PERSONAL
09/04/2020 14:05 EDT

It Took 75 Years To Start My Acting Career. I’ve Never Felt More Alive.

When you get old, you start to become invisible. I refuse to let that happen.

As told to HuffPost associate editor Connor Garel

At 75 years old, all I needed was some extra cash to pay for hearing aids and some false teeth. What I ended up with was an acting career, in commercials and in TV shows, all in four days. 

Even now, I still think it was a bit of a fluke. But I’m glad it happened. It gave me a whole new perspective on confidence, on aging, and on life.

I grew up on Vancouver Island in the small valley town of Port Alberni, where nobody owned a TV until the late 1950s when I was 18 and moving away for university. I remember just going to the movies back then was a treat.

In other words: acting wasn’t part of the plan. 

Neither was the rest of my life, though. I worked in medical technology for more than 35 years. Chemistry, hematology, microbiology, immunology — I did all of that. It paid the bills, and it was enough to support my two daughters (I’m a single mother), but I didn’t really enjoy the work. I’m a people person. Scientists aren’t. 

At various points in my work life, I had my own real estate office for a short time in Washington, D.C., worked at a ski lodge in Utah, did research at the George Washington University Cancer Center and worked in blood banking at Canadian Blood Services. 

In those days, I don’t think I ever worried about not being employed. In 2013, I finally retired. 

Watch: Meet Betty Jackson, the 80-year-old late bloomer who refuses to let her age sap her enthusiasm for life. 

The cost of retirement

I say “finally” because I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d been doing these jobs since before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the hippie peace marches in the 1960s (I was in Washington, D.C. for both). It was time.

So, I quit. My daughter and her husband bought me a condo in Vancouver. That was fortunate, because it’s expensive to live in B.C. By this time, I had very little money of my own, and I was quite deaf. I needed those hearing aids. But the best deal I could find was $2,200 for a pair, and the government and insurance wouldn’t foot the bill. Not to mentionI needed false teeth, and a partial plate at the denturist would cost me $750.

This is all an awful lot of money when you’re only getting $900 a month from your pension. I knew my family would help out if I got desperate, but I didn’t want to be dependent on them. So, I found a way.

In January of 2015, I happened to run into an old friend at the bridge club, someone I hadn’t seen in years. I asked her, “What have you been up to?” She said she was acting. She was doing work as an extra, and she loved it. 

“It’s minimum wage” — that’s what she told me. “But it’s something.

Betty Jackson
Before she became an actress, the author worked in medical technology for nearly four decades.

Accidental actress

Now, I’d never done any acting, and I didn’t really know anyone who had. The closest I’d ever come to Hollywood was dating a famous American actor’s attorney and going to Samuel Goldwyn’s 80th birthday party, and even then, I was never really enamoured by any of it. But my mother never thought showbiz was a good profession — it wasn’t admirable back then to be an actress, or a model, or to bring attention to yourself for being a beauty queen. 

But, I needed a way to supplement my income. The alternative was no hearing, and no teeth. My friend gave me the email address of her two talent agencies. I didn’t even know what a talent agency was at the time, but I was supposed to send them a selfie with a brief description of myself. It seemed simple enough.

It took me three months and more than 100 selfies to compose that email. I thought I looked pretty awful. The only way I could get a good one was to lay on the floor and take it from above — that way, gravity would smooth out my wrinkles. In my email, I wrote something like, “I’m five-foot-six, I weigh 155 pounds, and I have a lot of energy.” I hit send.

I was halfway through a six-mile hike around Burnaby Lake when I got a call, the next day, from a casting director. He wanted me to play the lead actress’ mother in some TV show. I couldn’t believe it. I had to tell him I wasn’t an actress, and that just wanted to be a background extra. He must have thought I was crazy. Some people spend a lifetime waiting for that call, and here I was, declining it! 

I think I was taken by surprise. At the time, I just was thinking that I didn’t have any experience at all. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or disappoint him straight out of the gate. That would have ruined my future chances. I didn’t say any of that, of course. But, he called back 10 minutes later and invited me to be an extra in a TV pilot episode, and said he could email me the details. Call-time would be two days later. I accepted.

“I’ve learned to live my life, rather than my age”

I was nearly sick from nerves my first day as an extra. But dozens of acting jobs later, it’s all more exciting than it is scary. I’ve played twins in an ADT Security commercial. I’ve been in a Charter Spectrum ad. I did some background work for a series called “Impastor.” I’ve had to sing, dance, and wear a bathing suit on camera, all things I never thought I would do. 

Last year, I was cast in a new sci-fi TV series as an old lady who swallows a rat. I nailed that audition, even though I forgot my hearing aids at home and couldn’t hear a thing.

When the pandemic hit in March, there was just no way my acting career could go on with all those new rules in place, and not without putting others at my senior’s residence in danger. We’re all high risk, and it was safest to continue to isolate in our apartments and avoid auditioning in crowded casting studios.

But I didn’t just give up. Acting had become such fun. So I figured out the Samsung notepad my kids gifted me for my birthday — no small feat, even for someone with over 35 years’ experience in a high-tech lab — and signed up for some acting workshops on Zoom. My coach sent me scripts by email, and I learned to record and submit my own auditions. I ended up trying out for a really big American TV show.

Where I think I’m going with all of this is that this experience has taught me to live my life, rather than my age.

Betty Jackson
A professional headshot of the author.

For one, I never thought that I would have a second career at 75. And I never thought I would be having so much fun. For so long, I did what I had to do, to support my two kids and avoid a financial pinch.

I think anyone can do what I did. I’m not so different from a lot of other people. When you get old, you start to lose confidence. You become aware of all the things you can’t do anymore. You can’t remember things, you can’t hear, you can’t do this or you can’t do that. But the more you focus on it, the more you get that way. This is something that I can do. So I am!

A lot of it is luck. But the other part is just attitude — perseverance. I think my agent would say that I’m a late bloomer. But I don’t regret not having done this sooner. I don’t think I would have had the “Who cares?” attitude that I do now. It’s that attitude that lets me try things I never would have tried in my youth. Like acting. At 80 years old, I don’t have any hangups. I don’t have any inhibitions. I don’t have anything to lose.

I still have a lot of life left ahead of me, and these are lessons I’ll carry with me into the future. I think about this lady, a fellow actress, I run into at auditions sometimes. She drives all over the place, and she’s been doing this for years. She sews all her own clothes. She’s always dressed to the nines. She always has a big smile on her face. She’s 88. She’s so full of life. Eight years down the road, that’s who I want to be like. 

I want to hold onto my enthusiasm for life.

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