And thanks for reading! This is week 2 in the series relating to the psychology of the business, particularly as it relates to auditions and booking work, and we will be exploring “Why do you want to be an actor?”. Thanks to my friend and actor Michael Kostroff who teaches a video series titled “Audition Psych 101”. If you are working as an actor, I highly recommend this course. I am paraphrasing and plagiarizing his material with his permission in this series, so if any of this resonates with you, head on over and sign up for his course.
Just a reminder here that when I use the term “actor” I mean it to encompass all forms of acting including voice, stage, and screen. What follows applies relatively equally to all of these forms of acting.
Look, I get it…1500 (ish) words is a lot to read and not everyone has the time, so, I’ll start by giving you the TL; DR version up front. This week we ask, “Why do you want to be an actor?”, and I can tell you that if your answer is anything except “I LOVE IT!” (Or some variation of that theme). Then you are doing this for the wrong reason.
The reality of acting
Acting is hard work and can be very frustrating. The reality of being an actor is a lot less glamorous than the idea of being an actor. The truth is most professional working actors need a “side hustle” or “survival job” in order to pay the bills, eat and have a place to live. Remember that the vast majority of professional actors are NOT names you have heard of and are unemployed for long stretches of time.
I’m sure you have heard the phrase “starving artist”, right? There is a reason this phrase exists, and it is because most working actors cannot sustain themselves with acting alone. It’s true that you can make a decent living as an actor, but certainly not right away…and maybe never. True, some actors are BIG names and make a TON of money, others are solid workers who support themselves nicely. It’s like a pyramid (although NOT a pyramid scheme!) where the top of the pyramid if very small, and the bottom is huge. The VAST majority of working actors are NOT in the top 3rd of that pyramid.
Make no mistake, acting is a business. At the end of the day, the objective of the industry is to make money…sometimes a lot of money, sometimes a little. The initial goal of any project, of course is to pay back investors and at least break even. The acting, and actors, are just a very small part of the business. It would do well to keep this in mind as you head off on this journey.
How you fit in the business
When I realized how I “fit” into the business of acting, I had a real AHA! Moment. Here’s what I discovered: It’s not really ABOUT the actors. Or the story, the Producers, or Directors, or Writers or any other member of the industry. This business is nearly 100% about…The Consumer. That’s right, it’s all about the audience! How do productions make money? They bring in an audience, and the audience “pays” to see the performance. That pay can be in the form of a ticket to a movie or play, or by purchasing whatever the production is advertising.
Why do some actors make a ton of money then?
It’s simple, really. Are you ready for it? Because they attract an audience! Whether it’s a movie, a commercial, a podcast or an audiobook…some actors have a following and bring in paying customers. It’s really just THAT simple. If you can bring an audience, you are going to get hired.
But what about all the “no name” actors?
First, I HATE the term no name. I have a name. No one knows it (yet), but I HAVE a name. I am technically a “named actor”. But, in the industry I am not considered a named actor because I do not have a following…a group of consumers who are going to watch or listen just because I am a part of the project. Think about that pyramid again: Only the top 1/3 of that pyramid are considered “named actors”. The rest, and very large, portion are not. But they are talented hard-working folks and without them no production would ever be able to be made. And many of them are making a decent living by acting.
While possible, it is highly improbable that you will become an actor with a household name. So, if you want to be an actor to become famous, and by famous, I mean someone recognizable to a large part of the population, then you are likely to be a very disgruntled actor in pretty short order. Your odds of becoming famous are so low that it’s no wonder so many actors STOP acting within 5 years of setting out.
Again, it is possible to become overwhelmingly, filthy RICH as an actor. Also again, the probability of that happening is pretty low. Just google “How many professional actors are there in the United States” and you find there is north of 63,000 of us. That’s JUST stage and screen actors, BTW. And of those 63,000 people, can you guess how many are famous? I had to look it up here. You don’t have to click the link, I’ll tell you: 56. Simple math would suggest there is a roughly .01% chance you’ll become famous (and I rounded UP). If you are not famous, you are not going to be uber wealthy as an actor.
An easy lifestyle
We see those 56 famous actors doing some incredibly cool things. Living in mansions with servants, sailing in their yachts with a crew, flying private airplanes with professional pilots & crew to exotic vacations all across the globe. This makes the life of an actor look “easy”. And to be honest, for those 56 people their lives are probably a LOT easier than it is for me or you. Read it again… .01% chance…you are probably not getting rich or famous; nor will lead an easy lifestyle.
I read somewhere that the average salary for an actor is $17.50/hour. When you consider that there are SOME actors (56 at least) who make thousands of dollars an hour, then you’ll know that on the lower end of the “average” it is much LESS than that $17.50. I’ve been on productions with NO pay…and for all you math geniuses out there that averages out to ZERO salary. I’ve also been on some that pay $1000 for 4 hours of work. You just never know, and it depends on the project, but deciding to NOT take a low paying gig is, in essence, deciding to not get paid at all.
For everyone else?
For all but those 56 people (and yeah, I recognize there are levels between famous and noob) life as an actor is not easy. It is going to mean marketing and selling yourself to find gigs to audition for, then auditioning and maybe getting a role. You’ll have long days (15-18 hours is not uncommon) and early call times (mostly for screen actors). You may spend weeks or months studying the script, deciding who the character is and memorizing lines…OR you may have an hour to figure it out and deliver a solid performance. This is not “easy” work.
One example from last week
Last week I got a call from my agent at 12:20PM (EDT) and was informed I had an in-person audition for a lucrative commercial ($1500/day for 2 days, $11,000 usage with travel, lodging and per diem included). BAM…I’m about to be discovered and finance the rest of my year. The audition was in an hour. On the west coast. Last minute auditions (and work!) are ALSO common.
Not trying to discourage you
Seriously, not even a LITLLE bit. I’m just suggesting that if you want to be an actor, do it for the right reasons and you won’t be disappointed. Keep your expectations low, don’t quit your day job (but do find one that gives you the flexibility to audition and take on roles) and just keep plugging ahead.
So, then, why become an actor?
Honestly, because it is the BEST job on the planet! Acting is the most fun you can have and be getting paid for it! Some good reasons to become an actor, if you don’t want to be disappointed are:
- It’s not really a choice, you just know you HAVE to act.
- You are very creative and need an outlet for your creativity
- You are doing it for you, not to impress someone else
- JUST. LOVE. IT. (HINT: This is the best reason)
At the end of the day…
When all is said and done, acting will be the best job you ever had regardless of the fact that you will probably work only intermittently, get paid very little, need to work another full-time “survival job” and will feel like you are burning the candle at both ends as a result. If you can put up with all that AND recognize that “You’re not getting the f*&^ing job!” but are still having fun…then acting is the job for you!
Tune in next week
When we’ll discuss Naysayers!
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