‘The hypocrisy is unreal’: why the acting world is crueller than ever
At the recent Oscars, Ke Huy Quan, Best Supporting Actor winner for Everything Everywhere All At Once, gave a motivational speech about following your dreams. “Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine.” he said. “To all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive.”
Yet, for actors in the UK these dreams are coming at a huge cost: financially and mentally. Despite the industry promising to “build back better” post-pandemic, young actors are finding it near impossible to get jobs, with many quitting the profession after having spent a fortune on drama school, or in limbo doing odd jobs, unable to retrain vocationally.
“Acting is a sickness, a compulsion, but it’s too late to do anything else,” says Sophie*, who trained at RADA but hasn’t had a paid acting role in years. Research from 2019 found that only two per cent of actors in the UK make a living.
“You start to think, is it my face? Should I get a nose job? The hypocrisy of this industry is unreal. It tells us it’s all about [protecting] our mental health and inclusivity, but this is the most closed-shop industry there is.”
And yet Hollywood is currently undergoing a period of intense scrutiny, with the age-old issue of nepotism becoming a particularly hot potato, after a notable number of celebrity offspring seemed to amble into roles with little prior acting experience, often opposite their own parents – from Kate Winslet and Tilda Swinton’s daughters to Jude Law’s son. In January, New York Magazine’s cover featured a bunch of incubators containing babies superimposed with the cherubic smiles of La La Land’s brightest young things. “She has her mother’s eyes… and agent”, read the cover line, prompting certain indignant “nepo babies” to rush to Twitter to defend themselves.
'The Year of the Nepo Baby,' by @kn8: https://t.co/P9ws7nkGij pic.twitter.com/sXHL0f7Zam
— New York Magazine (@NYMag) March 29, 2023
“In the UK, nepotism is definitely getting worse,” says Nicole*, a non-binary actor of Filipino heritage. “The perception is that when it comes to casting, people are like: ‘Oh, well, they’re so and so’s kid, they’ve grown up on sets, they must be good. And their parents will support the project”.
Sarah*, the “secret nepo baby” of a famous British actor who goes by a different last name, tells me she feared the stigma so much she never accepted her father’s help. “Morally, I’ve never felt it was right, so I’ve never used the contacts,” she says. “Although I know that if I were to get a big job, I would still be called a nepo baby.”
Sarah – currently juggling several jobs in hospitality while auditioning on the side – agrees nepotism is “extremely prevalent”, but she doesn’t think it secures a career. “You’re not going to get a job if you’re sh--. But it is tough when you go through rounds of auditions only to find out Lily Rose Depp got the job and you didn’t even know she was up for it.”
The nepotism problem begins, says Guildhall graduate Yasmin*, at drama schools, which rely on famous last names to help with funding. “There is a sense of, let’s bring in who might be bankable in four years time, who can add to our famous alumni,” says Nicole, naming a successful British actress with a famous father who told them that she had been accepted to all six drama schools she applied to, which was “unheard of”.
Such connections can be helpful when it comes to securing an agent, too. Yasmin recalls feeling distinctly unimpressed watching Lily James (who has an acting background) in a show when she was in her first year. “We all watched her thinking: ‘My God, if that’s what we’re aiming for then we may as well all quit.”
While some “nepo babies” are of course talented and it seems unfair to resent a parent for supporting their child, the actors I speak to worry that the industry is reliant on famous last names to get smaller productions off the ground when time and money are tight.
When I put this to casting director Kahleen Crawford (His Dark Materials, Vigil), however, she seems surprised. “If you’re a so-called nepo baby, I’m going to expect you to prove yourself twice as much. Family backgrounds may get them through certain doors, but once you’re in the room, you’re on your own.”
Nepo babies aren’t the only untrained actors making the business more competitive. Every actor I speak to describes losing roles to social media stars, influencers or models deemed “bankable” because of their large online followings, and who have become increasingly common since the pandemic shifted so much casting online.
Thirty-year-old actor Luis Donegan-Brown, who makes the majority of his income from his own marketing and events agency, says: “Influencers exploded during lockdown doing funny skits on social media. Since then I have seen some of them pick up roles because they are now a 'face’.” Sophie adds that she is constantly recognising “terrible” YouTubers – including one famous beauty vlogger – in roles. “Clearly, that’s what I should have done instead of spending a fortune on drama school.”
And while casting via social media can be a more accessible way of finding talent who can’t afford drama school, actors worry this has prompted casting processes to put more focus on “followers”, which can intimidate actors. “There may be some of us who are a little bit older and just don’t want to use social media like that, or don’t know how to,” says 33-year-old Lilah*.
However casting director Lucy Bevan (Barbie, The Batman) disagrees. “I have never knowingly cast an influencer”, she says, revealing she cast all the children in Matilda the Musical and Belfast through social media, describing it as “an amazing way to break through that doesn’t require drama school.”
While this may point to a democratisation of casting, much of the business is still conducted behind closed doors. “The number of times I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh yeah I met so and so at Soho House’, or another private member’s club,” says Fred*, a working class actor in his 20s who moved from the north-east to London to attend LAMDA on a scholarship, but last year was called to just three auditions and works at an online pharmacy.
Grace, a 26-year-old, working class actor from Northern Ireland says the cost of living crisis has made her profession untenable – a paper published in the British Sociology Association journal in November 2022 found that just eight per cent of actors, musicians and writers were from working-class backgrounds, a proportion that has shrunk by half since the 70s.
“I can’t go to auditions because I can’t afford to take a day off and lose money I need for bills and rent. And I need that money for marketing myself through headshots, show reels, and [casting membership] Spotlight, [all of] which costs about a grand a year.” And she too has felt the industry’s elitism, with a teacher in her first week at drama school telling her she needed to lose her accent “unless you want to play a terrorist for the rest of your life”.
Another particularly sticky subject in the industry is race. Organisations from BAFTA to the BBC's diversity targets have helped tackle alarming statistics such as that between 2006 and 2016, 59 per cent of British films cast no black actors at all, according to the BFI. And while, according to the 2022 Diamond report by CDN, the percentage of non-white actors represented on screen (20.9 per cent) exceeds the UK population (12.8 per cent), though is far below the London population (40 per cent), several actors I speak to say progress has stalled, and that the industry is mired in faux progressiveness.
“It’s surprising how fast the conversation around gender identity is moving compared to race,” says Nicole. “As a mixed race Asian person, I think it’s been moving at a glacial pace” (indeed the CDN report points to the continued under-representation of South Asian people on and off screen). Nicole thinks that people have become “bored” of talking about race. And yet they still regularly confront racially insensitive casting, “like roles for a concubine or a victim of sex trafficking being played by an Asian person or a maid played by a black person” as well as “box ticking roles” which have left them “questioning my worth”.
The issue, Nicole says, is a lack of diversity behind the camera, with the CDN report revealing notable under-representation for the global majority (a term creatives prefer to “ethnic minority”) in everything from directing and writing to costume and hair and make-up. “I have been submitted to over 200 casting directors in the past year, I can only think of three who aren’t white”, which contributes to a skewed sense of what “diversity” is. “They say things like ‘colourblind casting’ which indicates that they don’t get it, because you’re effectively erasing diversity. They’re not seeing the richness of communities of colour.”
Some Caucasian actors I speak to note that their work opportunities have decreased considerably since diversity targets came into place. “As a white man, I’m just not good stock right now, which I completely understand,” says Fred.
“I’ve been told so many times by agents, ‘We’ve already got someone who looks like you’, because I’m white, brown-haired and brown-eyed, and admittedly there are a f— load of us,” says Sophie. Another actor tells me “Agents have told me they don’t want my voice anymore either, they want regional voices.”
Laura*, a drama school graduate in her mid 30s, feels it's particularly hard for “white women” because “the majority of lead roles still go to tall, straight white men” while supporting roles tend to go to “the global majority”. She tells me that an agent she knows has told her that he “no longer signs white women”.
But several agents and casting directors I speak to say that these tensions are the inevitable result of fairer casting during a difficult economic period of squeezed opportunities for everyone. The reality is that an agent “no longer signing white women” had likely been working off an all-white list for decades.
“White people had the monopoly for a long time, and now it’s other people’s turn”, says Donegan-Brown, who was once led to believe he would only be cast in stereotypical roles, “in a gang or on an estate”, but notes streaming platforms have created “increased opportunity for black men and POC”.
When it comes to leads, however, “they always end up going to the white person”, says Nicole, while Donegan-Brown “ would love to see more black men in hero, save-the-day, gets-the-girl (or guy) type roles.” Last year Femi Oguns, agent to black British superstars John Boyega and Letitia Wright, criticised how much global majority actors are still relied upon for “culturally specific” roles, and have had to move to America to get leads or – in the case of both Wright and Boyega – set up their own production companies.
The CDN report also reveals that disabled people, transgender people and people over 50 were also under-represented both on and off screen.
Ultimately, every actor I speak to wants their industry to “stop feeding them empty promises”, a problem exemplified by a well-travelled industry story Sophie shares with me about a top agent renowned for collecting the “next hot young thing” so that other agents can’t get to them, then leaving them to gather dust on their shelf. “Apparently he came up to an actor at the end of his show and told him, ‘You’re going to be a star! Who is representing you?’”, says Sophie. “And the actor replied, ‘You are’.”
Lynda Rooke, President of Equity – trade union for the performing arts and entertainment industries in the UK – believes increasing investment to create more productions and more jobs will lead to “less resentment” between actors over who is getting what roles.
Such investment is particularly for subsidised theatre, which, for many young actors, is the first rung on the ladder to a successful career on stage or screen. While the Arts Council’s levelling up agenda is commendable, Rooke says taking investment away from London – where many regional actors have already set up camp – makes no sense. “We need to maintain it, it is the basis of the creative industries.” More focus, too, needs to be given to the performing arts in schools, which Rooke says “has taken a big hit in state education.”
And in terms of diversity, Bevan and Crawford tell me that while they do what they can to diversify roles during casting – from counting up male and female roles and flipping them, to questioning stereotypes – the writing is where real progress happens. “There's only so much casting directors can do once a project is in development,” says Bevan, pointing to the crucial funding needed for schools such as the LSA and Open Door, which support writers from disadvantaged backgrounds. “We need more diversity behind the camera.”
But if there is one silver lining to these difficult times, it seems to be that the scarcity of opportunity is forcing actors to create their own work. Fred mentions his friend and comedian Liz Kingsman, whose breakout hit One Woman Show transferred to the West End. “She was just getting no auditions for so long, so she decided, fine, I’ll just write it myself.”
*Names have been changed