Actors pay a big price
From training to agent fees, the cost for a chance at stardom is high
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Peter Stormare was a young man in a Swedish village with a life of monotony stretching before him. Get married. Buy a dishwasher. Grow old with a tiresome wife. So he ran off to become an actor.|
Years later, after more than 30 films, including the part of the drunken, wife-beating, café owner in the Oscar-nominated "Chocolat," Stormare still loves his job.
"I have the luxury of being a little boy," said Stormare, 47. "To me, the most important thing in life is to be a human being. Second is acting."
But as movie lovers get ready for Sunday's Academy Awards, most people don't realize the hard work and financial commitment that goes into making a successful acting career.
There are years of expensive training and piddling salaries. There are agents who take 10 percent and managers who can take even more. There are petulant stars who get millions while the rest of the cast makes a fraction of the amount. And that's just for starters.
"It's a long-term commitment," said Irene Gilbert, director of Stella Adler Academy in Los Angeles. "A lot of people who are beginning to 'make it' now have been working for years. It takes about 10 years."
So you want to be the next Julia Roberts?
The biggest misconception is that it's easy to get "discovered" and become a star in Hollywood. There's an old Hollywood myth that film legend Lana Turner got a screen test after an agent saw her sitting on a stool at a drug store.
"No one gets discovered," said Carol Goodheart, a teacher at the New York acting school HB Studios. "Even people picked off the cover of a magazine, you can't become an actor overnight. You can't come off the page or off a stool in a drug store and become an actor."
Acting is an art that requires years of training similar to becoming a ballet dancer or a concert pianist, Goodheart said. There is scene study, technique, movement and voice lessons. There are hours and hours of rehearsing.
Goodheart -- who has worked wth Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick and Lauren Hutton -- said even the late stage icon Sir Laurence Olivier never stopped studying.
"If you start out wanting to be Julia Roberts, the odds are like winning the lottery," Goodheart said. "But if you want to be an actor there's a world of possibilities out there...There's a huge network of working actors who aren't Julia Roberts."
Many of the biggest stars, like Roberts, nominated for Best Actress in "Erin Brockovich," are from famous actor families, Goodheart said.
The price of perfecting your technique
And the cost of training can be steep.
Stella Adler's two-year acting program costs about $7,000 a year, Gilbert said. Some actors take individual classes for $300 to $675 each, she said.
Stella Adler alumni include Benicio Del Toro, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Traffic," and Mark Ruffalo, who appeared with Best Actress nominee Laura Linney in "You Can Count on Me."
"Benicio started at Stella Adler in L.A. in 1986," Gilbert said. "He's been working, and working, and building. During that time, actors work as waiters, and other jobs. You get parts here and there and you keep working on it."
HB Studios charges less -- about $133 for a 19-week course, said Goodheart.
Some actors find it's tough to get momentum with their training in between racing to auditions and part-time jobs, so they go to school full-time, said Evan Yionoulis, chairwoman of the acting department at Yale School of Drama.
The average annual cost for a year at the Yale school -- whose alumni include Sigourney Weaver -- is about $29,000 for tuition, books and living expenses.
"Training is invaluable and it repays an actor throughout a long career," said Yionoulis, who is directing "Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine," a play by Tony-winner Warren Leight, at the Manhattan Theater Club in May.
Stormare got his start at the Royal National Theatre of Sweden. He was one of 12,000 aspiring actors to try out for 12 positions. Since theater in Sweden is partly subsidized by the state, actors can live on a small stipend to get by.
"That's how a lot of good work has come out of Sweden in the last 20 years," Stormare said.
A pay scale that ranges from $75 to $75 million
It's rare that an actor starting out can live on what he makes. Even a play at a major off-off Broadway theater might pay only $200 a week, Yionoulis said. And that's with all-day rehearsals.
The Screen Actors Guild said more than 85 percent of its 90,000 members earned less than $5,000 in 1996. Actors can make anywhere from $75 a week in summer stock to $1,000 a week for a bit part on a television show.
The lucky few who make it to the top can earn as much as $25 million a film, according to statistics from the Internet Movie Database. Tom Cruise reportedly made $75 million for Mission: Impossible 2. (Click here to see what some top actors earn).
Stormare, who starred as one of the two hapless killers in the 1996 hit "Fargo," acknowledged the acting pay scale is skewed. He also appeared in "Armageddon" with Bruce Willis, who earns millions for movies.
"I've done movies where the lead has been paid $20 million to $25 million and the rest of us work for crap," Stormare said. "Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, they make bad movie after bad movie."
Audiences loved "Chocolat" and "Traffic" because it had strong casts instead of one high-paid star, Stormare said.
Contract talks by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) might "hose down the walls, clean up the garbage," on the issue, he said. The threat of a strike has loomed in Hollywood.
Agents also contribute to the salary imbalance since they get 10 percent of whatever an actor earns, Stormare said.
"If you were my agent and I was making $10 million a movie and made four movies a year, that means you have a salary of $4 million," Stormare said.
How to fly to L.A. on $5,000 a year
While Stormare has won a steady stream of roles, most actors can go months in between parts. Waitressing, bartending and computer work are some of the part-time jobs they take to make ends meet.
"The myth that your waiter in New York is an actor is true," said Goodheart. "It's a very difficult, competitive business to be in. As an actor, you have to think of the art and the love of doing plays and creating characters...and there's some part of you that has to function in this world of commerce."
Yionoulis recalled sitting next to a young actress on a flight from Los Angeles to New York recently. The woman had paid $1,500 for a last-minute, round-trip ticket to try out for a play. The director was a distant connection, something along the lines of her "brother's wife's cousin's husband."
Video: The sweet success of "Chocolat."
Publicity photos can add several hundred dollars more, as well as the right clothes to go to an audition.
"If you're called to audition to be a lawyer, you have to dress the part," Yionoulis said.
Some actors also spend thousands on cosmetic surgery -- liposuction to remove saddlebags, dental work for a pesky overbite.
New York actor Conard Fowkes recalled one friend, a great character actor, who got a nose job so he could get more leading roles. Fowkes' career includes 250 commercials, roles on eight soap operas and cameos in "Serpico," "Prince of the City" and "Network," among other parts.
"He had a great nose," Fowkes said of his friend. "He got a nose job and he's still a character actor."
Still, Fowkes said all actors worry about their appearance. "Because that's the thing they sell."
Oscar changes everything
But as much as actors can struggle for years, the right part can change their lives virtually overnight.
Fowkes recalled another actor friend who used to work with the late George C. Scott processing canceled bank checks on the graveyard shift.
The pair would meet for breakfast in Greenwich Village and Scott would pound on the table, "The Theater! The Theater is the only thing that makes any G--- d---- sense!" It wasn't long after that that Scott got a part that sent his career soaring.
A leading role in a movie or play can open doors, said Goodheart. And an Academy Awards nomination can open a whole new world.
"An Oscar changes everything."