A UK Actor’s Guide to Self-Employment

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A good agent will do everything. You just turn up and be amazing. They’ll argue your fee, ensure your payment, send you itineraries, organise your post and your life.

For those of you without an agent, you’ll need to remember M People’s classic line, “Search for the hero inside yourself”. You can and will be your own agent until you get one. Or perhaps, like Bill Murray, you don’t ever want one? Although remember, that’s how Bill ended up as the voice of Garfield.

Be the actor and the agent. You don’t need another set of clothes or anything, this just means organising yourself, your diary, your payment and solving your own problems. It’s not exactly daunting. Set a couple of hours aside each month to week manage, plan, and do a little admin.

Write it down

You think you’ll remember the advice that lovely casting director gave, which cafe you were having that important meeting at or which script was for Friday and which for Tuesday. Guess what? You won’t. Keep a notebook with you at all times or use notes on your phone. Keep a to-do List. If you haven’t started using Google Calendar (or another cloud-based calendar system), then get it and start using it. You are a now a business and people will only treat you seriously if you behave like it.

The business of business

Until you’re earning enough to employ an accountant, you’ll be doing your own taxes. As a guide, an accountant will charge roughly £150–£350 for filing your tax return on your behalf, and this is a tax deductible cost. Don’t know what “tax deductible” means? Look it up! Or bite the bullet and pay for an accountant.

Self-employed is more than a state of mind, it’s a status. You’ll need to register with HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, if you were wondering). To do so visit the government’s all-in-one online service, gov.uk and follow the steps. Once registered, you’ll receive a UTR (Unique Taxpayer Reference) and be able to call their helpline with all your queries. Then you’re pretty much set. Sometime before the 31st of January, you need to submit a Tax Return (Self Assessment) which breaks down income and how much tax you owe. Save every receipt for the theatre or cinema, workshops, gym clothes, haircuts and submit them as deductions against taxable income. That’s what tax deductible means! 

Agree on reasonable fees

You’ll be wanting to get paid, won’t you? Equity, the actor’s union, have a minimum which you can use as reference but if a fee seems low then query it, don't be shy. Agents spend all day trying to get you the best deal; if you’re going it alone you should do the same. Is it £X per day, per week or in total? What does the fee include? Travel? Prep time? Is there a Per Diem stipend (money to pay for food, travel and sometimes accommodation) or can you expense that? Know the terms of the job and if anything seems amiss then the employer is either not being clear or just hasn't said. Both are good enough reasons to call and check.

Keep records

Learn how to make an invoice, or use a template and give each one a reference number. Keep digital copies safe, make sure you invoice promptly, to the correct person and jog the memories of companies who have exceeded their payment terms by not paying you when or how they said they would.

Understand your contractual obligations

Read the contract. It sounds like such obvious advice yet people so rarely do! You shouldn’t need to be a lawyer to understand your contract and if it all feels vague, go ahead and ask what ‘no dispensation’ or ‘other duties as required’ means. What standards can you expect of the company/employer and do they meet your expectations? Ensure that the payment terms are clear too. Is it fixed fee? Profit share? If you are developing a new musical, what rights do you have? Do you own any of the work you make? Look at what you are being offered and ask yourself, “am I being taken for a ride”? The answer is usually “no” but you should always check.

Don’t hesitate to call in the cavalry

Things getting messy? Feel you’re being exploited? Call your agent and they might be able to get you out of a job. Without an agent, check back over that contract you kept a copy of. You did keep a copy, right? Keep calm, be polite but firm if you're not happy or things have gone wrong. Equity are there to help you, even if you’re not yet a member. You might have been introduced to an Equity Rep for a theatre job or you can always drop them a general email or call if it’s urgent.

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