So you want to know how to become an actor? Well, you’ve come to the right place! If one thing is for certain in this business, however, it’s that there is more than one road to success. Take Octavia Spencer, for instance, who put years of minor and supporting role legwork into her career before finding fame and an Oscar; or take two-time Tony nominee Jonathan Groff, who is one of the many working actors today who has his roots with Backstage after booking his first national tour from these very casting notices; or take three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul, who was “discovered” at an acting and modeling competition after moving from his small Idaho town to Los Angeles. These are just three of the countless different ways success can come your way as an actor—but when it comes knocking, you have to be prepared to give it all you’ve got.
Below, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about getting your foot in the door, whether that door leads to Hollywood, to the New York theater, or to a stage or screen abroad or in between.
- What tools do I need to become an actor?
- What training do I need to become an actor?
- How do I find roles to audition for?
- How do I book an audition?
- How do I book an acting job?
- How do I find a talent agent?
- How do I create my own work as an actor?
- Where should I live as an actor?
- When will I find success as an actor?
- How do I become a famous actor?
- How do I make a living as an actor?
- How do I continue to get work as an actor?
Every actor needs at least the following to get started:
- An acting résumé
- A demo reel
A headshot is an 8” x 10” photo of an actor where the face is clearly visible, which is used as a calling card with casting directors to get them work.
As an actor, your headshot is the first taste a casting director will get about your capabilities as an actor, so you want to make sure you’re leading with the right foot. Here’s a three-step guide to getting the most out of your next headshot session.
1. Find the right headshot photographer.
While it may seem a simple enough task to point and shoot, nailing down a photographer whose style works for you may make the difference between blending in with the crowd or really shining like the actor you are. It’s a pretty vulnerable position to get put in front of a camera and told to be yourself; you want to make sure you’re working with someone who you’re comfortable with, who knows what to say to make you relax, and generally speaking just someone who knows how to take a good picture.
“Headshot sessions are emotional and personal experiences. If you aren’t comfortable, there’s no way that you can expose your true self in front of a camera,” says image consultant and Backstage Expert Tom Burke. “I have watched many headshot sessions crash due to the same thing: the wrong mixture of personalities. For example, a Type A photographer cannot shoot a Type A actor. The entire time they’ll be fighting for control, resulting in stiff-looking pictures. A very green or laidback actor should also never shoot with a Type A photographer. They are not strong enough to exert their individuality and/or power and are led down paths that just aren’t right for their type or brand.”
Besides natural chemistry, finding the right photographer is also about knowing what questions to ask. Get them on the phone, or if they have a website, peruse their FAQ page to find out how long a session with them lasts, how much they charge, and how many photos you’ll walk away with.
2. Figure out what to wear and how to do your makeup.
Headshot photographer and Backstage Expert Marc Cartwright advises actors to bring a few outfit options that dress to their character type and aren’t too revealing or flashy. You should look presentable, but the focus should be on you as a performer, not on the designer you’re wearing (or, for that matter, the costume). Look like your best self!
If you’re an actor on a budget, Cartwright also says that one way to ensure you’re dressed to impress is buy and return—just don’t tell Target that Backstage sent you! “In a headshot, faded, wrinkled clothing with stains and holes only reflects on your professionalism. Finances should not be a reason you show up to your session with clothing that shows you don’t take yourself, your headshots, or your career seriously,” Cartwright says. “Most stores have a 30-day return policy. [But] it might be a good idea to keep the items you wind up using in your headshot session so that you have something for auditions.” If that little hustle is outside your comfort zone, and other great option is to call up a fashionable friend and see if she has anything for you to borrow. “Just remember to treat their wardrobe better than you would your own.”
As for makeup, photographer and Backstage Expert Luke Fontana tells his clients that less is more—the more natural-looking, the better! With men in particular, it’s best to come to a session au naturel. With female actors who hire a makeup artist before a session, best case scenario is you’re working with an artist you’ve worked with in the past and with whom you’re comfortable. Confidence and comfort will especially come in handy to speak up for what you want. These are your headshots—don’t afraid to say a lip or eyeshadow is too heavy for your taste. “Communicating properly to the makeup artist everything you’re feeling while you’re getting your makeup done is really important,” Fontana says. “It’s important to be confident enough to bring those things up.”
3. Decide how you should pose in your headshot.
You want something that looks natural, not something that looks like you’re acting for the camera. You want to look engaged. “Get into character. Play. Express through your eyes,” says acting teacher and Backstage Expert Mae Ross. “Act as if the camera is your best friend, your true love, or your enemy—depending on the look or expression you are going for. And most of all, have fun!” While enthusiasm is key, subtlety is your friend here. You don’t want to look like your happiness is posed or put-on. “What [headshot photographers] are trying to capture is the actor’s essence, and as soon as they start acting [showing], it’s not real,” Meindl says. Just be yourself, and a good photographer will make you photo-ready. And as for the rest of your body, there’s some major no-nos to keep in mind with hand, arm, and head placement. Cartwright says to keep your hands away from your face, to keep your shoulders level, to keep your face relatively centered, to not lean forward too far, to keep your head square and not tilted back or forward. “My general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t do a certain position while having a conversation with someone, don’t do it in your headshot.”
- Headshots: Everything You Need to Know
- 5 Tips for Finding and Nailing Your Headshot Style
- How Many ‘Looks’ Do You Need For Your Headshots?
- How to Know When to Take New Headshots
- How to Pick the Right Headshot for Your Backstage Profile
All acting résumés should be concise, clear, and easy to read. They should also include the following information:
- Your name
- A working phone number
- Email address
- Union status (AEA, EMC, SAG-AFTRA, SAG-eligible, nonunion, etc.)
Acting may be your passion, but it’s also a profession! While you probably have a standard CV with your experiences as a nanny, server, dog-walker, and survival job–haver extraordinaire, an acting résumé needs some extra information.
No need to list your age or address or other personal details—the rest of your audition should speak to that. Physical attributes like weight, height, and hair and eye color should be included depending on who and what you’re auditioning for. Theater auditions don’t generally require such details, while film productions—especially if you’re self-taping—often call for it. Furthermore, don’t shy away from including a URL for your website or demo reels, maybe even your IMDb page—but don’t go overboard. Again, it should look nice, and an assortment of hash marks and numbers in a URL can detract from that.
In addition to the personal stats above, of course, comes your actual experience as an actor. Categories are often listed as follows: Film/TV, Commercials/Industrials, Broadway, National Tours, Regional Theater, Academic Theater, Training/Degrees, Special Skills. Community theater and college theater will eventually make their way off the résumé once you get a few more professional credits under your belt, but in the beginning, every bit counts. All listed credits should include show titles, roles, directors, and producing organizations; casting directors are known to give a directing friend or producing company a call for some feedback on a given talent. Make their job easier by giving them all that information upfront.
And we know you’re thinking it, so it might as well be said in black and white terms: Don’t lie on your résumé. Sure, it’s tempting to list your background credit on “Law & Order” as a speaking role, but those kind of fibs don’t fly under the radar, and they’re reason enough to toss an application in the trash. “In general, 100 percent honesty on paper is your best friend,” says Clifton Guterman, a casting director and Backstage Expert. That not only goes for your credits, but for your skills. “Beware a vast list of quirky special skills if you can’t legitimately execute all of them on the spot,” Guterman continues. “We rarely torture actors by asking for proof, but you never know when someone might…. Stretching the truth calls your intent and, perhaps, your integrity into question.”
Finally, when asked what should be on a résumé, on-camera and commercial teacher Carolyne Barry and founder of Hack Hollywood David Patrick Green (both Backstage Experts) advise that actors should get to the point. “I believe résumés don’t have to be long, but rather they just need to be impressive,” Barry says. “Agents and commercial and theatrical CDs have less than a minute to look at it. They are usually not interested in the volume of what they think is not significant.” Green agress. “What should you put on your résumé? As little as possible,” he deadpans. “Put yourself in the shoes of the person viewing it. In most cases, they only have a few seconds to look at your material. If it is crowded and overwritten, it will be hard to latch onto what is relevant to their project.”
A demo reel is a calling card for casting directors. The reel is a series of clips from your acting experience on screen; they can also feature footage of you acting out a scene or monologue specifically for that reel.
Demo reels are a great asset for performers to show prospective casting directors, agents, and other collaborators the best of themselves. “You have the opportunity to showcase your best performances and let others see what you look like on film,” explains Acting Out Studios founder Lance Camarillo. An actor’s reel generally runs two minutes in length and showcases your previous credits.
“From a casting perspective, there are two purposes for reels,” says session director, teacher, and Backstage Expert Shaan Sharma. “First and foremost, to see what professional work you have done, so we know you’ve been vetted by other professionals in our industry and have experience in speaking roles on professional sets. And if you don’t have that, which none of us do when we first start, a reel will just allow us to gauge your skill as an actor, which can easily be shown with great self-taped auditions.”
If you’re a fresh face to the acting scene and don’t have the stage or screen credits to fill a reel, there are options besides a self-taped compilation available, including services like Acting Out Studios, which writes scenes for actors to perform and flaunt their acting chops for the camera on a reel set and with other actors. “Many actors starting out get a lot of one-liners, and you don’t want to put those on your reel because they only last two seconds. But with a demo reel, you can show off your range of work with a quality production, and show an agent or casting director what you would look like on TV or film.”
Acting coach, director, and Backstage Expert Matt Newton also suggests that early career actors build up a roster of student film credits for their reel because students today have access to the best equipment around. You want your reel to look as professional as possible. “Each clip should be 20–30 seconds. Keep it short and sweet,” Newton says.
In the case that you’re using student film material or material from other professional-grade projects, the question is then: How do you make your reel? Unless you have experience in the editing room and can whip something up on your own, an investment in a videographer is an investment in your acting future. “For people who are looking to really have a professional reel, I would suggest going to a service like mine,” says New York-based videographer and Backstage Expert Tim Grady. “You don’t have to worry about the lighting or the sound or the camera quality. It’s super important to put yourself up professionally, so invest a little bit of money to make sure that is what’s happening.”
- 1 Way to Make Your Demo Reel Stand Out
- How to Make Your Own Demo Reel
- 3 Mistakes That Make Self-Produced Demos Look Unprofessional
- How to Get Your Demo Reel Seen Where it Counts
Many actors start their careers with a subscription to Backstage.
Of course, one of your best go-to resources for becoming a more well-rounded professional is right under your nose. Part of investing in yourself means getting your annual subscription to the No. 1 trusted source and top casting platform—for over 50 years—to kick-start your career, land your next (or first!) role, and get discovered. In addition, Backstage features an almost endless supply of information on both the craft and business of the performing arts to ensure you enter those casting calls with your best foot forward.
Check out Call Sheet, our resource for locating agents and managers and securing their representation. The online version of Call Sheet is fully searchable and includes tons of exclusive listings. The online database is updated daily, and the companies can be sorted from A-Z and by the most recently updated listings. You can access all of the great resources from Call Sheet by visiting Backstage.com/CallSheet. You can also get there by scrolling to the top of our homepage, where you’ll see a list of tabs beginning with “Casting Calls.” Click “Resources” to get into Call Sheet. From there, take a look at the tabs on the right hand side of the screen, and filter to what you’re looking for. Many companies and individuals listed on our Call Sheet resource of industry professionals include contact information, location, area of expertise, previous credits, and who to know within the company. Using it can lead to making connections, booking work, and taking your filmography and visibility to new heights!
If you need a monologue to add to your roster, try the Monologuer, our searchable database of speeches for working performers. And don’t forget our casting notices! A Backstage subscription is your one-way ticket to new acting gigs uploaded daily, making you ready for a long-lasting career.
Types of training actors should consider include:
- Acting classes
- Summer programs
- Higher education, such as BFA or MFA programs
We’d bet that all actors working today have gotten some sort of training on their path to booking the job. Whether they studied the craft in an acting class once moving to the major markets of NYC or L.A., in a teen summer program like Stagedoor Manor in upstate New York, in a BFA or MFA acting program post-high school, or even with something as simple as an online course or an on-set coach for those early-career gigs, actors are the product of not just their own natural talent and intuition, but the talent and intuition of those they surround themselves with. We offer some insight on how to go about choosing what’s right for you after the jump.
Acting Schools + Classes
Over its decades-spanning position as the industry’s premiere casting and acting advice resource, Backstage has featured many of these available programs by way of feature interviews with program directors and profiles and reviews of services available. Need help finding the best fit for you? A great place to start is Backstage’s Call Sheet, which lists cursory information on acting schools and coaches and colleges with acting programs—and much, much more, including agents, production companies, and casting directors (but more on all that later).
When looking for an acting class, it’s really important in the early stages of your search to get a taste of everything. Find out what teaching techniques work for you and what area of acting theory you’re looking to learn more about. Are you more for the Stanislavski method or the Meisner technique? Well, there’s only one way to find out! And when it comes to meshing with the class’s teacher, it’s all about instincts. “If you dread attending class, know the difference between your instincts,” actor Anna Margaret Hollyman told Backstage in her The Working Actor column. “If it’s fear because it’s new and scary, lean into it. If the red flags keep raising their ugly heads (e.g., your teacher seems to be canceling yet another class with no explanation or they publicly humiliate you after you perform your first monologue), know that it’s not you; it’s them.” Just like Goldilocks, finding the perfect fit is more often than not a matter of trial and error.
If you’re a teen actor looking to sharpen his teeth with like-minded young talents, there’s no better time to do that than while on summer break. Just like any acting class, the right fit will be a personal choice for you as an actor, but there are several in the country with a proven track record of setting high school actors on the course to success in the spotlight. We rounded up nine of our favorites below.
- ACTeen (NYC)
It’s not just clever wordplay, we promise. Divided into 14-day summer conservatories and seasonal programs teaching Stanislavsky, Meisner, Uta Hagen, and more, ACTeen, from founder Rita Litton, has gone on to be a three-time winner of Backstage’s Readers’ Choice.
- The Actors Space West (L.A.)
This two-week day camp is a hands-on baptism by fire for young film actors in the Los Angeles area. In addition to learning the ins and outs of auditioning, on-camera acting, and set etiquette, campers produce a 15- to 25-minute short film with the help of a professional crew. It all wraps with the film’s premiere at a local theater, complete with red carpet interviews and parent paparazzi.
- Alliance Theatre (Atlanta)
A top-rated learning experience for actors of all ages, shapes, and sizes, this premier Atlanta theater’s summer camps are expanding in 2016 to various satellite programs throughout the city while keeping their roots at the Woodruff.
- Atlantic Acting School (NYC)
The Atlantic Theater’s famed acting education program is now taking applications for its summer camp series. Featuring three core courses of script analysis, moment lab, and performance technique, William H. Macy and David Mamet’s summer intensive for teens boasts such alums as Rose Byrne, Anna Chlumsky, and Matthew Fox!
- Los Angeles Academy of Performing Arts (L.A.)
LAAPA’s summer camp program offers actors ages 6–18 the chance to get a condensed one- or two-week intensive of the academy’s standard acting, musical theater, opera, or dance curriculum from resident and guest experts, leading to a student performance on the final day of camp.
- Northlight Theatre (Skokie, Ill.)
Offering one-, two-, and four-week acting sessions to its kid and tween campers, Northlight Theatre’s programs are bolstered by guest artists from fellow Chicago-area theater mainstays like Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare. It caps off with a student-run show—plus field trips to other theaters and a day at Skokie Water Park.
- School of Creative and Performing Arts (locations vary)
With locations in Burlington, Vermont; Los Angeles; and New York City, SOCAPA’s summer camp for teen artists—among them actors, filmmakers, and dancers—is as far-reaching as they come. Its one-, two-, and three-week acting camp sessions teach Meisner and Method while also casting campers in its film programs’ short films, so actors leave with some extra padding for their online portfolio.
- Stagedoor Manor (Loch Sheldrake, N.Y.)
Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., and Lea Michele all rank among the hundreds of alums of this renowned theater camp in the heart of the Catskills. For 40 years, this resort hotel-turned-summer camp has been home to 200 boys and girls ages 10–18 for three three-week sessions; its so-called “Stagedoor mafia” just continues to grow.
- Young Actors Camp (Claremont, Calif.)
Child and teen actors ages 7–19 are molded into the stars of tomorrow at Young Actors Camp—and this annual offering teaches mom and dad a thing or two, as well. Not only is it one of the only acting camps that films a sitcom in front of a live studio audience, but its parent conference component teaches the merits and how-tos of getting an agent for your child actor, advising your young performer, and more.
Just like any other career path, acting is a specialized skill that needs training and nurturing, and choosing to pursue an undergraduate degree in acting to help you on this path can make all the difference. While it’s not a road for every actor out there, going to school will certainly hone your knowledge and execution of the craft while familiarizing you with various theories and approaches to acting that have time and again proven useful to today’s greatest talents.
Are you debating whether or not a degree in the arts is worthwhile? Don’t worry, everyone does. While success, of course, doesn’t come without the proper amount of effort, it’s important to remember that success within this industry can and should be measured in different ways for each individual. In a recent interview with Backstage, recruitment coordinator at Temple University’s School of Theater, Film and Media Arts Paury Flowers explained that as long as students are being properly educated while doing something they love and have a talent for, the cards will fall into place. “You want [students] to be excited to go to class every day,” she said. “You want them to race to their classes. You want them to do well. And if they’re going to do something that makes [the parent] happy that they don’t really want to do, they’re not going to put the same type of energy into that.” In that same interview, Tracee Duerson, director of admissions at the Theatre School at DePaul University, agreed. “Students will find their way and should love what they’re doing when they graduate,” she said. “That’s the point in the end.”
When looking for a school, you should be looking at more than just what famous actors have walked through its halls (though enticing little factoids like those certainly don’t hurt!). You’ll want to consider the pedigree of the program offered, the school’s location and its surrounding theater and talent pool, and who teaches and runs the program, among other things. Then just like any school search, you want to be happy with the overall environment of the school. Does it offer extracurricular activities that suit your needs? What’s general campus life like? What’s the dining hall like? What rooming accommodations are offered? And every parent’s favorite: What’s the cost of tuition? (There are a number of performance arts scholarship programs available to undergraduate students, so do your research and see how you can help Mom and Dad cover those looming costs.)
Want more information on where to begin your college search? Check out Backstage’s Top 25 Colleges for Acting, where we break down the nation’s best programs.
- How to Choose & Apply to a College Acting Program
- 25 Amazing Acting Colleges You Should Know
- The Best 24 MFA and MA Acting Programs
- 10 Musical Theater College Programs You Should Know
- An Actor's Guide to Life After Graduation
- 5 College Audition FAQs Answered
- How to Create Your College Dream School List
Look for roles on casting platforms like Backstage.com.
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times. When it comes to finding roles to audition for, there’s no better source than Backstage, especially for early-career actors! If you don’t have a manager or agent who’s in direct cahoots with casting directors of various acting projects, Backstage is the No. 1 trusted source and top casting platform—for over 50 years—to kick-start your career, land your next (or first!) role, and get discovered. The casting notices on Backstage can help you bolster your demo reel and get you an agent to take your career to the next step. Plus with thousands of vetted casting opportunities across smaller projects like student shorts, web series, and regional theater productions all the way to larger blockbuster features and productions on the Broadway stage, you know that with Backstage, you’re always getting reliable information and scam-free gigs.
Backstage has several subscription options available, including annual and six-month subscriptions to our web content and weekly print magazine, and six-month and monthly web-only subscriptions. But our most popular is the annual web-only subscription. Visit backstage.com/accounts/subscribe to see which option best suits you.
Once you’re subscribed to Backstage, you can go backstage.com to edit your public profile. This is the page that casting directors see when booking talent for their latest project, so make sure your headshots and résumé are up to date, and link or embed your reel, website, social media accounts, and other fun extras as you see fit.
Does Backstage work? Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock told us that “Every single thing I have today is because I picked up Backstage every Thursday.” And she’s in good company! Just ask some of the other stars below.
- Scarlett Johanson: “How did I get into acting? Well, I read a lot of Backstage. Everybody got Backstage. That's so funny. Backstage, wow. Doesn't every unemployed actor have their Backstage? That's the first step.”
- Billy Eichner: “I used to read Backstage all the time. I grew up in New York and I was a child actor, and then a young adult actor, and then an adult actor looking for work, and I was always reading Backstage.”
- James Franco: “Backstage was one of my first introductions to the business.”
- Amy Schumer: “Like every other actor in New York, L.A., or Chicago, I have such a relationship with Backstage. As soon as I got out of college, I would go through the magazine and circle [casting notices]... Those taught me so much and they connected me with people that I still work with now.”
- Kathryn Hahn: “I got my first play in New York from Backstage. It was part of the festival at Theater for the New City, and I got a role in a play called 'Bar None' that starred a woman named Avocado Tit. I'm not even kidding. So I have a long history with Backstage.”
You can book auditions by finding casting notices you'd be a good fit for, and coming to your audition fully prepared.
Established actors primarily rely on their established network of casting director peers, agents, and colleagues to book an audition and land their next acting gig, but what does that mean for the hundreds of other capable talents who are just finding their land legs in Hollywood? Backstage’s casting notices are a way in.
Once you become a Backstage subscriber, take a look at our online casting notices at backstage.com/casting. You’ll see that each one is broken down by type of production, type of role, whether or not it’s a paid job and if it’s a union or nonunion job, its location, the age-range for talent sought, and the list goes on. Search results can also be filtered based on what your preferred search preferences are. Save those preferences for future use, and there are bound to be new listings for you to consider every single day.
Say you find a project that interests you and fits your type. From there, information on submitting a résumé and reel or self-taped audition will be made available to subscribers. Or if in-person auditions are being held, timing for the open call or additional information on how to schedule an audition time will also be available. The key is to be ready and waiting, because you never know when the right opportunity will come knocking.
Booking acting jobs doesn't involve any magic tricks—just hard work and the resilience needed to brush off rejection.
For all of our readers unsure about how they feel about the audition process, we have news for you: Auditioning is a necessary beast on which the beginning of your acting career depends. Whether it’s breaking into the business or landing a spot at a reputable acting school, like it or not, this strange gathering of folks in a room where one must lay bare their souls is here to stay. Now’s the time to gain new insights and brush up on the knowledge you may already have! So instead of seeing auditions as high-risk job interviews, shift your perspective to see them for what they really are, which is a chance to bring yourself to a new character, to do what you love with an audience, and possibly make some fans.
The key to any audition is preparation. That means knowing the ins and outs of the project you’re auditioning for and knowing the context of the scene that you’re auditioning with. That means have your 16 bars for a musical theater audition down pat and your voice warmed up and ready to belt. That means having your lines memorized and being open to critiques or edits from those you’re auditioning for. Don’t be precious. And that means entering the room with a grounded confidence (nerves be damned!) that this is the role for you––and even if it’s not, you must show that you’re confident enough to know that something else will come your way. Desperation shows, and it likely won’t do you any favors when it comes to casting out roles.
In the end, though, it truly is all about what you as an individual bring into the room. “The script is just a rough guide, and all the magic comes from what you bring to it,” says acting coach and Backstage Expert Matt Newton. “You’ve gotta find all those wonderful life moments between the lines, underneath the lines. Just little nuggets of interesting behavioral choices that someone else might not have find because they didn’t spend enough time with the script.”
For more information on how to nail your next audition, check out “How to Audition.”
- How to Survive—and Nail—Your Audition
- 21 Things to Make Casting Directors Happy in the Audition Room
- 3 Audition Room Tips to Show You’re a Professional Working Actor
You should start reaching out to talent agents once you've built up enough experience getting work on the stage and screen through open calls and Backstage’s casting notices.
Having an agent is crucial for greater successes as an actor. Actors on both ends of the experience spectrum—those starting out and those bona fide superstars—can go agent-free. Those in the in-between throes, however, will fare best with an agent. For these actors, perhaps no relationship is more crucial than that which is maintained with their agent. Sure, significant others are lovely—but this is the person whose job it is to serve as your personal representative in the industry at large. If that sounds like a big deal, that’s because it is!
A good place to begin looking for an agent to represent you is your trusted friend Backstage, where we've created a four-step system to help you land an agent with our Call Sheet resource. Like most facets of the business, however, you as an actor and you as a human being will be the determining factor in how you land an agent, so you must always remember to present your best self first. Be professional and be ready to show that you’re worth representing; you’ve gotta walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. You can also turn to mentors and peers you’ve met in your actorly pursuits to help link you up with an agent. Don’t just rely on the support of others for your successes, of course, but a letter of recommendation from an acting coach or a referral from a colleague can go a long way.
You can create your own work for an actor by:
- Writing your own film, TV or web series script, or writing your own plays
- Directing a project you've written or one someone else has created
- Producing your own or other people's work
Creating your own work isn’t for everyone––we know that! But if you have the itch to take on other creative roles in addition to acting, there’s no better time than today to get started. Looking to some of today’s biggest film and stage actors, it’s very rare that they got their start creating their own work. They’re from a class that worked through Hollywood the traditional way with auditions and agents and big breaks and passion projects. But if you look to some of the most exciting (and relatively new) creatives working in new media and television today, you’ll find a crop of talent that set out made work for themselves that they either weren’t finding or weren’t booking elsewhere. It’s seen in everyone from Rachel Bloom to Issa Rae to Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson to Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, and the list goes on. These creators and actors rose through the era of YouTube and other streaming services, sharpened their voice, found their audience, and eventually got picked up by the likes of Comedy Central, HBO, and the CW.
If you feel like you have something to say in a way that no one else is saying it, you may be the type of actor who’s ready to take the reins on her own trajectory and create her own work. “Find a story that you are passionate about or a character that you’d love to play. Then expand on this premise until you can pitch it to your friends without hesitation,” advises filmmaker Susana Casares.
You also should be open to sharing responsibilities with other like-minded creators. “Filmmaking is a collaborative art, and you shouldn’t go against this,” Casares continues. “Other than acting, what other position would you like to fill? Consider your creative process, and make your decision based on what will be best for the project.” If you’re an actor who has a good idea but aren’t confident or adept enough to write it all on your own, sign on as producer and creator and let others take the pen. Same goes for directing. Play to your strengths. A good idea becomes a great idea when it’s shared with other people.
If you’re based in the United States, you might want to consider living in Los Angeles or New York—but there are plenty of opportunities for beginning actors across the country.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of how to take those first baby steps towards being an actor and how to begin booking work as an actor, it’s time to discuss the life of an actor. The first question that many young actors find themselves pondering is if (and when) they should move to the big city. Los Angeles on the west coast and New York City on the east are two of the world’s largest markets for working actors today. Which one you decide to live in is simply dependent on what you’re looking for. Do you want to star in mainstream film and TV? Los Angeles is probably your best bet. For all things theater, New York has you covered. There are naturally exceptions to that rule; TV and film projects work out of New York all the time, and L.A. has theater, both just to a lesser degree than their counterpart. Plus you can certainly make a living as an actor in a different, more humble locale entirely. The bustle of these major cities is not for everyone.
The speedy, hustling lifestyle of L.A. and NYC are not the only factors that should be considered when deciding where to live. The living expenses of these cities will also be a major player here. It’s no secret that these cities aren’t cheap, no matter how you flip them. You’re paying a pretty penny in rent, in transportation, in food and drink––just about everything is more expensive than in other perfectly viable home bases for actors like Georgia or Louisiana. In fact, it’s due to the expenses of L.A. and NYC that many film and TV projects have transferred their productions to markets like Atlanta and New Orleans; these cities are not only cheaper, but their states have implemented tax incentives for projects that choose to set up shop there.
With more and more productions moving to film in alternative markets, there’s never been more options of places to call home as an actor. Do your research, weigh the pros and cons of the actorly amenities available, think realistically about your expenses, and act accordingly. Chances are, if your dreams are bigger than the Atlanta theater stage, you’ll one day make a home in NYC, but there shouldn’t be pressure to take the plunge before you’re ready.
There are no guarantees of success as an actor, but by following the steps above, you will give yourself the best shot at a solid, lengthy career in the industry.
Talk about a loaded question! But it’s a fair one. The truth is, there is no guarantee that success in the traditional sense of the word will come your way. There’s only so much you can control about your career as an actor, and it’s important to take a hold of those and give it all you’ve got. But there are certain intangibles that for one reason or another may not allow you to see your dreams of fame and fortune through.
That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re in this business for the right reasons. Once an actor, always an actor, and you have to feel that innate calling to the craft in order to find happiness doing what you love, no matter what. Success to one actor may be an Academy Award for best actress, while success to another may be starring in a regional theater production of an exciting new work, while success to yet another may be singing and dancing in the ensemble of a film or stage musical. There are boundless definitions of “success” in show business––you need to first define yours, and then tackle it with a level head and realistic expectations. Chasing the dream is never something to take lightly, but it’s an adventure that you’ll never regret setting off on.
In the end, it’s perhaps Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer that says it best. “Everything is ephemeral and you ride high and sometimes bottom out, but what you have to be is consistent,” she tells Backstage. “It’s about approaching the work fully committed, always. Never, ever look to the prize. That’s something that you can’t control. What you can control is the work ethic and treating the material with respect. It took me 15 years to become an overnight success, so if you’re only at the three-year mark, honey, you’ve got some time. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon, so buy some shoes.”
Any A-list actor will tell you––and Backstage will back them up––that if you’re an actor simply to become famous, then it’s not the business for you.
Not only is desire of fame the wrong way to approach acting as a craft, it will also prove a futile, likely unfulfilled endeavor. The top-tier actors you see on the covers of magazines got there after years of training and after proving their talent time and again in thought-provoking projects that revealed universals of what it means to be human. They’ve shown charisma and warmth when interacting with the media and with their audiences. They’ve gained the respect of their peers and of their colleagues in agencies and casting offices throughout the industry. Simply put: They’ve put the leg-work in.
Of course, there are exceptions to those rules and our modern day, especially, offers shortcuts to gaining more visibility among audiences. Social media is a great tool for that. And more specifically, catering your social media and your own look, type, and “brand” to what’s gaining traction in the industry is one way to up your personal reach. It’s worth noting, however, that nothing will gain lasting traction and build the foundation for a long-lasting career quite like being your confident, talented self rather than chasing the latest trends. And it’s also worth noting that new media outlets are a great way to get eyes on you to start with, but then it’s up to you to prove you’re worth the attention. It goes back to the talent, the training, the likeability.
“Perhaps the easiest way to get discovered is to lose interest in discovery because you’re so profoundly in love with the art of acting, doing it for it’s own sake,” says Backstage Experts Rita Bramon Garcia and Steve Braun of the Bramon Garcia Braun Studio. “When you lose yourself in it, focus on each glorious moment as opposed to the end game, and do the work of falling in love with acting, discovery comes.
There’s no sure-fire recipe for fame, but it’s never going to just arrive on your doorstep. You’ll have to go through the trenches and fight for it.
Until you are making a living wage from your acting jobs, you’re going to need survival gigs to make ends meet.
If you’ve made it this far, then at least you know you’re committing to giving this acting thing a shot, and we’re proud of you for it! All we advise is that from the start, you do yourself a favor and have realistic expectations of what life of an actor is like. As Octavia Spencer said above, it took her 15 years to become an overnight success.
When thinking about making “a living” as an actor, we’re primarily talking here about how to make financial ends meet. You likely won’t be making a livable wage as an actor straight out of the gate. That’s where the appropriately coined “survival job” comes in. Serving tables, doing temp work, walking dogs, tutoring, nannying––it’s unlikely these are your passions in life, but work with flexible schedules and non-set hours is ideal for pursuing your real passion and getting on the audition line.
“Unless you can find that dream full-time job with salary and benefits that allows you the chance to pursue acting, you have to be smart, resourceful, and flexible to create a steady income flow until you book that first national commercial, or that first guest-starring role,” says acting coach and Backstage Expert Matt Newton. When searching for the right survival job for you, you’ve got to consider wages and hours, sure, but also what you’d be a natural at. “What other skills do you have? Is there a job (or two or three) you can do that makes you happy (or at least that you can tolerate) while you are pursuing your dream?” Newton poses. “To achieve this might mean some creative thinking.”
Even if you do have a steady survival job and are auditioning, you may still find yourself pinching pennies. But there are steps you can take to avoid that entirely. It’s often just a matter of having an organized system of getting paid, spending what you need, and tucking some away for later––not always the easiest prospect in an expensive city, mind you!
The first step to financial success is knowing how much money you need to make ends meet. To find your “make-or-break” number, add your bare-bones cost of living for one month (housing, food, public transit), then add another 10 percent to that number “because life is always more expensive than you anticipate,” personal finance author and Backstage Expert Stefanie O’Connell says. Then add to that sum a monthly allotment of larger financial goals, which would include expenses like student loans or a down payment on a house. That total is the “benchmark for the viability of your life.” Take your benchmark and subtract it from your last month’s total income, and that will be the approximate financial wiggle room you have for excess spending—so treat yourself! “It’s about having this one benchmark, knowing that you have to commit to making at least that amount of money every single month, and then having the flexibility to do what you want with the rest,” O’Connell says.
Setting your financial goals straight, however, may come with some compromise and reevaluation of your priorities. If you’re no longer happy sleeping on friends’ couches while you audition full-time and sublet your apartment for extra cash, maybe you should work in a full month’s rent into your budget. Do you really need to be spending $40 per week on your morning Starbucks, or is investing in a coffeemaker worthwhile? Always reassess the tradeoffs of priorities and what you feel you need to be successful. “Those priorities and means will change over time, and you have to be continually checking in with yourself and saying, ‘Am I still spending in alignment with what I value?’ ” O’Connell says. “We have these evolutions as people and we have to allow ourselves that flexibility and continue to account for that flexibility in our spending plan.”
- Survival Jobs 101
- Self-Care: An Actor's Secret Weapon
- How to Make a Living as an Extra
- The Starving Artist Myth
- 5 Ways Actors Can Use Their Skills to Earn Money
You’ll continue to get work as an actor by staying focused on your goals, keeping up your training and networking and being resilient in the face of rejection.
So now that you know how to start your acting career, one major question remains: How do you keep it up? The easy answer is simply to dive into each new project with as much enthusiasm and vigor as you did that very first job. Never lose your passion and excitement about being on set or on stage. Do your job well, respect your behind-the-scenes creatives and build lasting relationships, be kind to other actors you’re sharing the spotlight with, and when success does eventually come your way, spread the wealth to others who are getting their start. A little bit of good karma never hurt anyone!
You also can’t be afraid to put yourself out there, especially in the beginning. As Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is showing up.”
“Nothing is gained from staying home,” says Secret Agent Man, Backstage’s anonymous agent contributor. “One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you just never know who you’re going to meet in any given situation or how that encounter might pay off down the road. I’ve made great connections in all kinds of settings. That’s why I always make it a point to show up. And this kind of thinking applies to your acting career, too.”
- How To Network Like a Pro
- How to Expand Your Network as an Actor
- 3 Tips for Successful Networking
- The Importance of Giving in a Networking World
This piece was originally published on Feb. 9, 2017. It has since been updated.