Should an Actor Work for Free?
Norman Rockwell's Portrait of an Actor
The Art of Acting
If you have a lot of cash to invest in publicists then maybe you can skip this...
Should actors work for free? Well, I guess the real question is, how bad do you really want to be an actor?
If your concern is making a good living, and paying the bills, then you should be more practical. For example, a Physician's Assistant pays very well, and there are always more positions available than there are candidates. With acting, there are exponentially more candidates than there are available roles. If you are lucky enough to land one of those roles, it may be a non-paying role. If it is a paying role, you will likely only be working for a few days, which will hardly cover any of your expenses of living. Without a reel and resume, you will even be hard pressed landing one of those jobs that even last a few days.
So, should an actor work for free?
Let me be more specific. When I say an actor should work for free, I mean that either a.) It is a short film, and the actors are getting fed, and footage for their reels, or b.) There is no budget because directors and screenwriters also have to prove their worth before anyone will give them a budget. In that scenario, what I mean by free, is that you are getting fed, footage for your reel, and either a deferred payment or points.
By free I mean no actual cash up front. (Deferred payment is an agreed upon amount that the actor will get paid if the movie in fact sells. Points refer to a percentage of ownership.)
For short films, even the SAG contract does not include a day rate or financial compensation, unless the piece finds distribution, which is unlikely for a short film.
When I suggest that an actor should work for free, I am not talking about productions where the producers are paying themselves and not paying cast or crew. In that scenario, cast and crew should be paid before the producers, as the producers will be making the majority of cash off the back end (unless the producers are paying themselves just enough to survive, so that they can afford to make the movie. Remember, while an actor might be on board for a few days to a few weeks, a director and producer will be living with this thing from months to years.)
If you are a SAG actor with ten years of experience, and you have found other ways of flexing your acting muscles, these scenarios are not directed toward you. I say this in a manner of practical speaking, as you will likely lose your SAG card for working on a non-SAG feature film. However, even the seasoned SAG actor should be contributing their time and knowledge to short films, where the filmmakers have made the effort to fill out the SAG paperwork. There is no film industry without new filmmakers. The experience a seasoned actor can bring to a set improves the quality of those new filmmakers, the actor's future employers.
If, however, you are a new actor with little to no experience, then you should be getting as much experience as possible. If you think that you are experienced, and you go several months at a time without getting cast, then you should also consider low/no budget projects. If they do well, you will ultimately get paid, and the filmmakers will likely be able to get a budget next time around. Even if the project doesn't do well, you are looking at a big gap in your resume, and your skills are getting rusty.
When an actor does land that SAG card, it is not a magic card that suddenly improves their skill set. Many actors make good day players, meaning they can maintain focus and bounce lines and get a SAG card. If becoming a day player is your goal, then congratulations. You have landed. There are also many talented actors stuck in the day player cycle, but with the right looks and charisma, you will probably continue to pick up roles. If you want more than that, bigger roles and more challenging material, you will need to be able to handle an emotional shift/value change. You will need to be able to plot out a character arc, and accurately be able to enter all scenes with the correct emotional prep, keeping in mind that the movie will almost certainly be shot out of order.
These skills are not skills that a Casting Director or Director are just going to trust that you have. You have to have done it before someone is going to pay you to do it. If you don't have experience acting through value changes and character arcs, then there will always be a low ceiling. Unless you have a lot of money for a publicist, you will not get paid beyond your skill set.
What should dictate whether or not an actor takes a role is not money, but the quality of the script and the quality of the director's reel. That is what will determine if the actor's points or deferred payment will actually be worth anything down the line. The script and the director's reel will also let you know if the experience and the footage you will gain for your reel will actually increase what type of roles you will be eligible for in the future.
If a producer requests for you to work for free on a feature film, and free doesn't include deferred payment or points, then you should not consider the role. If a producer or director wants you to consider a role before you have read the full script or seen the director's reel, then you should not consider the role.
Typically, however, if someone is looking for free actors, it is a student filmmaker or an independent filmmaker with no budget. It is not a project with a multi-million dollar budget. If a film even has a 50K budget, it is in the productions best interest to become Ultra Low Budget SAG production. 50K is enough to get at least a small named actor on board, and SAG actors will not do non-SAG. If a film is SAG, the production has to pay the actors with the day rates appropriate the film's budget.
If a movie is not paying, then - you are talking really low budget independent films, not big production companies looking to get one over on the actors. There is always this circulating fear among actors of the evil production companies and evil producers. It is often the student filmmakers and the independent filmmakers who suffer the consequences of this fear factory.
When the "evil" production company does pull one over on the cast and crew, it is not through offering a role with no pay. It is typically the opposite where they will offer pay, shoot quickly, close their production office, and never release the checks, or not release the last batch of checks.
Keep in mind, there are no shortage of actors. You can hold out for pay, but there will always be long lines of actors lining up for the low/no paying gigs. They are getting experience and making contacts with the filmmakers who will be getting budgets tomorrow. Filmmakers, parenthetically, who had to become producers by default. Directors and screenwriters are in the same boat. They would also like to get paid, but when they find that no one is handing out money for someone to learn how to make a movie, they have to become producers to get their projects made. Screenwriting and directing are legitimate forms of art, like acting, yet screenwriters and directors have to default to producing without complaint - unlike their actor counterparts. If you are talented, work hard, and always learning more about the craft and the business, pay will come.