allowing for individual producers to determine whether those in Zone A — typically the project’s main actors, who cannot wear a mask because of storylines, as well as key crewmembers — require proof of vaccination.
That wiggle room has resulted in a number of productions descending into chaos, as was the case on Paramount+’s The Offer, which shut down production in late July due to a Zone A COVID-19 positive. That positive person was publicly identified as a series star who was said to be unvaccinated. Sources tell THR that the stoppage resulted in a $6 million loss for the limited series about the making of The Godfather. (A Paramount+ rep counters that the figure was below $6 million.)
George Clooney calls it a “crazy” situation that some of his brethren are eschewing the COVID-19 vaccine. “It’s stupid. And it’s stupid because every generation in our country for more than a lifetime has been asked to sacrifice something for the safety of their fellow man — get shot, fight Nazis,” he says. “All that anyone’s being asked here is to get a shot in the arm and put on a mask. Grow up. Get something done.”
From studio backlots to agency conference rooms, the vaccine debate is dividing Hollywood just as the delta variant keeps up its destructive path. While vaccine skeptics are far less likely to voice their opinions publicly, plenty of industry holdouts remain. A number of performers, from Rob Schneider (now shooting Netflix’s Home Team) to Letitia Wright (filming Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) have shared anti-vaccine positions on social media. In Wright’s case, a set source says she has espoused similar views about the COVID-19 vaccines on the Atlanta production. The British actress quietly parted ways with her entire U.S. team of representatives in the wake of a backlash over posting a controversial anti-vaccine video in December.
(A week after this article was published, Wright issued a statement of denial on Instagram without addressing specifics).
Disney, the studio behind Black Panther, will begin rolling out a sticker system on all of its new productions in mid-October that requires visible proof of COVID-19 vaccination status, as stipulated in a return-to-work agreement between AMPTP and Hollywood’s unions. Those in Zone A who are fully vaccinated will have a wristband. Those who are not, will not. (Anything already shooting is not covered.)
NBCUniversal recently found itself in an awkward standoff with Sean Penn. The Oscar-winning actor left the set of the Watergate-era limited series Gaslit in July and said he wouldn’t return until every member of the production was vaccinated. But NBCUniversal, which already had imposed the strictest requirements possible according to on-set protocols established in September 2020 by an agreement between the AMPTP and the unions, only requires Zone A members to be fully vaccinated. Penn came back about two months later. His return was considered a compromise. (Only Gaslit’s Zone A members were required to be vaccinated, but an NBCUniversal spokesperson says there is currently an all-zone mandate until production wraps.)
Penn, whose CORE organization was instrumental in supplying widespread COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution across Los Angeles County, also stuck his neck out while promoting his MGM film Flag Day and requested that unvaccinated moviegoers skip the cinemas. “Stay home until you are convinced of these very clearly safe vaccines,” Penn told THR, adding: “We’ve normalized this notion of radical libertarianism, and it really is a violation of the idea of interconnectedness.”
Some actors have learned to coexist amid a murky landscape, in which some colleagues continue to avoid the jab. “Each individual has his or her own rights. We aren’t in control of anyone’s body, only that person is,” says Black-ish star Anthony Anderson. “I’m vaccinated because I have preexisting conditions as a Type 2 diabetic, so I wanted to make sure that I did whatever I could to stave off this pandemic and COVID. But I’m not here to judge anyone on what they should do with their body. I can only govern what I’m doing with mine. As long as they respect me, I respect them. And as long as we keep our 6-foot distance and wear a mask, then we can interact and do what we want to do. But it’s not my place to police anyone.”
Productions aren’t the only Hollywood battlefield; social circles are also facing turmoil. THR learned of an instance that saw an A-lister cut ties with a beloved yoga instructor who refused the vaccine. The star had highly recommended the guru and facilitated introductions to a cadre of fellow insiders, some of whom are said to have ended the relationship as well to protect loved ones with vulnerable conditions.
And while many companies have instituted vaccine mandates for the return to work, the full picture isn’t yet clear as many are still working from home. Still, some are angry about what they see from a distance. “There are definitely people who have refused to get vaccinated, and they were putting the safety and health of their co-workers in jeopardy,” the agency partner says. “We’ve encountered a few, but people are now getting to the point where they’ve woken up to the reality that non-vaccinated people are the ones causing chaos and making others sick. Nobody wants to work in an environment where that is a possibility, and you are not fully protected.”
For now, Hollywood decisionmakers seeking to implement blanket COVID-19 vaccination requirements have their hands tied. The AMPTP-Hollywood’s union protocols will remain in effect until Oct. 31. Furthermore, many productions feature actors and actresses under the age of 12, who are not yet approved to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
But some actors like Giancarlo Esposito are hoping that the unvaccinated simply avoid sets while the delta variant rages. “If you don’t want to vaccinate, go to a small island and sequester yourself,” the Mandalorian and Better Call Saul actor says. “[Otherwise] you’re saying ‘Fuck you’ to all you other human beings. We all have to do it if we want to live. I don’t understand how people don’t vaccinate. For me, I’ve lost dear friends, so I know it’s real. Not only in Europe but in America, friends who were completely healthy and uncompromised. The vaccine is the answer. I’m not downing anyone who doesn’t want to vaccinate. Don’t work. Go ride it out somewhere where you’re not going to compromise anyone else if you get it.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Oct. 6, 12:25 pm Updated to include a comment from an NBCUniversal spokesperson regarding its COVID-19 safety protocols on Gaslit.
Oct. 16, 11:40 am Updated to reflect comment from Letitia Wright posted to Instagram regarding on-set conduct.
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