I want you all to know that there are times when you should definitely turn down a role. (Before going on, let me add, that this is not something you should make a habit of doing regularly.) Ok, so think about it, do you know of any other profession where it would be in your best interest to accept every job you ever interviewed for and every job that came your way? No, that’s crazy! You want to make sure that the job is a good fit, that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, that you are capable of giving it your all and have something unique to bring to the table, etc., etc. (at least if you want to be successful, that is). I’m sure at some point, you’ve all had a non-acting/day job and you’ve had to make these kinds of decisions.
So why is it that when it comes to Acting Jobs, we all seem to hesitate to make the hard choices, or worse, we don’t even ask ourselves the questions? We suddenly forget about monetary compensation, the job culture, upward mobility, and the list goes on and on… I think part of it is that we love our job and we consider ourselves so lucky to have a job that we love, that we get a little lazy when it comes to making hard choices. I think another part has to do with what we’re told by everyone around us – a career in acting is such a long-shot, there aren’t nearly enough jobs for the number of unemployed actors out there, reality shows are taking over and the stars are having a hard time finding work, etc., etc. And I think the last part, the one that affects our decisions the most, is that we don’t always value ourselves and our skills highly enough or we figure the job is only temporary, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a good fit. These are all roadblocks that every actor faces – successful actors eventually find a way to push through them and start treating their Acting like the Career that it is.
1. You Don’t Want the Job
This sounds simple enough, right? And you would think that if you didn’t want the job that you wouldn’t have auditioned in the first place – this is the best practice in most situations. It just doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes you don’t realize that you don’t want the job until after you’ve auditioned. Maybe you meet the director, crew, other actors, etc. and realize that – you just don’t jive, they are not yet at the level of professionalism that you have come to expect, or they are very professional and you just aren’t at that level yet. Sometimes you feel as though you are rusty on your auditioning skills or you’ve taken a break and you may audition for something just for practice or as a means of getting yourself back out there. I don’t recommend doing this all the time, but every once in a while it’s necessary. Make sure that if and when you do audition for audition’s sake that you choose a job that if turned down will not permanently damage your career and reputation. Sometimes you don’t have enough information about the character or the plotline until after you’ve been cast. Then you find out that nudity, politics, hot button social issues, or whatever (something that crosses your personal boundaries as an actor) is involved and it makes you uncomfortable. Note: you should have boundaries that you set for yourself, what you are and aren’t willing to do for a role; you are the only one who can decide what they should be. And sometimes you don’t have enough information about the abilities of the other people involved – you find out that much of what they’ve produced so far has been of amateur quality and you worry that playing the role will actually detract from your resume, reel, and reputation you’ve worked so hard to build.
So should you accept the job anyway because you’ve put time into it and the people who cast you are expecting you to fill the role? NO! Why? It’s simple, if you accept a job you don’t want, you will most likely be letting everyone down including yourself. You may lack the motivation to do the job to the best of your abilities and thus you are doing a disservice to the people who cast you and the other actors involved. While it’s always disappointing to a Casting Director or Director to have their chosen actor decline the job, I’m sure that they would much rather have you decline, than take the job and only do it halfway. Not only that, but by accepting a job when your heart isn’t in it, you are potentially taking a job away from another skilled actor who may be dying to book that particular gig. And lastly, you're wasting your own time. Your time could be better spent looking and auditioning for a job that you are better suited to and will enjoy more, or you could spend that time gaining additional training and skills. Sometimes saying NO to a role is saying YES to your career.
2. Something Doesn’t Feel Right
This is another time when turning down a role is probably for the best. Have you ever gone to an audition or a table read and got that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you something is a little off? You may know what it is that’s bothering you and then again you may have no clue. As far as I know, that “gut feeling” has been around for as long as humans have existed on the earth. It began as a warning system that helped primitive man stay away from potentially deadly dangers. While we are usually no longer in the same types of “dangerous” situations as primitive man, we have still retained this warning system. Whether it’s a sick feeling in your stomach, alarms going off in your head, or red flags popping up in front of your face, it’s your body’s way of telling you that something is not right and this situation is not the best for you. As actor’s, we learn to “hone and listen to our gut reactions” on a daily basis. Allowing these gut feelings and reactions to occur in an acting situation often makes our acting much more honest, real, and just plain better. I’m here to tell you that when you have these same kinds of gut feelings when it comes to the business side of our business, you need to listen. If your gut says to turn down the role, turn down the role! The only exception is if it’s fear talking instead of your gut. Ignore fear, but go with your gut. Your “GUT” wants to protect you and to help you succeed, so it will never steer you wrong!
3. You’re Already Overbooked
This is an amazing blessing when it happens! It can also be heart-wrenching. Our business really can be feast or famine at times. After a dry spell, it’s hard not to accept anything and everything that comes flooding your way. And let’s be honest, it’s an awesome feeling to get cast, to know that someone wants you, and that they want what you bring to the table above everyone else they’ve seen – I mean, who “wants” to turn that down?!? However, you have to remember that when you accept a role, you are saying “Yes, I am going to give you my all, I will be mentally, emotionally, and physically present for you and your project, and I am willing and able to put the necessary time in to properly prepare for this role.” If you can’t make that kind of a commitment, again, you owe it to everyone involved, including yourself, to say NO. Does this mean that you can’t accept multiple roles at the same time? Absolutely Not! What it does mean is that you need to know yourself, you need to know what kind of time you need to prepare, and you need to know what you can mentally handle so that you can give your all to each project that you are working on. Be HONEST with yourself! You also need to be sure that the Director of each job is aware of the other jobs and whether or not they are willing to work out a schedule that allows you to be wherever you are needed when it’s critical. I work multiple jobs simultaneously all the time and there has never been a major issue with a Director in this regard.
Through trial and error, I have come to realize that I can juggle about 3-4 different roles with 1 class thrown in, at any given time, depending on the roles of course. An example of this for me would be the following: 1. a role in a play that is currently onstage, with 2. another play role in rehearsals, while doing 3. a role in a film that is shooting now or an audiobook narration, and 4. a few scattered 1-2 day commercial/industrial roles and/or voiceover roles, and lastly 5. an on-camera or other class. I should note that this is the absolute limit for me and sometimes it can be a bit too much. Remember that Acting is my day job and I focus on it exclusively. My rule of thumb is to always give preference first to work that is paid (if I’ve taken any unpaid roles), second to whoever I committed to first, third to whoever needs me most at the moment (i.e. – Tech week gets preference over a rehearsal), and fourth to my class. If at any point I start to feel overwhelmed and/or as though I’ve taken on too much, my class gets sacrificed (I’ve never dropped a role, and I’ve never had to drop out of a class completely, but I have missed a class or 2 when it was necessary).
You need to figure out your limit – at what point can you no longer devote fully to each project? When you hit 3 roles does one of them get the shaft? Then your limit is 2, stop there. So if you’ve accepted 2 roles and you’ve just been offered a 3rd… Yep, you guessed it, this is the time when you need to turn down a role.
Another situation that fits into this category is when you have multiple outstanding auditions. I use the same rule of thumb for this situation as listed above. In addition, if you have accepted a role and it conflicts with another outstanding audition (i.e. – the conflict is too great to make both work at the same time, for instance 2 plays or films going up within a week of each other with similar or the same rehearsal schedules or shooting at the same time), and you then get offered a role from the 2nd audition, you should turn down the second role. Your commitment should be to the role you have already accepted and you should almost never make the decision to bail. The only times that it “may” be acceptable to drop out of the first role and accept the second is – if the second role is significantly more money than the first, the first is unpaid and the second is paid, and/or the second role is significantly more renowned than the first (i.e. – Second being a supporting role in a Broadway show vs. First being a lead role in your local community theatre). That said, remember that your willingness and ability to commit to the roles that you accept speaks volumes about your character and work ethic. Bailing on a role should never be taken lightly if done at all. And you should never drop out if you’ve already begun rehearsals or shooting. Remember that bailing on a prior commitment may have consequences, so always keep this in mind when contemplating a decision like this. You need to make the decision that is best for your career and sometimes that may mean having to turn down a “better” role in favor of honoring your commitments.
4. It Doesn’t Move Your Career Forward
I can’t stress enough that while you should have fun with your Acting Career, if you really want it to be a Career, then you need to treat it like a job. And that includes taking it to the next level. Many actors work hard and strive to take their acting to the next level, but they neglect to move their job prospects to the next level to match. If you want to be a star or even just a successful working actor, you should always be striving for bigger and better roles in bigger and better companies. That doesn’t mean you should never make a lateral move (in fact, since actors don’t work for one company for 3-5 years with a particular title and then attempt to move on to a higher title at a different company), you will likely make a lot of lateral moves. Maybe you’ll spend the first 3 years training, building a resume, and networking, all while working unpaid on student films and community theatre plays. Then you’ll spend the next 3 years working for local theatres that pay and getting a commercial agent to do some industrial work. And then on to the next step and so on. The important thing here is that you need to set goals for yourself and you need to monitor those goals and keep refining them. Then once you meet that goal, get comfortable in it for a while until it’s time to move on to the next level. At some point, you need to being willing and able to take the next step career-wise. Once you’ve decided to take your career up a notch, you have to do it and be adamant about it. You may struggle to get to that next level, you may not work for a little while – keep training and working on your own and don’t give in to just any job because you are feeling frustrated and want to work. If you’ve decided it’s time to up your game, then don’t settle for less. If the role you’ve been offered at this stage doesn’t move your career forward, then it is likely in your best interest to turn it down and keep plugging away towards the roles you really want.
5. It’s Unpaid or Underpaid
This is very similar to moving your career forward. I have encouraged actors to do work for little to no pay when they are first starting out and I stand by this. However, there comes a time when you have to decide that you are no longer willing (or maybe able) to work for free. Note: You can make exceptions for things like student films because it’s a way to give back, donating your time to help the next potential great director learn his craft. Just like setting goals for the next step, you need to set goals for monetary compensation. And again, you need to stick to them. If you say you need to be paid in order to take a film role and then you go out and do a bunch of unpaid film roles, you are essentially telling people that you aren’t really worth paying. As long as you keep putting this message out there, people will take you at your word or rather your actions. In order to get others to value you and to value your work, you first need to value yourself. You can even start small if it makes you more comfortable (maybe you’re willing to accept $50 to work on a film, but no less, people will start to realize that if they want to work with you, they will have to pay you $50), but you have to start somewhere and then you have to continue. Will this result in fewer roles? Yes, probably, at least at first, and you may be cast aside rather than cast, in favor of someone who will work for free. Eventually though, it will likely mean better roles and if you can convince people that you are worth paying, your work will also be valued more. And those people who got cast because they were willing to work for free, will continue to work for free until they decide that they are worth paying.
One last thing, there are a lot of actors out there and many of them are willing to work for free. Every time an actor is willing to accept a job where they are not being paid, they are making it harder for any of us to get paid. They are diluting the market. It is basically like saying that we, actors as a whole, don’t deserve to make money at our jobs. Would you wait tables for free? Would you clean someone else’s house for free? Would you go buy enough food and make a dinner for 100 people for free? Would you go to your day job every day and then refuse a paycheck? If the role is unpaid or underpaid, this is a time to say NO and turn down the job. And after you have gotten past the beginning actor stages and you’ve built a resume, please help out yourself and your fellow actors by refusing to work for free. If we all value ourselves, each other, and our work, the market will have to take us seriously and value us as well. And that means more paying jobs for actors – we deserve them!
So these are the 5 times when most actors will be faced with the decision of turning down a role. I’ve had to navigate all of these situations at one time or another and each taught me the valuable lessons that I’m sharing with you. The next time you find yourself in one of these situations, come back and re-read this post. You now have the knowledge to make better job decisions going forward.
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