I was having a conversation with an actor friend of mine right after he read my last article “Blue Collar Actor.” We’ll call him “Steve”. When Steve finished the article he said, “You’ve inspired me to go out and do more student films. I would always get annoyed when people would tell me to go do student or low budget films. I would never even submit to them because I thought I was past that but now I’m at a point where I just want to act.” Well, this started a long conversation about the positive aspects of working for free.
A lot of times, people move to LA and see and hear all of these stories of how someone just got here and hit it big. And then they think if they’ve been here for a certain amount of time and haven’t hit it big, that they deserve more. They feel the time they’ve lived here is what designates whether they’re “above” doing something for free or not. Now I also understand my friend Steve is struggling financially and sometimes the frustration of that is what makes one throw down the gauntlet and say, “I WONT WORK FOR FREE.” In reality Steve doesn’t have a list of credits, in fact his acting resume is just at a beginners phase. So after an hour-long conversation and looking at it from all sides, this is the solution I feel could perhaps benefit us actors and it is something I’ve always done without ever really analyzing it.
I have always worked for free at some point in the year and have never regretted it. Whether it was a play (and yes I consider the 9 dollars a show with the equity wavier contract, although appreciated, working for free), a student film, a film short, a web series etc. These are my reasons: I think it’s healthy to always be meeting new people who are out there being creative. It’s a jolt of new energy that gives you a new sense of something forward moving and positive. Every free job I’ve done has resulted in more work, more connections, and/or the best thing of all, a new friend. I can give many situations where I can connect the dots to how doing that free student film or play etc. led to this job and that audition. As well as one particular job I worked for free that is clearly the inciting incident that kicked off five TV contracts and a “paying” theatre gig. It all stems back from this one “free” job. If that free gig hadn’t happen, the other 6 gigs wouldn’t have followed. And the gift is still giving!
So here is the plan I came up with while talking with Steve. Do what’s comfortable for you in terms of a percentage; if I broke it down, for myself, it’s probably around 70/30. Approximately seventy percent of the time I work for money and the other thirty percent I work for free. I think everyone can come up with his or her own numbers. If you’re new and really need acting reel and performing experience and are just hungry to act, make it 30/70. Meaning approximately thirty percent of the time you will get paid for your work (if you’re lucky) and seventy percent will be for free. If you feel you have been working for free for eighty percent of the time and you just need to say no so you can establish yourself as someone who needs to get paid (and I’ve been at that crossroad) then do 90/10 and ONLY work for free on something that you feel strongly about. The rest of the time only submit/audition and put in the time for paying gigs, let people know “I need to get paid”.
I had that shift myself at one point and got cast in a PSA. The producer told me we are under a SAG PSA contract blah blah blah no one is getting paid, yadda yadda, yadda. But I was at a turning point in my life and I was temping to pay the bills so I could risk the part by insisting to be paid. And do you know what happened? I got paid! No one else on the shoot did. But I was switching the percentages at that point in my life. I did that for a while, until I began getting more paying gigs and less non-paying gigs. Then I began to feel less resentful when there was never any money for the actors. Because here’s the thing… if you’re resenting it, you have to check in with yourself as to why, and maybe adjust your percentages. Never forget, you won’t be doing anyone any favors by working for free if you’re miserable. I get what goes into it… the time to sit down and go over the breakdowns for submissions. The juggling of your entire schedule to fit in the audition, having to do the audition “hair and make up prep”. The money spent on gas and parking. The hour in traffic because you know you are going to be on the opposite side of town. Then you sit and wait for forty-five minutes to go in and audition. And then… YAHOO you got the part! Now the changing of schedule for the shoot days or the six-week rehearsal process and at the end of all this glory; not one dime. Like I said, I get it. But that last scenario won’t make your stomach tighten if you are in a different mind space about it. Be responsible for the mind space you’re in and do it accordingly. I think to refuse to do it completely is taking a part of your acting career journey out of the equation.
To tell you the truth, I think what we forget about as actors is that everyone works for free at some point. Lawyers take pro bono cases. My dentist just spent two weeks doing “Doctors without Borders”. Within our industry, directors, camera people, casting directors, set designers, etc. all do free gigs either to volunteer their time or to do something they haven’t had a chance to do yet. Maybe a cameraperson wants steadicam experience or a set designer always wanted to design a vampire movie, it’s either for themselves or to get more experience in another area of their work. It goes on all the time but actors seem to think, “If I’m not getting paid, it doesn’t make me legit.” Now, that is true and believe me the IRS will remind you of your “hobby” and all your tax write-offs regarding it, if it happens too many years in a row. That’s why I think you should come up with a number that makes you feel comfortable; a number that doesn’t make you feel taken advantage of. Most important a number that excites you about the possibility of getting the gig. Maybe the only chance you’ll get to play “Medea” is in the free theatre in the park. If you want to show your agent you can be a serial killer, you may only get the footage from a student film! Feed your mind, your soul, and your pocketbook. But know that most of the times that won’t all come in the same package. Don’t draw the line so deep in the sand that it cuts you off from the positive aspects of acting opportunities. Come up with your own way of doing it.
Perhaps for this month you will only submit for paying gigs and next month you’ll do both and so on. Something magical will always fall through the cracks, but only if you’re open to the possibilities. Money is just one way of acknowledging progress (and an important one at that) but don’t lose sight of the fact it’s only one way. Maybe you’re only on that set to help this new director discover how to be a pro. Maybe the footage won’t work for you and you were only there to serve this person so they will better understand what a working professional acts like. Maybe when the gig is done, you’ll feel nothing great came out of it. But mark my words… somewhere, somehow, it will benefit you or someone else that makes the acting world a better place. So sit down, think about it, figure out your percentages and start ACTING!!!!