The number of people who “dream” of being a professional actor are in the millions. There are no official statistics published regarding the number of people who “actively pursue” acting jobs over the course of a given year, however the number is likely in the upper hundreds of thousands worldwide. This is a staggering number considering that there are roughly 50,000 acting jobs in a year, mostly comprising of small one-day roles. This figure also includes actors who worked on cruise lines, theme parks, summer festivals, and other non film and television jobs.
SAG-AFTRA is the nation’s largest labor union representing working actors. With 20 branches nationwide, SAG-AFTRA represents over 160,000 performers. Although a small number of popular actors earn millions of dollars each year, the average income of the majority of SAG-AFTRA members is less than $5,000 per year. Most actors find that work is extremely sporadic, and they must supplement their incomes by working other jobs. Out of all the SAG-AFTRA members, only about 50 might be considered “movie stars”
Becoming a member of SAG-AFTRA is no easy task to say the least. There are currently only three ways that an actor can join the union:
1) Proof of employment. Employment must be in a principal or speaking role in a SAG-AFTRA film, videotape, television program or commercial. Proof of such employment may be in the form of a signed contract, or original pay stubs.
2) Background Actors (Extras) may join SAG-AFTRA upon proof of employment as a SAG-AFTRA covered background player at full union rates and conditions for a minimum of three work days. Employment must be by a company signed to a SAG-AFTRA Agreement under which the producer is required to cover background actors. Proof of employment must be in the form of original pay stubs or a payroll printout faxed from the payroll house.
3) Employment Under an Affiliated Performers’ Union Performers may join SAG-AFTRA if the applicant is a paid-up member of an affiliated performers’ union (ACTRA, AEA, AGMA or AGVA) for a period of one year and has worked and been paid for at least once as a principal performer in that union’s jurisdiction (also known as “TAFT-HARTLEY” in the business).
There is also the issue of costs. To become a SAG-AFTRA member, the current national initiation fee rate as of April, 2015 is $3,100.98 (the initiation fees may be lower in certain states) plus the first semiannual dues. Each SAG-AFTRA member pays annual base dues of $201.96. In addition members pay 1.575% of all individual earnings under SAG-AFTRA contracts between $1 and $500,000.
To the audience watching performances, acting appears to be glamorous work. However, actors work under constant pressure. Many face stress from the difficulty in landing their next gig. Actors work very long and irregular hours with all night and weekend work a common part of an actor’s life. They may do one show at night and another during the day. They also travel often and are away from home for lengthy periods during many productions. Actors must often tolerate heat from bright studio lights, endure working in all sorts of unfavorable weather. Huge egos exist in abundance on film and television sets.
In order to have any decent chance of working on a regular basis, an actor needs to be represented by a talent agent. Finding a legitimate agent to sign you can be a seemingly impossible task. A couple of decades ago, a SAG (now SAG-AFTRA) member could send out photos and resumes to a hundred talent agents and get a response from at least several of them (that was my experience in the mid-1980’s). Now a SAG-AFTRA member would be lucky to get a single response after sending out hundreds of photos and resumes every month for a year. Most talent agents sign clients through industry referral only. Even after you sign with a highly reputable talent agency, auditions may come very infrequently. Casting directors for mainstream film and/or television projects look at submissions from these reputable talent agencies, and those agencies represent talent who are in the right location AND are ready to be booked. The rest of the submissions are a long-shot to ever be looked at… kind of like winning a state lottery. Having a hard-working reputable talent agent in your corner must be a priority for all working actors!
I have just scratched the surface with some of the realities of pursuing a professional acting career. If you have a clear understanding of the business and still have a passion to move forward with this career choice, then you have the first quality that is required to be successful. George Clooney made the following statement to an audience of SAG-AFTRA members at an event that I attended, “if you can not even slightly be reasonably happy doing any other form of employment, then and only then should you attempt to become an actor”.
Make absolutely certain that you take the profession seriously before pursuing a career as an actor. Learn everything you can about the business of acting. Do not expect to make a profit as an actor in the beginning. And never give up on your dream. Only then can you succeed!
See you on the Big (or small) Screen!