Money is the Root of All Guilt
When you've been on television (what a fucking humble opening), there is sometimes the misconception that I live in a house similar to that of Tony Soprano, or Scarface. I don't. Don't get me wrong, my living space is nothing to sneeze at. I love my apartment. But more than once, I've had people assume that I'm loaded because I've had a few lines on a few network shows (oh, so now you're watering down your success in the same paragraph. Cool, you seem fine.)
I've had people let me pick up bar tabs because I have "that TV money." I've been invited on trips and outings that involve lots of spending, to which I have to decline due to catering season slowing down, and have been hit with "but weren't you just on that show?" And, speaking of catering, I've had fellow co-workers greet me on shifts by saying, "what the fuck are you doing here? Weren't you just in that thing?"
And it's not just me in that survival job regard. Watching my fellow artists on leave for months at a time for tours and cruises always makes me happy, then sad when they return to the trenches. Seriously, name one other job industry in the world, where when you see someone you love after an extended period of time, you greet them with "ah, you're back. Damn."
There are a small sliver of artists out there who sustain a comfortable income solely on what they want to be doing. It's the holy grail. I can only speak for myself, but I know I'm not alone in this frame of mind:
I don't need to be famous, I just want to act for a living.
Do I want to make an impact with my work? Of course. Do I want to gain auteur status in my filmmaking and screenwriting? Sure I do. Do I want to land one of those once-in-a-lifetime roles, like Walter White or Tony Soprano? Fuck yes.
But wait, I still want to be able to eat in a restaurant in peace. I can still have that, right?
But like, can I just be a recurring on a network show and make a living and not have to spend my weekends suppressing the urge to punch drunk people in the mouth?
Why are you putting down recurring roles on network shows, Chris?
I'm not. Fuck you.
But you said "just".
I just mean, like, "just" enough to live on.
The money comes with sacrifice. You can't have your cake and eat it, too.
Oh, fuck it, I'll just accept all the catering gigs I can, then I'll claim unemployment once things slow down, like I've done every year for the last five years.
Whoa whoa whoa.... you're on UNEMPLOYMENT?!? BUT YOU WERE JUST ON FBI AND BLUE BLOODS IN THE SAME WEEK.
ALRIGHT. Let's slow the fuck down before my inner demons get into a full-blown donny brook over here.
I'm going to rewind back to a Facebook memory that I found from 2010-ish, when I had no significant acting credits outside of the pays I did in college. It said this:
"Wait... you're going to PAY ME to ACT? Yes, I accept. I have no terms."
Oh my god, I wish I could stop that guy in a stairwell and smack him around a little. But why was I conditioned to think that way? Well, I'll tell ya, reader, ya cute son of a bitch:
Compensation: No pay, but meals, travel, and IMDb credit provided.
Any actor will tell you, breaking into the business is essentially a five year internship. Somewhere along the way, in some board meeting of "how to we fuck more artists over", it was unanimously decided that the actor will be the first budget casualty.
The film will be submitted to all film festivals. Exposure. You'll be doing a PLAY, Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway, after rehearsing for two months, all without pay, but my friend's cousin know's a guy who is neighbors with this talent manager and they invited them.
Acting is a rich kid's sport.
We're groomed very early-on to believe that we shouldn't be paid for our art, unless we're some kind of superstar. You know how there are internships before entry-level jobs, for students and shit? That's what most actors spend years and years breaking through before sniffing paid work.
Then, on top of that, we're expected to pay nearly a thousand dollars for headshots (to be updated every two years, per industry recommendation.) We're expected to invest in acting classes, casting director workshops, and pay money to get in front of agents and managers.
Now, since the pandemic, we're also expected to turn our apartments into photography studios and self-tape our auditions, completely eliminating the human element of working with a casting director in the room. If our self-tape setup isn't perfect, which means spending money on lights, backdrops, a tripod, and a good camera source (a lot of smart phones suck at this), it's even that much more difficult to stand out. Yes, your acting will ultimately be the thing to get you the job, but they need to see you clearly for your to make an impression.
So, what happens if you break through and start getting paid for your work? Well, in the film and television world, the first delicious punch in the mouth is the union initiation fee, which costs about $3,600. When I booked my first speaking role on an HBO series, I was a non-union. I got a phone call from my agent the day before I was supposed to report to set, letting me know that the production said I was a must-join, and that I had to come up with all that cheddar, or else they'd have to give it to the next guy.
Imagine that? Landing something you've dreamed about since you were a kid, only to be confronted with, "yeah, I know you're struggling to pay your bills and stuff, but you need to use all your tax return money and spread out 3 G's over 4 different credit cards if you want that stellar IMDb credit, otherwise we're going to give it to this other bloke who looks just like you, you replaceable fuck."
Before I get myself blackballed, I need to make something clear: Yes, the union does protect you from not getting paid what you are entitled to. Yes, at some point, if you keep booking work, the union initiation will pay for itself (emphasis on the if you keep booking work.)
But wait, then you have to tack on $220 per year in union dues. Then, 10% to your agent, 15-20% for a manager, and like a million percent to the fucking government. Oh, and $168 per year to keep a picture on your IMDb page, because you don't want to look like an amateur. $300 per year to keep your casting profiles up to date for your agents to submit you. $22 per minute to upload a new clip from your recent booking. $10 per picture to upload your new headshots. I didn't even put a number on those acting classes and casting director workshops, but please trust me, it's a lot.
$1,000 to appear on television for a day doesn't seem so lucrative now, does it?
And I'm not even going to touch theatre. (Actually, yes I am.) A friend of mine posted a breakdown from a regional theatre in West Virginia, that was going to pay its non-union actors $235 per week with NO HOUSING. What in god's blue fucking name are you supposed to do to support yourself during rehearsals and the run of the show? You're relocating, leaving your survival job, and likely having to sublet your apartment to do this thing, and you're expected to build a new life for yourself for the next 6-8 weeks? Try to get a job at Walmart in-between rehearsals?
All for the "opportunity" to perform in front of a crowd that is nowhere near the market where all the action is actually happening? Is the casting director for The Equalizer going to happen to be in the audience of this Wheeling, West Virginia playhouse, because they're in town for their niece's high school graduation?
Oh wait, did I mention the rejection? The weekly, daily, hourly, walking pneumonia that is being told "no" over and over again? Preparing your ass off, spending money on an acting coach, and putting every bit of you out there for an audition, only to not even hear back? So, damn, it's not even a "no", it's an act of ghosting. And while I fully acknowledge that a casting director or producer doesn't have time to email every single actor they audition to tell them they didn't book the part, it still doesn't mean that the whole process doesn't suck for us.
Sprinkle in some past-trauma, mental illness, pressure to keep our bodies in "I almost don't hate myself" shape, and the nightly dealings with belligerent fuck head customers at survival jobs, is it any wonder why so many of us struggle with self-worth? And is it any wonder why being compensated for our blood, sweat, tears and heart can feel so fucking foreign, and, I'll say it again, so wrong?
So, having said all of that, is it any wonder why I feel guilty when I make money? Is it any wonder why I feel like an imposter when I audition for something big, or landing a recurring role on a TV series? I know full-well that I deserve to be there. I have swinging-dick confidence in my acting ability. I know how hard I've worked to get where I'm at, but there's still that thing.... that noise, that voice... that makes it somehow feel wrong to get rewarded handsomely for my work.
Okay. Here's the good news, because, god damn, did I just dig myself a self-pity hole.
The good news is... acting, art, theatre, film, music, writing, whatever the craft, is the place to exercise those demons. And it is fucking awesome. There's nothing like bulldozing your way through a vicious fight scene in an acting class, thinking about the smug, needle-dick rich kid who complained because I stirred their "dirty Tito's Martini, extra dirty" instead of shaking it (fuckin' rookie), then proceeded to tell me "I'm a bartender, not a doctor" when I spitefully cut them off an hour later.
Putting my anger, shame, insecurities, and all the other goodies into my art saved my life. No doubt about it. It's therapy. Expensive therapy, but therapy.
And there's an army of us, who bleed and sweat together, who live and fight in the struggle. We bond and become stronger over all of this shit. There are more dark days than none, but there's nothing more wonderful than opening night, when you've seen something through and you get that first audience reaction, or you see the first cut of the film you and your friends shot guerilla-style for no budget.
We have breakthroughs in acting classes, in coaching sessions, on stage and on set, that make it all feel worth it. We take risks. We find safe places to do unsafe things. We find our tribes. All of that makes it worth it. My art is worth it.
And I deserve to be paid for it.
If you are struggling with your mental health, there is no shame in getting help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.