I’ll say it again, numbers lie. Okay, a better way to put it might be to say that statistics often don’t paint the proverbial complete picture, but that’s kind of wordy and less provocative. I’m referring specifically to the oft-quoted numbers that show how futile it is to pursue a career in the performing arts. You’ve seen them: the average SAG-AFTRA member barely averages a minimum wage equivalent over the course of a year. Not THAT bad you say? Consider that that stat includes the mega stars and their $20M per-picture salaries. 90% of professional actors made less than $5K last year plying their craft.
There’s a reason why CareerCast listed Acting among the top 10 most stressful jobs for 2015 http://www.careercast.com/jobs-rated/most-stressful-jobs-2015. For most actors the majority of our work is seeking work. Presenting a polished, confident audition for a role is exponentially harder when making rent depends on booking it. Whenever a show closes, a voice project is completed or a shoot day wraps, even well established actors join the ranks of the unemployed. Only the most dedicated survive. And yet…
I believe that a few outliers skew statistics like these, and for that we can be grateful. Here’s a time I saw this in action:
During summer break from college one year, a big Hollywood movie was being filmed on campus at my school. A track based story called Personal Best and starring a young Mariel Hemingway, the production needed extras by the thousands to fill out the stadium grandstands. All we had to do was show up on time and appropriately dressed, sign in, take a seat and cheer when directed to do so. It was pretty much a big party with lunch provided. The pay was only minimum wage, but at that time (1981) the country was in the middle of a recession, so any paycheck was welcome. Besides, it was so dang much fun!
The 2nd AD was a hoot and did his best to keep us entertained between takes. Mariel Hemingway was really sweet, going out of her way to say “hi” to any background person who passed near her. At one point I even got picked out of the crowd by the director, Robert Towne and was placed directly behind the stars in the crucial climactic moment. I was going to be on the big screen, a star!!! It was the coolest job imaginable…yet a few dozen people proved constitutionally incapable of doing it.
After the second day or so I noticed that some of the more abrasive personalities from the first day were nowhere to be seen (or heard) until we wrapped that evening. By the third day time cards were being checked much more closely by production, and we were being asked to show ID when clocking out. Security at the entrance gate doubled.
Apparently a few dozen folks had figured out that they could clock in, leave for most of the day then return at daily wrap to sign out. To this day I think about that whenever someone trots out statistics about the number of working actors making a living. If a significant number of people in a random group can’t manage to fulfill the duties of the easiest of jobs, how many people who call themselves actors don’t even try to do the work needed to succeed at one of the hardest?
Yes, it’s a tough slog, but as far as I’m concerned, the stats are pretty much meaningless to those who show up and continue to do the work every day. For us, the numbers are in our favor!
BTW – my stardom was not meant to be. The ending of the movie was changed in post and “my” scene deleted – not the last time I’d end up on the cutting room floor. Hey, maybe I’ll do an article on the valuable life lesson of handling disappointment!