Roy Billing is one of Australia’s most recognisable character actors, appearing in dozens of TV series such as Police Rescue, E Street, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities and classic films such as The Dish and Charlie & Boots. This year, he has appeared in Channel Ten series Wonderland, Australian film Mystery Road and ABC telemovie Cliffy. He tells Brendan Swift what he’s learned about money over his 30-plus year career.
Q: What does money mean to you?
A: I see money as being the means by which we can live the quality of life we want. Also, it’s one of the measures of success, whatever we’re doing, whatever profession we choose. So it was always important to me.
I know some people think ‘I’m quite happy with this kind of level of living’ – I always had aspirations to drive nice cars and have a nice house and that sort of thing, so the way to do that was to earn money.
Q: Was it a difficult decision to become an actor knowing that it can be an uncertain career?
A: It wasn’t really because I started out working in the advertising industry and was doing pretty well. I started doing amateur dramatics and I just got bitten by the bug really. An opportunity came up to work full-time with a theatre company and I weighed up the options. There was a huge drop in money for a start but I thought – and I was 30 at the time too which was unusual – if I don’t do this now I’m never going to get an opportunity.
So I thought I’ll do it for five years and if nothing happens I’ll go back to advertising. I hoped that further down the line I would make up for that and I certainly have. I look back now at the people I used to work with and a lot of them are burnt out.
Q: Are you conservative with money or do you really enjoy the fruits of your success?
A: Half and half really. I’m conservative with money in that I save money and have got investments and things like that. I do enjoy the nice things in life.
Q: I imagine it must be difficult to work out whether you save a big chunk of money or enjoy it just because your income is so up-and-down given the nature of the industry.
A: If you have a run or are doing a lot of work or are in a series and earning good money, if you’re wise, you know it’s not going to last so you keep some of it aside or invest some of it. So you need that to sort of carry you over the bad patches and what I see in the industry – and I guess it’s the same with professional sports too – you see some of the young people, they might get a gig on Home & Away and think it’s going to be like this forever. But those of us who are longer in the tooth know it doesn’t work that way. I think it’s one of the things they should teach kids in drama school – how to manage money.
I get a lot of parents saying ‘Oh, my kids want to go into acting’ and my advice is go out, especially with acting, get a bit of life experience. It also helps to get a trade or a degree behind you so you’ve got something to fall back on and then have a crack at it. It certainly would help if you were say, an accountant and you could do temporary work in between gigs. You’ve always got to have a plan B somewhere.
Q: How is the Australian screen industry at the moment?
A: There’s a lot more television work around and Australian television is rating really well so that’s good for everybody. It’s just a bit difficult for me at the moment because there’s a lot of Gallipoli [TV series] stuff around and all the castings are for young 21 year-olds! But I arrived here in ‘89 from New Zealand and I’d say the industry is definitely a lot healthier now.
Q: What advice would you have for someone considering a creative career?
A: I suppose it’s important for performers that when they do have money to keep it for a rainy day and when they do get the big gigs start thinking about investing and getting a deposit for a property or something like that especially when you’re younger because you won’t regret it when you get older.
The other thing is with any investment if it’s too good to be true, it is. I had a situation through an ex-wife in New Zealand who worked for one of those dodgy companies in the ‘80s and had a lot of money tied up. It eventually went bust, a lot of the directors went to jail for fraud, but leaving the shareholders and investors with nothing. At the time (just before the ‘87 crash I think it was) they were heady days with bonus shares and dividends and all that and it did seem too good to be true. But people still fall for that – oh they’re paying 20 per cent interest!
Brendan Swift is a business journalist based in Sydney.