From starring in a leading role in a major motion picture to portraying a grocery store clerk in a 30-second television commercial, a career as an actor can run a wide gamut.
Kelly Schumann, who played a recurring role on the TV series Hot in Cleveland, knows firsthand that life as an actor isn’t always glamorous. She also knows that persistence and hard work can lead to success.
A career as a working actor can involve a variety of media outlets and settings, from live theater to film, television, commercials, radio, theme parks and other performing arts venues. Like Kelly Schumann, many actors start their careers part-time, accepting whatever acting engagements they can, while working other jobs to sustain a steady stream of income.
The salary for actors varies widely depending on a number of factors including experience, industry, level of education and location. Salary.com lists the median annual salary for an actor/performer at $52,628 as of October 2015.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides actor wages in hourly terms, as it does for occupations where workers do not typically work full-time or year-round. According to the BLS, the mean hourly wage for actors was $37.28 as of May 2014.
The employment outlook for actors is below average, with job growth expected to be about 4 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the BLS.
An in-depth look
Kelly Schumann was in her first theater production when she was eight. Since then, the Chicago native has earned a Jeff Award for her work at Circle Theater, moved to LA and scored a recurring role on the TV show Hot in Cleveland.
For most working actors (those people you don’t see on the covers of magazines), she says, life isn’t glamorous — and like many, she hasn’t quit her day job — but she believes that an actor can build a career through persistence, saying yes and consistently working to get better.
JMA: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
KS: I was a dancer when I was little and I was sure I was going to be a ballerina. Then I hit puberty and realized I needed to move on to another dream. I knew I liked acting; I graduated from high school a semester early to move to New York and go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It took me a long time to commit to acting as a career.
JMA: What else did you consider doing?
KS: I spent the next 12 years off and on going to the DePaul School for New Learning to get my BA. Acting was my focus area. During that time, I was working in ad sales for a suburban newspaper, The Wednesday Journal, and acting in plays. Circle Theatre in Forest Park was my artistic home. It became clear to me that to break into the Chicago scene, I had to be immersed in the city; and I wasn’t. I was more suburban. Chicago’s is an amazing, welcoming theater community, but I never really broke in. Looking back, I feel like that time in Chicago, even though I wasn’t working on a “career” as others would define it, was a great period of growth for me. I was practicing and practicing, but a full-time acting career wasn’t on my radar.
JMA: When did you change gears and decide to pursue acting as a career?
KS: I took the leap when a director I was working with at Circle was moving to LA. I was so inspired by him; he was the director who came in and pushed me into another league. He was directing a play in LA and wanted me to come out and do a role. It seemed bonkers to me. I had only been there once for one night. All I knew about LA was every bad cliché. I was sure the theater scene there was like theater in Omaha, no disrespect to Omaha. LA just doesn’t have that reputation.
I talked to everyone in Chicago and no one thought it was crazy. So I went out there and did this play while continuing to work remotely for the newspaper. While I was there, I had my first TV audition and experienced my first major career disappointment. I had a signed contract, went in for the final audition and tanked. They cancelled my contract and I went back to Chicago after the play was over.
That same director called me again a year later and asked me to come back out to be in another play. It dawned on me that if I moved and tried, I could do it and that if I didn’t, I couldn’t. So I moved.
JMA: What were your expectations?
KS: I have to be honest; moving to LA didn’t become appealing until I was past the age when I thought there was something glamorous about an acting career. I spent my 20s trying to find something — anything else to be — because acting seemed so unrealistic. I kept going back to school because I thought that eventually I would have to figure out what I was doing with my life.
The amazing thing is that, this whole time, I had this faith that it would all iron itself out — even though I was approaching 30. By the time I moved to LA, I had spent a lot of time trying not to be an actor and that wasn’t possible. I was lucky because I never thought I would be a star and I knew it would be a lot of work. I grew up before I decided to come here. I knew that acting would be an endless stream of “No, thank you.”
JMA: What was the first year in LA like? Did you find work?
KS: Everything that could go wrong that year did. I was broke. There was a writers’ strike. Gas was $5 a gallon. It was one thing after another and it was the hardest year of my life. Luckily, I met a group of people from Chicago who were friends with the director I was working with and they were all willing to help out. Your family can only do so much from so far away. I had to find people here. I had to commit.
JMA: When did things start to change for you?
KS: It wasn’t until I had been here for four years. I was doing a play with the director who brought me to LA and I just had a feeling that this one was a game-changer. Until then, I had had one line on one TV show. My director’s agent came to see the play and asked if I was represented. Two other agents were at the show and were interested in me. It felt like magic. But the magic was that I had been doing readings that went nowhere for years. So here I am in this amazing position with no real TV credits on my resume and three people who want to sign me. That same night, the producer of Hot in Cleveland was in the audience with Wendie Malick. I went backstage and there was Wendie in my dressing room like, “You’re great and we want you on the show.” A few weeks later, I auditioned for one episode and they kept bringing me back.
JMA: So, what is your daily life like now?
KS: I have a regular day job at the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I do a combination of wish coordinating and medical outreach. In terms of acting, I try to do as much theater as possible and still say yes to pretty much anything that comes my way. I work in TV as much as possible and still take classes. I’d say I usually split my time between my job with Make-A-Wish, going on auditions and trying to drum up work. Then there are times when I am doing all of that and acting in a play in the evening or shooting for TV.
I’m lucky with my day job. I love it — if the acting was over for me tomorrow, I would be OK. I knew that to move here and pursue acting, I couldn’t have a soul-sucking job that was meaningless to me. I also have some flexibility with my job. I can make up hours when I need to and use vacation time for auditions or other acting jobs.
JMA: Going out to LA with realistic expectations, what made you nervous?
KS: What did freak me out, and what continues to freak me out, is that acting is not like a lot of other careers. It’s all freelance work and you never know when the next job is going to come. I can’t count on acting jobs. Julia Roberts doesn’t have to worry about finding her next job, but I do.
You also really need a support system, and I had heard that it takes at least three years to really feel at home in LA. I had to work hard to find my friends. There is superficiality about LA, but there are also really great, normal people out here trying to live their lives. That three-year mark made all the difference; at that point I was able to say, “This is what life should look like.”
There’s also the fact that actors face a lot of rejection, and I can’t let rejection define me. I have to cultivate my self-worth without thinking about career success and failure. I think a lot about what I can do to further my career and be OK as a person.
JMA: What is the best thing about being an actor? When do you just truly love your job?
KS: I feel most confident when I am acting. I know this is the one thing I am really good at and supposed to be doing. That keeps me going. I love it when I get to be in a play or when I was on Hot in Cleveland. I am so proud of the product and I am so lucky. I was on a TV show with Betty White! That’s crazy! She’s such an icon; she’s legendary and the best at what she does. Sometimes I would get to go to work and Betty White was there; I would learn something and be better because of it. There’s always more to learn and more to do. I really love it. (Note: The final episode of Hot in Cleveland aired on June 3, 2015.)
JMA: What has surprised you most about life as an actor?
KS: I’m surprised all of the time. I’m surprised at the opportunity. The reason people come to LA is because there is so much opportunity — there are hundreds of auditions every day. It’s easier and harder than what you might think. It’s easy in that the opportunity exists. It’s hard because it’s a numbers game and you have to work consistently for a really long time.
JMA: What is the salary range for a non-famous working actor?
KS: Every project is different. For most of the plays I am in, I get a stipend at best. Like $30 – 40 a week for performances — and nothing for the rehearsal time. In terms of TV, the lowest is a co-star role. A co-star is someone without a storyline — the cashier who says, “That will be $5.” The pay for that is about $700. The next level is guest star and that’s a big range. It can be a few scenes or a multi-episode storyline. It depends, but that might be $800 – $1,300. Then there’s a recurring role, which can be $2,000 – $5,000 a week — which is really great but you can’t count on that. I am not complaining. I clearly remember thinking $700 for a co-star role would be living the dream.
Personally, I budget my life based on my Make-A-Wish salary. At some point, there will be a moment, I hope, when I have to make a decision about my day job when the acting work is frequent enough. But I can’t help but think about when I first got here, so I hoard all of my money for a rainy day.
JMA: What’s the bottom line?
KS: All of the time, I hear people say that to be happy, you have to do the thing that you love. But that’s only part of it. I can love acting until the cows come home, but it won’t make a career materialize. That’s why I got a day job that means something to me. I never had an illusion that it would be easy and I’m grateful that it’s going the way that it is. I had really proven to myself that there wasn’t anything else for me; I knew it would be harder for me to not act than be here and face rejection and disappointment.
The formula is that I practice, I show up prepared and I don’t bring personal stuff with me to work. I think that’s a good formula for any job. It will take me longer to get to what other people consider success, but I feel like I’m doing it.
Check out Kelly Schumann’s work here.