I recently turned down the chance to make $1500 for a day’s work.
I turned it down because of pride; because of how I might be treated during the work; because of how other people on that job might view me; because someone might recognise me later.
I turned it down because after beginning my acting career more than fifteen years ago, I really thought I could do better than “Christmas Party Mate” in a commercial.
But the truth is, I can’t. Not with things as they currently are. And the way things currently are is that I’m just a mum from the suburbs who hasn’t told her agent to take her name off the books but probably should have.
I have always performed. From the age of six, I was onstage. I was the kid who not only starred in my Grade Three play but wrote the damned thing. I was a singing, dancing, precocious nightmare.
But we don’t stay children forever. The older I got, the more aware of myself I became and that self-awareness put a slow leak in my self-esteem. In the small country town where I lived, I was talented, but on the few occasions I was sent to Melbourne to audition for commercials, even at 12 years old, I understood that the stakes were higher. I knew I had competition and I doubted myself terribly.
In my teens, I was ambitious about one thing only; boys. I assumed I had all the time in the world to be an actor. It wasn’t until I was 23 years old that I took serious steps towards a career.
I started taking acting classes and one of the first things my teacher advised me was to never do extra work. It was beneath me and there were other ways to get experience on set, she said. So I listened. I did student films and took as many classes as I could afford. I got headshots done and searched for an agent.
Watching back videos of my class work, I would scrutinise not only my performances, but every aspect of my appearance. I became obsessed with minimising certain ‘unattractive’ facial expressions and avoiding unflattering angles. Scrutinising my performances had a purpose because I could learn what worked and what didn’t and adjust my performances accordingly. But my face was my face and regarding it with such a critical eye only eroded my already diminishing confidence.
I persevered. Despite the slow dawning of realisation that I was inadequate, I kept on. I was successful in auditions just often enough to keep that tiny flame within me alive. And then I had a breakthrough. My very first television role. A small part but pivotal to the storyline. And an upgrade from the part I had originally been sent in to read for. I had waited so long for this moment and I can see myself in my flat, phone still in hand, jumping up and down with sheer joy.
Not long after that, I was called in to audition for a lead role on another popular Australian series. I thought my time had come. Things were happening and I was finally being recognised.
Of course, I blew that audition. I was probably a terrible fit for the role all along but the casting director was giving me a shot. And I blew it. The stakes were too high, I was too green. The truth was I probably needed to audition for 100 lead roles before I finally cracked it. But I allowed myself to imagine my new life, how being the lead on a hit television show would completely alter my reality. How it would be a dream come to life. My life’s dream.
And then, just as quickly as the momentum had built, it stopped again. Did I do everything I could have to keep it going? Maybe. For a little while. But there were only so many classes I could afford; only so many headshots I could send to casting directors before they blackballed me for being a pest. The Australian film and television industry is really small and at any one time, so few jobs are on offer. But the talent pool vying for those jobs? Teeming. A writhing pit of people desperate for their chance.
Younger people. Taller people. Skinnier people. Prettier people. Talented people. Connected people.
The pond was small but so was I.
But at least I was never an extra.
This is why my latest appearance on television has sent me into a furious spiral of self-loathing today.
A while back, I got a call from my agent at 5:30pm one afternoon asking me whether I could film a part on House Husbands the following day. They had forgotten to cast it and they needed someone urgently. There was no dialogue but they needed a reliable actor in the role. What the hell? I agreed to do it. The money would be handy.
After shooting my scenes over several days, it was very obvious to me that my appearance would look like I had been an extra. So I started going into damage control, letting everyone know that the part was so insignificant that I would totally look like an extra, but my pay rate and name in the credits meant I totally wasn’t. It was vital to me that everyone knew the difference.
So yesterday morning, when I awoke to discover lovely messages on Facebook about my episode airing last night, I immediately watched it online. Yep, less than a second of screen time and even though I knew it would be that way, I was really disappointed and really embarrassed. I hit my FB page for more damage control.
Everyone was just excited to have seen me on TV. Why couldn’t I have just shared in their excitement? Accepted their well wishes with grace? For most people, getting their heads on TV is a bit of a lark. When Bren did a stint of extra work to make some cash, we used to shriek at the telly whenever we saw the back of his head in a bank commercial. But as someone who wanted to make a living doing this work, the last thing I ever wanted to do was just ‘get my head on.’ I wanted to be the lead. At the very least, I wanted to be a guest character with some substance. I didn’t want to be Mum #1. I really didn’t.
You’re probably wondering what the big deal is? What’s so bad about being an extra anyway? Don’t you have to start somewhere?
The truth is extras are important. In fact, every film or television series ever made has relied at least sometimes on those (no)bodies filling out the scene. They sit in pretend cafes, walk down pretend streets, mill about in fake crowds, and it’s hour upon boring hour of standing around, being treated a bit like second class citizens and never getting the thanks or recognition they deserve.
But it is also true that extras are not actors. At least not in the eyes of the industry. And even now, as I move further and further away from even wanting a serious career, I can’t bear to be mistaken for one. I actively avoided the extras on the House Husbands set just so nobody would think I was one of them. Even though I HATE the way extras are treated and even though I knew that every single one of those extras would have killed to be in my position. I was embarrassed about being Mum #1 and meanwhile one of the extras sitting beside me in a scene looked at me like I was holding the golden ticket.
What an ungrateful jerk I am.
It’s a cruel industry and most of the people who enter it will never get within a sniff of the kind of success they’re dreaming of. And I have to accept that I am one of those people. In many ways, I would rather leave my career behind, making my peace with the fact that a small guest role on The Secret Life of Us was the pinnacle of my career rather than keep being cast as a glorified extra and then breaking my neck to make sure everyone knows I never normally do this and I just did it for the money. There is no shame in being an extra and yet, I am mortified that anyone would think I am one.
I took acting seriously. And I am seriously messed up about how it all turned out. So I turned down 2 auditions recently because though they paid handsomely, I knew they were ultimately extra work. And I have no right to ask for more than that right now. I have been out of the game for almost a decade now. You don’t just show up to the Olympics after 8 years and ask to swim on the team again, even if you are Ian Thorpe. And I was never Ian Thorpe.
So I’m left with a tangle of emotions. Wondering if I pinned all my hopes on a long shot career because I “was always performing as a child” and my mum thought I was “so talented.” There’s a creeping realisation that those tone deaf fools who sing on TV talent shows because everyone always knew I’d be a star are actually me. I am the tone deaf fool. I thought I was special. I really thought I could be one of the lucky ones.
And then I think to myself, you had the chance to earn $1500 to be a “Christmas Party Mate.” You had the chance to make a very easy chunk of change that your family could really have used and you turned it down because pride said you were too good for it.
Which makes me selfish, too.
It just sucks, you know? Because rightly or wrongly, this was my dream. All my life, this was my dream. And it’s sad that it didn’t work out the way I planned. And it’s frustrating that I can’t just let go of it all together. It seems cruel that life lead me down that path if it was never meant to be. But then I realise maybe I stubbornly walked down it anyway, even though the signs were saying, “Wrong Way!” “Go Back!”
What will take for me to cut the cord completely? I don’t know. Somehow I believe this part of my journey is not yet dead. Against all odds, that little flame still flickers. And as much as self-doubt tells me otherwise, I did have some promising moments as an actor and feedback from industry people which confirmed I wasn’t just kidding myself.
What I do know for sure is that no matter how good the pay day, I can’t do work that’s going to make me feel inferior. And thankfully, Bren has never asked me to take an acting job because we need the money. God bless him.
My mum watched my House Husbands episode yesterday. She got a big kick out of my nanosecond performance. For that reason alone, it was probably worth it.