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A Day in the Life of a Actor

One actor we interviewed referred to his life as a modified version of the song “Do the Hustle,” in which he ran from audition to audition and checked his answering machine messages every two hours for news of a possible callback. Actors’ satisfaction with their profession seems to vacillate with whether or not they are currently working. Many working actors would agree with the one who wrote that he found the occupation “challenging, thrilling, exciting, and wonderful.” Some nonworking actors may agree with the one who wrote that acting can be “a dead end to nowhere.” In various ways, most actors described their choice of career as not a choice at all: “There was nothing else I wanted to do,” wrote one woman; “I guess I’m just demented.” The community of similarly “demented” professionals is the most supportive aspect of this otherwise cutthroat career. Why else would they stay in a profession in which the average Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) member earns less than $7,000 from acting annually?

Paying Your Dues

Formal training is not required to become an actor, but the number of “natural talents” who spring fully groomed into a successful professional career is very small. Most actors study acting, appear in low-budget and local productions, learn (and benefit) from those appearances, and then begin the cycle again. Some study acting in college; others find it helpful to study further and receive a Master of Fine Arts in Acting. Working actors are constantly going on casting calls, finding agents, and getting reviewed (favorably, if possible); all of these are arduous and time-consuming tasks, more often resulting in rejection rather than success. Many actors choose to move to major cities (in particular New York for theater and Los Angeles for film and television) because more opportunities exist in those places. Regional theaters can be excellent but provide only limited exposure. Generally, actors who have been hired for a union production can apply to the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) and/or Actors’ Equity for membership—two unions that demand higher wages for their performers.

Present and Future

Acting might trace its roots to the campfires of prehistoric people, when hunters would reenact the story of the hunt and praise their deeds in a communal ceremony. It is truly a phenomenon of humankind rather than of any specific country. The Greeks defined the art form with their theological and political plays; Japanese Kabuki theater portrayed historical events intended to illuminate the human condition. Acting is a storied and respected profession that rewards its stars with fame, fortune, and adulation. More than half of all acting revenues in the United States tend to stem from commercials, and this trend is expected to continue. The remainder of revenue is derived primarily from films. While the career is potentially very profitable for a select few, the likelihood of becoming a star remains slim.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

As at all levels in the profession, the attrition rate is high—more than 30 percent. Actors go to open casting calls that may attract hundreds of people auditioning for a single part, audition for everything from commercials to dramatic roles, and juggle paying jobs and, usually, nonpaying acting careers. Most people continue to study acting by attending workshops, enlisting private instructors, and reading. New actors practice their craft by acting in productions at smaller theaters and assisting other productions in unpaid (or low-paying) jobs.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Individuals who survive for five years as actors have an improved quality of life. By this point, they are likely to have agents, who send them on auditions for suitable parts; they’ve received some reviews, have made some connections in the casting community, and have supplemented money-earning jobs with paying acting jobs. Many actors have become members of the SAG or Actors’ Equity unions, which command higher wages for their members; they also offer discounted rates on health benefits. While they may audition for parts more selectively, the level of acceptance remains low. Many actors turn to teaching acting to earn income.

TEN YEARS OUT

In other professions where a person may have survived for 10 years, he or she would have achieved a reputation or some level of financial security; however, in acting it just means an actor has been working for 10 years. Some members of the profession will have achieved this and more, including international fame; for most, though, the struggle continues with improving their skills and getting work. While actors span a variety of ages, nearly 60 percent of all roles are scripted for people in the 20- to 40-year-old range. This is not to say that there are no parts for younger or older actors; the competition just gets fiercer the longer a person manages to survive in the profession. Of course, those who do remain in the profession for significant periods of time have probably established well-respected reputations.