Price Line, Screen Door

The Working Actor

Price Line, Screen Door

By Michael Kostroff

November 17, 2011


Dear Michael:

I've been in L.A. for about a year and a half and done a fair amount of work, the majority of which has been low or no pay. My goal is to make a living as an actor. Would it make sense to just make the decision that I will no longer work for free? Or are there still a lot of quality jobs out there that don't pay? I just feel like taking a stand, and saying I value my time and my abilities and need to be compensated for them may help me escape the trap of always working for low or no wages. Good idea or pipe dream?

—Show Me the Money, Los Angeles

Dear Show Me:

I like your question a lot. I think we actors should ponder such issues on a regular basis, setting career policies that honor our personal dignity while also factoring in the realities of our business. At a certain point, deciding not to work for free is a perfectly valid career move—maybe even a necessary one. The hard part is knowing when you can legitimately make that decision. But I'm inclined to believe that, like so many other things, the signs will be evident.

If you're not sure, try an experiment: Decline nonpaying work for a while and see if that creates space for work that pays. Just be prepared to be patient. Transitions take time.

But when evaluating opportunities, consider this as well: In acting, money isn't everything, and neither is career advancement. I think it's important, from time to time at least, to do projects we find artistically interesting and satisfying, regardless of whether they pay a cent or lead anywhere at all. We are, after all, artists.

And sometimes, you just need to act. There have been times when work was slim and I was discouraged and started to lose the feeling of being an actor. At those times, I've learned that finding some opportunity—any opportunity—to do my thing is like a chiropractic adjustment for my sense of myself as an artist.

That's why, just the other week, I joined my old roommate (from 1985!), who has a small theater company that does live readings of old radio scripts in the back of a tiny bookstore in Greenwich Village, to do a project. About 30 people saw it. I got subway fare. And it was such fun. It made me feel like an actor again.

So even if you decide to stop working for free, I strongly recommend staying open to the occasional exception to that policy and sometimes just doing art for art's sake.

Dear Michael:

I'm an actor who has just arrived in Los Angeles after living in New England for 35 years. I came here for the opportunities that an actor does not get anywhere else (except for New York). I've been a stage actor since 1977, but now I want to break into films. What is the best way to make the transition from stage to film in a city like this?

I have talked to other actors and directors, but none of them have experience in L.A. I know many others come here as stage actors, because of the number of theater companies (both amateur and professional) in the U.S. Many of them read Back Stage and trust your opinion. I am one of them.

—Old and New, Los Angeles

Dear Old and New:

Thank you for writing. You've posed a question to which the answer seems drenched in timeless mystery. All throughout the city you've chosen as your new home, there are actors wondering the very same thing. I myself, after years of successfully working on television, have yet to break through the wall surrounding the closely associated world of film. So it's hard to answer your question with anything but the usual clichés: You need an agent who can get you seen for film, and beyond that, it's a lot of luck.

If I were you, I'd focus on finding that terrific agent with access to film auditions and on connecting with legitimate professionals. And to do that, I wouldn't do mass mailings (I'm skeptical of their effectiveness) and I wouldn't attend "workshops" (I believe it's beneath an actor's dignity to pay for an interview). And I especially wouldn't do those things at your advanced career level. Instead, I propose a different, more nuanced, gradual approach: Get to know people in the business, not only actors but also editors, writers, grips, script supervisors—anyone who works in our profession. Go places. Become part of the community. Make friends, and keep up on what they're doing.

Join the SAG Film Society. Attend any of the free seminars our unions sponsor that sound interesting. Make it your goal to be out in the show business community as much as possible, without giving in to the temptation to schmooze. Just be there. Be friendly, supportive, and, above all, patient. Let things evolve organically. That's the classier way to grow your career. The actors I find off-putting are the ones who have embraced the "everything is an opportunity" philosophy and never leave the house without a stack of postcards to force on people who've never even seen their work and have no motivation to do so. This type of salesmanship might make these actors feel like they're being productive, but it leaves behind an unpleasant first impression. With your experience, you might do better just being out there and letting people "discover" you. And always mention that you're new in town. People seem to respond well to that.

Find an acting class that's attended by solid, working film actors and join it. I know that may sound like a crass ploy for making contacts. It's not. Your primary motive should be to learn more about film acting (it's significantly different from stage). Let anything else be a byproduct. But while there, get to know your classmates. Buy them a drink from time to time. Ask them to tell you about Hollywood. If they're working, see if you can visit them on set to learn more about the world of film. Never be pushy. But if a classmate compliments your work, ask whether that actor likes his or her agent and mention that you're looking. You may get an introduction, which I believe is the very best way to get an agent.

I know my answer isn't as satisfying as some big, shiny "Ten Steps to Making It as a Film Actor." But trust me: No such formula exists. If it did, I'd be all over it.

Do you have a question for The Working Actor? Click here to send your question today


Price Line, Screen Door

By Michael Kostroff

November 17, 2011


Dear Michael:

I've been in L.A. for about a year and a half and done a fair amount of work, the majority of which has been low or no pay. My goal is to make a living as an actor. Would it make sense to just make the decision that I will no longer work for free? Or are there still a lot of quality jobs out there that don't pay? I just feel like taking a stand, and saying I value my time and my abilities and need to be compensated for them may help me escape the trap of always working for low or no wages. Good idea or pipe dream?

—Show Me the Money, Los Angeles

Dear Show Me:

I like your question a lot. I think we actors should ponder such issues on a regular basis, setting career policies that honor our personal dignity while also factoring in the realities of our business. At a certain point, deciding not to work for free is a perfectly valid career move—maybe even a necessary one. The hard part is knowing when you can legitimately make that decision. But I'm inclined to believe that, like so many other things, the signs will be evident.

If you're not sure, try an experiment: Decline nonpaying work for a while and see if that creates space for work that pays. Just be prepared to be patient. Transitions take time.

But when evaluating opportunities, consider this as well: In acting, money isn't everything, and neither is career advancement. I think it's important, from time to time at least, to do projects we find artistically interesting and satisfying, regardless of whether they pay a cent or lead anywhere at all. We are, after all, artists.

And sometimes, you just need to act. There have been times when work was slim and I was discouraged and started to lose the feeling of being an actor. At those times, I've learned that finding some opportunity—any opportunity—to do my thing is like a chiropractic adjustment for my sense of myself as an artist.

That's why, just the other week, I joined my old roommate (from 1985!), who has a small theater company that does live readings of old radio scripts in the back of a tiny bookstore in Greenwich Village, to do a project. About 30 people saw it. I got subway fare. And it was such fun. It made me feel like an actor again.

So even if you decide to stop working for free, I strongly recommend staying open to the occasional exception to that policy and sometimes just doing art for art's sake.

Dear Michael:

I'm an actor who has just arrived in Los Angeles after living in New England for 35 years. I came here for the opportunities that an actor does not get anywhere else (except for New York). I've been a stage actor since 1977, but now I want to break into films. What is the best way to make the transition from stage to film in a city like this?

I have talked to other actors and directors, but none of them have experience in L.A. I know many others come here as stage actors, because of the number of theater companies (both amateur and professional) in the U.S. Many of them read Back Stage and trust your opinion. I am one of them.

—Old and New, Los Angeles

Dear Old and New:

Thank you for writing. You've posed a question to which the answer seems drenched in timeless mystery. All throughout the city you've chosen as your new home, there are actors wondering the very same thing. I myself, after years of successfully working on television, have yet to break through the wall surrounding the closely associated world of film. So it's hard to answer your question with anything but the usual clichés: You need an agent who can get you seen for film, and beyond that, it's a lot of luck.

If I were you, I'd focus on finding that terrific agent with access to film auditions and on connecting with legitimate professionals. And to do that, I wouldn't do mass mailings (I'm skeptical of their effectiveness) and I wouldn't attend "workshops" (I believe it's beneath an actor's dignity to pay for an interview). And I especially wouldn't do those things at your advanced career level. Instead, I propose a different, more nuanced, gradual approach: Get to know people in the business, not only actors but also editors, writers, grips, script supervisors—anyone who works in our profession. Go places. Become part of the community. Make friends, and keep up on what they're doing.

Join the SAG Film Society. Attend any of the free seminars our unions sponsor that sound interesting. Make it your goal to be out in the show business community as much as possible, without giving in to the temptation to schmooze. Just be there. Be friendly, supportive, and, above all, patient. Let things evolve organically. That's the classier way to grow your career. The actors I find off-putting are the ones who have embraced the "everything is an opportunity" philosophy and never leave the house without a stack of postcards to force on people who've never even seen their work and have no motivation to do so. This type of salesmanship might make these actors feel like they're being productive, but it leaves behind an unpleasant first impression. With your experience, you might do better just being out there and letting people "discover" you. And always mention that you're new in town. People seem to respond well to that.

Find an acting class that's attended by solid, working film actors and join it. I know that may sound like a crass ploy for making contacts. It's not. Your primary motive should be to learn more about film acting (it's significantly different from stage). Let anything else be a byproduct. But while there, get to know your classmates. Buy them a drink from time to time. Ask them to tell you about Hollywood. If they're working, see if you can visit them on set to learn more about the world of film. Never be pushy. But if a classmate compliments your work, ask whether that actor likes his or her agent and mention that you're looking. You may get an introduction, which I believe is the very best way to get an agent.

I know my answer isn't as satisfying as some big, shiny "Ten Steps to Making It as a Film Actor." But trust me: No such formula exists. If it did, I'd be all over it.

Do you have a question for The Working Actor? Click here to send your question today
 
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