It's been quite the week for Geoffrey Owens.
The former Cosby Show actor has become the new poster boy for the American dream after he was photographed packing customers' bags at US supermarket Trader Joe's. The photographs were sold to The Daily Mail, whereupon they were picked up by Fox News. But rather than be painted as a sold-out hasbeen – as those titles depicted the 57-year-old – Owens received an outpouring of sympathy and support for being shamed for merely having a job that wasn't considered starry.
What's more, the incident sparked a tidal wave of honesty from those within the entertainment industry about how actors really earn their keep. The New Yorker wrote an opinion piece that argued that "actors have long been part of the gig economy", and stars shared a plethora of unglamorous gigs that kept food on the table – from "balloon-making clown" to swimming teacher and "playing Jack Sparrow to a room full of sugar-hyped five-year-olds" – under the hashtag #ActorsWithDayJobs.
But while the notion of jobbing actors propping up their careers with hours waiting tables may be a hard-worn cliché, Owens' experience has resonated because the public conception of a television actor is one that is made for life. Owens has since given an interview to Good Morning America that may have been a masterpiece in PR –the Yale graduate wore both his university cap and his Trader Joe's name badge – but won well-deserved acclaim for saying: "There's no job better than another".
As many have pointed out, Owens is not the "former actor" he's been portrayed as in the press. Rather, his IMDB page shows that he's working in several television shows and films per year, and has been consistently since landing his Cosby Show role in the Eighties (ironically, as Elvin on the US comedy, he was shamed for leaving his career in medicine to open up an outdoor sports shop). The fact that this is an actor who has not fallen from the spotlight, yet still takes non-acting work to survive, has been a wake-up call for many of those who believe the people on their television screens are living a glamorous life of luxury.
The fact is, says actor and author Michael Simkins, that a "second string" career – whether one maintained in a supermarket or otherwise – "is par for the course for actors these days. It's much more difficult to get by as an actor than it was 30 years ago."
He explains: "When I started you could get a stint in a regional theater that would occupy you for six to eight months. Even if you get a job now you're only working 10,11,12 weeks as a stint."
A heady combination of the demise of regional theatre, the competition for traditional television stalwarts from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon and the sheer proliferation of what we watch on screen has resulted in more competition among actors and worse pay for what work they do get. "Previously, if you could do two or three tellies a year – they needn't be big – you'd have enough to get by as long as you watched you alcohol intake," says Simkins, who left RADA in the same class as Timothy Spall and played Steve Lowe in EastEnders, and has since published books on the industry.
"But the old days of a retainer, which could provide you with enough fat to get you through the lean times, are gone," he adds, saying many production companies try to squeeze scenes into a few shooting days as possible. "A friend of mine had eight telly jobs last year and earned £13,000," he adds. Consider in the increasing cost of daily existence that's affecting everybody, and it's hardly surprising that stars need to supplement their income.
What hasn't caught up with the times, however, is the notion of what an actor should be seen to be - especially if, like Owens, they were a prominent face on the small screen a couple of decades ago. "I think the well-known actor's perception of the standing they have, even years after they've appeared in something, weighs quite heavily," says Simkins.
"Actors are always looking over their shoulder. It's a brutal business: you can be a star at one point and then reliant on pushing trollies in Sainsburys years later."
Not, Simkins says, that many actors are taking supermarket jobs ("maybe they do it and don't let people know"). Rather, they pick up work on "the peripheries" of the entertainment industry – those handy with a camera can earn a few hundred pounds a pop taking head shots of other actors, for instance, or cutting together showreels to help people land jobs. There's also "piecemeal" work to be found by setting yourself up as an IT expert or drama coach, "anything that will bring in another income stream," he explains.
A lot of the difficulty with maintaining a money-earning career on the side of acting is finding one that will accommodate last-minute castings and auditions. "I know one who's an estate agent in their spare time," Simkins says (they're not alone: on Twitter, US soap star Chrishell Hartley posted that she was "filming a movie for Lifetime but simultaneously searching for the right house for my buyer while I am gone"). "But," he continues "if you're still trying to act you have to be able to ring up your boss to say you've got an audition and make sure they won't sack you. That's always the problem."
This is one of the reasons why those actors with permanent homes are increasingly turning to AirBnb to generate stable income: "it's become a big thing – they rent out their flat so they can get a few hundred quid a week and live with a friend."
Some businesses have seen the gap in the market. East London-based call centre RSVP exclusively hires actors to man their phones. They get peppy, diverse voices on the other end of the line, while actors get to work for an employer who knows they may be off to Los Angeles at the drop of a hat. "There are very few jobs that would welcome you back after the show finished with no questions asked beyond: 'Did you have a good time?'", actor Zachary Cooke told The Stage of the company.
If so many actors are taking work on the side, then why doesn't the public know? Simkins says there's still stigma attached – but increasingly only among actors of his generation: "Because in my day it was easier to get by [from acting], if you were on a market stall it suggested you were struggling," he says, "whereas young actors are fighting by tooth and nail on a daily basis."
Not only are millenials more au fait with the increasing transience of fame in the internet age – and considerably worse off – they're less ashamed of taking non-acting gigs.
Furthermore, theirs is a generation where people of all professions – from doctors to advertising executives – are well-versed in what's known as "side-hustle". To be seen as having another career strand is a mark of ambition among the under-35s, rather than one of straining to survive.
But if there's one thing millenials and acting's old guard are equally good at, it's gussying up one's career. "We're all in the same boat when it comes to making sure you're creating the right image," says Simkins. "People will say, 'Yes, I run a catering company in my spare time,' rather than 'I drive around offices delivering sandwiches'. Nobody wants the word 'loser' hanging above you."
And few are as candid as Owens when it comes to talking about it beyond the dressing room: "Actors will talk about it among themselves a lot, but not to the wider public," says Simkins. "If you're working in an estate agents or volunteering in a charity shop, you wouldn't advertise the fact you're an actor. And people are still very keen to make sure that they won't get tarred with the brush of doing other work. You can't be meeting with a director and the next moment serving him a cappuccino."
As for Owens, he may be retiring his Trader Joe's badge soon, anyway: filmmaker and actor Tyler Perry offered him a role on Twitter in the wake of the skirmish. "I have so much respect for people who hustle between gigs," Perry said. "[It's] the measure of a true artist."