How an Actor Does Money

© Hunter Canning, huntercanningphoto.com

This piece originally appeared on TheBillfold.com

Gianmarco Soresi is an actor, writer, and stand-up comedian living in New York City. He’s the writer, producer, and lead of a show called <50%, a romantic comedy that just played at the New York International Fringe Festival and was one of only 21 shows chosen to have an encore run Off-Broadway. He’s the creator and star of a web series, An Actor Unprepared. And he has a regular gig in an Off-Broadway show called Clown Bar.

I recently talked with Gianmarco about the New York hustle, commercial work, BFA programs, and “making it.”

You’re working on so many awesome projects. By all outward appearances, you’re having a lot of success. I’m curious, though: Are these projects what enable you to get by financially? Or do you have a day job?

No. It’s manifold. First of all, when I first moved to New York two years ago, it was the hardest. Moving to New York as an actor, you really have zero, nothing. I mean, no one needs an actor really—especially a slightly awkward, tall, white guy in his twenties. I mean, there’s like a billion of me. So in the beginning I had my parents’ help. And I cannot stress enough that without that financial boost in the very beginning, I would be nowhere near where I am today, because half of the game is about being available. I mean, right now, those three projects—balancing the marketing, the writing, the acting, the producing of all of those things—that’s a full job. I don’t go out. I work all the time. So balancing that with a nine-to-five would be impossible.

On top of that, my first year in New York was really about making connections in the industry. And one very popular way to do that is to attend casting director workshops. They’re very contentious within the community because some say you’re paying for an audition and that’s unethical, but others argue that workshops give people an opportunity to introduce themselves to people whom they would meet under no other circumstances. But for my first year, I spent over $8,000 meeting casting directors.

That’s a lot of money. Did that lead to anything?

Well, I was on the TV show Blue Bloods twice. That’s because I met a casting director in a workshop and she liked my work. She brought me in for an audition, and I was lucky enough to book it. But out of 120 casting directors that I met, only 10 of them have brought me in directly for auditions. Still, a lot of it is about creating this web so that when one agent is interested in you, you have three casting directors with whom you have a good relationship who will reach out to that agent and recommend you. I mean, it all works together. But yes, that amount of money is huge.

Eventually, I got lucky enough to sign with a very good commercial agency and a legitimate talent agency, and that led to getting a manager. But it took a year to get that professional team that could get me moneymaking opportunities.

What have some of those money-making opportunities been?

I randomly booked a commercial for the German advertising campaign of a Swedish lemonade-soda called Rivella. The agent got me the appointment, I booked it, and then I made over $10,000 for a week’s worth of work.

Whoa.

They flew me to South Africa, then they flew me to Hamburg, Germany. I lost about 25% of my earnings to agent and manager fees, but still, it was huge. And certainly, at the very least, it made up for what I had spent earlier on casting director workshops. Commercial stories are always crazy and phenomenal. I had a friend who did a Verizon commercial, and he made $45,000 for eight hours of work. Commercials are really the only place you can make money, at least in the beginning.

Okay, but I’m assuming you also got paid for the episodes of Blue Bloods that you did.

Yeah. Blue Bloods paid the SAG-AFTRA [Screen Actors Guild union] rate, which, with residuals minus fees, was like $1,000 per episode. But there’s a lot more work that’s done online under SAG “New Media” rates, which can pay anything from $100 a day to $0 a day to $200 a day deferred (which means that you won’t get paid unless the job recoups its investment in some way—which is to say that you won’t get paid at all). In January, I booked a phenomenal part on this series under a New Media contract, and it was great: the most consolidated acting I’ve done in two years, and I worked my ass off for two weeks of filming. But at the end of those two weeks, with fees subtracted, I made a little over $500.

On top of this, non-union work is rapidly growing, which pays just as little as New Media jobs for non-commercial work, and can screw you even more in terms of commercials because they don’t have to pay residuals and their usage fees are absurdly low. For example, back to my friend who booked the Verizon commercial for $45,000: Because it was a SAG job, if they keep airing that commercial, they have to keep paying him to prevent him from doing any other phone service commercials. With non-union work, some phone company could pay an actor $1,000 for a commercial that the company has use over for five years or, even worse, in perpetuity. That pretty much means that actor can never audition for a phone service commercial again, which makes them less attractive to commercial agents. I mean, on the one hand, sometimes you need 1,000 bucks. But on the other hand, the spread of non-union is very scary because all of a sudden, the norm becomes actors working for $100 a day, $50 a day, $0 a day.

How have you learned all this about the business? Did the BFA theater conservatory you attended prepare you for the realities of trying to work as an actor?

No, BFA programs don’t talk about this stuff. They don’t set you up at all, especially when you don’t go to college in New York. They don’t tell you that you should gather a video reel or a voiceover reel, for instance, and that you should use your college’s facilities to do those things. So I had to learn this all myself. And I’m proud—I feel like a businessman more than an actor most days, which is sad. If I could go back and do it over, I would do a two-year program in New York, or I wouldn’t go to college. I don’t mean to poo-poo pure training, which is really necessary, but at the same time, if you’re going to go to a college that charges you $50,000 a year and you’re going to have loans—you’re going to go to New York as an actor with loans, on top of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world—you’re out of your mind. And that’s what I did. It’s been really hard.

And I’m lucky. I had parents who had money and who still help me pay my rent. It’s gotten less and less, but they still help me out. I can’t even imagine not having that help.

Do you think that’s common? It seems that increasingly the creative class—the people who are trying to work in arts and media and entertainment—they come from privilege. They come from a financial background that’s enabled them to do unpaid internships, or go to an expensive BFA program, or move to New York with parents helping them pay rent. Have you found that to be true?

Absolutely. That’s certainly not to say that everyone creating stuff comes from wealth, but personally, I couldn’t do this without that base. I have a friend, a wonderfully talented actress, and she works six days a week waitressing, and she has student loans. And how can she possibly get an agent, let alone spend the $8,000 I spent meeting agents and casting directors, when she’s working every day of the week? How can she possibly do student films for no pay in order to build up a reel of video work? How can she do any workshops? How can she create anything when she comes home at night and just wants to go to sleep? You know, people do it and people figure it out, and certainly not everyone who does creative work has money, but I know personally I have no idea how I would do any of this if I didn’t have that support.

How have you been able to fund your self-produced projects like your web series and your Fringe show?

A lot of it is favors. The one nice thing is that everyone I know is kind of in the same boat as I am, so it’s not like people are demanding supreme prices. I did an Indiegogo for both the web series and Fringe. With Fringe, I raised about $3,500 via crowdfunding. Overall, Fringe cost me about $7,000. So that difference is coming out of my income from the Rivella commercial. And I probably should have saved that commercial money, but I’m of the mindset that if I really want to have a career in this business, I have to put any money I make back into my projects. If my parents decide to fully cut me off, or if I don’t book anything for six months, I could really be [screwed], but I don’t see another way. I think you have to take those gambles.

Were the actors in your web series and your Fringe show paid?

For the web series, they volunteered their time. I mean, I knew a lot of them; we auditioned some. And it is incredible: When you put out an audition for a 50-year-old non-union actor to do two days of work for $50 deferred a day (which means they’re not getting the money—”deferred” is the SAG-AFTRA way of saying you’ll only get paid if the project somehow makes money), you’ll get 1,200 submissions from people willing to do that. But for the Fringe, we did offer money upfront because the Fringe is a month of your life, and we wanted someone really good. I think we’re paying a few hundred bucks—it’s not a living, but it’s something. For theater, if you’re going to ask somebody to give away a month of their life, you have to pay something. For the web series, we were just asking for one day of shooting, and the actors will have footage afterwards.

So on the question of footage, how do you decide when it’s worth it to work for free just for the sake of “exposure” or for having clips for your reel?

I think in the beginning, I would do anything for that reel footage, and I auditioned for a lot of student films. But once you do enough bad ones, you start going, “I don’t want to do this.” I mean, if you have the time and availability, it can be great—you make connections and you meet people who may have money-making opportunities for you down the line. But it’s a real balance. Once I had all my management and representation, I reached a point where I said, “I’m not really going to do work for no pay anymore.” And that was a conscious decision partially motivated by the fact that I wanted to be available for commercial work. For the lemonade commercial, I got the appointment for that audition on a Tuesday, I auditioned on Wednesday, and on Thursday they said, “On Friday you’re flying to Africa.” So if I had been doing a play or a student film for no money at that time, I probably wouldn’t have even gone to that audition because I would have been booked out. That being said, sometimes I think I need to lower my bar and do more free stuff because occasionally you’ll see a web series that goes viral, and it’s like, you wish you had been on that production—but they weren’t paying anyone.

At what point would you decide it’s financially necessary to get a side gig as a caterer or a bartender or something like that?

I’ve been completely broke and close to doing that. Like, when I booked that commercial, I had begun to hand out resumes to restaurants two days prior. So I’ve hit that point. And I have a feeling that I’m going to hit that point again soon—unless I book one more thing. [Note: Gianmarco just emailed me to say that he did, in fact, book another commercial the week after Fringe, narrowly preventing him from being "totally (screwed)."] It’s certainly not a stable lifestyle. I’ve been able to roll this way for two years, in part due to parental support, and I think eventually I’ll either crash or something good will happen. Worst-case scenario, I’ll get a job sooner rather than later. Right now, I’m exploring things in the industry that can be a little bit more dependable. I’m trying to get into audio books and English learning, for instance. There are a lot of English learning programs where they just need people who can speak well without an accent. And that can be more consistent, even if you’re not exactly acting. So we’ll see.

We’re always hearing the term “making it” with regards to actors. What level of success would you need to reach for you to be like, “Yeah, I’ve made it”?

I think to “make it” to me would mean a) you’re financially supporting yourself just by your work and b) you have a team of people behind you bringing you in for auditions and bringing you in for jobs so that you can let go of all the self-promotion stuff and really just perform. But I think that term means different things to different people. Some people would consider “making it” being in the ensemble of a Broadway show for five years—you’re making six figures a year, you’re very comfortable, you’re performing every night. But others think of “making it” as having a certain level of fame and power attached to it, so they wouldn’t consider being in a show’s ensemble “making it.” Personally, because I’m a writer and a standup comic in addition to being an actor, I want to be able to make my own movies. I want to be able to do standup comedy shows that are an hour-long each. I want to do so many things. So it’s a high bar. But I think being able to financially support yourself just through your work is a significant step. That’s such a hard thing to achieve though. No one lies to you about how hard it is, but you just don’t know how hard it really is until your whole life is about selling a product that no one needs.

That’s a great way to put it.

Yeah. You’re selling a product that nobody needs. And think of what that does to you as a person when that product is you, and every day you’re trying to prove that you’re needed and wanted and desirable. They do this thing in college—some guy came and said, “In five years, only two of you will be in this business. In 10 years, only one of you will be in this business.” And I don’t know if everyone else was thinking the same thing, but my first thought was, “That’s bull...” And my second thought was, “Well, if that’s true, I will be that one person.” I just—there’s no doubt in my mind.

“I am the special snowflake.”

Yeah. And not that I ever wavered in my actions, but I think this year I definitely had moments where I said, “I have no doubt I could be that one person, but do I want to be?” But I have no other skills to be anything else at this point besides an actor, so I guess I have to be.

That’s not really true. You’re doing marketing and social media and writing and producing and fundraising. All of those skills could be spun and used in a different context if you wanted to.

But I’ve invested so much into this. I don’t want to waste all the connections and time and money I’ve put in. So I’m sure I could do something else, but then you get to perform that one time a year, and you get applause, and you go, “Oh, okay, that was totally worth it.” And it really is like a drug in that sense, the stuff that you’ll go through for this one moment. So you know, we’ll see. I have no idea. That’s the bottom line.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emma D. Miller works at a film festival in Durham, N.C. She tweets mostly about documentaries.

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