Even the Most Versatile Actors Can’t Find Work

“We’re just kind of on a wing and a prayer now.”

The pandemic is hitting every part of the economy, but actors in particular are paying a steep price financially and creatively. (Lauren O'Brien / The Atlantic)

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Lauren O’Brien was juggling three jobs: She’s an on-camera actor; a comedian and house performer at the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, California; and, along with her musician husband, Matt Commerce, the owner of a small events-booking business. All three, she told me with a sigh over the phone this week, “collapsed at the same time,” when California issued a statewide mandate to shelter in place. Working from home isn’t applicable when crews can’t gather for shoots, theaters are closed, and events are canceled in droves.

The couple confronted their new reality quickly: They slashed their spending, asked to defer payments on their credit cards, and planned to talk with their landlord. “We went from a difficult discussion to tears to freaking out to ‘Okay, what do we do, then?’” she said, adding that they’re also the parents of a 3-year-old son. “We’re just kind of on a wing and a prayer now.”

The pandemic is hitting every part of the economy, but when it comes to the entertainment industry, actors in particular are paying a steep price financially and creatively. The vocation has always come with financial uncertainty, but today’s acting community had been working in a flourishing landscape. The number of television shows airing every year surged to a new peak in 2019 thanks to streaming services, and more productions meant more opportunities to be cast. Pilot season—traditionally a months-long stretch from January to April when actors flock to Los Angeles to audition for new shows—had lately morphed into an all-year-long process. And between creator-focused crowdfunding sites such as Patreon and social-media platforms, performers had been finding more and more outlets for expressing their art.

Yet, for even the most versatile actors, the pandemic has cut off the revenue streams they need to pay the bills: The service and hospitality industries have come to a standstill, and those who found side gigs outside those traditional categories—such as in teaching, event planning, or stand-up comedy—can’t go to work. David Sedgwick, an actor who also works as a substitute teacher and tour guide at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, told me that all three of his sources of income “vanished overnight.” “My work life has been totally disrupted,” he wrote to me in an email this week.

Several organizations dedicated to actors’ welfare have set up emergency funds since the outbreak. But raising money may prove to be a challenge. Tom Viola, the executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which set up an emergency-assistance fund, told me that it’s hoping to collect $2 million. “We are optimistic,” he wrote via email. “Earlier this week, we were thrilled to announce a $1 million matching grant from more than 20 Broadway producers. However, it’s going to take a lot of theater lovers digging into their hearts—and their wallets—in an already trying time for us to reach this goal.” What’s more, the money raised through such funds may be “nominal” at best, O’Brien said, when it comes to months of unemployment.

Brittany Curran, who’s been searching for her next gig since the series on which she starred, Syfy’s The Magicians, was canceled in early March, told me via email that the pandemic is “heightening” her job-search anxiety. “Most actors aren’t stars,” she wrote, “aren’t millionaires with enough money in savings to weather the storm.”

Actors, therefore, are looking for temporary gigs—and for many, including O’Brien, the internet provides them. She and her husband started a YouTube channel called The Hootenanny, on which they live-stream music classes geared toward children every weekday morning, both as a way to keep their son occupied and as a way to entertain families who also have restless toddlers at home. With every upload, O’Brien encourages viewers to donate $5 to her Venmo account, but says she understands if her audience, like her and her family, can’t spare the money. “If people are in the same situation as us, don’t worry about it,” she says. “Just tune in; keep your kids busy.”

They’re not the only ones migrating online while being out of work. “There’s an intense amount of collaboration,” Viola observed. “Actors, musicians, writers and other creatives are using Facebook, Instagram, Zoom conferencing and other electronic methods to build creative communities online.” All the performers I spoke with have noticed a spike in internet activity as well. “I don’t love the pressure to write King Lear, but as someone who has been creating my own content for a long time, it’s interesting to see everyone, even actors who are usually on TV shows, suddenly want to make their own stuff,” the actor Ashley Clements wrote me in a Twitter direct message. (Clements primarily produces and stars in web content, while supplementing her work with commercial gigs.) “I think we’re going to see a lot of podcasts, vlog-style one person shows, songs, and quarantine shorts come out of this time, as actors try to stay sane.”

Indeed, coronavirus content has become its own subgenre, given how the pandemic has come to dominate headlines and conversations. There’s an appetite for public-service announcements, for commentary—and even for parody. Tess Paras, an actor who stars on Amazon’s Just Add Magic, assembled a lineup of her performer friends for a video spoofing the viral A-lister sing-along to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” rewriting the lyrics with fellow actor Lilan Bowden to draw attention to—and condemn—the racist rhetoric around the coronavirus. “I think social media has become an even livelier place right now,” she wrote me via Twitter. “We’re all doing bits to connect with each other and quell our collective anxiety. Honestly being able to laugh helps!”

Rebekka Johnson, a comedian and cast member on the Netflix drama GLOW, which halted production on its fourth season following the outbreak, is also working on making coronavirus content. She collaborated remotely with her industry friends to come up with a script about social distancing that they each shot at home and pieced together into a comedic PSA on Instagram. “I guess we’re just trying to still be creative, but for the greater good,” she explained over the phone. Not everyone’s dipping into COVID-19–specific creations, Johnson added in an email: She’s noticed that many of her fellow actors, like O’Brien, have begun hosting online classes on subjects such as musical improv and voice-over work to help pay the bills.

Still, not all online content is created equal. The influx of A-listers onto the same platforms threatens to overshadow these actors, drawing away the valuable attention they need to monetize their work. “It’s kind of hard to compete when, you know, [the Coldplay frontman] Chris Martin wants to put on a concert,” O’Brien pointed out. “It is really neat [that everyone’s logging on], but then there is a lot of noise, and it is hard to stand out.”

And standing out will be the key to dealing with the potentially protracted aftermath of social distancing. Actors are used to enduring slumps between gigs, and industry emergency-assistance funds and government-instituted relief packages will help in the short term. But Johnson, who’s being paid for two weeks of work while production is halted on GLOW, anticipates a swell of funding campaigns for actors like herself if the pandemic proves to be disruptive for too long. “As an actor, it’s feast or famine,” she said. “So this was the time that I was going to make money to be able to sustain for that long period of time when you’re sort of figuring out what your next job is. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that unknown is very scary.”

Sedgwick, too, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about his financial future for the time being. He has unemployment insurance—actors may qualify through unions such as SAG-AFTRA depending on their state—but “this kind of situation has the potential to be a tipping point,” he explained. “I’ve googled ‘bankruptcy law in California’ more than once.” And Curran said she’s “saved enough money to not be worried for a little while,” but fears that if productions don’t resume in time, she’ll be ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild’s health-insurance program, which depends on actors hitting a wage minimum every year. Actors need auditions to make it to the next “feast,” as Johnson put it; without them, they’ll have to create their own opportunities.

In that sense, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped Hollywood; it’s just forced the industry to hit pause. Crews have stopped gathering, studio gates have closed, red carpets sit unrolled, and the release calendar has been left in disarray. But even though traffic has slowed on sets and stages, art doesn’t have to: Curran said she’ll be shooting “the lowest of low-budget short films” in her house and backyard. And O’Brien, on top of creating daily lesson plans for The Hootenanny, will get started on a long-gestating project. “I have been talking for, like, three years about writing a one-person show,” she said, laughing. “The silver lining is, I do have time to write now.” In other words? The show will go on.