I’m now 34. I am a full-time actor and rising influencer (at least I hope so). In a good month, I will make $5000-$6000. In months like these, I get to enjoy my life. I sip mimosas with industry bigwigs (at least that is who they claim to be). I attend comedy clubs with close friends. I pay acting coaches to help me sharpen my skills. I pay for new headshots, new demo reels, and Tiktok collaborations. I’m generally a much more enjoyable person and I love feeling free with no financial burdens. By the last week, I usually tell myself that I’m doing ok. I had a great month, and it gives me the belief that someday, I will make it to the big leagues as an actor. I will be the next Dev Patel or Kumail Nanjiani.
Most months though, I make closer to $1500-$2000. This amount is hardly enough to pay the rent for my small private room, with a bathroom I share with three other roommates. In downtown LA, my rent alone costs $875. With utilities, electricity, and internet my total living expenses amount to $930 and trust me, that is a steal compared to some of the other places in or near Hollywood. With food, car, gym membership, insurance, my disposable income whittles down to only a few hundred dollars a month, pushing me towards poverty. Of course, when you look at my freshly bleached teeth, muscular and lean stature, and streetwear attire, you would never think I’m poor.
Acting can be a stable moneymaker, if you get steady gigs, or are cast in a big role. Big roles are movie roles, TV roles, and commercials (usually backed by big budgets and high promotional exposure). Big roles come few and far between, and when they do, it’s usually a big break (especially the movie and TV roles) and we all know how rare big breaks are. The movies don’t lie about the rarity of big breaks. They usually come out of the blue to someone super lucky, or they come to those who have worked for years in the industry. I was never lucky, and don’t think I ever will be. So, I must rely on paying my dues through steady gigs until I get my big break.
Unfortunately, steady gigging is not something I am used to. As an ethnically Indian man with brown skin and an “exotic” look, I am often typecasted as a terrorist, taxi driver, or computer nerd. Although lately, I have gotten a few extra roles as a Latin prisoner or gang member, which is exciting. However, it is still not enough financially. A small-time actor in LA can make anywhere from $100 a day to $2000 dollars a day (sometimes even more, sometimes even less) depending on the production budget. This drastic range in gig income should scare aspiring actors and actresses to stay away, the allure of becoming a superstar is just too great. With so many people now making films, there are plenty of opportunities, but a lot of these opportunities come from short films made by independent producers and directors. There are far more actors and actresses trying to make it than there are directors. Someone once told me that 40,000 actors and actresses come to LA every year with rose-tinted dreams of making it in Hollywood. I think that number is higher. It certainly feels like it! Do not get me wrong, this is the best time in the industry to be someone of color. Diversity in casting is a hot topic. Casting diversely is becoming the modus operandi for many production companies. Actors of South Asian and East Asian descent are getting a lot more spotlight. But trust me when I say this, there are far more South Asian and East Asian actors and actresses trying to make it now too, because of all the increased opportunity, making the journey that much harder.
The acting industry is HARD. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. During the pandemic, I had to live off government assistance for a few months until I could not afford the rent in my LA apartment anymore. I had to bury my tail between my legs and move back into my parents’ house, where not only did I hear multiple rants about my life choices from them, but I was forced to move into the basement and not my childhood room, because my father had repurposed it to a home office/man cave.
My mother does not miss an opportunity at dinner to remind me of how badly I screwed up by not doing an engineering degree:
You should have pursued an engineering degree as we told you to. So and so’s son is now working at Google. So and so’s daughter is now a surgeon at an amazing hospital. We want you to get married but cannot send your biodata out because you don’t have a stable job. You’re 34, and now very old to find a suitable life partner. You should have gotten married in your late twenties. You should have pursued an engineering degree as we told you to.
At this moment, I feel like she was right. I do wish I had paid more attention to what my parents wanted for me. Every day I wake up in my parents’ house and think to myself “What if…”. What if I had pursued engineering in college, instead of philosophy? What if I had taken that banking internship my dad’s friend offered me in my second summer of college, instead of spending the summer learning the Meisner acting technique? What if I had a normal 9-5 job for the last twelve years and pursued acting as a hobby? Would I still be where I am now as an actor? I haven’t made a lot of headway when compared to Dev Patel’s and Kumal Nanjiani’s but I do feel like I can act really well. But does being a good actor really matter if it doesn’t pay the bills? My parents certainly think so. And nowadays, I tend to agree with them. Yet, I cannot push away the grand allure of one big break.
I get multiple pangs of regret when I see my friends on social media. Many of them are engineers, some of them for FAANG companies. Many of them are doctors and lawyers who now have their own private practice. I feel extremely jealous when I see them married with kids, buying their first homes, and generally enjoying life more. I fear opening my phone and looking at Facebook, constantly reminded that I missed the Bitcoin and Tesla trains because I could never muster up enough money to consistently pay my rent, much less enough to tuck a few thousand dollars into the stock market.
When I meet my friends from school, I have to fluff up my accomplishments to tell them that I am doing really well in my craft and gigging amazingly. But in reality, I’m barely getting by with sporadic acting roles here and there. I also feel that my desi friends judge me harder than my white, black, or Hispanic friends. My desi friends my age will support what I am doing, but in their minds, I know they think I made a poor decision.
All of that will change when I do get my big break.