Inconsistent Paychecks, Unguaranteed Meals: How Realistic Is the Hollywood Life?

Chances are, we’ve all dreamed big. At some point in our lifetimes, whether it be watching “Titanic” as a  little kid or “La La Land” as a teen, many of us have thought about making it to Hollywood. If not Hollywood, perhaps Nickelodeon or Disney Channel rings a bell. 

Growing up, all I wanted to do was to become an actor. In light of that dream (that has since then subsided, yet nevertheless remained), I attended a theater intensive at Interlochen, Michigan, this past summer. After meeting an array of theater enthusiasts, some aspiring, some professional, I gained insight into what it truly meant to dedicate one’s entire life to acting. Behind the Hollywood curtains and the classic Mickey Mouse logo, there is so much about the average actor’s life that the commoner overlooks when only the most celebrated actors are depicted in the media. Hoping to pull at least some of this “underground” information out of the dark today (and share an update of my childhood dream), I will start with some recent news.

Last month, award-winning actor Constance Wu published a memoir, Making a Scene, a collection of personal essays from as far back as pre-“Fresh off the Boat” (“FOTB”) times. While many knew Wu from her lead roles in the 2015 sitcom “FOTB” and 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians,” her acting career before “FOTB” is relatively less known, as with many successful actors before their first major role. In addition, her three-year career hiatus resulting from “improper” tweets has remained undiscussed until now. In her memoir, she revealed that while her tweets against the new season of FOTB attracted a public label of being unappreciative, the real reason behind her tweet was because she had been sexually harrassed on set during previous seasons –– and kept silent in fear of losing her job. Why? “FOTB” Season 1 started filming as early as 2014, nearly ten years after she graduated from college with a degree in acting. In those ten years, she worked numerous supporting roles, walking down a “really griddy road of auditioning and rejection.” So, when she landed her first major role in FOTB, she decided to stay regardless of the conditions for a somewhat more reliable source of income and stability. 

A recent study by Queen Mary University of London reported that only two percent of actors in the industry make enough of a living to make ends meet. According to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics, while a U.S. actor’s mean hourly wage is $31.31 dollars, the median hourly wage is 25 percent lower at $23.48 dollars. (For comparison, the U.S. average hourly earning is over $32 dollars.) Keeping in mind the cost to get an acting degree to even stand a chance of being considered, this number is far from optimal. In an interview seven years ago, Wu expressed that during the early years of her career, she rejected the idea of equating her worth to employment. Yet, as a freelance (and less well-known) actor Alex Sol continues to believe even after retiring, that initial pure passion for acting is forced to be commercialized the longer an actor stays in the business. According to my teacher at Interlochen, a growing actor seizes any opportunity to get cast, regardless of the role, suitability, wage, place, or timing. Ultimately, groceries need to be bought and bills need to be paid. 

Seeing these statistics, I wonder if I should trust the saying to never make a passion a career. I love acting –– I am positive about that –– but how much of that love will stay when I find myself in Wu’s position when filming “FOTB?” It seems that as Wu matured, she also adopted Sol’s mindset of equating employment and audition success rate to self worth. Inevitably, this is the mindset all actors have to eventually accept, a mindset I never correlated acting with when I was younger. It didn’t seem natural. On television, I relished films starring Hollywood stars and watched interviews that testified to their fame. They seemed to get opportunity after opportunity, going from Emily Charlton in “The Devil Wears Prada” one day to Disney’s Mary Poppins the next. For my entire childhood, I didn’t know that they were not only among the most hardworking and talented, but also among the extremely lucky. I had no idea that behind one Hollywood storyteller, there are hundreds with the same talent who never even get to see Hollywood before their names are crossed out, ultimately starring in Kleenex commercials. 

I shuddered. My young, innocent, image of an actor’s life was completely shattered. The next time I thought seriously about pursuing acting again, I had to admit: though I love the craft, I do not have the confidence to declare that that passion will supersede all my anxieties surrounding survival in the industry. I am not confident that my love for acting will keep me going in times of financial struggle; I worry that I will find the struggle reducing my passion until I regret what I thought I loved. Not knowing whether my thoughts will fluctuate as I near the time to decide my career, I currently do not plan to pursue acting as my main profession. 

In turn, I possess an endless amount of respect (that only continues to grow as I gain more insight into the industry) for the actors that are far braver than me. Whether among the Hollywood-bound, the fresh conservatory graduates, or the experienced who have not yet had a groundbreaking role, these “audition devotees” work interminably for a position in the industry, a chance to be on stage or on screen. They were in the audition room yesterday; chances are, they will be at another audition tomorrow. Above all lies their determination, blood, tears, and most inarguably, passion, to break through a system that breaks so many. That, by itself, is Oscar-worthy to me.