Last week’s Your Turn on survival jobs (and when to accept that juicy offer for a permanent position from your temp gig) generated a lot of email. To refresh your memory, a reader from New York had written in about exactly such an offer, asking whether it’s a smart move for an actor in a major market. Of course, my thoughts on the matter are detailed in last week’s Your Turn, but the bottom line I came up with is this: If you have relocated to a major market to pursue acting, you need to avoid the golden handcuffs of a permanent job. There are just too many actors competing with you who have all the flexibility in the world… and they’re chomping at the bit to head to the audition that you can’t make due to this week’s mandatory staff meeting. I absolutely support the idea of saving up big “permanent job money” while in a minor market so that you can afford to pursue acting with the pros. But once you’ve made the move, that choice to roll around on a plastic pad behind a desk in exchange could cost you the role of your dreams.
But, hey, don’t take it from me! Overwhelmingly, the emails I received supported the theory that a professional pursuit of acting needs to be your only fulltime job. I am grateful to everyone who emailed. Now, let’s get down to the most comprehensive contributions I received from four working actors in New York and Los Angeles: Alex Collins, Terri Freedman, Michele Morgen, and Kristen Rutherford.
Permanent Jobs: Pros and Cons
Let’s start with a story from Alex, who has seen both sides of the permanent job issue, several times.
I love all your articles and often shoot you email expressing that sentiment, but this article on survival jobs and golden handcuffs really hits home for me. Here’s a quick background: After graduating from college with a degree in finance and marketing, I chickened out of moving to NYC to pursue acting because it wasn’t “sensible” nor was it “expected” of me. I took a stable job in the corporate world. Fast forward three years and my roommate knew I wasn’t happy so he took it upon himself to call my work voicemail every day for six months gently nudging me to quit and pursue acting full time. I finally did so. I worked for three years in the Atlanta market, doing industrials, theatre, regional commercials, etc., all while studying my butt off with a great teacher (Nick Conti, who you know) just for the opportunity to move to a major market, like LA. After setting a firm date, gaining my SAG eligibility, and banking several thousand for the move, I was ready. Fast forward another three years and here I am in LA working in the corporate world again. What happened?
Well, I consider myself a realist and I knew LA wouldn’t open its doors overnight. What I didn’t plan on, however, was how long I would have to survive or subsist. As a result, I ran out of money, slipped farther into debt, and my survival jobs weren’t cutting it for me. It didn’t help that I took on a large amount of debt from my previous life in the corporate world, which just kept snowballing. So, what was I to do? Several times during my five plus years as a professional actor, I’ve thrown in the towel in theory. I’ve interviewed for corporate jobs, I’ve said that being a waiter/bartender at 21 is fine, but I’m approaching 30 and no way is that going to fly with my ego. Well, something, somewhere has always told me NOT to accept any of the corporate offers that came my way. That was until late 2005. At that time, I had the opportunity to interview with my current employer.
I never told them I was pursuing a career as an actor, and fortunately my work resumé was well-rounded enough that the gaps were easily explainable. After being offered the job, the lure of a real and stable paycheck was something I had lived without for a long time, so it was a nice sense of accomplishment. I realized that I may have to put some acting projects on hold, or that I wouldn’t have the schedule I once had, but I also realized that even when I did have all the freedom in the world, things just weren’t clicking for me. I wasn’t going out on enough auditions, I certainly wasn’t working enough, and the financial situation was stressing me out to the point of illness.
I’ve been fortunate enough to express to my employers that I’m an actor, and that it’s my main passion in life and it’s my ultimate career goal. The CEO’s wife owns a film company and is a producer and director, so it turns out we have a lot in common, and she always states how she’d love the opportunity to cast me in one of her projects. Through my “day job,” I’ve had the opportunity to meet and mingle with many working actors and attend events specifically for the Emmys. I’m in a better financial position than I was before this job. It’s sales, so I have the flexibility to disappear for commercial auditions, and couple the location of the audition with a visit to a client. I’m paying off debt, which for me, was becoming a big stressor and impacting my acting in a negative way. I’ve also managed to shoot several short film projects in the last three or four months. Those, coupled with the projects I’m currently writing, and the sketch comedy company I helped to found and create back in 2005 have allowed me to stay in the loop, to stay creative, and to feel as though I’m having a positive impact on my acting career. — Alex
This is huge. It’s easy to look at jobs in terms of money and flexibility. But what about the very real issues of taxing your craft itself due to the stresses that come from choosing to have or not have a permanent job? Obviously, whether the bigger stress is your financial situation or your ability to get out there and audition every time is going to vary (and it may change at different stages of your life)! For another take on the permanent job pros and cons, here’s a story from Kristen.
I couldn’t copy and paste your email address FAST enough to respond to “Your Turn.” I took the permanent job once. Once. I was wooed with flexibility! Auditions! Whatever you want! Look! BENEFITS! SALARY! BONUS! I would be working for a major player in the world of investment banking — someone who had the power to bend the rules of corporate life and grant me my artist’s way with the benefits of the nine-to-five world so OF COURSE this would work! I remember phoning my dad from Liberty Island where I was doing a photo shoot, so excited with the news!
Have you ever read The Devil Wears Prada? I happen to be reading it right now and I don’t find it funny. I want to vomit and cry; it brings back so many bad memories. And THAT girl wasn’t attempting to have another career outside of her assistant job. My boss actually said to me that I must not be a very good actress, since all I ever did was go on auditions! HR didn’t know how to categorize my “days off” when I was working acting gigs. I kept saying, “YOU DON’T PAY ME,” but it didn’t compute. The people of the grey world DO NOT understand the life of an artist. No matter how hip they are. I would say NEVER take the perm job. Maybe it’s different here in LA when jobs can actually be in “the business,” but man, that seems like an even bigger and worse trap. — Kristen
And for a short and sweet take on how very simple this issue can be, I present Terri’s words: “I have been working at the same company for over a year through my temp agency. Like you said, a couple months ago they wanted to bring me onboard. The catch was I had to restrict my auditions to certain times and days of the week. While I did notice a pattern in my auditioning, there was no way I was going to turn down any good audition. I am here to act. Sure, it means turning down glorious benefits and a 25% raise, but I’m getting by just fine without the luxuries Los Angeles has to offer. Temp-to-hire jobs are indeed tempting (naturally), but when you consider your priorities and available sacrifices, you’ll know what is best.”
Temp Jobs: Pros and Cons
Michele simply had this to say: “I read with interest about the struggle about balancing the necessities of making enough money to pay the bills and keeping energy and focus on being an actor, especially here in NYC, where rent and food costs are very high. Temping is a great solution BUT that being said, temping is problematic in that there are no benefits, i.e., no health insurance, no vacation, no sick time.”
I was in NYC doing theatre for many years and remember — after one show I did — sitting around with the cast talking about how “temping is the new waitressing” for actors and we all went around the table and said what our “titles” were. My experience with temp jobs in NYC is varied and colorful enough for me to be working with my writing partner on two scripts about the experiences! The requirements for scoring an awesome temp job with flexibility seem to be having some semblance of brains in your skull (I would say smart, but ya know. Do you know the alphabet? HIRED)! I have often wondered if the person who filled the position before me was a monkey because every single temp job I went on begged me to take a fulltime position with them after less than an hour. It’s not an accident though. You have to know how to work the system. You bust your ass when you get the job to show them how worthwhile you are and then when they beg you to stay, you lay down your terms of flexibility for auditions and acting jobs. That’s the good news. When my husband and I left NY, we both had amazing temp jobs and were making BANK on our terms.
But here’s the problem (and one of the reasons we packed up and moved to LA): When you are making $26 to $30 an hour plus overtime (ahhh NY rates), taking that piece of crap industrial that’s only paying $50 for the day sometimes seems like a bad choice. It’s easy to lose sight of the contacts you might be making that day on the set, or the friendships you might be forging that lead to artistic collaborations later, all because of the bottom line. You just aren’t hungry. You know what else? You’re exhausted. Forty hours a week then rehearsals on nights and weekends or performances, not to mention juggling your other survival jobs too. I am speaking from NY experience, but even with my super sweet temp job in the city I had my other survival jobs too (two or three of them in fact). One of them included working at a casting studio in the evenings running classes and facilitating casting sessions. Now look, I don’t want to sound like I am saying you shouldn’t temp. Like I said, if you play it right, you can score a super sweet job that allows you the flexibility to pursue your dream. I am just saying watch out for the pitfalls. — Kristen
Freelancing: Pros and Cons
Y’all already know how I feel about freelancing. It changed my life. If you are organized, flexible, and reliable, freelancing is about one of the best options going. You can work for multiple employers (in multiple industries) for many more than 40 hours per week at times when you need to make extra money, then cut back to five hours in another week to accommodate your acting gigs. TRUST in the process is the key ingredient to success as a freelancer.
I would suggest to any actors moving to NYC in particular that they buff up a specific skill for a money job — be it word processing or computer tech or graphic design — and look for a job with either flex hours or evening hours. As I am still not making enough money to live independently from my acting work, I work at a law firm on the evening shift. I will eventually leave this job for acting work, but at least right now I have my days free to audition and when I’ve had to take off for the run of a play or for shoot dates, my employer works with me because I’m a skilled employee. And, also a biggie in New York, once you put in some time at a job for a well-known employer, it won’t be so hard getting another job in the same or similar field if you need to after the play’s run or the shoot is finished. — Michele
Waiting tables is always a popular gig with actors (mainly because you can easily switch shifts with others and, if you lose a job because you had to take an acting gig, it’s not too tough to get another job waiting tables elsewhere). I bartended for years and loved it, but there can be a downside to the food and beverage service industry for creative types too. As Kristen told me: “Liz Lewis is the top commercial casting director in NYC and a very good friend of mine. She has a whole theory on why actors should not be waiters. She thinks it causes performances to suffer because you are taking abuse at the job and it rolls over into your life and soul.”
Keeping It All in Perspective
As I mentioned last week with regard to my decision to freelance (my second time moving to LA), I had to trust that I was going to be able to make a living, because there is no guarantee that you will, when you choose the freelance lifestyle. Heck, that’s true of whichever choice you make (permanent, temp, or freelance survival jobs). But, we’re used to no guarantees when we choose an artistic career too, right? Michele said, “I agree with you wholeheartedly that you have to learn to TRUST that you will be able to balance your art and your bills. Believe it and it will happen!”
This is a game of survival, persistence, and sometimes subsistence. As a result, I need to survive long enough until my type is in demand. I know that I’m not good-looking enough to be a leading man and I’m not character enough to be a character actor. That leaves me somewhere in the middle. I know it will be when I’m in my mid-30s that my roles will really start to present themselves. That’s when I need to be ready and my great headshots, training, networking, pro-activity in terms of my career, and countless hours spent in pursuit of this passion will pay off. — Alex
I think this is a really important point. When Jeremy Piven won his Emmy last year, he mentioned that his manager told him when he was a teenager that he really wouldn’t “hit” until he was 40. You can’t know when the industry is going to embrace your type. Your highest-booking years may be decades away! If that’s the case, you can devote time now to saving up so that you are free to pursue your acting career unfettered when it is your time. DO NOT blow through the money you make during your fulltime job years! That should be your cushion for when you want to spend a year on a low budget indie film that’ll change your life!
Until then, I’m paying bills, writing films of all genres and lengths, working on productions whenever I can, auditioning for commercials and submitting for new theatrical representation, and immersing myself as much as possible on a daily basis into the world of acting. This is not a career path I wish upon anyone, but it is the only one for me. Something to remember is a quote from Million Dollar Baby delivered by Morgan Freeman’s character: “It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that no one will ever see.” That’s what acting is about. I’m fully convinced that if you love something enough to do it for free, to strive for it without asking, “How much do I get paid?” then you will ultimately get paid. Maybe not $20M per picture, but you’ll be able to survive, to be comfortable, to provide for your family. — Alex
And finally, this from Terri: “As you mentioned in an earlier column regarding the Law of Attraction, I’ve been putting my energies toward acting and the rewards have been coming! I never fear taking time off work to audition or shoot because I can always find another day job, but auditions are a blessing.”
For everyone who is looking to cut costs in their pursuit of acting, I strongly recommend the series of books called The Tightwad Gazette. (Check them out at your local library.) Many people — especially in Los Angeles — live this superstar lifestyle when they can’t afford it. And that puts them in very tough positions when credit card payments are hundreds of dollars each month for life. I recommend putting limits on dining out (when brown-bagging and eating at home will do), full-package cable television (when rabbit-ears antenna TV ain’t that bad), cell phones with all the bells and whistles (when your agent only calls once a week), gym memberships (when going running is free), and Starbucks visits (when you can brew your own at home). A studio apartment or roommate situation is fine sometimes! Consolidating your errands and leaving early will conserve gas and give you plenty of time to park and walk (rather than having to pay high parking fees or getting speeding tickets followed by parking tickets for those last-minute red zone choices). An older, reliable car is fine (and, hey, lower insurance). Close and consolidate all but one of your credit cards. Put your student loans on the Income Contingent Repayment plan. Make smart choices so that you don’t regret having wasted energy, money, and time when you could’ve been living your dreams instead.
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000661.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.