If you will, please imagine the following:

Another unemployed day, another bloody empty day. All this morning has been spent in a low-level malaise as you contemplate the inherent irony of the term ‘jobbing actor’ You have this achingly persistent feeling that life is passing you by while you do…well, this! Not to mention the cash flow ‘challenges’ as another bill hits the doormat. Then something happens…a phone call…an unknown number… the producer from that commercial audition…hang on…hang on a minute…it’s a yes!!! A bloody yes!!! Sweet relief!! Melancholy to euphoria in 1.5 seconds; this is why you’re an actor. That feeling makes all that uncertainty worthwhile. All those nagging doubts evaporate blissfully.  Okay, so it’s not high art but it’s something, and it’s a damn good pay day…

…Except it isn’t.

It’s the lowest of low balls, it’s only (please insert your definition of a derisory amount here). Just under half what you could reasonably expect.

That malaise you bid bon voyage to a moment ago, gives a wink and snuggles back in.

You feel torn; this goes against every professional fibre in your being and not how you expect others to behave either. However, the cash, even this amount, would be amazing right now…It’s tempting, so tempting.

A moral dilemma stands before you; to accept the job or not, that is the question.

As a PhD researcher (moral & political psychology), I have no skin in the game and certainly not here to cast any judgements. What I would like to do is present three likely (if broad!) responses and offer a psychology-related perspective on each based on Cognitive Dissonance Theory. This theory states that cognitive dissonance occurs when we hold values, ideas or behaviour that are contradictory. To avoid this unpleasant feeling, we must change our perspective on the situation – change the story we’re telling ourselves.

So, back to the moral dilemma and three potential responses which mean you can accept the job:

  1. A) Dilemma…what moral dilemma? In this profession? C‘mon, It’s a competition, damnit!! This is no ‘everyone gets a medal’ day – it’s Darwinian law for the talent gene!! Every other aspect of the business is competitive so why are we making wheezy, exasperated noises over this? If anyone else was in my position they would do the same thing, for sure.

Attitudinal or Belief Change: If you can change your attitude on the situation, you reduce the cognitive dissonance. In this case, if you change the belief to one in which the profession is solely ‘survival of the fittest’, then taking the job is merely a logical extension of that belief system.

  1. B) This is a lousy situation and, normally, you wouldn’t dream of accepting. However, as the cliché goes, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good. Maybe you can take the job if you ‘pay it forward’ by donating a quarter of the wage to an actor-friendly charity? Make the best of a bad situation. This is nobody’s ideal but a little ‘give and take’ makes the world go around, right?

Acquire New Information: Acquiring new information about the situation offers a means of reducing dissonance. Ensuring others will also benefit from an action which could be considered selfish by your peer group, reclaims a collectivist narrative for your actions that is consistent with your identity.

  1. C) Oh, the luxury of choice. What it must be to one of those decadent souls who can buy avocados at will. You, however, are in London! (or at least somewhere with financial obligations!) Every penny counts, and every counted penny is going towards rent. It’s all well and good to take the moral high ground but you don’t have the luxury of a moral choice here. The question really is, can you afford not to take the job?

Increase a Functional Belief: The functional narrative proports that no other options really exist, and negative consequences must be avoided; ‘I need to do X, otherwise Y will happen’.  This takes the personal autonomy out of the choice and reduces any dissonance over the behaviour.

Lesson: If you are about to embark on behaviour which increases cognitive dissonance, your only recourse is to change your attitude about the situation.

The aim here is not to suggest what you should be doing but encouraging you consider what story you’re telling yourself.  My hope is that this, oh so superficial, dip into the water of cognition and beliefs may instigate further investigation. After all, if you’re an actor, aren’t you not, in the broadest sense of the term, a story teller? Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone else will accept this narrative or be obliging in supporting you to maintain such a storytelling conceit. However, a consistent story is essential to creating that precious ‘peace of mind’ for which we may seek. Of course, any life story is a simplified version of events, and cannot hope to capture the happiness, sadness, nuances, contradictions, wonderment, absurdity, and whatever else occurred. Indeed, my ‘NEET youth to PhD/ undergraduate tutor’ story is an appealing one to tell (at least for me!). The actual reality is that it was far more complex than the ‘feckless youth to funded researcher’ narrative. Our stories are everchanging; future unforeseen life changes may occur that could completely redefine our sense of identity and, ultimately, our story.

Regarding the moral dilemma, I find it difficult to claim any legitimacy in which to offer an opinion on what the right course of action would be. I am not in the industry anymore and it’s incredibly easy for me to adopt a lofty moral position as I have no career or financial imperative. Indeed, my heart goes out to anyone feels forced into any dubious practice against their moral values because of such circumstances. I suppose ‘philosophically speaking’, I would argue that the point of a moral position is that it must be resilient to circumstances.  Evoking one’s moral values when it will not bring plaudits, or short-term rewards is, in my perspective, the litmus test of personal morality.

The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we have been and where we are going are some of the most profound, convincing narratives we may ever create.

Wishing you all the best in making your story a great one.

Series 3 of the podcast is now available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Acast. Episodes already released feature full-length interviews with Adrian Lester, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Riley, Kate Fleetwood, Sarah Ball and Jonjo O’Neill. Click here to listen!

Series 1 & 2 are also available free, along with a special live episode for Equity recorded in November 2018, and follow-up inteaviews with all seven of the emerging actors, conducted in October. Go have a listen

Anthony English

Actor turned PhD (Moral & Political Psychology). NEET to undergraduate tutor. Feckless youth to funded researcher.