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Michelle Shyman
Michelle Shyman
Michelle Shyman

When most movie buffs think of actors, they think of the celebrities, those few glittering stars with luxurious lives, super skinny bodies, designer gowns, free designer jewelry, commercial endorsements, vacation homes on private islands and multiple divorces (and $100,000,000 bank accounts.)

However, fewer than one percent of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) members actually make a decent living; that is to say, make more than $30,000 a year. These super celebrities that we all read about on sites like Reel Life With Jane are even fewer than one percent. Yes, it’s fun to immerse ourselves in their fantasy lives. Today, though, let’s look at the life of the regular working actor.

The average working actor spends more time looking for work than actually working on a set. The average working actor most likely has what we call a “straight” job that pays the rent and buys the groceries and allows for some flexibility to go to auditions. The average working actor’s life is filled with more disappointments, non-returned phone calls and self-examination than with jetliners, diamonds, fancy restaurants or agents.  Here’s a typical week in my life as an average working actor:

Sunday

  • Yoga
  • Write three columns for three different film sites
  • Vocal exercises
  • Acting class — four hours
  • Review call boards for small, independent productions that are casting
  • Submit head shots, resumes or links to online casting sites

Monday

  • Work out
  • Eight hours at day job (part-time business management)
  • Sneak into the bathroom to have a phone call with screenwriting partner
  • At lunch break, run to audition which my agent set up for model patient gig.  Model patient is a low stress gig that really doesn’t need actors, but, for some reason, uses actors. You work at a medical facility and pretend to be a patient with particular symptoms which nurses and doctors in training try to diagnose. I once had a model patient gig that was really sweet: they used me as a demo subject for new ultrasound machine. All I had to do was lie on a table and let them scan me. For hours. Once I fell asleep and started snoring; that was bad. I book the gig. It is great: I will be working for them once or twice a month. It pays $100/hour.

Tuesday

  • Chris called me to say that my scene in his feature-length independent film was ruined by sunspots. He wants me to come in tomorrow to reshoot. Damn!  Tomorrow I can’t come in. I have an extremely high-paying commercial shoot for American Express. Chris’s film is a low-budget indie film; I think the actors were paid maybe a dollar an hour. I love his story; he has a wonderful voice and a huge heart. But I had only planned in my schedule for the one-day shoot, and I’m really, really sorry. Now I won’t be able to claim a credit for this film at all since he ends up cutting the scene — and my character — entirely.

Wednesday

  • Two hours at day job. They make rumblings about how I should commit to full-time or quit.
  • Drive to American Express shoot. Traffic is horrible, and this isn’t even L.A.!
  • I am really upset about Chris’s film, and it takes me 17 takes to be cheerful enough for the American Express commercial. However, this doesn’t seem to bother them and they wrap the commercial. These things pay pretty well, but you can’t really put them on your resume. If you’re sending a bio to a studio film director or television casting director, you don’t want them to see that you work in commercials. Silly, I know, but that’s the way it is. They’re okay with seeing theater stuff and independent film, but they’d rather think you’re not a lowly actor in commercials; it makes them leery to take a chance on you.
  • Acting class — four hours

Thursday

  • Meeting with screenwriting partner. We go to her house and paste yellow sticky notes all over the walls and argue about plot arc.
  • Work out
  • Go to an audition that my agent has set up. It’s for a commercial for a local karate school. If you don’t book these, you never hear from anybody; you just are left hanging. The only way anyone ever calls you back is if you book the gig.
  • Get an e-mail from the producer of a network television show for whom I shot one episode. That episode will not be airing. They had 16 weeks in the can, but their contract was only for 13 weeks. So, although I get paid well for that shoot, I will not be able to claim it on my bio or on my IMDB page.

 Friday

  • Yoga
  • Work out
  • Long phone meeting with my screenwriting partner
  • Four hours at the day job
  • Audition for an independent web series
  • Audition for student short film
  • Women in Film meeting
  • Drinks with my friend the makeup artist. I get to hear about all the work she’s been doing — she works constantly, constantly.

Saturday

  • Acting “workouts” with fellow actors
  • E-mail my agent with an update on the auditions to which she sent me. I include an update on the independent shoots I did (which she doesn’t book me for and for which I don’t have to pay her; but I like to let her know how bankable I am).
  • Look through the call boards for independent projects and submit head shots, resumes, and links to online casting sites
  • Drive six hours round trip to the screening of an independent feature film I was in
  • Book tickets for SXSW Film Festival, where another film I’m in will be premiering

Sunday

  • Yoga
  • Write three columns for three different film sites
  • Vocal exercises
  • Acting class — four hours
  • Review call boards for small, independent productions that are casting and submit my info
  • Read my sides for a U-5 (fewer than five lines of dialog) guest spot on a TV show shooting tomorrow
  • Call in fake sick to my day job for tomorrow
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Michelle Shyman is an actor, comic, screenwriter, filmmaker, corporate video producer and film journalist. She’s appeared in 35 films and stage plays and has won regional acting awards. One of her screenplays placed in American Gem Screenplay Competition and Script Nurse Screenplay Competition, and she’s produced or assistant-produced a number of independent films, three of which won festival awards. Michelle executive-directed the Lake2Sound Youth Film Festival and serves as a judge for several student film festivals nationwide. She coaches actors, teaches directors how to work with actors, and presents seminars on directing actors. She’s a former Board member of Women in Film Seattle chapter. Michelle also consults on product strategy for entertainment startups. In addition to her Reel Life With Jane column, Michelle writes “Balancing Act,” a weekly column for Reel Grok, named one of MovieMaker Magazine’s top sites for working filmmakers. Follow her on Twitter @michelleshy.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating! I think most of us out here in flyover country just think about the glitzy celebrities making the big bucks and flying in their own Lear jet to their private island for a weekend getaway. It’s really interesting and eye-opening to see what goes in on the life of a real working actor trying to pay the bills.

    Do you think most working actors are looking for that “big break” that will launch them into the A-List category, or are they more concerned with just making sure the rent gets paid and the kids get fed?

    I interviewed Clifton Collins, Jr. a few years back, and he seemed happy to just be making a living as an actor — and a good one, apparently. He’s in a LOT of movies and TV shows, and a lot of big-time movies, but most people might not know his name if you mentioned it. But that might change with his role in ABC’s new show Red Widow.

    • Hi Jane,

      Great question. Matter of fact, it’s so good that I think I’ll devote a whole column to a survey of various actor pals and their hopes, dreams and realistic plans.

      It is, we will find, all over the map. Some actors really think they might make the big-time soon; some keep it as a driving dream in their secret hearts; others are content with whatever they can do; yet others are like Clifton: they make a living and know they won’t ever be huge stars.

      Thanks for asking.

  2. Hey:

    I love reading your blog. You speak truth. I am from Los Angeles but currently live in the Southeast, and it is amazing to me that this dream of hitting it big is so prolific. It can make for very bitter actors, as I have come to learn. Many of us forget that our love of acting is why we’re in this crazy merry-go-round of will-they-like-me, they-don’t-like-me, why don’t-they-like-me, and I’m glad you portray the reality of this career.

    It’s funny how your entry reminds me of a Korean drama quote: “May all your dreams be blockbuster movies, even though your reality is more like a poorly-funded indie film.” I wish you luck on “Exit Strategy” and look forward to reading your next entry.

    • Hi Nadia, good to meet you here on Reel Life With Jane. Thanks for reading my work. Next week I am going to write about that dream of hitting it big, and how it worked out for several friends of mine.

      Cripes, my reality IS a poorly-funded film. Sob.

      Thanks,
      Michelle

  3. Great article, Michelle. I think that many people have little or no understanding what actors go through day in and day out. They may be living the dream, but this dream is hard, hard work – and much of it you do for free, for the love of the craft. There’s a certain purity to this kind of work that is graceful, but with it can come impoverishment, and too much of that leads to a certain disillusionment that begins to make the actor develop a brittle exterior, a protective shell, which of course can lead to emotional unavailability, which can kill a promising career. Yikes. My brain just exploded.

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