What kind of deals are talent agents securing for UK actors working on US TV?
From audience exposure to financial security to breathing life into a stuttering career, the benefits of starring in a successful US TV series can be enormous, particularly for UK actors who are not in the front ranks for big-screen offers.
“It’s about visibility… If you’ve got clients who are terrifically talented and have profile already, it’s just reminding people that they have an audience factor in the US where a lot of key casting decisions are made,” says London-based agent Abi Harris of Ken McReddie Associates. She has slotted clients such as Jeremy Irons (The Borgias), Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies), Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck) and Minnie Driver (The Riches) into US TV productions. “If you get the right project and it works then it’s definitely worthwhile.”
There are caveats, the most notable being the handcuff deals pushed on actors by US networks. In the words of another UK agent: “They pretty much own you once you’ve signed up to a pilot.” Though few TV series ever get so far, the seven-year commitment is now standard. “[UK agents] are used to being creative in deal-making because we work across film, theatre, television, whereas often [US agents] are only doing TV contracts,” the same agent observes. “It is extremely difficult to negotiate less than seven years.”
Nearly all UK agents would choose cable over network for their clients, because the time commitment is less onerous — cable channels such as HBO and AMC commit to fewer episodes per season, seeking to test the waters first — and the material more challenging. Which, for most actors, is the most powerful incentive: the opportunity to sink their teeth into in-depth character acting.
“Particularly on cable, you get to tell complicated stories that occupy grey areas of morality,” notes actor Jason Isaacs, who starred in Showtime’s Brotherhood for three years and is working on a pilot of a new drama series called R.E.M. for NBC. “Whereas in movies, you tend to operate in broad strokes, particularly now when big-budget movies are made to sell a lot of tickets to young people on a Friday night.”
“The bottom line is that good actors want to work on good material,” says Abi Harris. “When you have Neil Jordan as your writer-director and Steven Spielberg backing it [via DreamWorks TV], you’re going to consider The Borgias. It’s also a tour-de-force role for Jeremy and, if it works out, suddenly he’s everywhere, reminding people what a terrific actor he is.”
While the remuneration is above what an actor can earn on UK TV or in independent film, US TV is no get-rich-quick scheme. In a worst case scenario, an actor is paid a single-episode fee for a pilot, then held on option for nine months before the network decides not to pick up the show. Best case? You’re in a smash-hit series and renegotiating your contract for $400,000 per episode, as Hugh Laurie has done with House.
One agent spells out a likelier scenario for a UK actor in a successful series: his client made $70,000 per episode in the final year of a 13-episode series, which took six months to shoot. If the same actor had shot two independent films in the same period, he would have earned around $500,000. An actor committed to a series can also squeeze in film projects while their show is on hiatus. Isaacs was still contracted to his role as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films while appearing in Brotherhood, with Showtime working around his filming commitments. “When people ask me to work, I say yes instinctively,” says Isaacs, who found the steady routine of TV appealing after years communicating with his two young daughters via Skype from far-flung film locations.
If R.E.M. makes the cut, Isaacs says he is prepared to move his family to the US “with a heavy heart. I can live anywhere but, most important for me is, ‘What will life be like for my children?’”
The challenges UK actors face when they commit to US TV series tend to be family related. But for some, the schedules can also be punishing. It is the difference between creating up to 22 hours of narrative in the space of several months, as opposed to two in slightly less time. But that too can have its appeal.
“On a film it can feel like you’re being well paid to sit there forever, occasionally trotting out to do something,” says Isaacs. “Whereas television feels like a proper day’s work. And you get to tell stories that engage with the public more. I’ve had more response from Brotherhood simply because it was there in people’s front rooms.”