By Nina Metz
CHICAGO – “Geoffrey Owens, a former actor on ‘The Cosby Show,’ found himself at the center of the news cycle when shoppers captured photos of him working at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s,” Entertainment Weekly reported this week.
Let’s move past the gawking and apparent shock some had at the idea of a recognizable actor working a non-glamorous job and talk about the financial realities of being an actor. Because except for a lucky few earning top dollars, it is a fickle industry and profession where there are lulls between jobs, even for talented performers.
Audiences, I suspect, have no concept of what actors get paid – and the assumption that they all get paid well just isn’t true.
A few years ago I spoke with theater actors in Chicago – specifically non-Equity actors performing at storefront theaters – about what it means to earn little-to-no money for each project. Even if it’s a hit show.
That means most have day jobs in order to pay their bills, working an eight-hour day and then going to work at night for rehearsals or a performance.
This isn’t uncommon, which is why the hashtag #ActorsWithDayJobs took off in the wake of the original story about Owens working at Trader Joe’s.
The exhaustion is real. But it’s a strategic decision.
McKenzie Chinn was an actor I talked to for the piece and here’s what she told me:
“I think most of us were prepared for the grind of it, this idea of finding a way to make a living while continuing to make our art.”
Will Kiley was another actor I spoke to:
“When I moved to Chicago I had no concept that the pay would be so low at established theaters. I was surprised at the stipend culture; that was my ignorance.
“For the work you put in compared to the money you receive back, it doesn’t feel like there’s a direct correlation. I did some industrial voice-over stuff, and for two hours of work I got paid a couple thousand dollars, and that helped finance moving to Chicago, but that work felt artistically shallow and super-easy. Whereas I’ll work my tail off on a storefront show, which is what I want to be doing, and get paid in, you know, beer.”
Getting TV and film work can dramatically change their circumstances to a point where they can finally quit that day job.
But even then, it’s not as much money as people assume. Big earners are outliers.
Here are the numbers for film (as of 2017) according to The Hollywood Reporter:
“An actor with only a few credits appearing in his or her first big franchise movie – like Gal Gadot in ‘Wonder Woman’ or Henry Cavill in ‘Man of Steel’ – can expect to earn between $150,000 and $300,000. They’ll make considerably more if there’s a sequel. And on the really low end, the kids in ‘It’ were paid SAG-AFTRA scale, now between $65,000 and $75,000.”
TV actors are paid per episode. The Hollywood Reporter has the going rate on the low end at $30,000 per episode – “which is what the kids from ‘Stranger Things’ earned their first season.”
“Stranger Things” ran eight episodes in Season 1, making that a total of $240,000. For actors on broadcast network shows with 22 episodes, the $30,000/episode year-end total is considerably higher at $660,000.
Both are considerable sums. But not the kind of money to ensure an actor will never need to work again in their lifetime. And those salary figures are before agent (usually 10 percent) and manager (another 15 percent) fees are subtracted. And before taxes.
When a show runs for multiple seasons, actors are often able to negotiate increasingly higher salaries (the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” proved this out, with its core actors earning $1 million per episode) and in some cases actors are given an executive producer credit that entails profit participation – and indeed, those actors may never have to worry about earning a paycheck again.
But that’s true only for a small minority of people who work as actors.
I remember talking to Martha Plimpton years ago when she landed the Fox series “Raising Hope,” which ran for four seasons. Despite the fact that she was a household name by that point and had been in numerous movies (“The Goonies,” “Parenthood,” “Running on Empty,” “200 Cigarettes”) and guest-starred on numerous dramas (“The Good Wife” among them) and had picked up three Tony nominations, this was the first time she’d achieved financial security.
Television, she said, is the only way to make a living as an actor.
“You can try making a living in movies, but that’s just not going to happen anymore unless you’re a lead actor in a blockbuster. I’m a character actor, always have been, and movies just don’t pay supporting actors anything. Television is where you can make a living, and you can maybe have a life _ you can think about planning for retirement, like all that stuff that normal people do.”
And a recurring role just isn’t enough to make that happen.
Like Plimpton, “Luke Cage” star Mike Colter had a recurring role on CBS’s “The Good Wife.” Last month, he told me about the “survival job” he had waiting tables at a restaurant in NY while he was on the show _ and yes, people recognized him.
“The problem was, I was starting to get jobs where people recognized me (including the film “Million Dollar Baby”) but I didn’t have the financial freedom to quit my job. I needed to work at the restaurant. And it was a good survival job! So I had to decide, do I keep my survival job and just suck it up and give myself peace of mind financially and know exactly how I’m going to pay my bills? Or was I going to jump off the cliff as an artist and go from off-Broadway show to off-Broadway show; guest role to guest role? And for me, I didn’t want to do that. I was married and didn’t want to have an unstable lifestyle.
“But getting recognized at work was a problem! I was constantly being recognized and I felt like a sideshow freak. People would come in and go, ‘Oh my God, you’re …’ and I would say, ‘Yes (exasperated sigh), can I take your order?’ It was starting to happen to me a lot, especially when I started working on ‘The Good Wife.’
“The thing is, I was eventually able to quit _ but I wouldn’t, because I felt like, if I have time to work, then I felt like I should work. Obviously my ego’s going to take a hit if I’m recognized for being an actor on TV and yes, I still wait tables. It happened several times a day, to the point where I would take days off because I couldn’t deal with it. But I wanted to work and it was more money, and I was like, what’s wrong with a little more money? That was my insecurity. That was me wanting to save for a rainy day.”
For actors, jobs come and go.
“Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. told me nearly quit acting because of this kind of financial uncertainty:
“It was right before my 30th birthday and I had all these expectations that surrounded that number for me. There was a place that I thought I was supposed to be financially. A place of maturation that I thought was supposed to come hand-in-hand with the number, turning 30. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
“At the very least, I thought that you’re supposed to be able to stand on your own feet, you’re supposed to be able to pay your own rent, you’re supposed to go out on a date and pay for dinner. That kind of stuff. And there were times when I could do that, and there were times when I really couldn’t. And I was tired of the roller coaster.
“I was living in LA and I’d had some success as an actor, I can’t say that I was completely left in the cold. But it was really inconsistent and I was sick of it.”
Two years later, he would land the role of Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.”
None of this is predictable. Work isn’t always steady. Actors might be in-demand at one point, not-so-much at another. Factor in the pay gap as it applies to white women, people of color and women of color especially and earning (and saving) power goes down significantly.
That’s exacerbated by that fact women and people of color simply aren’t hired for as many roles. According to a recent study, only 31.2 percent of film leads were women and 13.9 percent were people of color.
All of that can conspire to make it even more challenging for working actors to sock away enough money to hold themselves over during a dry spell.