You’ve been studying your craft for years, put in the time and money towards representing yourself the right way, perfecting your audition skills, and have a network of supportive people around you. So why then, would you accept anything less than you deserve for those skills? It can be very difficult in this industry as a struggling artist to negotiate what you deserve for your time. If you’re starting out and don’t have a huge resume of professional credits, it’s easy to lower your standards for the type of work you’re willing to accept. But I think you should evaluate long and hard who you are and what you deserve.
Now I’m not saying that every actor starting out should start figuring out mathematically how much their time and talents are worth (mainly because math is hard, so don’t strain yourselves…I try not to). But what I am saying, is that you have to consider the jobs (paying and non) that are going to make you better and prepare you for that next level in the career you want and are right for.
I think when an actor is new, that doing background work to be on a set or short films wherever they can get them are good for learning how things work. But after a while, you have to consider which projects are wasting time that you could be dedicating to other things. Having a few good student films or a Web Series under your belt can look good on a resume and be useable footage for a reel. However, having fifty short film credits by no name directors that often times turn out to be awful (either because of the script or the overall shooting experience was done unprofessionally) does not make you more of a professional. It isn’t always about the number of credits you’ve amassed, but the quality of the ones you have. Early on, you should absolutely try to say yes to as much work as possible. But it’s the type of work and the understanding of who you are that is going to make the difference in how and when you move up in the industry.
The first thing you need to be able to do is analyze your talents. How many years have you spent dedicating yourself to learning the craft and putting it to use? You should never stop studying no matter what level of success you reach. But after a while, in my opinion at least 2-5 years of study (of course everyone is different), I think you then need to start figuring out your type, what makes you unique within that type, and the type of projects you belong in. When accepting roles in Web Series or short films, if the vibe of the project is in line with the television shows that your type is right for, then go for it! Because if it’s done well, then you have experience working on a set within the vibe that you are trying to seek out professionally.
Another aspect to analyzing your talents is to know your strengths and weaknesses. If you haven’t done drama and you get an opportunity for a non-paying short film, I’d say do it. Because you may not be a dramatic actor at the moment (comedy may be the thing to get you in the door within the industry), but you can use this opportunity to hone your skills further and learn something new. Sometimes behind some of the funniest actors in Hollywood, exist an amazing dramatic actor waiting for their moment to go dark for the world.
Next, research everything about a project when a role is offered to you. Find out who the DP is and what work they’ve done previously. More than likely they have past work up on the internet somewhere that you can view. Research the director and the writer (sometimes they are the same person). Sometimes the director/writer is new and this is their first venture. In that case, read the script (request it if it hasn’t been sent to you) and consider if the writing is good. There is a lot of bad writing out there, and sometimes no matter how gifted an actor you are, bad writing will not show you off in a good light. It’s ok to decline. Always be polite; never make anyone feel bad because we all have different skills and improve at different paces.
Finally, it’s about negotiating when to do something and when not to do something. Things may be right for you at different times in your career. You may outgrow doing student films, and that’s ok. But if you feel that way, then you need to get yourself ready in order to reach that next level of what you do want to do. As long as you’re approaching it with a positive outlook and not an ego, you’ll be on the right track. Be smart and know how to communicate in a way when dealing with business that you come off looking knowledgeable and not as having an “I deserve” attitude.
In the end, it’s ok to turn down work you feel isn’t going to benefit you. I don’t suggest this in regards to Co-Star Roles in legit TV and Film jobs because even if you have only one line, you’re going to learn so much just by watching things on the set, and you still have that professional credit on your resume. Always be gracious, respectful, and timely. Don’t leave someone hanging on for a response on accepting a role when you know early on that you don’t want to do the project. Respectfully turning down something is more noble than being the flaky actor who doesn’t return emails or calls. Just don’t tweet your turn down; it’s super weird and you only want to be weird on screen when appropriate right? As Lil John says: “Turn Down for What?” You’ll know.