One of the finest actors with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of working once shared two pearls of wisdom that have stayed with me: “It’s all bullsh#t” and “take the money.” The former was the mantra he whispered to himself to calm his nerves every night before making his first entrance for a tour-de-force performance that would shine on any stage anywhere. The latter was a lesson he’d learned from his elder, a seasoned veteran who had once chosen to exercise the exit clause in his contract with one of America’s foremost regional theatre companies to take a role on a short-lived TV show.
Professional actors work in a strange business where artistic worthiness and financial value rarely align. I recently came to a sobering realization – that for my own career, the combined money I have made over the years from my most critically acclaimed stage roles was easily surpassed by what I earned silently licking chocolate syrup off the floor in one regional TV spot. Hundreds of hours of grappling with Shakespeare, Chekhov, Stoppard and Wilde couldn’t feed the kitties like a morning spent in a near sugar coma under the doleful gaze of a sympathetic crew. Go figure. But maybe the strangest part of it all is that I took that silly commercial gig just as seriously as any stage role I’ve been fortunate enough to play. Then again, maybe that’s why I booked the part!
I’ve never bought into the notion that we need to starve for our art, unless the Method is your madness and the part calls for it, in which case have at it! There’s nothing wrong with using the tools of our craft to pay the mortgage. The trick is to achieve a healthy balance. Lucky is the actor who can feed his or her soul and stomach in equal measure.