Back in the early 1990s, Geoffrey Owens played Elvin Tibideaux on The Cosby Show. At the time, the show was a juggernaut hit, which might explain why, when someone spotted Owens working in a New Jersey Trader Joe’s this past summer, they were motivated to snap a photo and upload it to social media — a picture of a “fallen star” reduced to working in a grocery store.
The photo went viral, and within a few days, Owens was fielding acting offers from producers like Tyler Perry and doing the talk show circuit.
“In the past 26 years, I have hardly ever had an acting job that lasted more than 10 weeks," Owens told CNN. "Most of those jobs were theatre jobs that pay a lot less than television and film.” He capped off numerous interviews with the message that work is work, and “one job is not better than another."
Owens’ story is “very common,” according to Keith Martin Gordey, president of the Union of B.C. Performers, an autonomous branch of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA).
The average annual income from acting for an ACTRA member is $15,000, says Gordey — the median income is $7,000. In North America, only 15 per cent of actors make a living solely on their performing income.
“If you don’t have an extra job, I don’t know how you clothe and feed and house yourself,” says Gordey. “The fact is, the vast majority of people who work as performers are probably below the poverty line.”
Jovanna Burke was deeply moved by the media firestorm surrounding Owens because it was all too familiar.
“You do what you have to do, and to be shamed for that is so hurtful, and so painful, on a level that I can’t even put into words,” says the Vancouver-based actress, who was part of the team that won the 2015 Leo Award for Best Web Series for The True Heroines.
“It’s the reality of what we do,” Burke continues. “One day, you’re a lead on a series, and the next day, you’re starving to pay your bills. Some people can stay on a ride for a while, but it always dies. We work fairly consistently, but it’s not enough to hold us forever.”
Burke has supplemented her acting income with jobs in bars and restaurants, as a publicist, and selling skin cream.
Ona Grauer — who worked steadily as an actress for 20 years on projects such as Intelligence, Archer and Stargate Universe — recently started hostessing in a Kitsilano restaurant.
Grauer makes no bones about how she feels about her restaurant job: she loves it, because it gives her the cash and the freedom to say no to acting roles that she considers degrading.
“It’s not downtrodden,” says Grauer. “You didn’t end up in the gutter because you got an extra job. What you’re doing is making it in life, and however you do that is honourable.”
But Grauer has observed how her presence in the restaurant confuses some customers.
“I’ve been recognized at work — ‘Are you on Stargate? Were you the girl on Arrow?’ — and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s me!’ And they’re like, ‘That’s amazing.’ And then there’s a bit of, ‘But I’ve seen you on TV — why are you working in a restaurant?’ It doesn’t bother me. I think the work is honourable no matter what you’re doing.”
The confusion stems from widely held misconceptions about showbiz, says Burke.
“Because of the way actors are treated on set and in the media, people think that when we’re working, we’re making so much coin,” says Burke.
Those misconceptions around acting are often perpetuated by the actors themselves, according to Omari Newton. Newton is an award-winning actor (Continuum), teacher, writer and director.
“There’s an internal pressure for some reason amongst actors to perpetuate this idea that you’re always working and you’re flooded with offers, and it’s absurd,” he says. He sees this on social media, where “people who do one or two days on set and take 700 photos and they periodically post them throughout the year as if it’s new stuff.”
This kind of behaviour can make other actors feel like they’re the only one who’s not working, says Newton, and it doesn’t jive with reality.
“You hear stuff like, ‘Vancouver’s busier than ever!’ You don’t realize that production is busier than ever, but most of the major roles are still cast from out of town,” says Newton. “I think that puts a lot of emotional and psychological stress on actors where you think you should be working more, but it’s like, ‘No dude, 85 per cent of actors need to have side work.’ It’s completely normal to not be Tom Cruise.”
“I don’t know why people make acting so precious,” adds Grauer. “I think realistically it’s easier to get involved in an industry when you’re realistic about what being an adult is, and what working is, period.”