Careers Clinic: Should I do a ‘scripted reality’ TV show?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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Since starting work as an actor, I have come across new acting heroes. They might be less well known than the big stage and screen names I have always admired, but many of the older actors I have worked with have had long careers and have been very kind with tips and advice as I build my own career.

One of the nuggets that keeps popping up is: ‘Never turn down work.’ That has become very relevant to a decision I now have to make.

The makers of a new ‘scripted reality’ show have approached me to be a cast member. The money isn’t huge but it is still more than for any role I have had so far. Their previous shows have all been hits, so this would be a big profile boost.

My acting teacher is wary and says that if I want to be known as an actor, reality TV isn’t the same thing. However, my family is all for it. My mum keeps listing soap stars she watches who started on TV talent shows.

After being told so often not to turn down opportunities, am I right to think twice before jumping at this one?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE As a general philosophy, ‘never turning down work’ certainly opens up more opportunities than the opposite approach of ‘saying no to anything that isn’t at the level I aspire to’.

In practice, both extremes have their pros and cons. Some types of work should be very firmly turned down, including (but not limited to) jobs where the actor is being exploited financially, working in unsafe conditions or generally being treated like a second-class citizen.

At the other end of the scale, while self-worth is very important in any business, it is not unknown for actors who insist on cherry-picking roles to have a more inflated opinion of their ‘level’ than may actually be the case.

And when the plum roles they’re holding out for finally do come around, they may well go to actors who were less picky about castings and who now have stronger CVs as a result.

To avoid either of those scenarios, I suggest refining the ‘never turn down work’ philosophy to ‘never reject work out of hand without thinking through the risks and the opportunities’. Not such a great soundbite, but a much better basis on which to make your decision.

Sometimes you or your agent will be able to access hard information to help you make your choices, either directly from the people offering the job or by doing some research on what those people have been involved in before.

There are also times when we have to make decisions based mainly on our own experience and instincts. In these latter cases I find it useful to remind myself of another principle that has proved itself over and over again: ‘What usually happens is what will usually happen.’

A case in point is reality TV. Yes, there are one or two examples of people who made their debut on these shows who have made the transition into straight acting, but they are few and far between.

The vast majority of reality TV participants have a brief moment of fame but it often fades just as quickly. The participants who do develop screen careers usually do it in light entertainment rather than the acting world. That is not to put down light entertainment, but, as your teacher says, it is a different field from acting.

Maybe you will be one of those lucky few who translates the exposure into acting work. I certainly wish you every success with your final choice – but please make it not because you ‘never turn down work’ but because you have thought through what is realistically on offer and are prepared to balance the risks against the benefits.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne