Friday 22 October 2010

When An Actor Says "I'm Sorry, But I've Just Been Offered Paid Work"

It's day four of a six day shoot. You have invested all of your energy in putting this incredible project together. You managed to get an incredible cast, the best DP in independent film and you somehow managed to score an office location for the shoot for free. Everything is perfect. And then your actor awkwardly says "Um, I've been offered a paid job tomorrow, and I have to take it." Actually, they probably don't say that; they text it, or email it, or tweet it. This is one of the big elephants in the room in independent filmmaking. But this elephant gets around, because absolutely everyone has experienced it. So, on the one hand, I'm inclined to go into the big question of -- what do you do in this situation? But I'd rather focus on the one who is creating this conflict, the one who is taking the paid job. Because it is to them that we really need to say; what are you doing?

Of course, the simple wisdom is 'pay them something' and 'get them to sign a contract,' and these things sound lovely - but people still walk out after four days to do something else. So firstly, before we go on, I hope we can all agree that this happens, and in fact - it happens quite often. It's very rare for the person leaving to go to a paid job instead and feel good about it. They will defensively say they have to or that they have no choice, but they will feel bad doing it and know they are in the wrong. You know this because they'll text you their excuse and you'll probably never see them again.

The two main reasons given are: "I'm sorry, but it's paid, and I'm so broke right now that I have to take it." The other one is "This is a great opportunity, the guy who was AD on that spin-off from that show who made that thing that used to be on NBC is directing it!" - this, of course, is especially true with actors who think it's their big break.
But it's this idea of a big break which is the troublesome thing--- because, the big break doesn't exist. Being in a commercial or having two lines in a feature film directed by someone reasonably established isn't a big break. Real acting, like real directing, isn't about a big break-- it's about constantly creating opportunity through your body of work. A big break, if it happens, is temporary, and fleeting. One minute, you're in a magazine as "The Star of 2007" and the next thing you know, it's 2010 and you've not had a job in three years. A real 'big break' happens once a year, and it happens to Kristen Stewart or Andrew Garfield. If David Fincher wants you in a movie - I understand. But if the paid job you're ditching your indie flick for is a yogurt commercial - you really need to think seriously about your priorities, and your career.

Let's imagine it's 2005, and Mark and Jay Duplass ask you to be in their independent film "THE PUFFY CHAIR." They're shooting it for $15,000; they can't pay you anything. The film is about relationships and it's mostly improvised. You get a role and it seems like fun-- you don't know much about them and you don't totally know if it will work, but you take the role.

And then two days into the shoot you get a call from your agent, if you have one; and they've got you a role playing a young parent in a McDonald's commercial, and they're paying you two thousand. What happens here is most people take the two thousand, and go do the McDonald's commercial.

Now, of course, on the shoot -- the Duplass Brothers would be pissed because you've monumentally fucked up their movie, which you know; so you keep avoiding them, meanwhile you do the McDonald's gig because you desperately need the money and you want to get that big break.

So now it's 2010. Five years have gone by and that two thousand is long gone. Would you rather have done the McDonald's commercial or starred in one of the best independent films of the last decade? Which one is the best for your career? Reality check--- if you're in this business for the money, or for stardom, you really shouldn't be wasting your time in independent films in the first place. If you want to be doing good, meaningful work -- do it now, and dedicate yourself to it.

There are two very different roads to be taken on the way to 'success' in this industry. One is financial; it involves stardom, magazine covers, and the hope that one day you'll be Johnny Depp or Megan Fox. The other way is to do projects that move you, inspire you, and challenge you. You can start deciding to do those right now, TODAY. You can find the writers and directors who are really trying to do something that is about having something to say, and about putting out meaningful art. You can align yourself with them and there's the hope that one day you'll be Mark Duplass or Patricia Clarkson.

Next time you are caught between the paid job, and the great job - it's really a decision about who you are and what you're in this industry for. ESPECIALLY when the two of them collide, and ESPECIALLY ESPECIALLY when you have already agreed to do the no-budget project.

This isn't an article about being pretentious or about being purely about art. It's about realising there are different things we can be chasing. And if you get too caught up in success, you're going to lose out on a lot of amazing experiences. I know a lot of filmmakers who have been majorly let down by actors for these very reasons. And more often than not, the filmmakers go on to do great work and the actor's are still chasing down jobs and struggling. A 'big break' to me is either a) Getting cast in a big franchise and getting stinking rich --OR-- b) Getting cast in the next 'Once' or 'The Puffy Chair." As an actor, you should decide which one you're after. And then go for it completely.

Care to share?


  1. Me and my mom have an on going inside joke for whenever we watch a commercial with a painfully overreaching actor we are sure to note the end of their 15 minutes, or as close as they're like to get, of fame the second the commercial ends.

    Great post!

  2. First, I'd like to agree that if it's day 4 of a 6 day shoot and someone takes another job, whether they are an actor, PA or Art director, it is truly awful and unprofessional.

    And I appreciate you saying that yes, the way to fix it is to PAY your cast and crew what they're worth to keep them working for you.

    Doing non paid Indie work is always a gamble. If an actress chooses the production who can't afford to pay her, perhaps they can't afford post production either. More often than not, productions who can't pay their actors have the film stored in terabyte drives in their closets, waiting for more money to come in so they can finish their film. Even The Puffy Chair took five years to go to a festival. And not every micro budget production is going to be as amazing as The Puffy Chair.

    That McDonald's commercial isn't paying $2,000. It's paying at least $20,000-30,000. And this actress, who took the one day of commercial work, now has enough money to be in many indie productions that can't pay her.

    And keep in mind the relationship the actress has with her agent. She's in this indie not making any money for her agent, and keeping her from paying work. Suddenly the agent who reps her can make money from her and she's turning it down? That actress is going to be dropped faster than a hot potato.

    Instead of blaming so and so for taking paid work when you can't pay them yourself, why not just make sure your production has flexibility? That's smarter film making.

    And who's to say that absolutely NOTHING happened to that actress's career in the five years it took for the indie to premiere? How do you know the commercial she took didn't go on to a two year campaign that the casting director for a new pilot loved and brought the actress in for? Now that actress is starring in her own series. It's just as likely as happening as a 6 day micro budget indie becoming a festival darling. Actually, it's more likely, because she's had five years of other job opportunities available to her.

  3. Lira - I agree with everything you say.

    And sure, you're right; McDonalds ads must pay a lot more than what I wrote.

    Whilst I agree with everything you write; I'm not sure how relevant it is to what I was writing about. I was writing about people who flake out in the middle of a shoot because money's come along.

    Also; of course, I didn't mean that someone doing a McDonald's shoot isn't going to do anything else for five years. Again that wasn't really what I was getting at.

    And I agree; there's more chance the indie film will be shockingly bad than good.

    Re: a film taking five years to get to a festival; sure. I get that. Frustrating. But this is the beautiful journey of art, and that's what I'm talking about. You decide what you're after, if it's money now and some tangible 'success' I understand dropping out of a indie flick.

    The filmmaker has all the same pressures an actor has in terms of succeeding. Paying bills. Etc.

    Re: productions having flexibility, sure, yeah. But I wasn't talking about problems of flexibility, I was talking about actors disappearing mid shoot, after agreeing to do a project.

    I do sympathise with what you're saying. Acting is so tough and so crowded with people doing what you do. Especially if you're in LA or something. I'm in a weird position because I'm not in LA and I don't partake in the crazy business side of it. I withdraw completely and just do things at my own pace, and have made peace with the idea I may never have any money or a wide audience!

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