Real talk in the business of pretend

Real talk in the business of pretend

Anyone else irked by the attempted shaming of former The Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens?

To recap: Owens was “caught” in the “embarrassing” act of (gasp!) working a perfectly normal job ay Trader Joe’s.

That a guy who was on TV about 30 years ago has now gained some weight and is working a “regular” job is even newsworthy reminded me that far too many people have a delusional idea of what life as a professional artist actually entails.

Here are some cold hard facts: The average union actor/SAG member makes about $32,000 a year – far less than the national average in America. 

And in 2009, the average professional actor in Canada made under $12,000 a year. That depressingly low amount would make living in any of Canada’s major film and TV production centers (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal) next to impossible. 

The overwhelming majority of actors have (or have had) day jobs similar to or worse than cashier at Trader Joe’s. This is not newsworthy. This is the norm.

The general public seems to have this bizarre misconception that everyone who has had any degree of success on TV has entered into the 1%: financially independent, with the ability to pick and choose from a cavalcade of lucrative offers, or simply coast through a life of luxury on a steady stream of residual cheques.

Even more troubling to me is the fact that many young artists appear to have been similarly duped into the myth that you aren’t a “real actor” until you earn enough to quit your “day job” and act full-time.

I was at my agency party earlier this summer and had an exchange with a friend and former student that was pretty saddening.

An agency party is an annual event where a group of professional actors and models tangentially connected by the people who try and find us work get together to socialize. Think of a high school reunion, only with exponentially more bravado masking insecurity, and significantly lower body fat percentages. If you’re like me and have a BBC face and body in a CW town, and a disposition much closer to Larry David than Will Smith, agency parties are an annual source of existential dread.

It’s not all bad though. If you’ve been in the industry for 20-plus years like I have, you make many legitimate friends who you can hide in a corner and down booze with. If, like me, you’ve also spent many years supplementing your acting income with teaching gigs, you are bound to run into many of your former students: keen as they are green and always genuinely happy to reconnect.

Many of my former students were at this aforementioned party. Some were there because they are now signed with my agency. Some were working the event as servers. It was equally lovely catching up with all of them, but one of my former students, who is now a friend and peer, sheepishly said hello and expressed that she was embarrassed to be working as a server for an event where her friends, peers, and former teachers were guests.

It pained me to hear her unnecessary feelings of shame and I assured her that there was nothing wrong with serving or working any other day job. I found myself wondering where these fake, romanticized depictions of an actor’s life come from, and realized that, in the age of social media, we actors ourselves play a major part in perpetuating the fallacy that “real” actors just act for a living.

There’s this troubling, unspoken pressure on actors to promote the ridiculous image on social media that our career is on an upward trajectory that places us somewhere between Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lawrence on the heat scale. We have somehow been brainwashed into thinking it is obligatory to post 800 selfies every time we set foot in a trailer, 10,000 when we are actually on set, and one million if we happen to be working on a show with a “celebrity” that has any degree of fame.

In the past, this type of shameless self-promotion would have been rightfully labeled narcissism, and our peers, families, and friends would let us know in no uncertain terms to take it down several notches with the constant self-aggrandizement. Today, however, this behaviour is increasingly rewarded and encouraged with likes, shares, and comments encouraging the offending actor to keep “livin’ the dream.” 

I have been guilty of this type of behaviour myself.  We all have. It’s fraudulent, toxic, and absurd. You never see other labourers behave in this way. Imagine a construction worker or fisherman adorning their Instagram with contrived shots of themselves at work, going about the most mundane daily routine with hashtags like #ShovellinDirt , #SteelToeLife. #OceanHustle. They’d look insane, and this would paint a completely unrealistic portrait of what their working life actually entails.

Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that “showbiz” is different. Building a social media following can be a useful part of an actors’ promotional tool kit, kind of like how a glass of wine can have notable health benefits. However, if you down two full bottles in 10 minutes, you’ll find yourself incoherently drunk and acting the fool in public. Actors should think of using social media the way they use wine; moderation and common sense are key if you don’t want to make an ass of yourself. 

Perhaps if we acted more real on social media, the public wouldn’t feel as though seeing a recognizable face working a “regular” job was grounds for a covert selfie that effectively aims to publicly shame us for having the temerity to simply go to work.

If our feeds were filled with shots of us taking part in the gig economy, working flexible day jobs, auditioning, doing self tapes, and generating unpaid creative work with friends, actors like Geoffrey Owens wouldn’t be trending the last few days.

Maybe we should make a push to replace #Setlife with #DoorDash, #Uber,  #Teaching, and #Serving #MakingArt.  This is the actual reality for most of us, most of the time, myself included. Who are we trying to fool anyhow? Everyone in the business is already well aware of this, and our family and friends either love us regardless of our job (or have resigned themselves to this acting “phase” were going through). Either way, what are we doing with all of this social media fronting? Can we stop it already?

I’ve been in the business 20-plus years and have had the great fortune of landing steady work on stage, on screen, and in animation. 2018 has been both a great year professionally, and a textbook example of the disorienting reality of being a working professional actor: In the last few months, I have flown from Canada to the USA to do a featured role on a critically acclaimed premium cable TV series; I had a (tiny) role in a movie starring The Rock; I won an award for my work acting on stage; I got to once again voice the Black Panther for an animated Marvel project.

And I have mercifully (and gratefully!) held two day jobs – teaching students at the Vancouver Film school and coaching actors at Shoreline Studios – the entire time.

I love teaching, and I’m blessed to have found employers that are understanding and supportive of the realities of being a working professional actor. Before I was lucky enough to find gigs like this, I’d juggled every job in the book. I worked the graveyard shift at my gym for $11 an hour as recently as 2007, did extra work, promo work, telemarketing, worked as busboy, did some landscaping, some customer service, I've done it all and would happily do it again if necessary.

The realities of being a professional actor can be harsh, and continuing the pursuit of this career path means maintaining a network of side hustles for the overwhelming majority of actors. If we want the public to be more informed about our reality, we need to do our part and start keeping it real. The business is hard enough without us contributing to the unnecessary shaming of ourselves and our peers.

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Editor’s note: Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19-years-old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Omari won a 2018 Jessie Award for his performance in ‘The Shipment.’ Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari writes about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene. Omari directed a production of David Harrower’s ‘Blackbird’ that runs September 6-16 at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Details here: https://tickets.vancouverfringe.com/shows/blackbird/events/2

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