I recently graduated with a bachelor's in acting from Emerson College but didn't take the Acting for Film and Television class because I never considered myself a film and television person. I have always enjoyed film and TV and have been in some student films, but I've been too self-conscious about whether I have the right "look" to pursue it professionally. However, I was recently called in to work as an extra for a film and am now intrigued. I am aware that background work is quite a different thing altogether, but I loved being on a film set. It's exhausting but fascinating work. How do I go about breaking into film and TV with no experience and no credits on my résumé?
Before you say, "Go take classes at TVI or another film and TV school," I need to tell you that I'm really struggling financially and still paying off student loans. I don't have the money to spend on classes even though I know they would be helpful in terms of learning this whole other world of acting. I have a more natural style of acting and was once mock-auditioning for a casting director from the WB (in a workshop) who said I had great style, but how do I get real auditions?
Is it pointless to send off pictures to CDs for principal parts or even under-fives if I am not SAG and have no TV/film credits? Should I send my info to TV/film agents in the hopes that they will help me become SAG and slip me into auditions? I am worried because I have heard that undergraduate degrees in acting are warning signs to film/TV people.
I don't necessarily even want an agent or manager unless it is impossible to break into TV/film without them. I am more than happy to do any and all legwork because I feel productive when I'm doing the research. But I fear there is only so far I can get without them. Are my suspicions true?
New York, N.Y.
While your eagerness to do your own legwork is admirable and should serve you well in this field, your suspicions are correct. Getting in the film and television doors is usually managed with the help of a respected and aggressive agent. There is of course the occasional small, indie film that thwarts expectations and boosts its actors into notoriety, and the once-in-a-blue-moon commercial that holds a performance so memorable its actor gets called in for theatrical auditions. But these are the exceptions.
It often works something like this: A well-prepared actor courts and eventually lands an agent. With the help of this first agent, the actor begins getting auditions. With hard work and continued training, the actor begins to book jobs and eventually nabs a big-enough gig to find and sign with a bigger agent. This second agent has the wherewithal to get the actor into bigger auditions. With hard work and continued training, the actor begins to book these bigger jobs, and so on and so forth. The process is not as linear as I have made it sound—the path to acting success looks more like a jungle gym than a ladder—but this is one of the general scenarios.
I have no idea how you would break into film and TV with no experience and no agent. There is no secret back door in which to slip, or if there is, I'm not privy to it. You must rectify the areas in which you are lacking, keep at it, and cross your fingers, just like everybody else. I understand how, as a recent grad, taking more classes can seem unappealing. It's frustrating to be paying off loans to one school and be told to shell out more cash to another. But you have chosen a tremendously competitive field that requires its workers to constantly better themselves. Sometimes that takes money. You have to invest in the business you are creating—not only in more classes but also eventually in submitting yourself via BackStage.com, ActorsAccess.com, and other Internet casting sites; getting good headshots; buying an audition wardrobe; and joining the Screen Actors Guild, Actors' Equity Association, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which each charge well over $1,000 in initiation fees alone. Luckily, you don't need to do all these things at once, but you shouldn't kid yourself into thinking your start-up business won't cost you.
It's not the end of the world that you didn't take film and TV acting in college—many college-level "acting for camera" classes are not up to snuff on a professional level—but you will need to scrape together your dimes and get into one as soon as you can. Begin with a short workshop or commercial class—anything in which you can see yourself on camera—and work up as your wallet allows. As you save for classes, you should audition for student films and every on-camera job you can. There are listings in Back Stage every week. Drop your headshot/résumé off at New York University, the New York Film Academy, the City University of New York, and other local film schools for their film departments' casting files. If you have access to a video camera, do preliminary self-training by taping yourself doing a monologue and watching the result. If you're anything like me, what you see may horrify you, but with practice and focused relaxation you can begin to tone down those overactive eyebrows or twitchy ears. Rent Michael Caine's Acting in Film for practical advice and a few laughs.
Begin submitting to agents. Most work across the board, so you will not have to target those with a film and TV specialty, at least at this level. Use your strengths to get in the door. (Fellow Emerson graduates may be receptive.) If the agent thinks you're talented enough to sign, he or she should begin pushing you for jobs in all categories, or at least provide guidance on how and where you can improve. And, no, I don't think your education will work against your pursuit. Many New York actors land their first agent off a college or university showcase, at least at the MFA level.
Submitting yourself to CDs is not a bad idea, but at this point your headshot will most likely end up in the rectangular file, which may be a blessing in disguise. It's better not to be seen than to be seen before you are ready. You say you have never considered yourself a film and television person; why would anyone else? Instead of trying to break into something you've just discovered an interest in, take stock in where you are and set goals for the coming year. There'll be plenty of time to focus on landing these "real" auditions once you've built up your confidence in the medium.