Unconventional Wisdom

Do what you love and you will never stop working

It will probably involve bartending, at some point.
Unconventional Wisdom

Do what you love and you will never stop working

It will probably involve bartending, at some point.

Challenging those faux-profound bits of knowledge so often taken for granted

It was a blazing hot September afternoon in Halifax, and on that day I was a cop. I was on the set of a new CBC legal drama, and the thick black pants, light-blue button front, fake stab vest, and heavy gun belt allowed me to pass as a police officer, despite the fact that I would keel over if made to run more than a block.

Everyone else on the crew was wearing shorts and hats and sunglasses, but I was leaning against a police cruiser trying to avoid passing out, sucking down my fifth or sixth bottle of water of the day. I try not to complain while on set, especially about things as trivial as standing around in the heat, as 100 people were here before I got up today and will be here long after I’m wrapped. After all, I get to drive a police car, and walk around with my chest puffed out and my shoulders back, the way that everyone who wears a gun belt does. I’m getting paid to pretend to be someone I’m not. This is the job I wanted all my life, this is my dream job. I am doing what I love and, as we all know, that means I don’t work a day in my life, right? The truth is, I simply end up working a second job to pay the bills.

I’ve been a professional actor for 10 years, I’ve done commercials and series and films, and in my most successful month, worked on a pilot for an American channel while simultaneously filming my third season of OutTV’s LGBT legal drama Sex & Violence, playing a police detective.

And you know what? You’ve never heard of me, and I made more money as a bartender.

Instead of basking in my success while I was on set that day, I was shading my phone with my police hat, trying to answer a work email from my real job, after which I opened my banking app and did some math to make sure the check for the day on set would arrive in time to cover the bills I was getting behind on, or put a dent in some of my debt, after my agent took their well-earned 15 percent. Money in, money out.

Everyone warns you about the harsh realities of being at the bottom, or the impossible heights to scale before being at the top. But no one told me the middle would be so exhausting.

Being an actor is a trade or craft, like being a carpenter or a plumber. I’m in a union, which gives me health care and a pension plan. But if I don’t work or work very little for a year, like last year, I lose my insurance. So I do a day job, but those “day jobs,”, such as bartending, wine sales or, lately, film-festival programming, are serious full-time commitments that are careers unto themselves. (A running joke on Canadian film sets is to ask, when you meet another actor for the first time, “so, what do you do?”.)

Everyone warns you about the harsh realities of being at the bottom, or the impossible heights to scale before being at the top. But no one told me the middle would be so exhausting.

Your real job requires more and more effort, but has to be more and more flexible. As you book gigs for your second career and need time off, deciding which to favor or where to put your priorities can be a never ending series of guess work based on your own instincts or whispered rumors of “work to come.” This is a very unreliable way of divining career choices, like shaking a Magic 8 Ball and hoping for some sort of clairvoyance instead of Better not tell you now, or Reply hazy, try again.

The jobs artists do to pay the rent often aren’t satisfying, and can genuinely be hell, but you don’t have an emotional investment in disappointing days slinging cocktails or driving for Uber. Whoever it was that coined the phrase “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” I’m sure they meant to inspire people to follow their dreams, by taking something they love and trying to do it for real. But people of my generation took that advice to heart, and now we barely have any hobbies left that bring us joy, having been pressured into monetizing everything we were remotely good at to try to make a career out of it.

And yeah, some people start to make money, and that’s great. It can feel really special to get paid to do something you truly love and never imagined being paid for, whether it’s your Etsy store, or stand up comedy, or whatever. But soon, that spark you used to feel when you created something special now lights up when money gets deposited in your bank account. That’s when it really starts to become a countdown to burning out on something you fought tooth and nail to be able to do. And then you’ve got two jobs, and you hate both of them.

A lot of artists quit when the defeat and failure become too much. A few quit when they’re well ahead, taking the money they managed to save and retire to the suburbs with their union pension if they’re very lucky. But so many more artists like me collapse under the weight of incremental success, the one-step-forward-two-steps-back, all-stick-no-carrot nature of art-for-commerce. We in the arts all live this collective untruth, that we follow our dreams because we want them, because they’re our destiny, like some sort of religious calling. But what if we made a mistake? Or, even worse, what if it is our dream, but once we start doing it we realize we don’t actually like it very much? You work and work to achieve a career you thought was impossible, and once you realize it might make you miserable, you’ve worked too hard to give it up.

It was still hot as hell on that set, and I had to pull some ten-year-old kid out of a truck cab by the arm, which was difficult because the kid was being a little jerk and not cooperating, but it is better than working with animals, if only just barely. I didn’t even have any lines that day, just backup for the stunt actor, but my agent says they always need cops on a legal show, that they’ll probably call me again when another speaking role comes up, and that it’ll be a good in with the show. Cross your fingers. Shake that Magic 8 Ball.

Outlook not so good.

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Matt McIntyre is an actor and writer who lives in Halifax. You can find him on twitter @mattmcdiz.