How To Become an Actor

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

If one thing is for certain when it comes to show business, it’s that there is more than one road to becoming an actor. Take Octavia Spencer, who spent years in minor and supporting roles before finding fame and an Oscar; or two-time Tony nominee Jonathan Groff, who booked his first national tour from Backstage’s casting notices; or three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul, who was “discovered” at an acting and modeling competition after moving from Idaho 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 Broadway, or anything in between.

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How do I become an actor?

There’s no one way to become an actor or actress. But these are the five most common steps for those pursuing a career path in show business:

  1. Train to become an actor. There are no formal educational requirements for actors, but training is a good place to start. If you’re a student, consider getting a BFA or MFA in theater or attending summer programs; otherwise, local acting classes are the best choice for most people. 
  2. Prepare your headshot, acting résumé, and demo reel. Casting directors often require you to submit these materials before they will consider you for roles. 
  3. Submit to auditions and casting calls. Early in your career, you’ll find these through word of mouth and online casting platforms like Backstage.
  4. Gain experience to improve your résumé and reel. As you audition and land more roles, you’ll acquire better footage for your reel—and better parts to list on your résumé. 
  5. Get signed by an agent. The experience you’ve built up will help you impress an acting agent and get representation. With an agent in your corner, you’ll have access to bigger projects and meatier roles. 

We've broken down each of these steps in more detail in later sections of this guide—keep reading for more industry insight into things like how to create a demo reel or approach an acting agent.

It’s also important that you’re prepared for the reality of this business: As an actor, there’s no guarantee that success in the traditional sense will come your way. Sure, making it big is about talent—but it’s also about having good luck and the right connections. That’s why it’s vital to make sure you’re in show business for the right reasons. “Often actors are mainly focused on questions like, ‘How do I get representation?’ or ‘How do I get work?’ but perhaps the first question to ask oneself, if one is just beginning, is ‘Why do I want to act?’” says casting director Ilene Starger. “If it’s about the work and the process, terrific; if it’s about becoming famous, that is a far more elusive goal—and one which will lead to disappointment, most likely.” 

You’ll need patience and perspective if you’re going to make it as an actor. “Never, ever look to the prize,” Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer tells Backstage. “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.” Expect to put in years of hard work before you see real, tangible results. Rejection is a constant (yes, even for established actors!), so make sure that you can handle a long string of “nos” before finally landing that coveted “yes.”

What are the different types of actors?

So, you want to be an actor. Now the question is: What kind? There’s a lot more to the industry than starring in the next Hollywood blockbuster or Netflix series. A helpful way to sort different types of acting opportunities is by medium:

Your acting technique will vary depending on your medium. Acting for the camera is very different from acting for a live audience; doing commercial voiceover work will require different training than preparing for a musical theater audition. Of course, many actors move from stage to screen and back again through their career. But it may be helpful, as you begin your acting career, to consider which medium you're most interested in.

Are there education requirements for actors?

No, there are no education requirements for actors—formal training can be helpful, but there are plenty of successful actors who never got an acting degree. That said, pretty much every actor working today has received some sort of training along the way. But actor training can mean many things: there are acting and improv classes, BFA and MFA programs, on-set coaches, even online courses. Which option makes the most sense for you depends on several factors, including your age and experience level and whether you’re looking to make it on-stage or on-screen.

Acting schools and classes: Acting classes range widely in terms of content, time commitment, and price—making them the best option for most aspiring actors. Research what classes are offered in your city (you can use Backstage’s Call Sheet or ask friends for references), audit a few promising options, then pick the teacher and technique that speaks to you. Then, stick with the class for at least six months. “If you love it, then continue, and when you can, add an improvisation and a commercial class or audition technique to see if you are interested in another area of acting,” says Backstage Expert Carolyne Barry.

The effects of COVID-19 on the acting industry have been enormous, and training is no exception. You may feel more comfortable taking classes online at this time—and virtual acting classes have their own benefits. You can also stay sharp during quarantine with free online acting resources, sessions, and seminars from The Slate, which is updated weekly with new opportunities.

Acting coaches: Coaches are an important part of acting, but they’re not a stand-in for other training methods. Especially if you're trying to get into acting with no experience, Backstage Expert Marci Liroff recommends starting with weekly classes. Acting coaches are better for fine-tuning, she notes—they won’t teach you the basics of movement and using your voice effectively. 

Summer training: If you’re a teen actor looking to sharpen your teeth with like-minded young talents, there’s no better place than summer training. There are several U.S. programs with a proven track record: The Atlantic Acting School (NYC) boasts such alums as Rose Byrne, Anna Chlumsky, and Matthew Fox, while Stagedoor Manor (Loch Sheldrake, N.Y.) counts Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., and Lea Michele among its alums. 

Higher education: A theater degree isn’t right for every actor. They can be incredibly expensive, and they’re never a guarantee of success. But a BFA or MFA can help you forge important connections, instill the value of hard work, and allow you to further hone your craft. Degrees can be particularly helpful if you want to become a stage actor; Hollywood cares less. 

If you’re trying to choose an undergraduate acting program, 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. Backstage’s list of the top 25 acting colleges in the U.S. is a good place to start.

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What do I need to start auditioning for roles?

Every actor needs at least three things when trying to book an audition: headshots, an acting résumé, and a demo reel. Then, depending on your specialty, you may need additional materials—for instance, you’ll need to bring a book filled with cuts of various songs you’ve prepared if you’re auditioning for musical theater. 

Headshot: A headshot is an 8” x 10” color photo of an actor from the chest up, with their face clearly visible. It will serve as your calling card for casting directors, talent agents, and anyone else deciding whether or not to give you a shot. Headshots are the foundation of your marketing materials—and, ultimately, your personal brand—which means there’s a lot riding on a few photos. Our in-depth guide will walk you through everything you need to know about headshots, from pricing to posing to retouching.

Acting résumé: Like traditional résumés, acting résumés should be one page long and summarize your relevant experience. More specifically, acting résumés should include

  • Your name
  • Your agent and managers’ names (if applicable)
  • Your phone number and email
  • Union affiliation (AEA, EMC, SAG-AFTRA, SAG-eligible, nonunion, etc.)
  • Training
  • Acting credits
  • Special skills (accents, martial arts, horseback riding, musical instruments, etc.)

You’ll want to break up your acting credits by type. Categories are often listed as follows: Film/TV, Commercials/Industrials, Broadway, National Tours, Regional Theater, Academic Theater, Training/Degrees, and Special Skills. All credits should include show titles, roles, directors, and producing organizations—casting directors are known to give directors or producing companies a call for feedback. Physical attributes like weight, height, and hair and eye color should be included for film productions (especially if you’re self-taping), while theater auditions usually don’t require such details. 

Above all, remember that acting résumés should be concise, clear, and easy to read. “Put yourself in the shoes of the person viewing it,” says actor David Patrick Green. “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.”

Demo reel: Also known as a “sizzle reel,” a demo reel is a series of clips that showcase your previous acting credits; it can also include footage of you acting out a scene or monologue specifically for that reel. Reels are generally two minutes long, with each clip lasting 20-30 seconds. Casting directors, agents, and producers use reels to decide whether or not they will ask an actor in for an audition—so it’s essential that you present yourself in the best possible light. For a more detailed breakdown of the process, check out our guide to demo reels.

How do I find acting auditions and casting calls?

Most early-career actors don’t have managers or agents who are in direct contact with casting directors, which means it’s up to you to find auditions. Luckily, the internet has made things a lot easier—online casting platforms like Backstage are home to thousands of vetted casting opportunities that are updated daily. These range from smaller projects like student shorts, web series, and regional theater productions to larger Hollywood features and productions on the Broadway stage. These casting notices are key to building up your demo reel and eventually landing a talent agent.

Backstage has several subscription options available, although our most popular is the annual web-only subscription. Visit backstage.com/accounts/subscribe to see which one best suits you. If you subscribe, you’ll be in good company! Backstage has been around for more than 50 years and has served as a springboard for some of the biggest stars working today. But don’t just take our word for it: 

  • Sandra Bullock: “Every single thing I have today is because I picked up Backstage every Thursday.” 
  • Scarlett Johanson: “How did I get into acting? Well, I read a lot of Backstage. Everybody got Backstage... Doesn’t every unemployed actor have their Backstage? That’s the first step.”
  • James Franco: “Backstage was one of my first introductions to the business.”
  • 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.”

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, pay rate, union or nonunion job, location, age range, and more. Once you find a project that interests you and fits your type, 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. 

Another avenue to consider is creating your own work. Some of the most exciting actors working in new media and television today created projects for themselves that they didn’t see (or weren’t booking) elsewhere. Think Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), Issa Rae (“Insecure”), Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”), and Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld (“High Maintenance”). Using YouTube and Vimeo, these creators were able to sharpen their voices, find their audience—and eventually get picked up by the likes of Comedy Central, HBO, and the CW.

What should I expect at an acting audition?

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 having your 16 bars for a musical theater audition down pat and your voice warmed up and ready to belt. That means having your sides memorized and being open to criticism or edits from those you’re auditioning for. It also means entering the room feeling confident that this is the role for you, nerves be damned! Desperation shows, and it won’t do you any favors when it comes to casting out roles.

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Auditioning is a huge part of becoming a successful actor—which is why we put together an in-depth guide to the process. We walk you through the nitty-gritty details, like what to wear and how to create a self-tape, plus the specifics of different types of auditions, from TV to theater to commercials.

How do I get an acting agent?

Actors who are just starting out are often in a rush to find representation—but the truth is, you don’t need an agent at the very beginning of your career. Plus, most agents just aren’t interested in repping an actor with zero professional experience! Before you start reaching out to talent agencies, you’ll likely need to spend a minimum of one year training with qualified teachers, putting together a quality demo reel, and forging connections across the industry. (This checklist may be helpful in determining whether or not you’re reading to start your search for a talent agent.)

Once you’ve built up your résumé, it’s time to do your research. To successfully land an acting agent, you need to figure out which agencies make sense for your career goals. Some agents specialize in theater, others in TV. Figure out which agents rep actors with careers or types similar to yours. You’ll need to submit by sending them a cover letter, headshots, and résumé. Referrals are even better. For more tips on how to navigate this process, our guide to securing an acting agent goes through everything from nailing your first agent meeting to the telltale signs of a bad agent.

Where is the best place to live as an actor?

The first question that many young actors find themselves pondering is if (and when) they should move to New York or Los Angeles. NYC and L.A. are two of the largest markets for working actors today—but which one is right for your career depends on what roles you’re hoping to land. Do you want to star in mainstream film and TV? Los Angeles is probably your best bet. For Broadway and all things theater, New York has you covered. There are exceptions to that rule, of course—TV and film projects work out of New York all the time, and L.A. has theater—but opportunities will be more limited.

That said, relocating to a major market at the start of your career isn’t necessarily the best move. It’s no secret that these cities aren’t cheap. In fact, it’s due to the high costs 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. 

In fact, Backstage Expert Todd Etelson recommends that you take advantage of regional markets. “If you’re willing to travel, there’s less competition in regional markets like Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, etc. You’ll gain more auditions there and build your resume at a quicker pace.”

How do I become a famous actor?

Any A-list actor will tell you that if you’re in the business to become famous, then it’s not the business for you. Not only is it the wrong approach to acting as a craft, it will also (most likely) prove futile. The top-tier actors you see on the covers of magazines got there after years of training and years of rejection. 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 always exceptions to the rule. Social media, in particular, can sometimes serve as a shortcut to gaining visibility and fame. Catering your social media and your own look, type, and “brand” to what’s gaining traction in the industry is one way to expand your personal reach. Digital media outlets are another way to get eyes on you early in your career—and then it’s up to you to prove you’re worth the attention. It goes back to talent, training, and likability.

“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 its own sake,” say Backstage Experts Rita Bramon Garcia and Steve Braun. “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."

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How much do actors make?

How much actors earn varies wildly depending on the type of project, the type of role, and whether you’re a union actor or not. If you’re a film actor who’s been booked for a major role, you’ll get paid in one lump sum—a minimum of $65,000, although that can go up based on the length of the shoot. If you’re cast as a minor character in a TV episode, you’ll get a daily contract—usually $1,005 plus 10 percent for the day. Guest stars in a one-hour drama make $8,624 for eight days of work; guest stars for half-hour comedies get $5,390 for five days of work.

What about the stage? According to the Actors’ Equity Association production contract, the minimum weekly salary on Broadway is $1,754. Actors with Off-Broadway or League of Resident Theatres (LORT) contracts are paid on a sliding scale: $555-650 for Off-Broadway and $566-882 for LORT. 

All that being said, you likely won’t be making a livable wage as an actor straight out of the gate. That’s where a “survival job” comes in. Walking dogs, tutoring, babysitting, waiting tables—it’s unlikely these are your passions in life, but work with flexible schedules and non-set hours is key to finding time for auditions and casting calls. It’s also important that you don’t hate your survival job! If you spend most of your day dreading going back to work, that’s a mental drain that will make it more difficult to nail your auditions.

The restaurant industry is an old standby for survival jobs—you could be a server, host, bartender, maître d', barback, cater waiter, or barista. But the growing gig economy has widened the possibilities when it comes to survival jobs. Driving for Uber or Lyft is one possibility, assuming you own a car; serving as a virtual assistant on Upwork or Fiverr are also options. But not every job is a survival job! Full-time jobs obviously offer more financial security, but if you’re working in a traditional 9-to-5 office, it’s going to be almost impossible to show up to daytime casting calls and auditions.

Looking to get cast? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.

Author Headshot
Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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