You act because you have to, right? You deal with the financial uncertainty because you can’t imagine doing anything else, right? Passion, talent and commitment can only take you so far. To pay your bills – and we all have those – you need money. We’re not talking about the starry paychecks of Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Kaluuya, Olivia Colman et al. We want to know about the everyday salary for an average TV, film, or theatre job. We know no one likes to talk about it, but money matters, so here we are to finally get to the bottom of this million dollar (or pound) question. What does a typical working actor in the UK get paid?
According to UK Equity, “97% of our members declared to us they were earning up to £43,000 pounds a year for the year of 2021.” That means almost all actors earn less than that. In fact, a survey by Mandy in 2018 showed that 68% of actors, dancers and musicians made less than £5,000 over 12 months, forcing 66% to take on “at least one additional job to survive.”
Equity’s General Secretary Paul Fleming says trying to calculate an average actor’s pay isn’t easy because of the uncertain nature of employment in the sector. “It’s hard to quantify what actors earn because there are massive peaks and troughs, even with the lowest earning actors. The good years and bad years can depend on one job. And it’s such a precarious industry. So actually working out how much an average actor is paid even over a lifetime is really difficult.”
Recent BAFTA Best Actress winner Joanna Scanlan told the Daily Mail: “People would be amazed to know how little most actors now earn. Movies in particular seem to pay less.” She revealed that when she started out she had a dream of earning £100k. Eventually she did when, in her mid-50s, she booked the lead in Channel 4 Drama series No Offence in 2015.
It’s not unusual for an actor to book a high earning gig one year and then have nothing for the next two, three, or even more years. The key is to be sensible with the money you do earn, and always try to have contingencies in place for when the acting work goes quiet.
Although it is hard to precisely pinpoint how much actors get paid, it is possible to say which sectors get paid best. While minimum rates of pay reflect the market trends, these are how the tiers breakdown:
- Acting in TV commercials is at the top in terms of the one-off payment, which usually includes a buyout (more on these below). Bearing in mind commercials are costed individually, it’s difficult to ascertain an average across the sector, but a typical gig for a known brand will be pay in the region of £2,000-£4,000 to cover a few days of shooting and image rights for 2-4 years.
- For ongoing payments, movies, TV, and film. In that bracket are highly successful streaming shows on the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Apple where the pay varies according to the profile of a project and number of episodes. Equity guidelines give some indication of typical rates: For independent productions the daily rate is £352.50, plus an engagement fee of £557. There are supplements for overtime and voice over work etc. Rates rise slightly for the BBC (£640, daily rate £417).
- After TV comes theatre, with the commercial West End sector unsurprisingly coming out top cash-wise, followed by major commercial tours and subsidised theatre. For the West End, current SOLT/Equity rates start at £712 for performing eight shows weekly in an 1100-seat theatre, but you can also get extra money for understudying, and being a dance captain or a swing.
- Then it’s the un-unionised sectors such as the fringe and student films where actors often deal with low pay often on the basis of “profit share,” which means receiving a split revenues. In effect this can mean you are effectively working for expenses.
- At the bottom of the average pay pile are performers in the variety bracket, like clowns and contortionists. Though, again, this very much depends on the level you’re operating at. It’s worth noting that buskers can earn as much as £200 per day during busy periods.
Minimum rates of pay are set through negotiations between producers and Equity. Once every three years or so they agree on a collective position that determines the minimum pay level for actors.
Reassuringly, the overwhelming majority of British film and TV is made under a union agreement. You can get the minimum rates from Equity when you join up. However, you can see some of the film and TV agreements via the Casting Directors Guild—there are quite a few! As you’ll note the bigger the production’s budget, the more an actor will earn, and as a general rule of thumb that applies across the board. For example if you’re working on a film with a budget of £3m or over, your daily rate (including buyout) is set at a minimum of £558. If the budget is under £1m it goes down to £220.
Paul Fleming says actors need to think carefully about the conditions attached to a buyout, which has increasingly taken the place of ongoing royalty payments. Correctly applied they should mean your employer is giving you an extra payment for a certain amount of overtime or repeat fees, or instead of another additional payment. However, just because you’re getting an extra payment shouldn’t mean you’re signing away your rights in perpetuity.
“Buyouts when they’re used well can be in our members’ interests because it gives them more money up front,” he says. “Buyouts when used badly by producers are a way to avoid our members’ entitlements under our agreements to overtime or exploitation.” So be careful and read the small print of any contract—and if in doubt ask your agent.
When it comes to working on stage, there are two major bodies to know about as well as Equity. The first one is SOLT (Society of London Theatre) that deals with the West End. It makes sure that actors are paid a fair wage and again the salary minimum is dependent on the size of the theatre. As already stated, rates start at £712 for performing eight shows weekly in an 1100-seat theatre, but you can also get extra money for understudying.
The other important body is UK Theatre, which deals with UK-wide productions. For a theatre with 1,500 seats (not in the West End) it sets a minimum weekly salary of £497, but there are also touring allowances and subsistence payments that are worth looking out for.
During the pandemic the theatre pay minimums have been held at 2019/2020 levels to help out beleaguered theatres and producers. However those ‘variations’ are due to end soon.
However much you get paid it’s likely that 10–25% of that well earned cash will go to your agent, so remember to factor that in. An agent’s help can be invaluable, especially if they’ve got the contacts and the track record, so even though it may seem like an extra expense, a good agent is really worth the money.
Another expense you might not have thought about that is worth considering is joining a Union. Most actors view being a member of Equity as essential, and when you’re talking about money and negotiating payments, having muscular union backing is crucial. They’re on your side and give all actors a collective voice especially when it comes to finances. You can get an idea of how much it costs to join by reviewing Equity's subscription rates.
One of Equity’s most important jobs is to negotiate minimum pay for different acting jobs, so no one’s pay falls below a certain level. Equity’s General Secretary Paul Fleming says, “The purpose of the union is to negotiate minimum rates of pay minimum terms and conditions. We negotiate a safety net below which nobody can fall.”
The majority of reputable British producers are signed up to these rates. If you’re on an Equity contract, the union will try and make sure any slips in conditions or pay you report are resolved. They run campaigns about the issues concerning actors, and their 47,000 members have real clout when speaking with a single voice. Plus when you’re a member you get access to pay rates and contracts so you can double check you’re not being screwed over!
There’s a reason lots of British actors go stateside to further their careers, and it’s not just the sunshine. Actors make more money in America, but with some serious caveats.
Upfront payments in Hollywood are big, and television seasons typically run for more episodes than in the UK, meaning actors get paid more. Bigger audiences also mean more production money particularly in the television space, where advertisements are bought based on potential customer reach. In summary, more eyeballs equals higher wages.
British actors’ considerable talents are in demand Stateside, but beware—a part of the attraction might well be the fact that Brits’ wage expectations are lower due to what they’re paid back home—which is one reason why having a savvy agent matters! Of course lots of this money information is private, but looking at the SAG-AFTRA rate card for US actors, it’s notable that the day rate is significantly more than the UK equivalent, at $1,056 (£807 at current exchange rates).
The American theatre scene is a mixed bag for British actors. There isn’t really a subsidised theatre sector, and pay there and on the US fringe is lower than in the UK, but Broadway definitely pays more than its equivalent here, the West End. For a major show (in a bigger than 500-seat theatre), the current minimum is $2,034 per week, more than double the West End equivalen. Off-Broadway is lower, starting at $662, though rates are improving since the implementation of new Actors’ Equity agreements. There are certain bonuses including for performing on Sundays, or covering other roles.
Although you can get paid more in the US, you do need to take some financial points into consideration.
- Health care: there’s no NHS to look after you and health insurance is expensive.
- Time off: Americans only get 10 days’ holiday compared to our 28.
- Closure policy: If a show closes, actors do not get the British two weeks’ notice period.
- Royalties: Although they might get a bigger payment upfront, American actors don’t get residual secondary payments or royalties, which can really make a difference. But the weather is usually much better.
Actors’ pay in recent times has been a rollercoaster ride. On the one hand there has undoubtedly been a boom in recorded content production. Streamers with big pockets have made big investments in the UK production market which has led to film and TV wages being pushed up.
Equity’s Fleming is cautiously optimistic about their influence: “I think it’s broadly a positive difference. The biggest issue with pay is the number of jobs. Obviously actors will earn more the more jobs there are for them to do. The impact with the streamers is that there has been an explosion in the volume of production.”
However, it’s not an entirely rosy picture for the UK’s acting community. As Fleming explains, closures hit the theatre sector hard. “What we’ve seen in the pandemic is the very complex story of theatre wages suffering, because [shows] haven’t been on and in order to get them back on we had to vary our agreements, which is now coming to an end. Also we’ve seen our members disproportionately excluded from different government support schemes... It’s been a really tough two years.”
Most actors know that the money side of things can be hard, and most actors don’t act to get rich, but everyone deserves to be paid fairly for what they do. Keeping on top of what you’re owed and what you’re worth is important for actors whether you’re doing theatre, film, TV, or even the odd clown gig.
More industry advice for UK actors? Click here.