Ask a Genius: Want to make it as an actor? It'll cost you

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Ask a Genius: Want to make it as an actor? It'll cost you

Brooke Lewis has been a working actor for 20 years. But the horror and indie veteran had to take on many roles outside of acting to make it in Hollywood. Lewis has been an author, a producer, a life coach and a TV dating expert. Lewis talked to us about her road to Hollywood and the struggles actors face to gain a foothold in a competitive industry.

Our conversation with Brooke Lewis is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people.

What does it cost to be an actress?

I went to college. I actually got into law school. I come from a family that is very much about financial stability and endorsed that within me but I needed to follow my heart and my authentic truth and I said, "That's it I'm not going to law school. I'm going right to New York at 22 years old." I moved to New York City to act. It was no easy task and yes, it cost a lot of money.

I saved a lot of money and I had some help from my family because you really do need to spend money to be a professional. It's such a Catch-22 because most artists want to focus on the art. I still, after 20 years professionally in this business, want to focus on the art but there is a reality to this. It is a business.

It took money to get head shots. You have to have an acting reel of your resume. You have to show your talent and what you do. I'm so grateful that I have such a brilliant acting reel editor that I have had for 15 years now in Hollywood but it costs a pretty penny to have them edit your reel. Head shots can be quite expensive and nowadays you need a variety to show casting directors and show directors. You need a resume and it needs to be professionally done and printed on professional print paper so you're spending on that.

What was the point you reached stable financial footing?

After two years I had been in New York City after college I had done some off- off-Broadway plays. I had done some musical theater tours, which was nice payments at the time, and then all due to hard work an audition opened up under an Actors Equity Contract, which is the theater union. I stress that because when you're part of a union there is respectable pay. There is health insurance and there are paid vacation days.

I auditioned for "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding," the mobster comedy wedding, one of the longest running off-Broadway shows in history and I booked it. So here I was at 22, 23, doing an off-Broadway show. Equity contract, good money, good paycheck, vacation days, sick days and health insurance. So I got signed right away with one of the top-tier agencies in New York City, so I really believed, wow, here is my little big break.

I had six callbacks with the producers and directors of the show, but being so young, I thought, "Wow I made it and this is the way it's going to be for the rest of my acting career," but lo and behold, that is not the truth at all. I had some serious serious dips in my career but that was the first time I was making a nice paycheck.

I signed up with an agency and the world truly was my oyster. I was auditioning for a lot of TV I was doing a ton of indie films in New York and making good money. Young, at 22. I made more money in 22 than I have through different parts of my career in my 30s and now 40s.

The next pay check came when I booked, finally, after going out for a lot of TV (in Los Angeles,) a recurring role on a Fox sitcom in 2004. I had moved here a couple of years before that. "Quintuplets" on Fox with Andy Richter and Jake McDormand, big TV stars. I made such a nice pay check. I even got residuals. Then the show got canceled. Unless you're in the 5% of the A-list actors that are bringing in a big paycheck, you'll be facing challenges. You have to be constantly going after your next paycheck to survive.

How do actors do benefits?

You have to make a certain amount of money when it comes to SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artist, a labor union), so there are years where I have made my health insurance and there years where I have not. It's the reason some actors take work that may not be art specifically up to their standards or may not be exactly the direction that they want their career to enter, but they have to because they need to make their health insurance, they need to make their pension and their retirement.

How has your relationship with money changed since you started?

I make a lot more. I'm joking, but I'm not. I'm very blessed to have a great fan base, especially in indie films, in horror sci fi and mobster movies so I get a lot of fan mail and a lot of social media fan messages. I often have fans, for many years, who say to me, "Oh Brooke, you're one of my favorite actresses and all I want to do one day is come to Hollywood and visit you in your mansion in the Hollywood Hills."

Here's the reality. I do not have a mansion and I do not live in the Hollywood Hills. It varies so much from year to year when you are not in that top 5%. You can make a lot of money one year. You can make very little another year.

For the times I was not able to make a living acting, I was making a living at writing and producing.

What is a financial pitfall you see couples fall into?

Financially you need to have common interests. You need to be on the same page. I think if one person wants to buy a mansion in the Hollywood Hills and the other partner's goal is to buy a farm in Oklahoma, it's not going to necessarily work unless you can afford to do both. Financial choices are very important to work on as a unit, as a couple, in order to have a long-lasting sustaining relationship.

How do you handle the ups and downs of the business?

It's really hard. Even at my small celebrity level I've had a lot of nos. I was doing quite well as an actor producer for years in Hollywood and when the economy crashed, in 2009, and 10, when I really went under, I lost all my investors. We had a lot of real estate investors and doctor investors in our production company and several films that were slated to be produced and lost everything.

Everyone lost everything and pulled out of our productions. It was the first time in my adult life that I was faced with, "Oh my gosh, what do I do now?" Yes, I still need health insurance. Yes, I still need food on the table and a roof over my head and I'm a single woman in a very expensive city.

Instead of laying down and crying and instead of giving up, I took for a year, lived off of everything I had saved. Actually took money out of my (individual retirement account), took off a year, went back to school after having two college degrees when I was young. I became a board certified life coach. That's how I became a dating expert.

You can either just run scared from whatever it is you're facing in life or business with the economy, or you can be yourself and be fearless.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

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Image: Genna Sandler