When Being Employed Isn’t Enough: The Attempted Shaming of Geoffrey Owens

“Sometimes, you do what you gotta do.”

Last month, Geoffrey Owens was bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s in suburban New Jersey, when someone recognized him, snapped a photo, and sent it to a tabloid. The story was soon picked up by Fox News with what can only be described as attempt to embarrasses Owens, but it proved to be a teaching moment into what many working creatives go through.

When most people think of Hollywood actors and actresses the same names probably come to mind: Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Meryl Streep, just to name a few. While these actors are internationally known and recognized for their work, truth is, there are literally thousands of actors fighting to maintain their dream by working everyday jobs. According to a 2013 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, more than 271,000 people in the entertainment industry held second jobs. This was what Geoffrey Owens was doing in relative anonymity until his photo went viral.

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Geoffrey Owens has been an actor for over 30 years now. His most famous role came when he was on the The Cosby Show. Since then, he has been what you would describe as your typical working actor: doing plays, television, films, and teaching on the side as well.

It’s ironic that this story originally came out around Labor Day of all holidays. Many actors and creatives showed support of Geoffrey Owens by talking about their own struggles with ‘making it’ while trying to keep a roof over their head. It even started a trend of social media called #actorswithdayjobs.

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I know firsthand the struggle of battling creative pursuits with working to pay bills. Though I have produced feature films and worked on a multitude of projects, I’ve also been a community organizer, a customer service associate, and a canvasser, just to name a few. At the end of the day, creatives still have to eat. No matter what job I took however, I’ve always considered myself a film producer. The jobs may have changed, but my mindset never did.

For Geoffrey Owens, the unwanted attention not only brought notice to what many working actors go through, but put him back on the radar of Hollywood executives. Tyler Perry offered him a job and many others have reached out expressing their support. Owens has since left his job at Trader Joe’s by the way.

Like many creative pursuits, there are no guarantees with acting, writing, directing, or producing. There really are no safety nets with this line of work. People do what they can to pursue their dreams for as long as they can.

Maybe the next great Broadway actor is picking you up in an Uber and driving you to the airport. Maybe they’re serving you drinks at the bar down the block. Perhaps, they’re selling your next home as your realtor. Whatever the profession, chances are, you already know someone in the arts industry who’s just pushing through until they finally have their breakthrough.

When A Role Overtakes an Actor

If anyone ever wondered whether certain roles can wear on an actor, they can look no further than this clip featuring actor Michael K. Williams.

In a recent appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, Williams, who had a small part in the film “12 Years A Slave,” speaks on a particularly emotional scene that was not shown in theaters. In it, Williams describes being dragged on a slave ship, and after reenacting the painful event a few times, how he breaks down screaming and crying. Take a look.

I witnessed a similar event while on a film set a few years ago.

In the Summer of 2011, I was a production assistant on an independent feature film. The basic premise of the film centered on two men, one who was a terrorist, the other a college professor. In one scene, the actor who played the terrorist, kidnaps the professor and is raging mad as he is driving a cab. As we were filming the scene and re-shooting it, the actor playing the terrorist broke down at the end of the scene and began crying. Some of the crew consoled him. It was clear he had been overcome with emotion.

Intense roles like these are not easy to watch — let alone perform. Roles that involve scenes in which anger, brutality, and violence are portrayed, can often be physically and emotionally draining. That’s often when we see some of the the greatest acting performances as well. When I think people hear acting, many often associate it with ‘pretending.’ He’s pretending to be that secret agent. She’s pretending to be that ailing mother. They’re pretending to be small town citizens in a 1950s crime drama. The difference however is that acting is not so much pretending as it is becoming that person or thing while the cameras are rolling.

It’s a subtle difference that can make a good acting job be looked at as Oscar worthy. It’s why actors spend so much time researching a historical figure and spending time with those who knew them; or reading articles about an event and visiting that place where such events happened. As we’ve seen though, it’s not always easy to become someone and assume the emotional baggage that comes with that role.

Charles S. Dutton on the Difference Between Entertainers, Actors and Artists

“An entertainer will do anything. An actor will do most things. But an artist will only do those things he or she feels advances civilization.”
                                                           
                                                                                       – Charles S. Dutton