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The Cost of Being an Actor

The Cost of Being an Actor

There is something in the air at the moment, so many friends and colleagues are feeling it. (Image above by Portia Gebauer)

Let me start by saying, doing freebies as an actor is definitely part and parcel of getting work in the beginning. I’m not complaining that I’ll never do it again, because of course I will for the right project. This article is just an eye opener to those out there who put actors in the ‘she’ll be right’ category, or have confused ‘exposure and lunch’ as currency. I’m absolutely available for roles, but if it’s unpaid, I have to weigh up quite a few things before saying yes.
Acting is an important job onset, and if you are budgeting for everything else, then wait another week and save up enough to pay your actors.

It costs a lot, in more ways than money and time, but let’s look at the basics.

1. Petrol or transport costs.
2. Make up. Many short films don’t have MUA on set, so we must use our own.
3. Time off work. For the actor that has a day job, time off work means even less money coming in from this ‘exposure’

These are the most basic things that we are paying you for, to be in your film/play/project. The decent thing to do would be to cover pay (If taking a day off) and petrol costs, as well as a token depreciation cost of make up.
One thing that does peeve me is seeing the write up for the project, where they stress that all the cash is needed for ‘professional’ services like post production, location fees, equipment hire etc. Actors are an essential and ‘professional’ service on set. If you’ve been skating by using friends, family or the same actors that are happy to work for free, there is a reason why your film hasn’t hit it big time on the festival circuit. Pay a professional to do a professional job. We’re not talking big bucks here, see points 1 – 3 above and make sure it’s worthwhile.

Keeping ourselves nice

Our face and body is our product and it costs money to keep it in top condition. Gym fees, dancing lessons, skin care products, make up, treatments, hair cuts etc all cost if you want us looking our best. It’s not helpful for you to say ‘you look fine without it’ or ‘it’s not really essential’ because what do you know? Every little bit is adding to our marketability and allure to casting directors.

I don’t mean we all have to look like movie stars, but maintenance is key. This one is even worse when directors ask for something specific that we ‘should’ own if we want the role including specialty make up, costumes, props or to look a certain way. I’ve been asked if I could source a long hair wig for a film, free of charge (Or at my expense) for a film that I wouldn’t be getting paid for. I politely said no and moved on.


Yes, you must go to acting classes, weapons training, martial arts training, stunts, etc if you want to become good at it, and remain good at it. Not all of this applies, for example I won’t be shelling out for martial arts training as I don’t really have the ‘type’ where I’ll need it right now. You get the idea though. I’ve had people say to me ‘Oh, aren’t you a bit past the whole acting classes thing?’ No, I’m not. And I probably never will be. Practice makes perfect. Like playing an instrument, repeated practice is key. If you are not investing in yourself, then you’re unlikely to get better.


This is a big one. Even if you don’t have a day job, and act as your primary job, time is precious. Many short films get shot at night as the crew are students, or they have a day job themselves meaning you give up your nights and weekends anyway. I was once asked to perform in a short film that would shoot for 9 days straight, no pay, no expenses paid. I’m sorry, but that’s not a fair deal. I was told ‘exposure’ – well guess what? I didn’t take the role, and I’ve never seen the film be promoted, at any festivals, no website, no IMDB and haven’t seen the HODs on any other projects. Just what kind of exposure were you talking about?

I’m sure many of you can relate. It’s not like I’m boycotting the industry, I understand student productions and small time or new production companies want to get a reel together in order to move into the big time. Just realise, that so are your actors, and once you’re across getting funding or you’re saving up for it – do us all a favour, and include actors as an essential expense.

Emotional or Mental wellbeing

If you have had little to do with the acting craft, you might think it’s simply ‘lying’ or ‘being someone else’. If that’s you, rethink it please. I would define it (and every actor has their own methods and way they work) as ‘someone else’s words + my life experience = truth’

What does this mean? It means that to get into a character, yes I have a script handy, but I need to research who that person is. What training did they take? (College or high school drop out?) what kind of peers do they have, or did they grow up with? What are their parents like? Etc.

What’s in the script doesn’t actually have to have happened to you, but you have had a wealth of experiences in your life (well, hopefully) and there is always something similar, or a person you knew that might fit with what you’re trying to say in your scene. You use this emotional recall, plus your research, plus the script to make the performance as realistic as possible. This kind of rollercoaster can happen a few times a day. And then you’re expected to snap out of it and ‘be you’. One actor I know likened it to a solider coming back from deployment to try and fit in with the real world. No, it’s not the same, but the extreme moods, emotions and thoughts are tough to have all in one day only to go home and be normal.

All I’m getting at here is that it can take a toll if you aren’t prepared or you’re stressed out about other things. Even on us actors that haven’t made the big time, or aren’t working on insane roles. Learning to get there and back, and there again take training, dedication and a team of great people to work with. Artists have a high incidence of anxiety disorders, so remember, we are people and you are asking us to delve into our craft to make you look good too. Take care of us, and we’ll take care of you.


Not all actors have supportive friends and family, in fact the better you get the less interested everyone seems. This can be frustrating, and can feed into the instability of your mind or cause anxiety. You might question everything for no reason. If you give up, they are there to tell you ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ but might not champion you if you were to have a big win.

Relationships can suffer if a partner or parent can’t understand the difference between love and an on screen chemistry. It’s no surprise that you hear stories of successful actors that rarely have contact with family, or see people outside of the entertainment profession. Jealousy runs rampant.

Supporting an actor friend who is succeeding isn’t taking away from your achievements, and it certainly doesn’t make them better or worse than you. It’s a job like any other, and if you scoff at an awards night for an actor, but get excited for a mate getting employee of the month in his or her industry then you are exemplifying the tall poppy syndrome at it’s worst. Don’t punish artists for entertaining you.

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