Starting an acting career not only involves working out how to pick up the skills, experience, credits and agents to book good acting jobs, but you also need to ask yourself are actors considered self employed, and understand the implications of the answer.
Here we consider the employment and self-employment issues of being an actor or extra in the UK.
This page does not constitue legal advice, but is a general guide so you understand the principles and know where to go for more help.
Income Tax & NI for UK Actors
Actors and extras in the UK are almost always paid as self employed performers, rather than as an employee.
In practice, the production company pays your acting agent after the job is completed. Your agent deducts their percentage in accordance with your agency contract, plus the VAT. Then your agency pays the remainder into your bank account.
You should receive documentation from your agency showing all the amounts transferred, deducted, and paid out to you.
Employees are paid on a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) basis, where the employer calculates and deducts the income tax, national insurance and student loan contributions and pays them directly on the employee’s behalf.
But as a self-employed actor or extras, neither the production company nor the talent agency deduct your income tax or national insurance for payment over to HMRC.
Instead, that responsibility is yours.
Register as self-employed with HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs). The annual tax year runs 6th April to 5th April the following year, but you choose your own business financial accounting year start.
It makes sense to start your business when you get your first job, because even getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever earn money from acting.
Complete an annual self assessment tax return. Make sure you don’t miss the statutory deadlines.
It’s a good idea to have all your income and expenditure information organised and to hand when you complete the tax return. We’ll return to that in a minute.
The annual tax return calculates how much tax and national insurance are due for the year, and deadlines for payment. In future tax years, you may be offered two payment deadlines, according to your estimated income.
Income and Expenditure
Your tax returns to HMRC must be accurate. So get all your paperwork organised in advance of completing the tax return.
Your income should agree to the amounts going into your bank account. If you were paid in cash for some work, say for public street performances, you are expected to declare it.
There are boxes on the tax return for self-employed earnings and another for employment income (from a survival job you balance with your acting career).
But you don’t pay income tax and national insurance on all your income (known as your gross income). Instead the tax is levied on your net income, which is total earnings less your allowable business expenses.
Identify each allowable expense, which is the business expense which was paid so you could work as a professional actor. Tot them up to see how much you have spent in order to earn an acting income.
Include your travel expenses to auditions, subscriptions to casting websites including Spotlight and industry publications such as The Stage, purchase costs for headshots and showreel editing, and acting agency commission costs.
You’re looking for things that were just about your acting. So the train fares to an audition are a deductible expense, but the new trainers you wore to an audition aren’t. Clothing expenses only count when the average person realistically would not wear the item outside work, such as a surgeon’s scrubs.
You’ll put the total of these associated costs into the relevant deductions box on your tax return.
Or you can choose to apply the flat £1,000 deduction available to all self employed people instead. This is called simplified expenses, and you don’t need evidence spend to claim this notional allowable expense.
It’s a personal choice according to which one is higher – you don’t deduct both.
The tax calculations will also apply personal allowances. These change each year and the amount you can earn tax free is higher than the amount you earn before you start paying national insurance.
National Insurance contributions count towards your entitlement to a state pension, unemployment benefit and other social security benefits, so are often worth paying voluntarily even if you earn below the contribution threshold.
Don’t forget to prepare for your tax liability every time you are paid. Self-employment for tax means keeping enough money aside for the tax liability when it falls due.
You don’t want to earn and spend money just to later receive a tax bill when you’re experiencing the difficult times every actor goes through.
Actors have Rights as a Worker
Under the HMRC rules, you are either an employee or self employed. The way your tax and national insurance is calculates and paid depends on your tax status between these two options.
Yet when it comes to your employment rights as a worker, there is a third option. Performers, including extras, actors and dancers fall into this third category.
Actors and extras have a tax status of self-employment, but an employment status as workers, which conferrs a number of important rights.
Even if the contract states the performer is self employed, they retain their employment rights as a worker.
Rights as a Worker for actors include:
National Minimum Wage
Workers are entitled to payment for the work they do, at an hourly rate no less than the National Minimum Wage.
The National Minimum Wage is set by law and the amount revised on an annual basis.
In law, the amount which applies depends of the age of the worker. Older workers are entitled to more than younger workers. However, in the entertainment industry the age categories are largely ignored. Instead, the highest level of the National Minimum Wage is applied to actors.
Even if you agree to a contract where the National Minimum Wage is not applied, such as in a profit share arrangement, you may ask for your rights to be enforced. This can happen during the contract’s duration, or after it has finished.
Understanding your rights to the National Minimum Wage and clarifying them before you start work prevents the emotional turmoil of enforcing your rights later. However, signing a contract does not wave your rights as a worker away.
Rest Breaks & Holiday
Actors and extras receive rest break and holiday entitlements from the moment they start work, whether they work on a production for one day or six months.
The European Working Time Directive of 1993 sets out many employment rights, including :
- No more than 48 working hours in one week
- At least 11 hours rest time (break between shifts) in every 24 hours
- At least 20 minutes break in a 6 hour shift (which can be unpaid)
- At least 4 weeks paid holiday a year
The UK government agreed an opt-out from the 48 hours working week cap. Workers must sign an opt-out form if they agree to work for more than 48 hours a week, but cannot sign away their other worker rights.
Your 20 minute rest break can be unpaid, as long as no one interupts your break with issues about work.
Every worker is entitled to at least 4 weeks paid holiday a year, allocated pro rata for part time hours or less than a full year of employment. In practice, actors and extras work through the length of their contract without paid holidays, but instead receive the appropriate amount when they leave. The production company uses the 4 weeks entitlement pro rata to the hours worked. It’s up to the actor whether they use the money to take time off, or move straight on to the next paid work.
Given actors and extras are considered self employed for tax purposes, it may seem strange that a payslip is due.
But with worker rights, you need documentation confirming that all your working hours are paid and at or above the National Minimum Wage, or that you have been paid the correct shift rate.
You also need to see your holiday payment, along with any other agreed payments. For example, night shoots are paid at a higher rate than day shoots, and you may be entitled to contributions for providing your own costume.
Obviously, the payslip does not show the amount your acting agent deducts for their commission (and VAT). So you need written confirmation from your agent for these deductions.
Protection against discrimination
The Equality Act 2010 brought together many different pieces of legislation protecting people with protected characteristics. It streamlined the legal protection not to be discriminated against on the grounds of gender, race, disability and sexuality.
Employers usually recognise this equality legislation through their Dignity at Work policy.
Sometimes workers make a disclosure about their employers in the public interest, in a process referred to as whistleblowing. In the UK, there is legal protection against less favourable treatment of workers who do this. This has traditionally been hard to do in the entertainment industry, because powerful figures make and break careers.
Health & Safety
Everyone who goes into a workplace is protected by Health & Safety legislation, no matter where it is or or the manner of employment or self employment.
Wherever you are working, you should see Health & Safety information displayed.
Stage Managers, 1st Assistant Directors, and a range of other key personnel should take responsibility for providing a safe working environment and routinely bringing Health & Safety matters to everyone’s attention.
Health and safety issues must be taken seriously. The union Equity is a good point of contact if you have concerns. They can alert the Local Authority or Health & Safety Executive to the problem, depending on the individual circumstances.
Signing Your Acting Contract
Your contract is a legal agreement between you and the production company. While they can’t sign away your worker rights, you can sign up to terms and conditions you later regret. So it’s an important document to read and consider in detail. Your talent agency can help review the contract in addition to your own scrutiny, but don’t solely rely on them to spot problems or ask the right questions.
Items to consider in your contract:
- Beyond acting, what responsibilities or duties are included, assumed, or vaguely referred to (publicity purposes, tour preparation etc)?
- What are the start times, finish times, hours in a day, hours in a week, and rest breaks?
- What will you be paid, and when, and does it meet National Minimum Wage?
- What happens if you work overtime?
- Will you get any sick pay?
- If they haven’t specified holiday pay, do they know you are entitled to it?
- One tour, what are the arrangements for travel and accommodation?
- Will someone commercially benefit from your work beyond the immediate production, and will you benefit too?
- Will your work be approriately credited?
- Does the contract refer to a Dignity at Work policy and the Health & Safety policy?
- How will you be supported if something goes wrong?
If there’s anything that isn’t clear or causes concern, reach out to your talent agent for specific advice about the contract. Alternatively, your union will be happy to help.
Being considered a self employed actor for your tax status means getting to grips with tax preparation and completing your self assessment tax return. But it doesn’t waive away your employment status as a worker, which confers a wide range of important employment rights.