The New (and Surprising) Ways Actors Are Making Money During the Pandemic

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Photo Source: Courtesy Cottonbro/Pexels

March 12, 2020 was the day that Broadway shut down. March 12 was also supposed to be the first day of actor Reeve Carney’s vacation. Carney had been performing eight times a week as the lead character Orpheus in “Hadestown” for almost a year, and he had never missed a show. Like many performers heading into 2021, what was supposed to be a short break from the stage grind has turned into an unexpected months-long sabbatical in his New York City apartment, as Broadway has been shut down seemingly indefinitely (Broadway producers have set a tentative return date for late May/early June).

But while in quarantine, Carney, whose credits include the television show “Penny Dreadful” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway, has started a new business: he now makes and sells guitar effects pedals in his home under the name Quarantine Effects USA. 

Carney, who is also a musician and recording engineer, says that Quarantine Effects USA started when he was fixing a broken guitar pedal during the pandemic. “I’ve always been a huge user of electronics, and especially musical-instrument-related electronics,” he says. “This is the first year that I’ve built anything.” From that initial process of playing around with circuits, Carney has now created six different guitar pedal effects, each inspired by different musical decades, from ’40s jazz to ’80s blues. And his mom helped him set up a Shopify account. 

“It’s been challenging for artists because we’re all trying to figure things out,” says Carney. “Everyone’s in a new territory. You’re doing something you’ve never done before. Everyone’s having to pivot.”

For a quarantine project, it’s “exceeded” Carney’s expectations, he says. There are now requests for bulk orders and Carney is considering hiring another person to help him build the circuits. “One of the things I do love about it is the fact that I’m working for myself,” he says happily. 

Carney’s not the only actor who’s been using their side hustles to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though actors have always had to depend on additional jobs to augment their art, those side hustles have now become main hustles—and taken on additional urgency. In 2020, 52.3% of actors were unemployed, compared to 24.7% in 2019, according to a recent study from the National Endowment for the Arts.

And this is not just a Broadway problem: Hollywood studios also shut down in March 2020. Though screen production has slowly ramped up again, it still lags behind pre-pandemic levels. According to FilmLA, which distributes production permits in Los Angeles, there was a 48% drop in production from 2019 to 2020, the lowest numbers in 25 years.

However, the nature of this industry’s ebbs and flows has prepared some working actors to weather the leaner times between gigs—and especially during the pandemic, that innate persistence has not let up. 

We spoke to several actors about how they’re paying the bills without in-person performance work. From learning how to launch a new business, becoming an influencer, being a voiceover artist, making their own work, or playing the stock market, actors have taken their quarantine time to learn new skills and give their careers a boost. Here are the hustles they’ve adopted to stay afloat during the pandemic.

Social Media Influencing
Being able to take control of his career for the first time ever has also been a fortunate byproduct of the pandemic for Michael Henry, who is now a full-fledged YouTuber. The comedian and actor Michael Henry started his YouTube channel six years ago as a side project, but when COVID-19 hit, Henry was no longer able to do live stand-up shows, his in-the-works screen projects stalled, and auditions dried up. So he decided to devote more time to his YouTube channel, which is focused on comedy sketches about gay men, with titles such as “Boyfriend D vs Vacation D” and “When You Know For a Fact He’s a Top!” 

“I’ve had all this free time and I’ve been able to put all of my focus into this, because it’s the really the only avenue that I have to showcase my creativity and generate money,” he explains.

Henry’s channel now has 150,000 subscribers and in the last year, he’s been able to make enough money from ad revenue and sponsorships to pay his rent. His sponsors includes Manscaped.com and MUSL, a gay dating app. 

“This has been a perfect time if you want to become an influencer,” he says. “All these creative people have so much time on their hands. Now everybody has a camera, you can put that creativity to good use, put it up on YouTube or on TikTok or something. And then you can generate a following. And then once you generate a following, you can do sponsorships.” He then adds, “People are at home more, they’re not in the office. They have a little bit more freedom to watch YouTube videos.”

Here’s Henry’s advice for anyone who is interested in becoming an influencer: It’s not a passive activity. When he has a new video, he emails them to LGBTQ+ publications—his first viral video was because Buzzfeed picked it up. That then gets more eyeballs on the videos, which then attracts more sponsors. 

And how does Henry get sponsors? He contacts companies that might be interested in advertising to his viewers, which are 95% men. “It’s really you pitching yourself to these companies to say why you’re a good fit for them,” he explains. “So there is legwork to this, it’s not all just like, ‘Oh my god, money!’ ”

What advice would he give to someone wanting to build their audience? “You just really have to narrow in on a genre,” he says. “I probably did about 15 videos at my start that did not have anything to do with queer topics. They really didn’t get much traction. But once I started to narrow in on a demographic, which is the demographic that I’m a part of, then I felt like I was off to the races.”

Voiceover Acting
Another common skill that actors have learned during the pandemic is voice acting. Before COVID-19, actor Shawn Richardz had finished filming a national commercial for Toyota, and was on a callback for a film. And as soon as Hollywood shut down, and the film fell through, Richardz didn’t miss a beat: she ordered a ring light and audio recording equipment. 

She also visited the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, which regularly offered in-person skills-building classes for actors. They immediately pivoted to online classes, and Richardz didn’t waste any time signing up for voiceover classes, film and audio editing classes, and one-on-one sessions with casting directors. (The classes are only for SAG-AFTRA members but there’s archival courses on the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s YouTube channel.)

“I am working from home, just perfecting my craft,” Richardz says. “And each week, I make sure I sign up to do one of those one-on-one in studio sessions.” 

Richardz credits those classes for helping her book voiceover gigs during the pandemic, which has kept her afloat. She now also has a radio show with WBAI in New York City, which she records from her closet in Los Angeles. She’s also taking Spanish classes, just for fun. 

Here’s Richardz’s advice for any actor at home: “You’ve got to kind of make do with what you have and really work on that. And perfect it.” She then added enthusiastically, “I’ve gotten better at editing. Oh my God, my editing now is amazing.” Richardz has been able to save money because instead of hiring people to shoot her auditions or edit her reel, she can now do it herself.

“I’ve been trying to tell my friends, this is how it’s going to be from now on. Us working with an engineer in the closet may sound funny, may not be ideal, but this is what we’re gonna have to do for a while,” she says. 

Investing in the Stock Market
But that’s not to say it’s been an easy ride for actors during the pandemic, which is why there has been an increase in COVID-19 relief funds for entertainment industry workers, distributed by organizations such as the Actors Fund, Women in Film, and the SAG-AFTRA Foundation.

Since March 2020, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation has distributed over $6 million in emergency financial assistance to more than 6,500 SAG-AFTRA members and families through its COVID-19 relief fund. Any dues-paying member of SAG-AFTRA in need is eligible for the grants. 

Actor Jessica Joy has been receiving some earnings via her residual checks from her appearance on “Modern Family” and a 2014 comedy film called “Bad Johnson.” Before the pandemic, she had booked a gig on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show,” which got cancelled but the show still paid her. 

During the early days of the pandemic, when everything was shut down, Joy applied and got a $1,000 grant from the SAG-AFTRA Foundation.

“It always feels like you’re outrunning a wave,” says Joy, who is based in Los Angeles. “And if you stop for one second, the wave is gonna overtake you. That’s how finances feel as an actor, so you just have to keep outrunning it.”

From June to November of last year, Joy was working as a waitress, which she admitted, “was honestly like, the most stressful couple months in my life. I definitely had at least one ugly cry in the break room,” she recalls. The customers were rude, and didn’t always wear their masks when she was present. Meanwhile, Joy was wearing two masks and a face shield, wondering, “Is this waitressing job worth my life?” 

So while she’s been waiting to see if the restaurant reopens, and crossing her fingers that restaurant workers can become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Joy has been learning a new skill: playing the stock market. She’s bought some stocks in AMC and Royal Caribbean, industries that are expected to bounce back after the pandemic. 

Joy had bought AMC at $3 a share. And then it was artificially driven upward by the WallStreetBets Reddit forum, who were responsible for also driving up the prices on the GameStop stock. Joy ended up selling some of her shares at a small profit.

Joy still has 10 shares that she’s keeping for a long-term strategy: “They’re never going to be as low as they were when I bought them, because of the pandemic,” she explains. “I feel like this is a good time to try this stuff, but I am terrified. My friend who got me into it called me this morning and she was like, ‘I just made $18,000 on AMC.’ And she Venmo-ed me $1,000 and she was like, ‘Here you go. You are now a Wolf of Wall Street.’ ” 

Staying Positive Is Key
For the actors who spoke for this story, the throughline to living during the COVID-19 pandemic is learning how to live with the uncertainty.

Actor Daniel Floren had hit what he thought was a new career high: he had shot a pilot for USA, and if it had gone to series, he would have gotten his first recurring guest role. “But then COVID-19 hit and the pilot was put on ice,” he says. 

Floren, also a certified life coach, says that the key to moving through the disappointment is, “acknowledging and kind of processing, grieving through the loss of whatever hope that was,” he advises. “To me, my ultimate sense of hope and well-being isn’t set on acting things.” 

Instead, while he focuses on building his career, he also focuses on “other wonderful things going on in life, [like] trying to facilitate good relationships and friendships, and connecting with people.” 

Before COVID-19, Floren and his friend, Bradley Gosnell, had written and starred in their own film, “Guns and a Hotel Bible.” The film, about a man who gets into an argument with a Bible (played by Floren), was released on Jan. 5, 2021, through Freestyle Digital Media. It has a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

During the pandemic, Floren had been focusing more on screenplays: He’s started a script consulting hustle reading scripts and giving notes on them to friends, who have now started referring him within their own networks. He’s also pitching his own feature around to different producers. 

“The hard thing about acting is that it can feel like you’re all waiting for the audition, or someone to pick you,” says Floren. “That’s a really great bonus from writing is that you can wake up and write today. And it’s harder just to wake up and act today.”

Floren’s also been keeping his day job from before the pandemic as an educator for Teach Play Learn, which provides after-school programming. Though auditioning is starting to pick up again, Floren says he might get back into life-coaching if acting opportunities continue to be slow this year.

“There’s such a demand right now because people are anxious, as anxious as they’ve ever been,” he says. “I have a friend of a friend who works at the suicide hotline, who says calls are up 600%. That’s crazy. People are anxious, and there’s an overwhelming sense of nauseous dread.”

Looking Ahead
As many actors look ahead to an uncertain future, they have different strategies for maintaining optimism and keeping the anxiety at bay. 

Floren admits that staying hopeful is harder now since many of the actors in his circles have moved out of Los Angeles. But he emphasizes the importance of community: “You’re not alone, it sucks for everybody,” he says. “I hope that through staying connected with each other we can keep ourselves out of despair.”

Carney was recently cast in the “Gucci” film starring Jared Leto and Lady Gaga. The film’s currently in pre-production with no set filming dates. He doesn’t know when “Hadestown” will return, though Carney notes that as an actor, he wouldn’t feel safe performing on stage again if the audiences were masked but the actors weren’t. But, “if they told me tomorrow, ‘Hey, guys, everything’s fine. We figured it out. It’s safe to go about your everyday life with no mask on.’ I would do it [act],” he says.

Whenever work starts up again, Carney intends to keep Quarantine Effects USA alive. “It was really a process of learning for me, which is one of my favorite things about life, honestly,” says Carney. “If you can learn something in a day, then that’s usually a pretty good day.”

Likewise, Martin wants to keep growing his YouTube channel, because it’s given him autonomous control over his career. “My real goal in my life is to turn this YouTube channel into a production company,” he says. “I would just love to be able to not have any limits on my creative expression. The biggest limiter is usually money. So if I have the money to produce my own content, and perhaps other people’s content, that’s the dream come true.”

The actors who spoke for this story all had a common way of staying hopeful and sane during this time: They stayed productive. “There’s no way you’re going to learn anything by sitting around, hoping things come back the way it was,” Richardz advises. “You’ve got to move on, and challenge yourself.”

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