any actors live with the raging undercurrent of fear that they'll never work again. The late Roddy McDowall called it "the actor's disease." It's an affliction that can drive us to do something other professionals would never do: work for nothing.
How would the idea of working for free go over in other professions? Let's say I desperately needed a root canal and a porcelain crown. What would happen if I went to a dentist and said, "Doctor, I need you to do this work, but I won't pay you. Instead, I'll be giving you the opportunity to practice your craft—which you love to do. You'll also get tons of exposure because I smile a lot"? He'd laugh in my face and leave me minus a molar.
The reason so many of us are frightened to ask for fair pay is because we don't understand our own value. In our constant quest for the next gig, it seems like we're always proving who we are and re-establishing our qualifications. Our employers are familiar with our malady and often use it to their advantage during labor negotiations.
There may not be a complete cure for the actor's disease, but there are effective remedies. For instance, whenever I'm asked to perform for free, I think about Pablo Picasso. There's a famous story in which a woman approaches him in a small Parisian café and asks him to draw her portrait on a napkin. Picasso quickly draws the sketch; she's satisfied and asks how much he'd like for it. He says, "10,000 francs." She gasps, asking, "Monsieur, why so expensive? It took you only a few minutes to draw it." The master thinks about this for a moment, then replies, "Yes, but it took me a lifetime to learn how."
In our business, there's a misperception that anyone can easily do what we do. Stunt performers, techies—heck, even dentists and artists—make their jobs look easy, too. But you won't catch me trying to replicate their work.
My self-worth as an actor was reinforced the day I went to work as the sole on-camera talent in a character-driven commercial. As I surveyed the elaborate, expensive setup with all of the crew, trucks, and equipment lined up on the Sunset Boulevard location, I thought, "Wow. They're spending beaucoup bucks on this shoot, and they're counting on me to deliver a great performance." The producers hired me knowing I could deliver. And I knew it too, because my talent, experience, and professionalism have real value.
It's not about ego; it's a question of self-worth. When you take a moment to assess your worth, it builds a foundation of confidence. And you'll carry that confidence into every audition without even realizing it.
When producers propose a pay cut during union contract negotiations, do we have the chutzpah to hold out for better? Do we shudder with fright at the mere suggestion of a strike, then roll over and capitulate? No. I want to be paid fairly. Getting "exposure" without adequate pay is simply not enough. If exposure is the only thing I want, I'll roller-skate naked down La Cienega during rush hour.
So the next time anyone diminishes your value by asking you to work for free, remember that all your training, experience, and talent have value—especially when it can take a lifetime to perfect your art.
Brian Hamilton is an actor, singer, and voiceover artist. He has appeared in more than 60 commercials and can currently be seen in national spots for Mazda and Michelob.