The Actor’s Dilemma: Doing Projects for Free. Is it Worth It?

5265826At what point does an actor stop working for free? This can be a difficult decision for ANYONE in the industry. What if I turn down a great opportunity? What if I don’t progress in my career because I keep agreeing to non-paying jobs? It’s enough to make an actor’s head spin. Here’s a story about which decision an actor made and how much better off he is for it, told by Chicago-based actor and improvisor Jimmy Carrane.

A friend of mine who is an actor called me the other day in a panic. He had a decision to make and wanted some help. He had been offered a part in an independent film that was shooting out of town. And while he was excited to have a part in a film, he would have to drive about 15 hours there and back, he wasn’t sure if they were going to pay for his lodging or meals, and he wasn’t going to get paid.

He was confused. On the one hand, he was afraid if he said no to it, he would be passing up an opportunity, but on the other hand, he didn’t want to keep acting for free.

This is a common problem for many aspiring actors. We know that in order to grow our careers, we have to start by being in shows and films for little to no money. In the beginning, agreeing to do projects for free helps us gain valuable experience, gives us an opportunity to network and provides us some good clips for our reel. But once we’ve gotten that, continuing to do projects for no money offers diminishing returns. After a while, it just keeps us small.

So the question for my friend was, “Was this film worth it?”

As we kept talking, his voice got calmer and he got clearer on what he wanted. He realized if he was going to do all that driving and lose two days of work from his day job to be part of the film, then he wanted to get paid. How much he wanted, he wasn’t clear on yet, so I suggested that he call his agent and ask him what would be a fair price for this kind of work.

Later that day, my friend and his agent came up with a price to do the film, and then the agent said the director should contact him directly to negotiate the fee.

So my friend e-mailed the director telling him to contact his agent, and the director got all weird and did not want to deal with his agent, which put an end to the negotiation, and the part, for my friend.

The good news was the decision was made for him. Sometimes when you start to take yourself and your career seriously, the Universe can’t help but to do the same.

Even though he didn’t get the part, my friend made all the right moves. He called someone for help, he took care of himself by running the offer by his agent, and then he acted super professionally by not lashing out at the director. No part of this process was easy.

As you read this, if you’re like most actors, you may say, “But Jimmy, he did not get the part.” You are right. But the story does not end there.

A week later, my friend called me back again and wanted to share some good news. Since he had “lost” the part in the film, he had gotten cast in a play, booked the biggest commercial of his career, and had just landed an audition for a network TV series, which happened to be on the same day he was supposed to be out of town shooting that independent film.

Coincidence? I think not, and neither did my friend.

“I never would have gotten all of these opportunities if had a taken the independent film,” he said, sounding much more calm and confident than he had the week before. “The Universe took me seriously because I took myself seriously.”

I hope I can remember to do the same.


Jimmy Carrane is an actor and improviser based in Chicago. He is the host of the Improv Nerd podcast, co-author of Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser and author of Improv Therapy and The Inner Game of Improv. He teaches the Art of Slow Comedy classes and workshops in Chicago and around the country. Find out more about him at



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