What’s It Like for an Actor in a Pandemic? Not Easy
Jan 2021 - 9 Min read

What’s It Like for an Actor in a Pandemic? Not Easy

J. Francis Actor Progressive Millennial

A veteran performer shares the challenges of finding work and auditioning virtually during a turbulent year for the film and television industry.

The only thing I ever heard about pursuing an acting career was how daunting it would be. But after two decades in the industry, I can say it’s been worth all the hardships I had coming my way.

Even the ones I’ve faced this year. 

You could classify me as many things: writer, director and actor—although, I think I’m more widely known for being in front of the camera. I’ve been acting for years. I am extremely blessed and grateful for my long-term success, and have probably been in some of your favorite movies and television shows. In fact, I’m sure of it. My point isn’t to brag, I promise. I’ve just been doing this for a long time and have seen it all. I didn’t recently move to Hollywood—I’ve lived here for years with a chip on my shoulder. Which is to say: I don’t take a single opportunity I’ve had for granted, and I absolutely love what I do, when I get to do it.

Being a creative is challenging, no matter what your avenue. Some years are wonderful and others you’d like to forget. But 2020 has surely taken the cake. A question I get all of the time is, “What’s it like being an actor?” A question I get even more now is, “What’s it like being an actor in 2020?” To give you a better idea, I’d like to rewind to several months before the pandemic began. My nightmare year started a little earlier than most. 

Before the Pandemic, I Was Already Filled With Anxiety

Blurry image of a person holding their head.

In October 2019, I was having a forgettable kind of year. Work was scarce, money was low and confidence was nonexistent—nothing out of the ordinary for a normal working actor. My girlfriend and I decided to get away to the East Coast for a friend’s wedding, a necessary trip in a tough year, and a true escape. We spent our first day taking in the sights of the city, eating, laughing, enjoying each other’s company—far from our gloomy reality 3,000 miles away. On the wedding day, we filed into shuttle buses for a 45-minute drive to the venue. To our dismay, we picked the one shuttle that had broken air conditioning and the heat stuck on high. 

I’ve never been good in tight or hot spaces for too long (I was trapped in an elevator for an hour and a locker for nearly four hours as a kid, which has forever affected me). As the drive began, I started to sweat. It was already 80 degrees that day, I was wearing a full suit and the heat was blasting. None of the windows opened. It was truly my nightmare. Soon, my heart started racing, my vision began to blur and my palms pooled with sweat. I couldn’t breathe, and I was moments from passing out. It felt like I was dying. In reality, I was having a panic attack, and against my better judgement, I indiscreetly sat through it for the whole bus ride. People whispered and murmured to their seatmates, intensifying the whole ordeal. The feeling continued for nearly two weeks after returning to L.A. Something had changed me—it temporarily broke me. The stress had gotten so bad, I realized it was time to seek help. I called my doctor and set up an appointment. 

I’ll never forget sitting in his office, sobbing like a child and describing the debilitating feeling I’d been having. The doctor explained I was experiencing symptoms of panic disorder. I had performed in front of thousands of people. The idea that I could have a disorder that would set off panic in my mind and body was beyond my belief. I’m still working through my disorder, but it has gotten better. Auditions were tougher to get through for a period of time, as if the nerves weren’t already a problem for even the steadiest actor. But I was determined to beat this invisible enemy of mine. 

As December approached its conclusion, my girlfriend and I both got severely sick. Looking back, it may have been COVID, but who knows? One day, as we continued to mend, our young dog began breathing weird and refused to eat. Four days after visiting the vet, we lost our husky to rapid-spreading lymphoma. The whole situation seemed unreal. As much as we cried until our eye-wells drained dry, we knew the new year was coming, a perfect time to start fresh, a perfect time to heal, succeed and accomplish planned goals. It was about to be 2020: “The best year yet.”

My nightmare year started a little earlier than most.
Black and white image of a bearded man with his arm across his eyes.

The Industry Shutdown Forced Me Into Unemployment

A man looks out his living room window.

To be fair, the year started well. I moved into a new home, booked a job, secured some branding deals and was on the shortlist for two new pilots, with other potential lucrative opportunities on the horizon. Everything was looking up! Then the unthinkable happened. COVID-19 officially reached the United States. There was comfort in the idea that we were all going through it at the same time. I woke up every day and stayed creative. I wrote, read, looked for side work, even built furniture for our new home. Then after a month or two, I became antsy. Bored to the bone, I yearned for connection to the outside world. I missed my friends and family. I missed the days where I didn’t have to sanitize every item crossing my home’s threshold. I missed being on set! Unfortunately, for me and thousands of other creatives, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Not anytime soon.

In May, I reached out to my agents and managers to get an idea of the landscape. They had no clue. Everything was shut down indefinitely, no lifeboat in sight. Everyone was working from home, but “working” was an overstatement. There was no work. Productions shut down, studios sealed up and casting was the last thing anyone was concerned about. A high-profile show creator that I’d worked with over the years gave me some good advice: “Find a way to make money outside of acting because this is going to fucking suck for a long time.” I was frightened but knew I had to figure something out. I feared that I’d end up living on the street. (For anyone who hasn’t lived in Los Angeles before, it’s not cheap.) 

For the first time in my 20 years of working, I applied for unemployment. It was a shot to the gut. From time to time, I would—and still do—provide private and group coaching lessons for acting students over Zoom, teaching everyone from two-year-olds to adults my age. It’s a way to give back to a younger and more hopeful generation of actors. It gives me an outlet to be creative with like-minded people and make money on the side. But those jobs were few and far between in the pandemic. I leaned on my branding work, writing and creating short skits to endorse products on social media. These were fun, but not a stable source of income, either. I had to keep on trucking. I was selling things I didn’t necessarily need on Letgo and OfferUp. I became an assistant for a friend, running daily errands—groceries, package drop-offs, monotonous stuff. I was willing to swallow my pride to provide for myself and my little family. Thankfully, my girlfriend had already secured a job from home, so one of us was bringing home the bacon. I’m so grateful for her.

For the first time in my 20 years of working, I applied for unemployment.

I Began to Pivot in the Face of More Adversity

Sticky notes on a window that read "sorry we are closed" and "COVID-19."

Over the summer, the industry had to change if there was any hope of reopening our business. Only a handful of big productions had started back up, but no one was willing to risk illness or financial loss for smaller, independent projects. That left a huge gap for a large portion of unspoken artists like myself—but also hair and makeup artists, camera crews and wardrobe departments. The whole industry was working at about a ten percent capacity. The weeks continued to count away, the days began to blur into one. The side jobs continued to help ends meet.

Eventually, I started getting an influx of voiceover auditions for various animated shows, movies or commercials. These types of jobs weren’t typically my forte, but shit, I was grateful for the opportunities. Most of these jobs could be recorded and completed within your own home during the new COVID-era restrictions, but it wasn’t necessarily something I was good at, or even had the hardware to accomplish successfully. On my first auditions, I recorded on my phone, but was quickly told to purchase better equipment for enhanced audio quality. More money out, less money in, but I did as instructed and have continued to work diligently on perfecting the craft. 

Another bump in the road for actors occurred in August. Our union, SAG-AFTRA, changed its eligibility requirements for healthcare. The union that was supposed to protect us announced that actors needed to make an additional $10,000 a year to earn health benefits. In a year when almost nobody has worked, they turned their backs on the very individuals that kept the engine running.

If I seem bitter and angry, it’s because I am, especially as someone with a diagnosed mental health disorder. For an actor who doesn’t fall into the top one or two percent, $10,000 is a lot. As a “working actor,” I’ll average one audition a month. That gives you 12 opportunities in a normal year, 12 chances to get a job. And for a successful veteran like myself, I’m considered one of the lucky ones. Some years you might book two out of those 12, and other years you book none. Employment is never guaranteed.

A Bad Zoom Audition Put Things in Perspective

A laptop featuring a Zoom meeting.

By October, I hadn’t booked one real, live-action audition. I stopped bothering my agents and managers. I continued the side gigs, continued the grind, barely putting enough together. Then, finally, a call from my agent: “Hey! We have an incredible opportunity for us. It’s a new show. A lead role that you’re perfect for. The director and producers want to meet with you.” I read the script and fell in love. I rehearsed feverishly, preparing for my audition in a few days. Usually, auditions required driving an hour to a big fancy studio lot and walking into a small room with a large group of executives and directors to shake hands and show them your skillset face-to-face. But in the year of COVID, we just signed in to Zoom and waited for our virtual audition.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t mad about this. I love the idea of being at home (shoes off, don’t tell anyone) and giving my best performance. Technology, however, never works when you need it to. Based on my Zoom acting classes, I considered myself somewhat of a pro on the app. I never had an issue connecting. But when it came to an audition with ten people in the virtual room, I looked like an amateur. Upon entering, nobody could see or hear me, but I could see them and hear them perfectly. They asked me to leave and return. The second time I entered, my audio wasn’t working. 

Generally, people don’t know how to use Zoom, and while I struggled to fix the issue, one of the producers believed that because they couldn’t hear me, I couldn’t hear them. The producer took one look at me and told his colleague I was too small for the role. “Let’s just move on to the next actor, please,” he said. This broke me. On top of all the anxiety, insecurity and fear of rejection, I had to hear this bullshit? When my Zoom began working, 15 minutes had passed. I felt awful that I’d made them wait. It appeared to them that I wasn’t prepared. I was overwhelmed and understandably bombed. I had put too much pressure on myself, and completely ruined my audition, possibly the one chance I had to redeem the year. 

Who knows if my performance was the reason for losing the job? There are a million other reasons out of my control. For instance, my size. As an actor, I’m always first to blame myself. It’s sort of what we do as performers—we’re always our own toughest critics. The exchange with that producer obviously didn’t help. You’d think during such a trying year, we would find a way to be a little kinder to one another, a little gentler. This wasn’t just happening to me. Fellow actor Lukas Gage had a similar interaction and actually filmed it. In his case, the director believed he was muted and insulted Lukas’s “small” apartment—as if we’re all just supposed to live in mansions. It’s absolutely cringe-worthy. 

So, what’s it like being an actor in 2020? From a distance, pretty similar to any other year. It’s tough. Success is never promised. And you’re going to have constant obstacles. The one thing that 2020 has given me that no other year has? Perspective. I’m alive. I’m happy. I’m healthy. I have a woman in my life who, for whatever reason, absolutely loves me. I have a good group of friends and a family that would do anything for me. With all that in mind, I’ve decided that this year, I will no longer allow my career to control or define me. My profession is not what makes me who I am, and I’m grateful for that realization. More opportunities will come my way, more chances for you to see my pretty face on your TV. If you’re an actor reading this—or thinking about joining the business—do it! But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. At the end of the day, we’re all just playing make-believe.

J. Francis Actor Progressive Millennial

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