Say no to work? What actor would do such a crazy thing? Acting work is scarce enough as it is—so scarce that getting a job can seem a minor miracle. And what about one's reputation? If you say no, people may hold it against you, right? So why would any actor decline an offer of employment?
It may be hard to imagine, but most of us will reach points in our careers when it's no longer strategically prudent or artistically satisfying to accept every opportunity that comes along, when we must think selectively and in terms of what will best serve both our artistic and professional goals. At those times, we need to be able to say no—and say it graciously, in a way that won't come back to haunt us.
It's often said there are only three reasons to accept an acting job: 1) for artistic satisfaction, 2) for money, or 3) for career benefits—contacts, experience, education, film for your reel, a valuable credit, etc. It's a philosophy well worth adopting. You may want to consider passing up jobs that don't meet any of these criteria, leaving that work to someone for whom it might have greater value.
Also consider saying no to projects you find personally offensive—or those that involve potentially unsafe conditions, a company or director with a reputation for being rude or abusive toward actors, or even the presence of your ex in the cast. In any of these cases, you're well within your rights to decline.
There are times, too, when a no is required to move to the next career level. Many Broadway understudies and swings will corroborate: They weren't seriously considered for bigger roles, they'll tell you, until they started turning down offers to repeat the jobs they had become known for. There are television actors with the same story: They had to start rejecting co-star roles before they could start booking guest stars. These decisions can be tricky; they require you to accurately assess your own professional status. Assess incorrectly and your only move may be to the ranks of the unemployed. Even if your timing is right, it may take a while to get established at your new level.
Here's where your agent or manager can help. Their sense of where you're at in your career may be better than your own. Actors—especially novices—often fear the repercussions. Such fears are, to a large extent, unfounded, as very few legitimate show business professionals have the time, the clout, or the inclination to go around ruining the careers of actors who opt out of their projects. Though there may be a few crazies who aim to do just that, most pros will just move on to their next choice.
Perhaps surprisingly, rejecting work doesn't necessarily hurt your standing with those making the offer. On the contrary, it may up your status in their eyes. As a brilliant former agent of mine used to say, " 'No' is a sexy word." It says something about who you are and the level of work you do. And that is very "sexy" indeed. Now, be cautioned: If your résumé is on the thin side and you turn down professional employment, people will check you off as either deluded or just plain loony. But as long as your choice is appropriate and justifiable, you may find those in casting positions becoming intrigued—and possibly even more interested in casting you in the future.
When you decline, the way you say no can make all the difference in people's reactions. So polish up your diplomacy. Remember, it's never your job to educate anyone. If you're declining because you've seen signs of disorganization, unprofessional practices, poor communication, bad writing, or other red flags, keep your observations to yourself. There's never a need to make people feel bad about their projects.
To that end, if a small lie is going to smooth over bad feelings, that's a lie worth telling. It's much nicer to hear "I couldn't clear the dates" than "It just sounds like you guys don't know what you're doing." Tell them you have a conflicting project that, it turns out, can't be moved, or that your agent loved the script but felt it was too similar to other roles you've played—something that lets you out without suggesting disapproval.
It's always wise to say no with grace and, if possible, leave only good feelings behind. The people you're turning down today may be people you want to work with tomorrow. And that brings us to a magical, all-purpose phrase that works like a charm: "I wish I could."
"I wish I could" does several things at once. It lets people know you respect and appreciate their desire to have you in their project. It suggests that, if it were possible, you'd jump at the chance. It also lets them know that it's simply not possible. So, no matter how much they question your decision, try to change your mind, offer to rearrange schedules or pay you more money, you've let them know that it's not going to work out this time around. And you've done so in a way that doesn't make them feel bad.
And what if you encounter the worst-case scenario and someone completely loses it? Above all, stay calm and say something like, "I can tell you're upset, and believe me, I am too. I would love to be able to accept the offer." Whatever the person says, calmly agree. If necessary, ask them to call back when they're less upset, and hang up. It's highly unlikely you'll ever encounter such a reaction, but if you do, don't engage in the hysteria. Ideally, your agent, if you have one, will handle all of this. But even represented actors can find themselves in awkward conversations about projects they're turning down, and it's handy to have these skills at the ready.
Turning down a job, while perhaps a bit scary, is a sign you're moving forward. When that point comes, embrace it. Celebrate it. And say yes to saying no. It's a very sexy word.