Working Between Roles: The Reality of Life as an Actor
After the recent job-shaming of actress Katie Jarvis by a tabloid newspaper, Samantha Rea explores the reality of an actor's working life and the importance of keeping busy.
by Samantha Rea
While the viewing public might struggle to understand how an actor might need to work in a shop after a role on prime time television, it comes as no surprise to anyone involved in the acting industry.
"Sunday morning, I woke up really embarrassed and really made to feel quite ashamed… to wake up with my kids and see myself on the front of the pages, just for simply having a job in between my acting, it really did hurt me... It took a day or so for me to actually let it all digest, and to realise I had nothing to be ashamed about." Speaking on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, former EastEnders actress Katie Jarvis describes being "outed" by the tabloid Daily Star Sunday for working as a security guard in a shop.
The "Soap Exclusive" (as the Star billed it) led to a flood of support for the former soap star. Keen to put Katie’s retail job into perspective, actors on social media shared what they’d done to pay the rent, with Poirot star David Suchet revealing he'd unloaded lorries of frozen dog food. Former EastEnders actor Aaron Sidwell recounted a spell as a fishmonger, and Giles Watling, who appeared in TV staples Bread, Grange Hill and ’Allo ’Allo! recalled a job delivering bacon.
While the viewing public might struggle to understand how an actor might need to work in a shop after a role on prime time television, it comes as no surprise to anyone involved in the acting industry. "It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic model we live in to think that artists can support themselves entirely from the work they make," says Caroline Leslie, Head of Acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). "We strongly advise our students to find other income streams that can support them," she says, explaining that without non-acting work to help make ends meet, "artistic achievement becomes the sole proviso of an elite who can afford it."
For Will Huntington, who graduated from Italia Conti with a BA (Hons) in Acting, working front of house for a wealth management company makes acting possible. Currently touring in the Agatha Christie play A Murder is Announced Will explains: "We tend to do four or five weeks on tour, then have a few weeks off. While the weekly wage isn’t anything to scoff at, we don’t get paid for the weeks off." This is where Will’s front of house job comes in. "I’ve been working there since April," says Will. "The tour started in August and it’s just been extended to early-May, so I’m very fortunate that they’ve been so flexible!"
Will hasn’t always been so lucky. He says, "a lot of jobs I’ve had or applied for haven’t understood that acting comes first. The jobs that did allow me to be an actor meant I’d work the best part of 40 hours a week, doing antisocial shifts, to only just make ends meet."
When paying London rent became increasingly difficult, Will moved to Manchester, where he found his current position. "It’s taken me the best part of ten years to find a company this accommodating. They’re forward-thinking and they encourage creativity, but I do worry where the limit is," says Will, whose Manchester base comes with the downside of forking out for train fares to audition in London.
To make a living in any creative industry you need to have a survival job. Especially if you’re an actor because unless you’re in the 2% you’re not going to be acting all the time and there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it.
Carolina Mae has been acting since the age of ten and did a degree in music at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM). She sees working between performing jobs as a necessity. "To make a living in any creative industry you need to have a survival job. Especially if you’re an actor because unless you’re in the 2% you’re not going to be acting all the time and there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it."
While Carolina is stoical about doing non-acting jobs, the work available isn’t always ideal. "I used to hate the call centre,” she says. "It was soul-destroying having to up-sell to the elderly. All I wanted was a creative job that paid the bills, but it seems like most jobs for actors involve saying horrible things, but delivering them in a friendly, personable manner!"
Carolina’s worst job was in a shopping centre over Christmas. She says: "I worked as an elf, entertaining kids waiting to see Santa. It was basically childcare, but with no DBS and no training to work with children. Our shifts were almost twelve hours with hardly any breaks – I left because it was out of control!"
But it hasn’t all been bad - working in the call centre turned out to be a great networking opportunity. "Everyone working there was an actor! I ended up on acting jobs with a few of them," says Carolina, who reveals that a market research company turned out to be her favourite employer. "It was the best out of all the jobs I’ve had, and they were so flexible around my acting work, but if it was busy, I'd be running around like a headless chicken trying to balance everything!"
Now, after two years of working there, Carolina’s hung up her headset, and she’s hoping to make a living from performing full time: "But I’m lucky," she says. "If I didn’t live with my parents in London, I don’t think I’d be able to take the plunge!"
Adam Wittek trained on the BA Acting course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He supplements his income from acting by translating between English and German and doing roleplay work for corporate training. Adam also draws on the experience he gained prior to training as an actor, by tutoring undergraduates in business and marketing. "I’m happy that my non-acting work is usually related to my previous career, which I was equally passionate about," says Adam.
Having appeared in the BBC series Doctors, and Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators, Adam says, "I always prioritise my acting career over anything else," explaining that he sometimes cancels non-acting work, "even in situations where there is only the prospect of a recall or acting job with no confirmation yet." While this can mean missing out on income, for Adam it’s a risk worth taking. "It’s about how you manage your priorities, your time and your finances to drive your acting career forward while maintaining positive relationships with employers in the non-acting world," explains Adam.
This is a lesson he’s learnt from his own experience. "At drama school, teachers talked very little about the day-to-day reality of an actor's life. There is definitely massive neglect in the education on the business and financial side of things as part of drama school training," says Adam. He counts himself lucky to have such flexible streams of income, noting that finding non-acting work that fits in with acting can be, "another layer of pressure on the working actor."
It’s important not to be isolated, and not to spend all your time focusing on acting.
While financial security might be the main motivation for getting a job outside acting, the benefits go beyond being able to pay the bills. "You can use it as a character study," says Sarah Camlett, an agent at the Independent Talent Group. "If you work in a café, you can use every person who comes in as inspiration for characters – and it’s an opportunity to practise your accents."
The main thing though is doing something. "There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning and not having a purpose," says Sarah. "As an actor hopefully you’re working, or you’ve got an audition, or you’ve got an audition to prepare for, but that’s not always the case, and I think having a purpose, being a citizen of the world, and being amongst other people, is really important and really healthy."
A drama school graduate herself, Sarah says, "I was an out of work actor, and I did all sorts of ridiculous jobs – it was almost part of being young and having a bit of an adventure in life." She adds: "It’s important not to be isolated, and not to spend all your time focusing on acting. Having other interests and other things to do makes you a more rounded and interesting person. It also helps you to walk out of an audition and forget about it, instead of waiting for the phone to ring!"
The job-shaming of Katie Jarvis struck a nerve throughout the acting industry. "It reminded me of all the ignorant family members you get at Christmas, who don't understand life as an actor," says Carolina, while Will points out: "We don’t laugh at the office worker who’s been made redundant and had to find work elsewhere."
For Adam, it highlighted the problem that, "the wider public are often not aware of a typical actor's life, as media coverage mostly focuses on those at the very top with a celebrity status and perpetuates an image that either you’re a star or you’re a failure." He hopes that a greater understanding of what it means to be a jobbing actor could be a "positive thing coming out of this debacle."
Sarah Camlett sums up the presiding feeling when she says: "No one should be vilified for earning a living. I think it would be really sad for people to feel like they couldn’t get a job for fear of being mocked or looked down on," while Caroline Leslie states: "If we are serious as a society about removing barriers to the creative industries, we must support and encourage this endeavour for the many, not the few." Working between artistic projects, "is a bravery that needs to be applauded, not shamed."
Samantha Rea is a journalist whose brief foray into acting may be familiar to connoisseurs of low budget ads for weight loss equipment and dodgy dating sites. She still has flashbacks to sobbing in a basement (aka studying Meisner) and is now very happy to lock herself in a room with her laptop. Samantha’s journalistic feats include wild swimming in Sark and defining the etiquette for afternoon tea. She can usually be found drinking cocktails at a press launch (subject to a guarantee of unlimited canapes).
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