A Rags To Riches Hollywood Story? Barkhad Abdi & The Cost Of Being An Actor

March 6, 2014  |  

Actors seem so glamorous. People know your name, who you are dating, and what your next projects are going to be by the click of one button. You get to wear expensive clothing, travel around the world, and eat at the finest, most exclusive restaurants. By all appearances, actors who gain some manner of celebrity are also doing well financially. But that’s not always the case.

Somali actor Barkhad Abdi recently had his name has been splashed in magazines, newspapers and websites, not just because he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in Captain Phillips, but also because we found out in The New Yorker that he made $65,000 for the job. Not exactly the figure that you would imagine for a big-budget Hollywood film. The production budget for Captain Phillips was $55 million. Other jobs in which one can make $65K are a registered nurse, a personal financial adviser, a microbiologist, and an orthotist. And that was two years ago.

Now, Abdi lives in Hollywood, broke and struggling alongside scores of other actors who have not been nominated for any prestigious industry awards, much less, for an Oscar. Abdi’s story is a vital fiscal lesson for many who have ever thought about making their love for the arts into fulfilling, paying jobs. When you’re an actor just starting out, there will be months of making payments for headshots, classes, industry workshops, and other career-building duties. If you are lucky enough to have an agent and/or manager and get a paying gig, 10 percent will go to your agent(s), and 10 to 20 percent maximum to your manager. If you are even luckier to advance your career and become a member of SAG-AFTRA performer’s union, you will have to pay a membership initiation fee of $3,000 (which can be loaned), an annual base membership fee of $198, and 1.575 percent of all individual earnings under SAG or AFTRA contracts between $1-$500,000. Once you are a SAG-AFTRA member, you can earn a minimum rate of $490 to 609.50 per day, and if you are working on a weekly basis, $1,721.50 to $2,131.50 a week, versus non-union talent who earn much less.

Normally, when you move up to Oscar-, Emmy-, or Tony-nominated territory, there are also more people on an actor’s payroll: publicists, lawyers, makeup artists and stylists. Even while they may be gifted with the swankiest designer clothes, shoes, and jewelry, many times these are on loan, so they are expected to give it back.

True enough, once you get to high-profile status, you can command a king’s ransom for your participation in a movie. Sandra Bullock was reportedly paid $70 million for her role in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity; a base of $20 million and then a smartly negotiated 15 percent cut of box office sales. Tom Hanks, who has one of the most glittering careers in show business today, took a pay cut for Captain Phillips, with rumors that he settled for $10 million.

Obviously, Abdi, being a Hollywood industry newcomer, cannot be compared to Tom Hanks, in terms of bankability. Captain Phillips is his first feature role, and, picked out of tons of people who came to a casting call, his is a true Cinderella story. But, now he’s in a precarious time of his new acting career where he has to think about next steps and longevity, so one day he too can command more money like Bullock and Hanks. Yes, even Oscar-nominated stars have to think about longevity. But Abdi also must realize that the pickings for being cast in another movie or even a TV show are slim when you consider the tons of people who are also in the running.

With any luck, and more sweat, we’ll see Abdi on screen again in the near future. He has already started his acting career with a bigger bang than most other actors could ever dream of. The question is whether this was lightning in a bottle or the beginning of a long career. If he can ultimately achieve not just the name recognition, but the A-list power of players like Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, Abdi can look back at this time of economic instability and laugh about it. At this point, like Abdi, we can only wait and hope that he does not become another Hollywood one-hit film wonder.

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