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Backstage Experts

Backstage Experts Answer: 14 Tips for Starting a Career Later in Life

Backstage Experts Answer: 14 Tips for Starting a Career Later in Life
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

This week, our Backstage Experts answer a question many of our older readers wanted addressed: How possible is it for someone in the second half of their life to start/have an acting career (40+)?

Here are several answers from industry professionals spanning different areas of this business to give you some perspective!

Wondering what this new column is all about? Backstage Experts Answer takes your questions and brings them to our incredible network of Experts. If you missed the last installment, check out “14 Reasons Extra Work Won’t Jumpstart Your Career” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!

Rob Adler, L.A.-based acting teacher
Is it possible? Absolutely. Anyone can have a career at any stage of their life. The best actors I know don’t measure success by their bank accounts, but by their abilities to move people. I asked my student, Rob Putansu, who began acting at age 55 to respond further. He wrote:

I arrived in L.A. in December 2013 at the age of 59. I wanted, since I was a teenager, to be an actor and I wasn’t getting any younger. 

Many things derailed me along the way, but at 55 I started making plans and setting my goals. My No. 1 goal: I will not look back and say, “I wish I had…” With that in mind, I started taking acting classes in Michigan four years ago. To make it a career, though, I knew I needed to move to Hollywood.

Many thought it unwise to leave my job of almost 20 years at a major airline for a career as uncertain as acting. They were measuring dollars and cents. I was measuring sanity, love, and a knowledge of what I truly wanted to do for years. 

I hit the L.A. ground running and had my first acting gig within two weeks of being here. The timing was great. A director friend from Michigan was shooting a short film and used me for two days. 

I started acting school (AdlerImprov) in January of 2014. I did a lot of research on Los Angeles-based acting classes while I was still back in Michigan and knew in my gut that Rob Adler was the guy to study with. When I first started with the airlines I knew nothing, but became an expert after much training and hands on experience. That’s why I have rarely missed a class, knowing how vital training is. 

I booked 15 gigs in my first year in Los Angeles. This, after self-submitting to more than 1,100 casting calls, which got me around 35–40 auditions. 

So I’m on my way to being a working actor. To answer the question: Yes, it’s possible to have an acting career if you put in the needed work. Look at TV, film, and plays. Actors are used in all age ranges, looks, body shapes, hair styles, colors, etc. Why not you?

Joanne Baron, L.A.-based acting teacher
I think that sometimes, when people start out acting later in life, they may actually have a lot of more opportunities than they would have had when they were 20! When you’re young, you’re competing with a large pool of 20something actors, however, the older actors get, the smaller the pool gets. Actors either get discouraged or distracted and leave the industry or they become recognizable faces. A more mature “fresh face” can be a welcome addition, and if you get good training to compete with these “veterans,” I think you can be successful. 

Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher
It is entirely possible. Your path of action depends a little, however, on whether you mean “achieving fame” later in life or actually “landing your first gig” later in life. The former requires a strong team who shares your vision and isn’t afraid to keep pushing you to casting directors and other industry decision-makers, whilst the latter means establishing those relationships in the first place.  

I have always found that actors around this age group largely fall into two camps: famous or not very good. The best place to be when starting out is right in the middle of those two camps. If you are a great actor at this age, even if you are just starting out, then you will be snapped up for many roles that the more established actors of your age will not feel like taking on, and you will be likely to land them because your talent soars above that of the amateurs.

Ultimately, if you want anything badly enough, surround yourself with people who believe in you and fight for you no matter what, and you have the stamina to outlast all of the competition. It’s only a matter of time before the next break (or first break) comes. The only issue I could foresee is that, at 40+, you either run out of energy or you run out of interest. 

If you know you have an unlimited supply of both, then what’s stopping you?

Tracy Byrd, L.A.-based casting director
It is as possible as breathing! The only walls that exist are the ones we create. Do you wish to be a star? Is that the issue? ’Cause if the real question is an acting career then the answer is very possible! Commercials, film, television, and Web all need actors. 

David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
I have learned that age is simply a number. That couldn't be more true in a field like acting. There are a few reasons for this:

Most people have extremely limiting rule-based beliefs and they let others tell them what they can and can’t do rather than finding out for themselves. The result is people shutting themselves out of the game without even making a wholehearted attempt.

Most young people who try to become actors get out very quickly once they realize how difficult and competitive it is, so if you enter at 40 there are very few competitors left.

If you are determined and committed then there is no reason why anyone can’t be successful as a professional actor. I should know because I did not book my first acting credit until I was 40 years old. Since then, I have been in numerous television shows and a couple of major Hollywood films. I had no background in acting and by not setting any limits or rules for myself, I found that once I was able to show what I could do, people were very receptive.

Since no one else can walk in your shoes, no one else can tell you how things will go. The only way to find out is to give it all you’ve got. Enjoy the journey.

Cathryn Hartt, Dallas-based acting teacher
Easy answer for this one: It is never too late—especially if you do this because your soul needs to do it! Making your soul happy is a great reason to do anything! And if you don’t do it, your heart will die a little more every day. 

And take a look at any movie. Aren’t there grandparents and elder statesmen and teachers and over-the-hill spies? The world belongs to the young? I beg your pardon. I am 63...and life is amazing! I have lots of students who start in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. They usually tell me that they had always wanted to act when they were young, but someone had made them be “sensible” instead. Later in life is when we finally wise up and stop being sensible!

Obviously, you won’t be cast as the young, romantic heartthrob, but there are many wonderful character roles to be had. For women, we are always stuck with fewer roles than men. And we get fewer meaty roles, for sure, as we age. That sucks! But there is work. And there is hope for that one great role still to be. June Squibb was nominated for the Academy Award for best supporting actress for “Nebraska” at the tender age of 83. I rest my case!

Tony Howell, founder of Creative Social Media
It’s absolutely possible! There will always be plenty of stories to tell—and various media in which to do so. In terms of celebrity examples, look at Jane Lynch, Jon Hamm, Lucille Ball or the 24 other actors with late careers profiled here. I can also tell you that I just did a national tour with an actor who left show business for 12 years (while he built his own successful business). When he was ready to return to acting, opportunity was there waiting. In some ways, I think the “market” for older actors is less saturated. There are plenty of 20something aspiring artists versus the amount of 40+ auditioning actors. There are (and will always be) plenty of roles for mature adults. Start (or continue) working on your craft and prepare to meet your opportunities! Maybe you’ll be profiled by Backstage as the next breakout star?!

Anthony Meindl, L.A.-based acting coach
It’s never too late to start. Someone 40+ starts the same way a 20-year-old starts: by taking action. You set goals, commit to them, take class, take workshops, build relationships with other actors, etc. Many actors don’t hit their stride until later in life anyway. You bring more life experience to the table, you know yourself better, you’re (hopefully!) more comfortable in your own skin. Give fear the finger and take the leap!

Sara Mornell, L.A.-based acting coach
Let’s start with nothing is impossible. I would never want anyone to look back and regret not trying. My suggestion to any actor at any age is to create your own content. More and more people are getting their own shows from what they have posted on YouTube, Vine, etc. Last year I started a YouTube channel that featured original scenes with my actors. It’s also a great creative outlet. If it’s theater that you are interested in then start by joining a local theater group. There are so many more productions going on outside of L.A. and NYC that look for day player or guest-star actors who are local—seek out agents in those areas. 

Is it possible? Of course. However, as I would say to any actor I work with, are you prepared for it to take 10 years to really break through? If the answer is yes, then do all that you can to get started today. 

Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
My belief is yes, you can absolutely start an acting career after 40+. I help clients who are much older launch their careers; it’s all about creating your own content these days and not waiting for permission to market yourself. Last year, my clients over 40 were booking as many roles as the younger actors at my studio.

I find that in many cases, older actors have certain advantages when it comes to starting a career over 40. The most obvious advantage that they possess is that they’re more settled and have the wisdom of life experience to bring to the table. They’ve loved, they’ve lost, they’ve raised kids or are currently doing so, and they’ve made major financial commitments, all while experiencing deep levels of joy and disappointments. They’ve fought battles and won, and fought battles and lost. I’m in no way asserting that younger actors have not had many of these experiences, it’s just that older actors have had more: It’s a simple fact of life. They are able to bring a more multi-colored richness to the table. They often have better inter-personal skills which can be invaluable on set, developed from years of nurturing families or working in offices. 

One could argue there’s also a smaller pool of competition in the over-40 age group. It’s common knowledge that not all the hot young things that move out here stay in the business. The over-40 group of actors is inherently smaller because the business is so tough. Many younger actors end up pushing “the dream” to the back burner in the name of starting a family or going off to pursue goals that seem more accessible, like law school, nursing school, or starting a business. That said, the competition is tough in the over-40 pool. The actors that have stuck with the business have nice credits and formidable acting chops. They’ve been acting their asses off for decades and have sunk their hearts into the business, making them truly daunting opponents. 

With actors of all ages, it’s important to define “career” as new media has changed the game. Older actors who are new to the game have to be feverishly proactive, not just in study and in developing the craft, but in creating a strong web presence and making memorable content. 

Age, or feeling too young or too old, should never be a deterrent in preventing you from doing what you want to do in any arena of your personal and professional life. It might be more or less of an obstacle given what you want to do, but it should never pose a blockade.

Jackie Reid, manager, and owner of L’il Angels Unlimited
I love people who change course mid-life for a completely different second act! It’s so brave and I applaud anyone who does it!  

The good news is that as you get older there is typically less competition. There are way more actors in their 20s and 30s. There are less in their 40s, even less in their 50s, way less in their 60s and hardly any in their 70s and beyond. 

Now for the less good news: The actors that are already out there have a lot more experience and credits than you do. Don’t let that deter you! Get a great headshot, take a few on-camera classes, sign up for the casting sites, and start submitting yourself. Once you have a few credits under your belt, start pitching yourself to agents and managers. 

I signed a gentleman last year who is 74 years old. He was a preacher for over 50 years and had zero experience in the entertainment industry. He now works consistently in commercials, TV shows, Web series, and with any luck, will soon be in feature films. Go for it! Make your second act the best one yet!

Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
There are characters of all ages, so of course there are roles for actors of all ages. It is harder to begin a career after 40 as you are competing with seasoned actors who have been around for a while. However, it is never too late to begin training, especially if it is what you love to do. There are classes for all ages and all levels. Ask yourself what experience you would like to have. In addition to professional work, there is also local and  community theater, play readings, student films, and other non-professional work which may not be as competitive. Go for it! If you don’t, you’ll never know, will you?

Joan Sittenfield, L.A.-based manager
This question needs to be answered within two contexts:

1. People all over this country are finding themselves out of work when their companies want to hire workers who are younger and cheaper. For the first time, young middle-aged people are put in a position to reinvent themselves.

2. Our industry is no different. In fact, due to the continuous shrinking of the feature market. Actors who, heretofore, made a good living in the guest star market in TV shows are now finding themselves inched out by actors with movie credits. These “gets” have become the rule, not the exception.

Therefore, if you are entering the market for the first time after the age of 40, I would say it would be very, very difficult to get started.

Of course, that is only if you consider a career to be synonymous with TV and film. As I have stated many times, there are other ways to be an actor than on TV and film. There are plenty of opportunities to act in every community in this country. While regional theaters often do the majority of their casting from NYC, there are always some roles that are cast from local talent. There are also theaters that are less professional but do offer entertainment to the citizens of their cities.

There is also location casting jobs to be had. If you live in a city like Atlanta where a lot of things are shot, find a local agent or the person who is casting the show and let them know you would be able to work as a local hire.

Can you make a living doing the things I wrote about? Probably not, although, actors in Canada have carved out careers for themselves simply by being available for local work. You just need to ask yourself what you mean by having a career. If you purely want to expand yourself into other areas, you can find places that will allow you to do that. If you mean that you want to become a self-supporting, working actor, I would say that you need to re-examine your choice.

John Swanbeck, director-author
It is possible for anyone, at any age, to start an acting career, and I would give the same advice to some over 40 as I would to a 20-year-old: Think like a business person, not an artist. Create like an artist, sure, but run your acting career like someone running a business. These days, whether actors like it or not, that means being computer literate and social media active.  For anyone over 40, who didn’t grow up using social media, and who might not be versed in digital technology, that can be a challenge, but these days it is essential.

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts! 

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