Rise and grind, and grind again: the arduous life of an actor in Vancouver means juggling two full-time jobs (at least)

Director yells "Cut!" ... Now what?

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      As someone who spent six years pursuing a career in acting, let me tell you—that shit’s expensive.

      The old saying goes, “Pick a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Which is true, I guess, if you love plumbing or teaching or some other sensible, stable work. For actors, because the film industry is not sensible nor a stable place for work, this isn’t exactly the case. You can love acting, and still need to put in hundreds and thousands of hours of work before you get to do the job.

      In my case, $20,000 toward an acting program at Vancouver Film School followed by six years of pursuing roles. In the end I appeared in one episode of a television show (TLC’s Untold Stories of the ER) and a music video. Of course, there’s the argument that success shouldn’t just be measured based on the gigs they book, but instead that they should take pride and find fulfillment through the process instead. You know, the whole “it’s the journey, not the destination” argument. This may be a great mindset to have, but mindsets don’t exactly pay the bills.

      Let’s now compare the life of an actor with that of an astronaut.

      The majority of an astronaut’s life is spent training and learning about being in space and the different roles they’ll have to take on to have a successful mission. They might actually only be in space a handful of times throughout their whole life, if they even get to go at all.

      It’s the same thing for actors. Most time is spent in classes, workshops, doing student films and theatre for the experience, and auditioning. A successful actor might book a big-time audition a handful of times in their lives. If they even get to at all.

      A major difference, though, between an actor and an astronaut is that the government sees the training that astronauts do between flights as work and pays them accordingly for it. For acting? Not so much.

      Which is too bad considering how much money that goes into pursuing a career in acting: classes, workshop fees, online memberships, head shots, self-tape materials (a good camera, the equipment for said camera, and lighting), last-minute audition-coaching fees, and the cost of renting out audition space if you don’t have the room at home. It all adds up.

      It’s an expensive (and competitive) job to pursue, and Vancouver is a notoriously expensive city. So, in order to survive as an actor, one must also master the art of the side job.

      George Mohan

      Last year, a Vancouver Actors Report survey found that 77 percent of respondents worked a job outside of acting. That 77 percent fell into one of the following five job groups: digital content (writer, brand ambassadors), arts (visual artist, model), trades and services (construction work, translator/interpreter), education (coach, university instructor), and—you guessed it—hospitality (barista, busser, and server).

      Now, we’ve all heard the joke that every actor is also a server. Well, like many clichés, there is a bit of truth to it. Many actors do work as servers, bartenders, baristas, and the like, because of the flexible hours those jobs offer. And flexible hours mean being available for auditions.

      Audition-accommodating shifts were a huge reason Olga Zippa took on her current serving job in West Vancouver.

      The Ireland-born actor, who recently wrapped on her first leading role in a film, says that she first dreamed of acting for a living as a kid.

      “For as long as I can remember I wanted to do it,” Zippa tells Straight. “Even when I was younger, and I didn’t really know what acting was exactly. I just remember being like, ‘Okay, I don’t know how to get into or what I’ll have to do, but I want that.’ I was just so amazed how people were able to become different people.”

      Zippa studied at Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin before coming to Vancouver—often referred to as Hollywood North—to pursue her filmmaking dreams. Since moving here, she’s served tables.

      “It’s one of the easiest ways to make a living, which doesn’t always interfere with your acting,” Zippa says. “Work is typically in the evening, so when you have auditions during the day, you can balance both.”

      Sometimes though, a night will be spent needing to prepare for an audition, especially when it’s a major one, and that’s when she’ll need to have a shift covered. “To actually film it or go to it [the audition]­—that isn’t the issue,” Zippa explains. “But sometimes I’ll need the night before to work on it.”

      At times, the hustle of essentially juggling two careers is draining.

      “It’s like you put 30 to 40 hours into your acting and then you also have a 30-to-40 hour job,” she notes. “So sometimes it’s like I have two full-time jobs but I’m only getting paid for one.”

      In an average month, Zippa sees about 10 casting calls come her way, and it’s important that she make them all—whether it’s for a commercial, television spot, or short film. Availability is a top priority.

      “I’m never going to take a job if they’re not going to be flexible with me—perhaps when I need to swap shifts or I need to get the day off last minute—like, that’s what’s really important for me,” she says.  

      Actor Olga Zippa balances making inroads as an actor in Vancouver with waiting tables.
      Rebecca Roberts Studios

      AS ZIPPA CAN attest, an actor is expected to drop everything in order to prepare and be there for each audition that presents itself—even the last-minute ones. This is why you won’t find many thespians moonlighting as pilots, police officers, or lawyers. Those aren’t exactly jobs where you can get your afternoon covered.

      Finding flexible work certainly narrows down the job listings, and so, in response to this, some actors decide to take schedules into their own hands and start their own business. Vancouver’s Rosalba Perez embraced her Mexican heritage by opening a piñata-making business.

      Perez developed an interest in acting from a very young age, when she first appeared on the 21 Jump Street television series back in the ’90s.

      “That was my first taste of it, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I love this!’” Perez says.

      She worked as a background actor through high school, dabbled in some modelling, and has since auditioned for commercials as well as feature roles on film and television. Recognizing that pursuing acting would require a day job before things took off for her, Perez studied accounting and administration in university.

      She found, however, that applying for accounting jobs after graduating was challenging. Perez quickly discovered that it was hard to find employers who view actors as people they’d like to hire.

      “Applying full-time to an accounting job and trying to have them understand that my acting is a priority, but at the same time it’s not going to affect too much of the work, is really hard to explain to people,” Perez says. “Not many jobs understand the industry of acting.

      People see ‘actor’ and they see ‘Oh! She’s never gonna be around.’ They just assume you’re like, working like Sandra Bullock or you’re the Rock or something and you’re constantly on set. When, in reality, the majority of us actors aren’t. It takes years for us to get there—if we even get there.”

      With the prospects of making steady money as a full-time accountant impossible, Perez knew she had to turn to something that would offer her flexibility as well as an income.

      The idea to start her own business came to her when a friend, knowing she was a skilled artist and sculptor, asked if she would make her a Dora the Explorer piñata for her sister’s birthday. After finishing the project and finding she really enjoyed learning more about the traditional Mexican art-form and creating the piñata itself, Perez started her own company, FabPinatas

      Perez's workspace at Beaumont Studios
      Courtesy of Rosalba Perez

      Six years later, Perez is supporting herself completely through her acting gigs and her piñata business. As a self-employed woman, she is able to say “yes” to her agent when offered auditions, which is more than any bookkeeping job could offer her.

      Now and then, Perez will take up the occasional accounting job, including during the past year when her piñata business was hit hard during the pandemic. During that time, she picked up a few weekly assignments through a recruitment agency. But now that weddings, birthday parties, and baby showers are once again in people’s calendars, her piñata business is back in the swing of things. Currently, she’s working on a Super Mario–themed papier-mâché creation.

      According to Perez, her piñata business has been her saving grace as she continues to work toward her acting goals.
      “I would really like to do this for a long, long time. I’m headed to that point where I want to grow the business. I want to expand it,” she says. “I enjoy doing the piñatas, it’s fun, and it’s also, for me, like a lesson that I can give people on the traditions of Mexico. Piñatas are a big traditional aspect of Mexico, and a lot of people don’t know that… But yeah! I like it, I’m having fun with it.”

      Having a job that she enjoys is especially great for Perez’s self-esteem and mental health, as sometimes the competitive nature of the film industry can bring her down.

      “It’s a hard industry,” Perez says. “It’s not like you go apply for an acting job and you’re good to go. You’re literally going for interviews with every single audition. And you’re definitely not guaranteed to get the job.… I think what helps is just talking to yourself and reminding yourself to not be so hard on yourself.”

      Perez’s determined spirit, coupled with her flexible, artistic side job, help her visualize her future success in acting, and she isn’t the only one who’s used their artistic skill to make a job for themselves. 

      GAIL SIMPSON QUIT her office job to open a painting-party business—and return to acting.

      For 20-plus years, Simpson worked as a manager at an event planning agency. During that time, she raised her two kids. While she had done some acting when her children were young, balancing motherhood, living in Langley, and working at a Monday-to-Friday event job made things like casting calls difficult.

      “Sometimes your audition can be five minutes, sometimes you can be there for an hour—depends what’s going on in there,” Simpson says. “And for callbacks, most of the time, I couldn’t make them. When I was working full time, I had to stay committed to that job.” Recognizing that acting demanded a flexibility that she no longer had, Simpson had to give up the dream.

      Pursuing acting became a possibility again about eight years ago, and it’s all thanks to a painting party.

      If you’re not familiar with a painting party, essentially there’s a teacher who walks you through creating a painted work of art. Simpson was invited to one such party as a girls night with her friends. At this particularly crowded event while the teacher was busy, Simpson took it upon herself to help the others around her with their paintings, being an avid painter herself.

      “After the class, someone said to me, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ And I said, ‘Oh gosh I couldn’t do that!’ ” Simpson recalls. “But they wouldn’t let me off the hook and they said, ‘Gail, we’re gonna hold a party for you in my friend’s restaurant, let’s see how it goes.’ ”

      Simpson’s very own, first-ever painting party was a huge success. Such a success, she decided to quit her job in event planning and begin her own painting party business: A Palette of FUN Paint Parties.

      Once she was able to create a schedule of her own, Simpson was able to pursue acting again, and since then has appeared in works such as season two of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and TransLink commercials.

      Simpson on the set of a TransLink commercial
      Courtesy of Gail Simpson

      Simpson insists that if she didn’t have the freedom of her schedule now, she would not be half as successful as she is.

      “I’m so lucky,” she asserts, “I know lots of actors who try to balance having a regular job and doing this—so they’re trying to fit in auditions on their lunch, or having to say they’re sick, or whatever, and it’s difficult.”

      The rise-and-grind mentality actors take on to support their side jobs and acting pursuits is hard work, especially keeping in mind that, much like being an astronaut down on Earth, there’s no guarantee of making it to space.

      As glamorous as Hollywood looks on Oscar night, the reality is that few aspiring actors get to be Brad Pitt or Charlize Theron. For most, working a side gig is at worst a necessary back-up plan, and at best a springboard to realizing a dream.

      Perez says that when it comes to succeeding, keeping a positive attitude is key.

      “You know, sometimes I can get frustrated like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ ‘Am I not doing enough?’ ” she admits. “And I’ll talk to my agent like, ‘What do I need to fix this?’ and she’s like, “No, you’re fine. You have to be patient; you have to just keep going. Don’t give up. Maybe you’re just not right for this part now, but something will come along.’ And something always does come.”  

      George Mohan 
      If you’re someone who works behind the camera in the film industry, make sure to check out our part two of this series, which will appear on Straight.com next week.