Between red carpets and star-studded all nighters at the Chateau Marmont, life as a working actress may sound glitzy and glamorous. But when it comes to finances, there’s a gritty underbelly to Tinseltown’s sheen.
After all, most professional jobs come with a steady paycheck, regular hours and benefits like health insurance and a 401(k). That’s rarely the case for the Hollywood set—which begs the questions: How can actors save when they never know when their next gig will come through, how long it’ll last or what they’ll earn? And how do they balance those challenges with pressure to project a luxe lifestyle?
We caught up with 35-year-old actress Brooke Lyons—who’s best known for her recurring roles on “The Affair” and “2 Broke Girls,” and recently appeared in “The Mindy Project” and “Grandfathered”—to dig deeper into the financial realities of working in show biz.
What inspired you to pursue acting as a career?
Growing up, my parents encouraged involvement in the arts: liberal arts, visual arts, performing arts, you name it. By the time I reached college, I had many passions, but no clear idea of what I wanted to do.
Because I was open to anything, I studied everything—and one of those things was acting. By senior year, it was the only thing I could imagine doing. I was young and idealistic enough to buy a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
How did you get your foot in the door in L.A.?
I enrolled in an acting class and regularly [looked] for low budget and student film auditions, in hopes of getting some on-camera experience. I [also] got a job as a hostess at a Beverly Hills restaurant where agents and managers were known to lunch.
Soon one thing led to another: I met a manager who signed me. Through him, I booked my first television job, which made me a member of the Screen Actors Guild. A friend asked me to perform with him in a showcase, and my first agent was in the audience that night. Small roles led to bigger roles.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Though a public profession, acting has its fair share of private moments. Some of the quietest moments of my career have been highlights: giving the performance of my life in an audition for a role I didn’t ultimately get; developing behind-the-scenes friendships that have become pillars of my personal life; picking myself up after massive disappointment and coming back stronger.
In a visible way, I’d say the highlights have been my favorite jobs, namely “2 Broke Girls” and “The Affair.” They gave me the opportunity to team with creatives I’d long admired and collaborate with them in exciting ways.
Acting—like a lot of creative fields—is so unpredictable. How do you manage your money?
Budgeting based on an income comprised entirely of acting jobs, which is what I do, involves a lot of living within my means and saving for a rainy day. Years ago, I started putting 10 percent of every paycheck, regardless of the amount, into savings. If I couldn’t afford something without dipping into savings, I wouldn’t buy it.
Of course there were times when I’d need to drain my savings to pay rent, and in those times, I’d go on as many auditions as I could, get a day job and start all over again.
But once you have enough savings, you can start to think about investing and retirement, neither of which I even considered before 30. Being an actor…takes discipline to set limits and plan for the future. Bonuses and 401(k)s are simply not a part of the culture.
Have you considered a backup career?
I don’t have a backup plan. This is not an easy industry, and many people in it would give the advice that if you have a backup plan, you should do that instead.
On the other hand, it’s natural for people to grow out of one career and begin another. One of the things I love most about the entertainment industry is its variety. If you’re acting, you’re not just going out for film and television roles. If you’re smart, you’re diversifying with commercials and voiceover work.
[Plus], if you’ve been acting for a long time but find that the work has stopped, an organic transition could involve writing, producing or directing. Having been an actor prepares you for all three.
What’s a common financial mistake actors make, but you try to avoid?
Something unique to being an actor is that your life can change overnight. One day you’re driving an ’87 Corolla and have no health insurance, and the next day you score a $30,000-a-week television contract for 22 weeks a year.
A lot of people would buy a new car, move to a great apartment, maybe go on vacation. But you never know how long a show will last or, in the event that it tanks, what your next job will be. Maybe the network will cancel it after two episodes, so your gross income is $60,000, of which you take home about half, after taxes and agent and manager fees. An annual income of $30,000 in an expensive city like L.A. will make you wish you still had that Corolla.
It seems like there’s a lot of pressure in Hollywood to maintain a certain image. How do you deal with that?
While it is important, in an image-based industry, to present a certain way, I choose to limit that to my professional life. I may spring for a plane ticket to do a job in New York or a red carpet dress for a premiere, but in my personal life, I surround myself with low-key people who do not need to spend a lot of money to have a great time.
When it comes to photo shoots and events, I’m a big fan of borrowing and trading. A makeup artist will lend me her services for the day if she can use my photographs in her portfolio. My blogger friend receives a lot of clothing from companies she features on her blog, so if I have an event, I’ll raid her closet instead of spending a fortune on something new.
What’s the biggest financial mistake you’ve made?
Getting into debt was a mistake. It’s tempting to think, `I’ll just use my credit card for these necessities while I’m in a pinch, and then I’ll book a big job and make a lot of money and everything will be fine.’ I wouldn’t recommend that. Now I know that when I do book a good-paying job, it’s icing on the cake, rather than triage.
It was also a mistake to delay taking an interest in my financial future. Actors, like many artists, just want to create. I had no interest in the business side of things. But as a performing artist, you’re basically the CEO of the company that is you. I had to learn that embracing the business of show business was the very thing that would make it possible for me to continue doing my art.
What’s the best financial advice you’d give to people in their 20s?
Whether it’s a savings account that you don’t dip into, an IRA or another kind of investment, the sooner you start, the better. Honor this practice as you would any other commitment. Position yourself not to live paycheck to paycheck, but to have your money make money.