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Interview

27 Actors on the Survival Jobs That Shaped Them

27 Actors on the Survival Jobs That Shaped Them
Photo Source: Unsplash

With a few lucky exceptions, nearly every famous actor had to endure a survival job to pay the bills before they made it big. While they never lost sight of their dreams, these jobs played formative roles in the early lives of these struggling artists, providing opportunities to practice their skills, gain insight into themselves and others, or learn when to say no. These actors shared some of their most hilarious, soul-crushing, embarrassing, and enlightening stories with Backstage.

“I had many. Many, many, many. And many that I would do during the day while I was doing a play at night, because the play didn’t pay enough. I was a spa consultant during the first rendition of ‘Steel Magnolias,’ then we moved to the Lortel and I could quit. And when I was doing ‘Miss Firecracker’ at MTC, I was a private investigator during the day. Private Dick Margo Martindale! Wayne Knight, we were in the same office. They hired a lot of actors. I didn’t have very interesting things to do, but it was all about prying information out of unsuspecting people for headhunters, for husbands who were jealous, for wives looking at their husbands out gallivanting.” —MARGO MARTINDALE

“I worked reservations for United Airlines, and that wasn’t even a bad job because I got to play different characters when I answered the phone. But then you’d put someone on hold and come back and not remember the character you were playing!” —NIECY NASH

“I worked in construction because my father was a builder. I was a bartender. I was also a schoolteacher. I thought [teaching] was incredibly hard, but I knew how to hold an audience, and they offered me a full-time position after that. But I wanted to be an actor.” —JOHN TURTURRO

“My worst was a temp job at an insurance agency. My job was to file death notices for clients who had expired. That was a bit of a bummer. It made me think, I’d better do something before I end up in this filing cabinet. I’d better get cast as Tom Sawyer before I’m in this manila envelope.” —HAMISH LINKLATER 

Photo Source: Joel Kimmel

“I worked, right when I got to New York City, for a law firm down in the Financial District, and they were just terrible, terrible people. They were so mean. I’m not saying I was any good—I was a paralegal’s assistant, and I just filed all day. There were also three or four very attractive young women in the office, and they were so nice to the girls and flirty, and just so brutally mean to the men. It was a completely sexist environment. I was very happy to get a show and quit that one with a smile on my face.” —WILL SWENSON

“I did office work, and I did temp work, mostly. At one point I was temping, and I could type and everything because I’d learned that in school, so everywhere I’d go for a temp job they would want to hire me permanently. I remember I was working at NBC in the human resources office for a couple of months in the summer, and NBC offered me full-time employment, with benefits and everything—and it was really, really tempting. I really considered it, you know? And not because I wasn’t working. I was working in theater, but I was doing showcases and all those things that you do as you’re just getting started that don’t really pay. So I really thought about it, because I needed to pay my rent, and dental, and all of that. They gave me all the paperwork and I took it home, and I just looked at it and I thought, This is not why I’m here, and I’m not going to do it. And that was my last temp job.” —TAMARA TUNIE

READ: "The 10 Best Survival Jobs for Actors"

“When I moved out West, I drove for Lyft, which is a ride-sharing company. That was one of the better survival jobs I’ve had that was somewhat applicable to acting. I was driving the graveyard shift overnight, when I would get a lot of intoxicated people in the back of my car, and you would see all sorts of characters. I had this little journal that I would write down about passengers’ characteristics that I found interesting. I’ll have to dust that off.” —JACK FALAHEE

“I moved to New York and promptly didn’t work [as an actor] for four years. I was everything from a waiter to a popcorn concessionaire at Radio City Music Hall. I was a mover. I was a personal assistant to a few people, which I was terrible at. I got one job with a very rich, very elegant older actress, and she lived in the Dakota, where she would have dinner parties. Her best friends were Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, and I was this young kid and I’d run the bar at those parties and get pinched on the ass by Tennessee. It was one of those crazy jobs while you’re hoping to be an actor. But they’re experiences!” —GRIFFIN DUNNE

“Oh, God, yeah, there’ve been some good ones. I survived in high school by working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and made my way up to assistant manager. I was surviving high school and college with that job. But when I was a ‘professional performer,’ I spent the year in Europe before I finished my studies, in London. I had this job to support me, because I had no money—I got this job under the table without a green card. It was at the Grosvenor House hotel, this huge, epic, gorgeous, historical behemoth of a building, on the corner of Hyde Park. I was an assistant to the wine waiters in there. We had these horrible stained ties we borrowed from each other, we poured wine at these super fancy functions. It was a great job, but they used to feed us the day-old food and that gave me botulism.” —NORBERT LEO BUTZ

Photo Source: Joel Kimmel 

“My first great one was Angelica Film Center. I was an usher. My brother was at NYU Film School, so he was here first. And whenever he got a new job, I would always get a job there shortly afterward. He was working there in the great days of independent films, and it was so fun because you had to announce the lineups. It wasn’t just picking up the popcorn, you really felt the importance of cinema and what was happening and people [were] really excited to see the film.” —GRETCHEN MOL

“A guy told me once, he said, ‘Listen. Performing is the key to being a good actor. Guys who go to work as bartenders and waiters and things like that, they satisfy their performance instincts doing that kind of a job. What you want to do is a job where you’re a little closed off. Drive a cab. You’re one-on-one with people and you don’t have a need to perform and you don’t have any feedback from performing. You want to save your performance for when you’re working [as an actor].’ So I drove a cab for 10 years in New York.” —WILLIAM DEVANE

“It would have to be when I was in Washington, D.C., and I was working as a temp and got hired for one day to work for Ringling Brothers in their accounting department. When I arrived, I took the elevator to the top floor and the doors opened and there was this gigantic gorilla in a cage and there was nobody else there. The secretary had gone and it looked like people had just vanished. So that was really, really creepy. But after a while I got ahold of people and then I spent a day there writing down, ‘Clown cars, x amount of money. Tigers, money.’” —KATHY BATES

“I was a singing waitress for many years at a restaurant in Los Angeles called the Great American Food & Beverage Company, and in order to get a job there you had to have some kind of talent. That was kind of a fun job ’cause I got to sing, but I was a for-shit waitress. I was the worst waitress. I’d get your order wrong. I’d get mad if you were rude. I was not pleasant. But I actually made pretty good money because I could sing and play and entertain you and then…be always forgiven.” —KATEY SAGAL

Photo Source: Joel Kimmel

“My last years of high school, my brother got me a job working in this foundry from 2–12. Why I did this I have no friggin’ idea, because I can’t remember one thing I bought with that money. There was a room filled with dirt, and you stood in the center of the dirt and shoveled it into these buckets on a conveyor belt that kept going up all the time, so you never had the satisfaction of filling anything up. For 10 hours, I shoveled dirt. And I finally quit because they wouldn’t give me the day off for my high school graduation. But that’s the one job where I thought, OK, I know how bad it can be. People compliment me on my shoulders and arms. ‘Do you go to the gym?’ No, I worked 10 hours a day shoveling dirt. And 60 years later, I’m still OK!” —ERNIE HUDSON

“I didn’t have any terrible survival jobs. The main job I had before I was able to transition over to acting full-time was working at an after-school program at a middle school teaching improv and standup. So even when I had a regular job, I was still lucky enough to be doing the stuff I loved in some way. It was hilarious that I was teaching a class on improv, because I barely knew what I was doing on my own. But sometimes teaching does help you clarify what you believe and how you want to do things, so it was pretty useful.” —NICK KROLL

“I was a machinist. And I am the worst person with machines ever. I am terrible. At the time, my then-girlfriend’s dad had a machine factory and I worked there; it was horrible. I am such a prissy guy, I swear. I don’t like to get dirty. I don’t like bad smells. I don’t like using my hands too much. I don’t like getting my nails dirty. It was funky, it was sweaty, and it was terrible. But I had to do it because I was in college trying to make money. The one that’s right under there: a waiter. Every actor has to be a waiter, and I was one for literally one night. Not even 24 hours! I was a waiter for six hours and quit the next morning. People are crazy. I was like, I can’t do this job, I’m gonna end up going to jail!” —JAMES MONROE IGLEHART

READ: "4 Pieces of Advice for Surviving Your Survival Job"

“I had a job once selling encyclopedias, and that was an interesting job because I learned a lot about people’s vulnerabilities and how salesmen take advantage of them. I finally quit because I couldn’t take it; I couldn’t sell things to people who didn’t need the product, but I learned about how a salesman works, how they make the pitch. It’s a difficult life ’cause you have to appeal to people, find a way to get their attention.” —JON VOIGHT

“I wouldn’t call it terrible on any level, but I was an elf in Macy’s Santaland. My elf name was Swifty the Elf—I’m not entirely sure why I chose that moniker, but there it was. It was actually a very sweet job, but the worst part of it was the 16-minute loop of Christmas music. You would hear the same songs day in and day out.” —CHRISTIAN BORLE

“My first summer [in New York City in 1969], I took a job in a grout company’s office. I didn’t even know what grout was. I was in an office all to myself with a phone, and people would call asking questions and I’d always have to ask the person to hold on while I went and found out because I knew nothing! Grout? What is it again? I’m sure I wasn’t the model employee in terms of trying to help people build their business, but I did get to go out and do my auditions!” —SUSAN LUCCI

Photo Source: Joel Kimmel

“I had many over the years. I was a waiter for three weeks at a place in Yonkers that was run by the mob. I actually walked out when we were doing a lunch for a group of nuns and the owner of this place called them whores. I took off my bow tie, put it on the table, and walked out.” —DANNY BURSTEIN

“I saw an ad in the New York Times and I auditioned, basically, to be a dental assistant. I got the job and he thought that I really had experience. So on the first day on the job I went and got my nurse’s outfit. I wore white fishnets and lime green pumps, and cut my uniform way above my knee. And he didn’t mind! But then he was, like, ‘Can you pass me the hemostat?’ And I was, like, ‘You mean the picker?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Picker?’ I got fired the next day.” —DEBI MAZAR

“I would entertain children’s parties as the Little Mermaid. It was actually a good job because you could make good money—the bad part was you had to drive to the party in your costume, and as Ariel I couldn’t really walk. The birthday party would be in the middle of this park in Harlem, and I’d have to hop with my fin on, with people staring at me. And then sometimes they would hand me my costume and things would be missing. One time, I had short brown hair and my Ariel wig was missing. I had to show up and all the kids were like, ‘You’re not Ariel!’ They were all mocking me. ‘You’re not the real Ariel!’” —KERRY BUTLER

“Before I got into grad school I used to work as a deckhand on these ferry boats in San Francisco, and they did day tours. It wasn’t a bad job. I made decent money. But you were sitting down all day, tying up the boat, wiping it down. For some guys that’s a dream job, but for me it was kind of torture.” —MAHERSHALA ALI

Photo Source: Joel Kimmel

“One of them was working at Backstage magazine licking stamps and envelopes! I had that job even after I did ‘The Last Detail.’ Literally, I was just putting mailers in envelopes, licking them closed, and putting stamps on them. I worked in a health food store, I worked in a candy store. For some reason, I never did wait tables, but I did work a lot of tedious jobs—but I was just proud to be earning my living.” —CAROL KANE

“It was, like, a telesales job where you cold-call people. I think I did it for about two hours and then I was like, I’ve got to get out of here! It’s making me quite upset and I’m not going to be good at this job where you have to lie to people and rip them off—it felt like a scam. So I produced this fake phone call, pretending my agent had phoned and said that I had got the part in the next Steven Spielberg movie. I had to make a real show of it and then everyone in the telesales started getting up and giving me high-fives and hugs. Suddenly I had this huge sense of euphoria and then I walked out in London and thought, Fuck, I’ve got to walk home! I haven’t got any money! It was awful, but luckily a few days later I did get a job. But it wasn’t with Spielberg.” —MATTHEW GOODE

“So many! My worst maybe was a traveling pet sitter. I worked for a woman in Queens [ N.Y.] who ran her own business and I was her one assistant. I had to travel to people’s houses and either walk or feed their dogs or medicate their cats. I was totally ill-equipped. I should not have been medicating any animals. I’m talking, like, syringe. I had to inject cats with their specific medicines. For basically no money, too. I love animals but I didn’t know what I was doing. That was one of the oddest jobs, and I’ve had some doozies.” —TRACEE CHIMO

“I’m gonna sound like a real jackass here, my friend: I’ve never really had one since I started working so young, but my last job when I was 17 years old, before I was on Broadway, was at a place where I had to shovel manure into bags and then bring said bags to people’s cars. As an actor now, I sort of shovel a different type of manure at times, which is, like, other people’s opinions of me and whatnot, but at least it’s not actual poop; it’s just a different kind of dirty!” —LAURA BENANTI

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