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Hustle! The slings and arrows of a jobbing actor

The Big Idea

A 30 year acting career sounds glamorous, until you realise that like many in the industry, Bruce Hopkins has supplemented his income by doing everything from MC work to house painting.
Hustle! The slings and arrows of a jobbing actor

Bruce Hopkins has been an actor for a good long while now. You might even recognise him - he played Gamling in Lord of the Rings (that guy in the second movie who was the bodyguard for that king who was super old and then became merely middle aged through magic).

He’s also got a bunch of other films under his belt - take a look at his wikipedia page.

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So if you put all this together, you’d probably assume that he’s making a full time living as an actor. And you would be wrong. In fact, Bruce, like most actors, has been coordinating his income from a range of sources for his entire 30 year + career.

Start at the beginning

Let’s rewind a bit. Bruce started his career as a crayfisher. After a season of that, he went to Wellington, where he became a dancer. Then for eight more years, he worked in Australia and New Zealand as a dancer for various companies, including the highly influential Limbs.

Then he made the move into acting in the early 80s. From there, he’s been working as an actor when the work’s there, but also making ends meet with all kinds of other jobs - from painting houses, to MC-ing events, to voiceover work and all kinds of things. Anything to pay the bills, really.

He’s kind of bemused, looking back: “It’s such an insecure way of making a living, and I had three kids! I look back sometimes and say ‘wow, old man, you survived it.’”

He’s not alone

Bruce’s experience is a good example of a situation that lots of actors find themselves in: the work is just not always there, but your bills always are. This is the case all around the world. Even in the big cities like LA, where there’s a lot of opportunity for actors, there’s also a hell of a lot more actors looking for those opportunities.

So to make a living, most actors do other stuff as well. And here’s the positive side: actors have skills that are really widely applicable. For example, actors make ambassadors for events - like the people dressed in character at Shakespeare in the Park who help people find their seats and so on.

Bruce reckons all actors should be following this kind of approach - “you’ve got to find a strong avenue for other income, that you know you can flip in and out of.” There are all kinds of jobs that use acting skills, but aren’t necessarily acting on stage or on film - things like MC-ing, voice over work, and role playing for organisational training.

Doing this kind of thing on the side keeps your acting muscles flexed, and keeps you engaged with the wider acting community, because you’ll often work alongside other actors doing the same thing.

Bruce has gone as far as to build a company around this idea - Action Actors. This is a temp agency that specialises in actors. If you need people for role play in your corporate training, or promotional staff, or for community engagement, this is the temp agency to call. You’ll get working actors who are happy to use their acting skills in different settings.

Bruce is trying to convince Auckland City Council & ATEED that working with ActionActors would help to maintain a healthy performing arts sector at no extra cost. Here’s why: these organisations regularly hire a large number of temp staff. If they chose to source some of these personnel from Action Actors they would be funding performing arts by providing an income for the artists themselves.

This would in turn help many talented performers to survive financially and continue to create and perform in the shows that can create a vibrant city. “Many of the shows people see in the city are done on a co-op basis, which means the actors will only be paid if there is a profit at the end of the season, so they rehearse in the evenings & on weekends while taking on day jobs during the week.”

Some tips

Bruce has been around long enough to learn some shortcuts to the ol' work/life balance. He gave TBI some pearls of wisdom for anyone looking to break into the gig:

  • Find a strong source of acting income. Easier said than done, but this a vital part of a jobbing actor’s plan. Voice-over work is a great example. “You do one voice-over a week, and that alone pays the rent” says Bruce. “If you become the voice for a major company it can generate a solid income. If you secure a contract with a client as their voice and you’re overseas, agencies are open to booking studio time in whatever city you’re in, and you’re away. But there are loads of other jobs too, that use your acting skills in unconventional ways.”

  • Be your own producer. Bruce loves the opportunity that’s available to younger performers today. There was no YouTube or Snapchat in the 1980s! These platforms mean younger actors can carve out potential income streams without being at the mercy of productions. Tom Sainsbury is a good example. He built up his own social media content and audience to the extent he was able to parlay into paying gigs with other providers, like The Spinoff.  “There’s this whole opportunity through digital media,” says Bruce, “and it’s expanding and changing so fast. Young people coming into the industry should take advantage of it.”

  • Don’t forget the business. This is related to creating your own income. If you really want to make a living, you need to focus on more than just trying to get famous. You also need to think about who would buy what you’re selling, where those people are, and how you can reach them. It may not be intuitive to you, but it’s something worth focussing on. It may be worth thinking about what your personal ‘brand’ is. Te Radar is a great example of someone who has created his own unique brand & makes a very good living from it.

  • Do your emotional warmups and cooldowns. This is really important. Bruce describes actors as emotional athletes: “You need to warm up before a performance, and warm down after a performance. Otherwise, it’s hard to re-adjust to reality after the curtain’s come down for the last time.” Just like athletes before and after a medal winning performance. Only, with the stuff of life.

  • Develop your ‘sanity package’. Acting can be hard emotional work, even if you warm up religiously. That’s compounded by the precarious nature of your income. Bruce looks after himself with what he calls his sanity package. This includes taking on things such as voluntary work with organisations such as Auckland City Mission & Mercy Hospice. He also likes to keep physically active. Storm paddling is a favorite. When there’s a storm, he likes to get out on the harbour on his single seater kayak & take on the wind & waves. He also does all year round ocean swimming in the harbour without a wetsuit. Mid winter sessions last up to 20 minutes. He’s confident and experienced in the water, so this is not as dangerous for him as it would be for me, but if you’re a working actor, you should find your version of paddling into the storm - something that engages your body and takes your mind away from the day-to-day of making a living as an actor.

This article originally appeared on New Zealand's The Big Idea. Read the original story here.

About the author

The Big Idea | Te Aria Nui is New Zealand’s online hub for creative people. Our aim is to support talented, innovative individuals and organisations, back the creative industries and advocate for creativity as an essential ingredient in the cultural and economic wealth of New Zealand.

The Big Idea provides resources for the whole creative sector, including those seeking to turn their ‘big ideas’ into viable projects, careers and businesses. We are the go-to destination for work opportunities, event listings, arts stories and creative inspiration.

The Big Idea is a not-for-profit trust started in 2001 and is New Zealand’s longest running creative sector website.