There are a lot of things you need to know as an actor, but here are five lessons I wish I'd learned early in my career.
1. Know your “type.” Sure in school you learned how to play any role—to stretch, to challenge, to grow. Out in the real world, you are unlikely to be able to play much outside of your general age, height, weight, etc. It is very important to have a clear sense of who you are when you walk into a room and what that means in terms of the roles you can audition for. This takes work, soul searching, and asking friends, teachers, agents, and casting directors to give you some hard opinions about your type. Then your headshot should reflect that person. You may very well be able to play many other kinds of roles. However, you aren’t going to get to do those roles unless you get the jobs that you are right for first.
2. The first year is the hardest. If you thought college was hard, wait until you hit the real world. What I hear from former students most often is, “I knew it was going to be hard. I just didn’t know it was going to be this hard.” This business is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of hard work and belief in yourself to even feel like you’ve gotten a hold of the bottom rung of the ladder. Learning to be patient and wait your turn are skills you can work on every day.
3. You need to work at it every day. If you want to get through those first couple of difficult years, you have to work at it every day. If you leave it to chance, you will always be able to convince yourself that you will have time to do those mailings, make those calls, and read those trades “soon.” You have to start by scheduling at least an hour every day that you are working at your business—and it is a business. Any day that you have done at least one thing for your career is a good day. This includes auditioning, doing mailings, etc., but it also includes working out, eating healthy, seeing plays, movies, new TV shows, etc. Your job is to learn the business. It is “learnable,” but you do have to learn it.
4. Agents, casting directors, producers, and directors are not “the enemy.” Yes, the whole manager, agent, casting director system is set up so that many, many people have vetted you before you get in front of the person who will actually decide to hire you—the director. producer, or both. However, they really do want you to be good. It makes their job easier. Remember if you nail it in the room, then everyone in that system looks good. The director will trust the casting director to present new talent. The casting director will trust your agent to pitch new actors. Your agent will look to the school where you trained for new talent next year. There is truly nothing more exciting in an audition room than when someone you’ve never met before comes in and just knocks it out of the park. Your job is to be that person. When you are, you make everybody look good—especially you. It takes a while to really believe this. Keep reminding yourself of it.
5. Being a good person is just as important as being a good actor. At a certain level, any of the five people up for a part could do a good job in the role. Are you someone I want to be in a rehearsal room with for a month? A movie set for six months? A TV series for seven years? It takes time to build a reputation. The way you do that is by treating everyone with respect and trying your best to do good work.
It takes persistence to have a life in this business. If you really are going to spend your life as an actor, then the fact that the first year or two was hard is a drop in the bucket.
Be on time. Be professional. Be thankful.
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Timothy Davis-Reed teaches on-camera acting and audition technique at Syracuse University. He is a veteran of more than 150 episodes of network television. He was a series regular on "Sports Night" and recurring as a reporter on more than 50 episodes of The West Wing.