Thursday, 1 August 2013

So, you want to be an actor

by Greg Bepper

Seriously? But what are going to do for a real job!

Those of you in the profession would have heard this at least once in your career; it goes with the territory.

Outsiders find it hard to comprehend that the person standing in front of them could make a living like their favourite movie or television 'star'. 

It's that line between reality and fantasy. A perception that they [stars] were ordained by the Gods and beamed into their stardom. This, clouding the reality that they were once at the same crossroad and decision you [the newbie actor] are at when starting out. 

So with that in mind, this article is not how to be an actor but the cold, hard truth of what it takes to have a long, sustaining career in this profession.

Expect unemployment... that's a giv'n
It's a life of casual employment, both within the profession and in the 'real world'. In the latter, forget the idea of holding down full time employment to pay the bills and have a career in this industry. It ain't going to happen unless you have a very understanding employer that will give you time off at very short notice for a day, a couple of days, a week, or even 3 months or more.

This is the uncertainty of an actors' life. You never know when a casting call/audition will come your way, especially for commercials. When a part does present itself, it will be anything from a bit, guest or contracted. They all come with their own time-frames of employment. A full time job is not an option for the immediacy required to 'down tools' and go be an actor.

It's a casual life
Many jokes are made about actors, if fact any performer, like the one above when they are 'resting'. Although funny, it's not far from the truth. 

The actor needs to have a few strings to their bow to pay the rent between theatrical engagements. The most common, worldwide are: bartending, waitering, barista God and cab driving. These casual professions allow the actor the flexibility to attend auditions and day roles without loss of employment as they can swap shifts. With longer roles, the actor can find a new employer when their acting contract finishes.

For around fifteen years, one of the non-theatrical professions that I found was right for me, and kept food on the table, was: on the road sales rep. Not only did this allow me the flexibility to attend auditions since I was already 'out there' on the road but a company car and free fuel is a great bonus. It also was a great training ground to hone my acting skills. I mean lets face it, selling a customer or selling an audience it all comes down to technique.

Casual employment also applies to every theatrical job you will EVER attain. It only lasts as long as your contract, be it; a one day shoot on a commercial, a six week play run or a 5 year stint on a television series, they all come to an end. Then it's back to; do you want fries with that, till your next engagement. 

Flush one day, poor the next
When it comes to your finances through your acting career it will be feast and famine. It's a juggling act of surviving on casual job hours and wages then being sensible when a boost from an acting job fee finally comes through. Although when it does most of it goes on paying back bills to bring you back to square one. 

The cream of this industry is the television commercial. They are usually very well paid for one or two days work, especially if they are a 'hundred pecenter'  (main talking character), national or international release. What you end up with in the end depends on your countries tax rate and rules. Here is Australia your tax rate on the fee is deemed as that is your weekly wage. This makes a huge dent in the fee although you can usually claim it back at the end of the financial year. The other piece that is deducted before you get your hot little hands on it, is your agent/manager's fee which can be anything from ten to twenty five percent.

You will notice I said "being sensible". Easier said than done when a couple of thousand to tens of thousands hit your bank account. But no matter how much you earn from each acting job even long contracts: remember what I said... they ALL end eventually. So 'try' and save for the lean times.

Disappointment with sprinkles of elation
You will spend your entire career proving your worth. Auditions don't stop, even for the veteran actor. They just get a little more civilised.

You will go from the early career 'cattle call' where you are just one of many, sometimes hundreds, all waiting to hear your name called by the very overworked and tired casting assistant, announcing it's your time to shine. To the established actors' casting, with a handful or maybe just you, waiting to audition. This sometimes comes with coffee and a biscuit. 

Then it's the waiting for the phone to ring game. Every call, you prey it's your agent. You really want this part. You really need this part. Remembering that it's rare that an agent will telephone to tell you missed out this time. That news is usually when you finally call them after a week or so because the stress of not knowing has finally taken it's toll. 

You are not going to get every part; that is a fact of this life. Disappointment will come in different degrees. It will vary from an 'Oh well, didn't want it anyway" to "I really, really wanted that" 

The elation of a 'thumbs up' makes all the past rejections disappear. It's a great feeling of anticipation of the work, the peers and the outcome of an art you truly love. Even the news you have been short-listed or have a call-back produces the glow of elation and a happy dance.

A hard day's night
Now to the work itself; one of the most demanding of occupations.  The never ending glitz and glamour that is associated with this profession is as illusional as the product it produces... It's hard work!

Long, long days and nights. More energy expelled on stage than running a marathon and doing it seven to eight times a week. Hours of waiting between set ups on film locations trying keep the character. Hour upon hour on the road when on a theatre tour, followed by 2 star accommodation and broom closet dressing rooms.. literally. 

But before you even get to the performance side you have all the preparation. Line learning, character development, rehearsals, screen tests, make up tests, costume fittings, tech rehearsals, publicity photo shoots, last minute rewrites and so much more, and so much to control. 

Your social and family life takes a backseat for the run of the contract, especially a film production. Shooting schedules can be amended at a drop of a hat due to a myriad of reasons. In theatre, you become a night shift worker with a couple of day/night shifts a week for matinees. Then of course you have months away from home for a film shoot in far off places and sometimes years for a successful theatre production, especially musical theatre.

BUT... What a life!
I tell my students that as actors we are the most privileged in the world. Outsiders go through life with one personality, one journey, one purpose. But we get to be them and hundreds more. We bring to life personalities, journeys and purpose of people, real and fiction, released from the mind of a writer hundreds of years ago, right up to last week. 

It's also a tough life; an emotional roller coaster that lasts your entire career.
You constantly question your ability, wrestle with self doubt and beat yourself up. It takes it's toll as actors fall by the wayside with frustration, disillusion and bitter disappointment. 

But to the true actor, the passionate actor, it's not about the lifestyle; it's all about the work. The journey you are able to take your live or viewing audience. The lives you touch and sometimes change from your craft. This is an actors greatest contribution to their 'meaning of life'.

Author: Greg Bepper © 2013
Artistic Director
Greg Bepper's Thunderbolt Theatre & Film Productions




  1. Reminds me of combat: 99% boredom and waiting and 1% stark raving terror.

  2. This looks like just about every other career choice and profession. The few glamorous beacon holders who outshine the majority that "wrestle with self doubt and beat [themselves] up" but stick with it no matter what because "it's all about the work" ... Thank you Greg! If you are on the right path, your vision and passion will carry you all the way. If not, you'll mostly complain a lot.

    1. Thank you Michael... I guess it is with the exeption of the very public false perception made by the media of how glamourous this industry is.. it has it's moments but most of the time it's hard work. Thanks also for your wise words, cheers

    2. Michael, I think there is a difference between acting and other careers. In most fields, hard work and determination will take you to the top of the heap. In acting, luck plays a much bigger role, especially when you are just getting started. There are many incredibly talented actors out there who have never gotten the "break"... there simply aren't enough paying roles for all the talented people. Plus, there is a whole class of "working" actors who are "successful" yet still working as a barista between acting roles at 40. You don't see that in many other fields. When you read interviews with "stars" you'll often see that Star X was roommates with Star Y and worked with Star Z when they were all unknown. One of them gets a break, the others get opportunities. You really have to have a passion for it in order to make theater your life.

  3. Greg, this is a great piece and spot on. I spent some years in the motion picture industry out of Hollywood CA. My wife was a child actor(little house on the prairie, the Walton's, things like that)it was before the laws were changed and her parents wasted every dime that she made. The thing that I liked most was the way, on the set, everything happens with such harmony. Unlike anything that I have ever experienced in any other business. I am glad to have run across you here through the ave. I hope to get to know you better. Thank you; Bill Marsh

    1. Thank you so much Bill.. Yep, It's hard to beleive this financial plight of child actors went on sooo long before someone did something about it. I hope your wife still keeps her hand in through community theatre and the like. The well oiled machine, or should be, of film production is so important. not only for the artistic harmony but every minute wasted is so expensive! An industry wher time really IS money... BIG money!! Thanks again mate, cheers

  4. Hey Greg, awesome post my friend.

  5. As an artist, I agree with this article and it applies to all artists. Your commitment to your craft and the work takes precedence over money. It's a glorious commitment.

    1. Absolutely Maria... any artist who makes their career in any of the arts is subjected to all I have described... and yes, sometimes the opportunity to commit to your art takes precedence over the money. Cheers