How to Pursue an Actors Life when you aren’t loaded with cash.
We tend to romanticize the life of an actor - or any type of artist. We call them starving artists… but in truth, it takes money to pursue a life in the arts. Kind of. We see all the glitz and the glamour of the red carpet events and premieres but we rarely see the days upon days of being rejected and schlepping from one audition to another, and the 12-16 hour days on set.
It shouldn’t be, but as with so much of the world, disposable income makes a world of difference whether or not an artist is going to be successful. One of my favorite comedians - Julia Louis-Dreyfus - is an heiress. Taylor Swift’s parents were financially well-off. Many of the success stories in the acting world were because they came from families with disposable incomes and can fund the best education and marketing material.
Most of my students that are successful have parents who are able to fund the best classes, and can afford coaching before each big audition. They are part of a household where one (or both) parents have a flexible job that allows them to take off at a moments notice for auditions, or one of the parents is a stay at home mom/dad. They can pay for the travel associated with the audition (especially last minute flights to Los Angeles) and not worry whether or not they book the job. That takes a lot of money and a certain level of financial security. That’s why I have always offered my services for a discounted price or a scholarship to teens that honestly did not have the financial means to take the classes. Even when an actor is successful and lands a series regular role on a network show or lands a very lucrative commercial, there are periods of time where the roles/work aren’t there. It’s a very volatile industry and having a strong foundation (family-wise and financially) is the bedrock of a sustainable career.
That’s why I am thankful for scholarship programs at UCB and at the American Conservatory Theater - if I wasn’t a recipient of those programs, I would not be where I am now. I definitely did not come from a privileged background, and even now, being a single mom and a working actor is still feast or famine at times.
If you are one of those actors who like me who love the art but don’t have the means to get into the best classes, these are the ways that I have acquired the knowledge, training and marketing material that put me at the same-ish level as those who do have the privilege of more money:
Many schools have scholarships or grants for people who have a financial need. I applied for the diversity scholarship at UCB and was able to take their program and meet a bunch of talented people in comedy that I now collaborate with regularly.
When I was younger, I got my first headshots done with Cynthia Smalley as a trade. I wrote her a letter telling her how much I loved her work and that I would be willing to help out with holding lights or a white balance at her next shoot. I also paid for a majority of my film/tv acting classes as a newer actor by exchanging writing and office work for class tuition. (I actually still do that today.) I was able to negotiate headshots with my favorite photographers by helping out with a marketing campaign for one of their pop-up locations.
I learned a lot about the business of acting firsthand by interning for a few managers and casting directors. I also volunteered my services with producers and production companies if they needed any extra help around the office. It was a great way to know the workings of the business behind the scenes and network in a non-creepy way where you are actually providing a much-needed service.
One more thing: I see so many of my friends who are phenomenal actors get down on themselves because they have to take on a “jobby-job,” but lot of actors make their everyday living money in ways other than acting. It doesn’t take away from your talent as an actor. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t successful. It is the nature of the industry and we have to redefine what it means to be successful in general. For me, it is the amount of joy I create for myself and others.
PS: I will be teaching an in-person class in SF this March so sign up for your space if you are interested!