Before his career took off, 'The Hate U Give' star Russell Hornsby dressed up as Santa Claus and a teddy bear to make money

Actor Russell Hornsby on his financial role model: 'Grandma always had...

Actor Russell Hornsby, one of the stars of the new film "The Hate U Give," never considered a job beneath him, especially when he was first starting out.

"I did a lot of crazy stuff, because I was in New York and I'm an actor and I'm broke," he tells CNBC Make It.

One his weirdest assignments included walking around the city around Thanksgiving dressed as a pilgrim: "I'm just this black pilgrim, like, what the hell is that?" 

The outlandish costumes didn't stop there. "In the same year, I played Santa Claus, running around the streets, like, 'Hey!', doing the Santa dance, all this crazy stuff," he says. He also attended corporate events in a teddy bear suit during the holidays as a way to earn money.

The jobs weren't glamorous, but they paid the bills.

In fact, Hornsby says, the worst advice ever received was not to take a job because it didn't pay well enough. In the early 2000s, when he was around 27 years old, he got cast in the ABC show, "Gideon's Crossing," and shortly after the series wrapped, he was offered another project at a much a lower rate. He wasn't sure if he should accept.

Hornsby turned to a friend for advice. When he revealed how much the job paid, "they said, 'You're crazy, that's not enough money, don't take that job,'" he recalls. However, "something just told me, 'I don't think I should listen to you.'"

So he asked another friend for input. This time, he got a different response: "Is anybody else offering you that? Or anything more?" When Hornsby said no, his friend told him, "Well, it sounds like you don't have a problem. You should take the job." He did.

The lesson: "Something's always better than nothing," Hornsby says. "I subscribe to the slow nickel theory. You take a little bit at a time. You always make better of what you have when you don't have best."

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Though his career has taken off and he has starred in shows such as NBC's "Grimm" and Showtime's "The Affair," Hornsby still tries to stay humble. He says the best advice he's ever gotten is not to think his role in something is the most important part. It came from the acting veteran Roscoe Lee Browne, who got his start in the 1960s and who Hornsby met while doing a play in New York in 2004.

"He came up to me and he says, 'Young man, young man, I've been following you for a great while. You're exceedingly talented and it's good to see you still being here on the stage,'" Hornsby says. "But he says, 'Never mistake your presence for the event.' At the time, I really didn't understand what that meant, but as the years go on, it's stayed in my mind."

The advice helps Hornsby stay grounded. "Never make it about you," he says. "Try to make it about others and try to lend more of your good nature to other people."

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