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Backstage Experts

Backstage Experts Answer: When Is It OK to Turn Down a Role?

Backstage Experts Answer: When Is It OK to Turn Down a Role?
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

This week our Backstage Experts are divided! One of our readers on Facebook asked: When is it OK to say no/to turn down a role?

From compromising morals to building a résumé and industry connections, there are tons of factors that go into the all-important decision of accepting a gig or not. Here are several answers from industry professionals spanning different areas of this business to give you some perspective!

Wondering what this new column is all about? Backstage Experts Answer takes your questions and brings them to our incredible network of Experts. If you missed the last installment, check out “Do Actors Need College Degrees?” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!

Carolyne Barry, on-camera and commercial teacher
Having been a casting director, when actors choose to turn down a role, it’s an issue that can turn me off them. So it is crucial to get all the information that would determine if they want to do a role before auditioning and especially before the callback. 

Here are, what I feel are legitimate reasons to choose not to do a role you’re offered:

1. Changes to the role: nudity, adding a physical activity that is dangerous, eating or drinking something you are allergic to, the role is now much smaller or different than the one originally auditioned for or has been made an “extra,” etc. 
2. Personal/business reasons: the director’s behavior was abusive, scheduling or location conflicts, salary changes, and/or the production feels unprofessional, etc.

So, for these reasons or others that are truly legitimate, when actors choose not to accept, be sure to give them a reason that won’t be offensive—which means you may have to fabricate a sympathetic reason so that doesn’t offend the decision-makers.

Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher 
When is it OK to turn down an invitation to dinner with your parents? Or a stale peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Or a wild, passionate night with a supermodel? Or a soothing back scratch? Or a ticket to the Super Bowl? 

The answer is, whenever you feel like it. 

Some offers are worth the effort and some aren’t. Though friends and advisors may tell you to take every gig that arises, or caution that you’ll burn bridges by saying no to certain jobs, the choice is ultimately yours, and nobody has the right to criticize you for it. It’s your life and career, so it’s your choice. Try telling Jack Nicholson he made a mistake by passing on an offer to play Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” While you’re at it, tell that to his agent, who may have told him at the time that he was being shortsighted. 

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: There is no right, and no wrong, only choices and consequences. They’re all yours. Own them.

Steve Braun and Risa Bramon GarciaThe BGB Studio
Turn down a job when you absolutely don’t connect to it. But turn it down early, not after you’ve taken the producers and director through a long process. When you’re early in your career we recommend that you try to engage on most opportunities that comes your way. There are so many excuses that you’ll come up with, but realize that these are your resistances and you’re going to want to challenge those hesitations or excuses. That said, if your instincts tells you that the job or the project is something to stay away from, listen to your gut and move on. There are actors who pass on most everything; after a while we assume they’ll surely pass and avoid going to them at all. There are actors who are picky and won’t engage if they don’t respond, even a little bit. There are actors who won’t read or work for a role. Be the actor who takes every opportunity seriously, considers its value, and makes an informed decision, following your heart and mind. But go for most jobs with the commitment and enthusiasm needed. 

Tracy Byrd, L.A.-based casting director
You can respectfully turn down a role due to content, nudity, religious differences—whenever you creatively deem it necessary. It’s a feeling.

David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
This question pains me to no end because the implication already exists that there is a time when it is not OK to turn down a role. It is always OK to turn down a role. There is, however, a time when it is not OK to accept work and that is when you are already booked to do something else, no matter how trivial. Your word is your bond.

Actors are freelancers, meaning they are free to do whatever they want. When you attend an audition, just as there is obviously no guarantee you will book it, there is equally no obligation to take it. Actor power! Kisses.

Jeremy Gordon, L.A.-based casting director
It is always OK to say no/turn down a job. We are artists and should never feel beholden to others to take a job just to take a job. That said, just because you can turn down a job doesn’t mean you should. I have personally turned down projects with themes that don’t jive with what I believe. I have turned down projects that have bordered on the wrong side of the ethical fence with what I believe. Those situations are very few and far between, but they exist. I have turned down quite a few projects because I didn’t like the script or the story. (Shhhh, don’t tell anyone!) 

As actors, you should feel strong and safe enough to make the same choices. Yes, you have representation to answer to and you will have to have those difficult conversations with them. However, at the end of the day, it’s your name, your face, and your brand, and you have to be comfortable with the project/product. There are times when you should just suck it up and do it even though the project doesn’t check off every box. There are also times when it’s better to choose your soul and beliefs or even artistry over a paycheck or desperation. Be brave. Said with love. xoxo.

Cathryn Hartt, Dallas-based acting teacher
For most actors, I can think of four reasons to turn down a job:

1. It is inappropriate for your morals.
2. You have another job.
3. Negotiations about money or housing, etc., can’t move forward.
4. Your guts tell you something is fishy about the project or the people involved.

But most of the time, we just never want to turn down a job. In your early career, take pretty much everything offered. As you build your reputation, start being picky about scripts and overexposure.

Tony Howell, founder of Creative Social Media
When is it OK to say no? Whenever you want. You’re the boss! As a slightly seasoned performer, I can tell you not to even audition for projects you don’t plan to take. Unless you truly have a better offer or compelling circumstance causing you to say no, you could ruin your relationship with a casting director and/or creative team. They don’t deal with rejection as well as actors. Bottom line? Have a good reason (even if it’s invented) for saying no. It’s always OK to take control of your own career!

Kate McClanaghan, L.A.-based casting director
The industry standard dictates you should never audition for a job you don’t intend to accept, union or not.

That said, if you were booked based on your headshots or what have you, and you were unaware of the specifics of the project in advance, then you may discover some deal-breakers and elect to opt out.

We all have deal-breakers, and we’re entitled to them. You’ll know them when you’re faced with them.

An appropriate reason to turn down a role may be that you honestly feel the project conflicts with a deeply held conviction you may have. In that case, you’re better off staying true to your ideals. Perhaps nudity is required and you’re not comfortable going there. Also, if you’re sick and really should be in bed, or there’s a death in the family, sometimes it’s best to call it a day.

Amy Lyndon, actor, celebrity booking coach, creator of the Lyndon Technique, and founder ofTLTaccess.com
It’s OK to say no and pass on a role when it doesn’t align with your morals and integrity. Also, if you feel uncomfortable with nudity, religious content, or racist dialogue, it truly is up to you. This is your image, your career, your choice. Politely respond in a timely manner straight on by saying, “Thank you so much for the opportunity, but I’m not responding to the material.”

Anthony Meindl, L.A.-based acting coach
If you’re going to say no to a job you need to know why you’re saying no. Take a look at the project and assess it for yourself. If it’s not going to be fun or advance your career in a meaningful way or help pay the bills, and if something seems off or fishy about a production, then of course you can say no. Everyone has their own level of comfort, so you have to judge for yourself. It’s also important to note that how you say it is just as important as when you say no. Don’t go burning bridges! You never know when you’ll cross someone’s path again. So, yes, you’re a sovereign individual and a pro and an artist—there is power in the word no.

Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
There’s a pressure on actors to accept every piece of work offered to them, particularly when they’re just starting out. All work is viewed as a “résumé builder” and an opportunity for much-needed experience. However, just as you wouldn’t go out on a date with every single person that asked you, you should exhibit a certain level of particularity when it comes to the acting jobs you accept.

While I discuss this topic at length in the article “Permission to Say No,” a good rule of thumb is whether the job causes more damage than potential good: If the job could damage your brand or your soul, don’t accept it. For example, if it would chip away at your soul to play a topless waitress in an edgy indie that might play at major festivals, don’t do it. You’re going to have to live with your soul for a long time. Don’t let the potential promise of festivals and the pressure to be “brave” as an actor push you past what your gut and spirit say you’re truly not comfortable with and which violate your brand.

Retta Putignano, founder of Create Your Reel
If you’ve been working hard to nail your brand, you can say no when the project or role conflicts with your casting. Also, when the project isn’t in line with your values, or if you wouldn’t want to put that footage on a reel, politely decline. Usually the “payment” on low or no-budget projects is the final product, and if you can’t use the footage, you’re wasting your valuable time and energy. That said, each project presents different circumstances, and most actors take whatever work they can get for the on-set experience. If that works for you, then go for it. Having the tools to know when to say no will give you focus in your brand, and ultimately, the trajectory of your career.

Jackie Reid, manager, and owner of L’il Angels Unlimited
The ideal answer is you never turn down roles! You are an actor! However, that is unrealistic given that we are people with passions, interests, and convictions.

As an adult actor, I feel you should be prepared to do almost any role, with the exception of nudity and pornography. I had an actor turn down a McDonald’s commercial because he was a vegan, another turn down “OITNB” because she didn’t want her ethnicity linked to a character who is an unwed mother in prison, several male actors refuse to audition for any gay roles, and an actor refuse to audition because it went against her political affiliation. Except for the vegan, I disagreed with their choices. If you are an actor, then you shouldn’t be afraid to act! The more you limit what you will do, the more limited your choices will be.

For child actors, we as parents need to set the bar higher to make sure we are protecting our child’s emotional well-being and innocence. Parents should be appropriately sensitive to how a role may impact their child. I give my parents a lot of leeway here. If they are uncomfortable with any content, language, violence, scary matters, or anything else, we are happy to pass on the project. One mom turned down a television show because the child was portrayed as a bed-wetter and she didn’t want him teased in school. She was completely spot-on in her protecting her child.

Scheduling conflict: You are not available on the shoot dates. No one can ever argue or be mad at you for this reason. 

Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY
It’s understandable to turn down a job if it places you in a position that is in stark contrast to your beliefs and morals. After all, an actor is first and foremost a human being who shouldn’t compromise his or her principles. For example, when I worked in casting, actors who were alcoholics wouldn’t go in for a beer commercial or print job because of their personal struggle with drinking. For such an actor, pitching a product that had caused great harm to their life and perhaps their families life was a job not worth pursuing.

John Swanbeck, director-author
All things being appropriate and professional, here are three signs you might consider saying no to a role/job because they indicate that the director doesn’t know how to direct actors on camera. If the director likes to micro-manage individual moments in a scene, it means he or she will more than likely direct all the spontaneity and mystery out of your performance. If the director uses the words “bigger,” “more,” or (God forbid) “go over the top with it,” the director is masking the fact that he or she doesn’t have interesting or specific ideas. If you tell the director you have two ways to play the scene and ask which he or she prefers, and he or she says it’s up to you, the director doesn’t know what he or she wants. Maybe, just maybe, your performance will survive this kind of director, but the safer bet is that it won’t.

Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System
As a film and television director I find the answer that every actor should have to an offer is a resounding and enthusiastic yes. Be game. You have to take work if you can conceivably carve out the time in you schedule—and by that I mean your acting schedule. You should quit your survival gig at a moment’s notice and just say yes. Soul-crushing day jobs are ultimately easy to find. Have a small savings fund to allow yourself this freedom. You came to town to act, not to provide fresh ground pepper and drink refills. 

Once you are a major celebrity, you may want to become more selective. You may not. In this time when mainstream actors are involved in sex tapes and reality TV—(both porn essentially)—the only question is where do you choose to draw the line in terms of your own taste. Aesthetically, something may not support the vision you have for your career. This might prompt a pass. But if you spend too much time thinking about passing, you won't be moving forward. 

Accept the role and find a way to put your point of view into it, even if your belief system runs counter to the material. Every chance you have to work is an opportunity to put your own perspective into the finished project. So unless you think that this shoot will make the world a significantly worse place, just say yes. You can always be the bright spot in a lame project, or the contrast in a project that you might happen to disapprove of on political or moral grounds. 

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