This post may contain affiliate links, so I may receive a commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Check out the disclosure for more info. And thank you for supporting free content!
If you’re a new actor, and I mean in the first 5 years of your career, you’ve probably had a lot of people tell you that you need to be doing student films, short films and web series to build your resume and build your reel. I doubt that anyone would have a problem with this, except that the majority of these projects are unpaid or very low pay. So the question comes up a lot, “Should I take unpaid acting work?”
The Catch-22 of getting acting work is that you need experience to get booked or even to be seen by top casting directors. But how do you get experience to begin with? This is where the no-pay and low budget projects come in. While personally I think that these smaller productions are an excellent way to get experience on a live set, the advice doesn’t come without a few caveats and precautions; not all unpaid projects are equally deserving of your time.
Here are some questions and tips to help you make the best and most informed decision for yourself and your unique situation in your acting career.
Do you have any acting credits on your resume?
If the answer is no, you need to get started somewhere! Building your resume is not just about adding lines to a piece of paper. It’s showing industry pros, like casting directors, agents, directors and producers that you know your way around a set and you’re not going to be a pain to work with. Smaller sets can be far less intimidating and hey, if you’re not getting paid the stakes aren’t as high if you do mess up.
Need to do your first resume? Check to these done-for-you templates!
Do you need footage for your demo reel?
The answer to this question is always a “Hell Yes!” Very few actors ever have ‘enough’ footage, especially when you’re just starting out. It can be worth your time to have a few unpaid short films and web series under your belt to help build your resume and your reel.
The important thing to remember is you might not get the footage…
Unless it’s written into the contract, there’s never any guarantee. I’ve personally had it happen that it was written into the contract that footage was to be provided upon release of the movie, a low budget indie film. The problem was that the producers spent all of the post production money on weed and other ‘party favors’, (no, I’m not kidding, it happens!) and then the film sat unfinished for two years until they decided to sober up, straighten out and get their sh*t together to get it done… then it was still another year after that before they got going, and then another year or so before it was ready for release. You see where this is going.
I did get the footage but it took 5 years to get it and in the end it was kind of crappy… which has been my experience more often than not. If you’re comfortable with that level of risk, it could definitely be worth your time. You just might get something that’s gold!
Which brings me to the next point…..
Who the f^ck is producing this project?
If it’s a student film, while you probably won’t get paid, these are the directors and producers of tomorrow. But even all film schools are not created equal. Fortunately for L.A. actors, we have several world-class film schools. Even though most projects offer no pay, (some thesis films do pay the actors) these newbies are constantly shooting short films for class assignments. And they need actors – all the time!
If it is a non-student project, look up the key people involved on IMDB: Have they produced anything else? Whether it’s an indie production or student film check out the quality of the work they are producing and decide if this is a good fit for you.
Copy, Credit and Meals Provided.
What this means basically is that you are not getting paid, you are getting fed, and that you are getting an on-screen credit in the final film. The credit sounds cool, right? Bonus: are they listing it or have they listed the production on IMDB and are you going to get a credit there, because that’s where it really counts!
Do you love the script?
This has happened to me a couple of times where I auditioned for student films, thesis projects, where I just fell in love with the script. By the time student directors, writers and producers get to this stage of the game, they’re usually pretty good! If this is something you’d just love to be a part of, trust your intuition and maybe just go for it! After all, this business and this craft is all about collaboration and creating.
The bottom line is that unpaid work can have a lot of other bonuses and value to it, but you really need to decide for yourself on a project by project basis. Only take the job if you can show up to set enthusiastic and 100% prepared – it’s just not fair to everyone else if you go in underprepared and resentful. If that’s the case let it go to another actor who is a better fit energetically. You’re certainly not obligated to do any job just because it’s been offered to you, so commit only to what is a great match. Good rule of thumb: “If you can’t put your heart into it, take yourself out of it.” (And there’s my free love life advice for the day too! )
Was this helpful? Did you like it or love it? Tweet it, post it, share it with actor friends!
Have questions? Head to the comments below… I answer every one!
* Please Note: I am not an agent, manager, or casting director. I do not procure work for actors. All information, workshops and coaching are for educational purposes only and are not a guarantee or promise of employment. Thank you for being here!