13 Famous Actors + the Survival Jobs That Pulled Them Through

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Photo Source: ABC - Pictured: Geoffrey Owens

One of the toughest aspects of a performing arts career is having to find work outside of the industry or doing something other than what you love. Survival jobs, or work for the express purpose of paying the bills while you continue to audition, can be difficult to search for and keep. They often feel like a concession, like surrendering and giving up on your dreams. In reality, there’s a lot to learn from survival jobs. They are one of the battlegrounds where you learn about yourself, your profession, and how to make your way. Not only is it a way to pay your dues, but it is a reminder of the value of work.

This week we’ve rounded up 13 different actors’ experiences with survival jobs. Acting is tough, actors work hard, and so do folks with non-performing jobs, so any job can help you learn invaluable employment skills.

Esther Povitsky (“Alone Together”) on her survival jobs early in her career
“I always had at least three jobs at any given time. I worked at Equinox, I worked at a juice shop, I was an assistant to a woman who just broke up with her boyfriend, I was a part-time nanny. I trained to be a waitress for two weeks at the Hollywood Hard Rock Cafe and the day before they opened, they let me go. The first day, I met a guy and we dated for the two weeks and it was really funny. I had a two-week Hard Rock Cafe training fling. I [also] got really obsessive over the pins you could collect there. I also worked at Johnny Rockets—actually worked there, I didn’t just train.”

Idina Menzel (“Wicked”) on loving and learning from her first job
“My job was as a wedding singer, that’s what I did from an early age. But to me, it wasn’t a survival job. It was actually the coolest job ever, to be running around at age 16, singing at people’s parties.”

Milo Ventimiglia (“This Is Us”) on looking for work outside of acting when his career stalled
“I couldn’t catch a break to lock on to some work and be creative.... I was basically like, ‘I’m gonna go,’ was going to go be an auto mechanic. In Southern California there’s this auto school and it’s advertised: ‘Everybody needs mechanics, because they need those cars fixed’ and I’m like, ‘That's a job that's going to be in demand, so why don’t I learn more than I already know about cars and professionally fix cars.’ ”

Michelle Dyer (Founder of Survival Jobs for Actors) on finding the balance
“You don’t want to let your survival job get in the way of auditioning.... It kills me to see friends and they’re just like, ‘Yeah I worked a late shift from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. and I’m exhausted.’ And they’re dragging in their audition…Well, how is that helping you fulfill your dream and do what you came to do? If that late night bartending job isn’t working out for ya, let’s look into a temp job—let’s look into something else.”

Jessica Keenan Wynn (“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) on her favorite survival job
“I was a singing waiter at Miceli’s Italian Restaurant in Los Angeles. Ultimately, it really boils down to doing something that makes you happy. Even if it is slinging spaghetti in a restaurant, I had so much fun being able to sing to a man slurping fettuccine carbonara all over the place. You just found the joy, and it’s all about balance. The arts are so important, and it’s a way for us to express ourselves in any capacity. And so I say keep the dream alive, even if it’s not paying the bills.”

H. Jon Benjamin (“Archer”) on getting a job to supplement his income from acting
“Even the first couple seasons of ‘Dr. Katz,’ it was sparse money, so I think I had a job until the second season, until I moved to New York. I worked in restaurants and I worked in the Cambridge Public Library. I was a book stacker and a masturbation-stopper. That was a rough gig.”

Glenda Jackson (“Three Tall Women”) on survival jobs she’s had and what she learned from them
“I worked in shops, worked in bars, worked wherever I could to earn a living.... In a way they do, because, yes, of course, all experience can be useful and is. But you are not directly aware of it until is sort of swells up inside you.”

Eddie Falco (“Law & Order True Crime”) on realizing that she needed a survival job
“I got to do a movie [called ‘Sweet Lorraine’] the day after I graduated college, I had to be on the set, and I thought this is smooth sailing. It was incredible. And then you sort of think, Oh, this is the way it’s gonna go, and it was not the way it goes. It was many, many more years—you know, those middle-of-the-afternoons a year and a half after that movie closed, realizing, I’ve gotta get a waitressing job. I’m just getting anxiety even talking about it.”

Bella Dayne (“Troy: Fall of a City”) on learning the value of work
“[O]nce I went to L.A., I worked about three jobs at the same time for a while. You know, a server, a personal assistant. I was even an Uber driver for a while. I think it was an important experience and I think it definitely makes you so grateful once you see, you know, the earnings of your hard work. And also, it makes you appreciate what hard work is. You understand the value of money and how hard people have to work to make it. And I think it’s a very, very important lesson you should never forget.”

Joe Cole (“A Prayer Before Dawn”) on getting inspired to keep trying from early jobs
“I used to sell carpets. And then I’d sell coffee and drinks at a local theater in the evenings—but I always found that strangely inspiring because it wasn’t for me. That would always send a firework up my ass and encourage me to push on and do what I wanted to do. I think those kinds of jobs can inspire you and actually be quite useful.”

LaChanze (“Once on This Island”) on having fun and making friends at a survival job
“The quirkiest job was a summer job coming home from college, I was a telemarketer where I sold cemetery plots. And it was terrible because our call list was nothing but a bunch of senior citizens, and our motto was: “We’re the last ones to let you down.” It was a horrible job because we would cold call, and we would tell them they’ve just been awarded a free cemetery plot. You can imagine the reactions. Some would scream and hang up the phone or freak out and start crying. It was just a bunch of kids home from college. We were kids, laughing and joking. It was so much fun.”

Tom Hanks (“The Post”) on being a “working guy” no matter what
“I need to make enough to be able to go to the dentist and fix my car, and as soon as I can get on a decent dental plan, then the rest is the high country. And that’s what life was like. I avoided all the parties, the pitfalls.... Look, I was ridiculously fortunate, but there was never a plethora of riches and luxury. What I was was a working guy. I made my nut.”

Geoffrey Owens (“The Cosby Show”) on getting shamed on social media for working at Trader Joe’s
“There is no job that is better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a résumé and on paper. But actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”

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