An Iowan In Hollywood Answers Questions About WGA Strike

Iowa native and comedy writer Romen Borsellino, right, walks the Writers Guild picket line in Los Angeles in summer 2023. (Photo taken by Brittany Woodside, courtesy of Romen Borsellino)

It was, ironically, the 2007 writers’ strike that got Romen Borsellino interested in writing.

The Iowa native was working on not-yet President Barack Obama’s Iowa caucus campaign leading up to 2008 when he met actor Kal Penn, perhaps best known at that time for co-starring in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”

Because of the strike, Penn was out of work and working for Obama’s campaign. The two would both later go on to have roles in the Obama administration. And it was Penn’s advice that stuck with Borsellino.

“We started a friendship and he became a mentor and encouraged me to ultimately pivot from government to comedy writing,” Borsellino said.

It wasn’t that big of a stretch, he said.

“My goal is to still make a difference politically, and I found that writing is at least as impactful a way to do that,” he said.

Borsellino has written for “The Daily Show,” the White House Correspondents Dinner, and teamed up with Penn on his 2020 comedic election series, “Kal Penn Approves This Message.”

And now for the twist: Borsellino—a member of the Writers Guild of America West—is out of work just as Penn was in 2007, as Hollywood television and movie writers and actors continue to strike for fair wages and against an artificial intelligence (AI) takeover of their industry.

“I’m able to make it in this profession as a result of what was gained in previous strikes,” Borsellino said. “So my hope is that we make this an equitable profession for those who are yet to join the industry.”

Starting Line got Borsellino on the phone to hear how he’s ready for a long strike, how awesome Drew Carey is, and how Iowans who appreciate good shows can help.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 02: Kal Penn and Romen Borsellino attend the 60th annual PEN America Literary Awards at Town Hall on March 02, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

STARTING LINE: How have you been navigating this writer’s strike? Take me back to when it started.

ROMEN BORSELLINO: We all knew it was coming.

I had heard early on that the studios had—this was months before the strike happened—that the studios had budgeted for several months of a strike. So not only did we all know there was a chance of this happening, but it frankly sounds like the studios were expecting it, and maybe even wanted it to happen to some degree, and that they had worked it into their budget. So it was a surprise to no one.

Also, for better or worse, the thing about being a creative in Hollywood is that we are no strangers to unemployment. No one knew how long the strike will last, but when we were told, “You could be out of work for a few months,” my response was, “Oh just a few months? That’s better than usual.” Which, frankly highlights exactly what we’re striking for, some sort of job stability here.

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

What are the conditions you have been working under? What do you want to change?

We had, I think, a reasonable system in place—at least coming out of the last writers strike—where writers and actors are entitled to residuals. When you write something [for network television], it goes on air. And when they play it again, then you get a check in the mail because your work is being used.

With streamers, that has totally disrupted the system that had been in place for network TV. They have no longer been on the hook for paying residuals.

And to be clear, the residuals … are something that we take into account when taking jobs, when figuring out how we’re going to buy groceries and pay rent and fill up our cars with gas. This is not any sort of a handout. This is a major chunk of our livelihood, and it’s something that we’re no longer getting. So we need to develop a new system with streamers so that we’re getting what we’re entitled to in the same way that we did when people got their TV from cable and network.

There’s also another big one: AI. It’s the idea that you can outsource a computer to write scripts for you, or to recreate the likeness of certain actors without their explicit consent.

While these are specific to Hollywood, it’s no different than what every profession is looking at: A fear that computers will replace us. And frankly, aside from the dignity of it, you’re simply not getting as good of a product when you outsource it to computers.

Yes, we’re fighting for decent pay and job stability, but we are also fighting to maintain an industry that creates the quality consumers deserve.

You said this isn’t just about Hollywood. What sort of lessons do you think other working folks can draw from this strike?

I’m on the writing side of things, but there is arguably no more visible profession than being an actor.

And so it puts things in perspective for a lot of people that may not think about these issues, but see the folks that they recognize speaking out about the very same things affecting any job, affecting a cashier whose job may be replaced by self-checkout, for example, a driver who could lose their job to a driverless car. These are things that I think Hollywood is in a unique position to highlight given the forward-facing nature of our work.

When 70% of people across the political divide are down for a strike, [even if] you’re not going to get to see your favorite shows [because of it], you know you’re doing something right.

And what’s funny about it is the folks we’re up against, the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] … hired a crisis PR firm to try and change public sentiment without doing any actual soul-searching or taking a look at the issues we’re striking for. So it’s incredibly telling.

Have negotiations been happening at all?

The union has been great about communicating with us, and they were great about saying, “Hey we are going back to the negotiating table with the AMPTP, and this could be promising,” and then coming back a couple weeks later and saying, “Frankly, we are still not getting a fair deal.”

It’s obviously a rollercoaster. We all want this to end swiftly, but we want it to end in a fair deal, so I think we are all prepared to stick this out as long as possible.

How can Iowans back home, or the general public, support you in these efforts?

Really, everyone has already risen to the occasion in a way that’s been super inspiring.

In LA, for example, you go into a coffee shop and they give you a discount ’cause they see you’re wearing a Writers [Guild] shirt.

Or you go into a diner, Bob’s Big Boy, and Drew Carey has comped your meal, no questions asked. I have hit him up on his free meals an embarrassing amount of times—your readers would probably think less of me if they heard how many times I’ve gone into Bob’s Big Boy for a free meal—if that tells you how dire the situation is.

I went into my barber. He told me that he could tell in their own business how badly this is hurting the LA economy as a whole—their own business has been down a lot. But it was so sweet: This guy added, I’m happy to make a little less money in order to see you guys get what you deserve. And then he very much put his money where his mouth was: I went to check out at the end and [they told me] he’s comping your cut, to say thank you for what you’ve been doing in the strike.

That’s the sort of stuff that keeps us going. Those minor gestures make it worth walking out in 95-degree heat, wielding a picket sign, every day.

In terms of your question of what can people do to help … I think it’s just paying attention and remembering that these issues will affect nearly every job that there is.

Different laborers in LA like the Teamsters, for example, have just been going above and beyond to highlight our cause. Their contract negotiations are going to come up at some point, and now you have tens of thousands of actors and writers who are very eager to have their back when that time comes.

So I think that’s a lesson that can be applied to just about every profession, to continue having each other’s backs and showing support, whether it’s on social media, through public conversation, giving me the occasional 10% discount when I buy a coffee, and it will come back to you when it’s your turn to fight for these same issues.


by Amie Rivers

If you enjoy stories like these, sign up for Iowa Starting Line’s newsletter here.

Have a story idea for me? Email, or find me on Bluesky, TikTokMastodon, PostInstagram and Twitter (X).

Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. Find ISL on TikTokInstagramFacebook, Twitter (X) and Threads.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *