Television is basking in a protracted golden age. With the burgeoning landscape of innovative television productions, as well as reliable network stalwarts, becoming a TV actor can be both creatively fulfilling and financially lucrative. Whether you’re an actor with no experience or a veteran theater actor, breaking into the world of television is an endeavor replete with pitfalls, roadblocks, and misconceptions. Here’s everything you need to know about how to get on TV.
- Do I need training to act on TV?
- The difference between stage and screen acting
- How to audition for TV shows
- How to find TV auditions
- Types of roles in TV shows
- How to prepare for an audition for a TV show
- How do auditions for TV shows work?
- When to submit a self tape
- Do I need an agent to get on TV?
- Where’s the best place for a TV actor to live?
- What is SAG-AFTRA? Should I join?
Actors train in a variety of ways—often through some combination of acting schools and classes, higher education, acting coaches, and summer training. For TV actors in particular, experts recommend taking an on-camera acting class or studying improv.
Screen acting has only been around for a century or so, compared to thousands of years of stage acting. Television has been around for even less—so “few acting schools are set up with the technologies, methodologies, and working knowledge as to how to train actors” for the medium, says Shaan Sharma, who runs the L.A.-based Westside On-Camera Acting Studio.
Having a solid foundation of theater training can help, but “it’s easier to make a stage actor out of an on-camera actor than the reverse,” he continues. “So, if you know you want to act for the camera, seek out on-camera training.” (If you’re based in L.A., here are five places you can practice your on-camera technique.)
Improv classes can help you become a more comfortable and dexterous collaborator on set. As opposed to a theater environment in which the writer is king, in television, “words are being changed right up until shoot times in many cases,” says actor David Patrick Green. Even HBO’s “Veep,” typified by tight and nimble writing, utilized improv in its early seasons and benefited from the presence of cast members like Upright Citizens Brigade founding member Matt Walsh. Actor Michael Nathanson, series regular on Marvel’s “The Punisher,” attests that improv remains an essential part of his toolkit. “I go back to my improv days for so much of my technique or the things I bring to the set,” Nathanson says. “[Improv] allows you to stay on your toes because things are constantly changing on set; lines are being rewritten, cut, and added; you’ll work with a different director here, different director there, depending on what it is; and so, having that sort of spontaneous craft has helped a lot.”
Stage acting and screen acting are different beasts. If you already have theater acting experience, you may need to shed some habits and methods better suited for the stage. Stage acting demands projection and enunciation, since “mush mouths” don’t reach the back row. But as veteran actor David Dead Bottrell explains, the camera “doesn’t require you to use any of your well-honed theatrical skills like precise diction, vocal projection, or any indication of where the jokes lie.”
Theater also requires actors to physically convey internal thoughts and feelings. Actor Damian Lewis, who made a seamless transition from the Royal Shakespeare Company to hit premium cable, realized this. “Onstage, you have to, in some small nuanced way, give a demonstration of what you’re thinking so that the people at the back can see it,” he says. “Whereas, on camera, you just quite literally have to think it. I realized that you could actually have a whole range of thoughts in a short space of time, and the camera would see them all.”
To “think actively” and bring such nuanced expression to life, Rob Adler uses one of Viola Spolin’s Preoccupation games. “While doing an activity, be totally preoccupied with an offscreen event, and follow your flights of thought from it, using your inner energy to springboard from one thought to the next, irrespective of the scene’s text,” he says. Or take this analogy from legend Michael Caine: “Be like a duck—calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.”
The demo reel is probably the most challenging piece of the puzzle for new actors. Put simply, your demo reel sells you. It features a short, engaging montage of your best on-camera acting work. The reel’s production values—from image quality to sound to camerawork—reflect back on you, and according to acting coach Paul Barry, any of these elements being subpar “will lower the viewer’s impression of you, your marketability, and your professionalism.”
Assume that whomever is viewing the tape may only watch your first few scenes at most, so lead with your strongest stuff and juxtapose the clips in a way that shows your range. Don’t get caught up in trying to contextualize or narrativize every individual scene, advises reel editor Joe Gressis, but instead move on “once the character, emotion, and arc of the scene are established.” If you are not totally confident with the quality and construction of your reel, don’t submit it.
Don’t have any quality footage to show off? This is where networking can pay off, says actor Erin Cronican. She suggests “getting to know indie filmmakers who are also growing their careers. Go to networking events (like the NY Actors Tweetup), frequent local festivals and screenings, and get to know the film departments at your local universities.” Aspiring filmmakers are just as eager to put together their own bonafides-proving footage, so strike up a mutually beneficial relationship.
Get a sense of the landscape by scouring Backstage’s TV audition listings. From there, you can narrow down opportunities based on your personal attributes, compensation desires, location, and more to find everything from lead to day-player roles.
You may be wondering, what networks cast often? The Disney Channel has launched the careers of many future A-list stars, and because of its wide slate of ensemble shows, casting calls for young actors are posted frequently. Casting Director Lisa London has overseen casting on hit shows like “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and “Hannah Montana,” and she offers tips to ambitious, multi-talented young actors on how to get cast with Disney. Among them, she suggests being extra proactive by visiting the Disney Channel casting call page or researching the casting directors of current shows and reaching out to them directly—but be prepared if they follow up!
Few entertainment industry platforms are hotter right now than Netflix, which in recent years has dramatically increased its output of original programming—and, by extension, casting. Netflix tends to offer lots of creative freedom to its productions, and this is reflected in Netflix's casting practices.
There is a very specific hierarchy of television roles for actors, from co-stars to series regulars. To break into TV acting, you’ll need to be familiar with the types of roles you may be auditioning for:
- Series Regular: One of the lead actors of the entire series.
- Recurring: A role that recurs throughout the series but isn’t necessarily on every episode.
- Guest Star: An actor who’s usually in only one episode of filming, but is seen throughout the episode in multiple scenes.
- Co-star / Under-five: A character that usually has five or fewer lines. They usually appear in just one episode of the series and are used for only a day or two of filming.
- Background Actor / Extra: A background performer doesn’t have any lines and is used to help fill out the scene and make it realistic. You can be hired to work multiple days as an extra for the same TV show.
While there’s a lot more information out there about different SAG-AFTRA contracts, this is a good starting point to understand what the different levels of roles are for which you may be hired. Additionally, if you have an agent, they can help you understand the type of contract you’re being offered and negotiate it for you. If you don’t have an agent, your city may have organizations that offer free legal advice like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in New York.
When it comes to preparing for a TV audition, think about tailoring your audition strategy to the format of the show—especially in comedy. Casting director Molly Reinking is a veteran of classics in both genres (“Frasier,” “Arrested Development”) and offers these three tips on each:
- Embrace short scenes: “The sides you will be asked to prepare for this type of show are short and staccato-like. They are not like scenes from a play, or even from a sitcom, where there is a normal exchange between one or more people with some momentum within the scene. There is usually no beginning, middle, or end to the scene, which might be only five-lines long. Remember, Justin Grant Wade [Steve Holt on ‘Arrested Development’] only had two words at his audition! The comedy in the single-camera show is in the style and the situation, not in the jokes.”
- Don’t get lost in your sides: “Because the non-verbals are so important in these auditions, it’s all the more essential that you don’t have your nose in the sides during the audition. Obvious, I know, but if we can’t see your eyes, we can’t see your reaction. The humor is found in the thought processes you reveal and not so much in what you say…. A good general rule of thumb: Always be connected to the person you're doing the scene with, whether it be a reader, another actor, or directly into the camera, a la ‘Parks and Recreation.’ If you're truly connected, we will not only see your reaction in your eyes, but the scene will have an emotional life—an urgency.”
- Don't try to be funny: “You need to bring your own individual idiosyncratic self into the audition without trying to be funny. Trying to be anything means you are working way too hard. You just have to be.”
- Energy level is heightened naturalism: “Since multi-cams are most like plays, the energy necessary to “pop” in these auditions [is] brighter than normal, but not so big that you are overacting and/or trying to be ‘funny.’ This is not sketch comedy, a la ‘SNL,’where the characters are over the top to the point of absurdity. You audition with a heightened version of yourself that is carefully calibrated while seeming spontaneous.”
- Stick to the words: “This is true for multi-cams more than with any other genre. The writer-producers run the show in TV, remember, so when you mess with their words, especially with multi-cams, they will not hire you…. If, in those rare cases, the writer-producer wants you to improvise, either they or the casting director will let you know usually before the audition begins. If they say nothing, assume they want you to say their words exactly as written.”
- Remain focused and calm in moments of stress: Since multi-cams are performed in front of a live audience, the writer-producer needs to feel in the audition room (or on the tape) that you are smart on your feet and confident in your skills. It is like doing a play, but without the six weeks of rehearsal prior to opening…. More than likely, you will be working on a show that is a well-oiled machine, and you don't want to slow down the process in any way, whether it be asking too many questions or messing up the lines.
When the moment comes, and you’re walking through the audition room door, remember to be friendly. Acknowledge everyone in the room, but don’t be overly chatty, says says acting coach Joseph Pearlman, because that “[puts] out the vibe of ‘please like me.’ If you walk in with confidence, then you know that they already like you.” These first impressions matter, because typically, TV casting directors are filling the cast at a quick clip.
Your first audition will be with the casting director and often producers, and the tone may be encouraging, convivial, and relaxed, explains former vice president of television production for Lionsgate, Ally Lattman. But Lattman warns that as you advance, and you test for network execs, it's all business. “Come in and read your scene; that's it. I don't know that I've been in any warm-and-friendly network test rooms."
There are lots of reasons you may have to submit a taped audition (also known as a “self-tape”)—scheduling conflicts, location difficulties, low-budget projects, or external events. Whatever the reason, crafting a professional-looking tape in lieu of an in-person audition requires additional considerations. Here’s our complete guide to nailing your next self-tape—everything from the best backdrops to how to slate.
Every aspiring actor assumes they need an agent, but there are lots of factors to consider when it comes to pursuing representation. “When you’re just starting out, you don’t really need an agent,” explains L.A. agent Secret Agent Man. “A personal manager can step in and guide you to the point where you’re ready to start working.” But once you’ve got a year or two of experience under your belt, an acting agent is your ticket to professional relationships and information not available except through an insider. Plus, simply having an agent validates your abilities to others in the industry.
Okay, you may be thinking—so how do I actually get an agent? “There is no formula that results in getting an agent,” say casting director Risa Bramon Garcia and actor Steve Braun. “Truth is, no formula matters if you don't have the talent or the look that an agent thinks is marketable.” Getting a meeting with an agent is a goal that requires you to “put yourself out there”—an oft-used term that they outline like so:
- Ask for a reference. If you have friends, classmates, and colleagues with agents or who know managers, politely ask them to pass your picture, resume, and reel along to their reps.
- Work. “Take every opportunity to act in plays, web series, student films, etc. that will get your work seen by as many people as possible…. Every agent's dream is to be the first to discover that wildly talented actor who no one would see and guide them to super stardom. You may be his diamond in the rough. So, go act.”
- Use social media. “Utilize Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. to their maximum potential…. That said, be very careful when approaching agents on social media. If you come at them with any level of obsession, desperation, or hackery, you've ended that relationship before it started. Use the ‘cocktail-party approach.’ Don't do or say anything on social media that you wouldn't do or say at a cocktail party if you were standing across from that agent.”
- Attend agent workshops. “But you must be fully prepared to do extraordinary work. Make sure you’re one of the amazing 10 percent. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.”
All that being said, true talent can be found regardless of an intermediary. “I know from experience that there are innumerable terrific actors who are getting their own work,” says casting director Ilene Starger.
There are lots of TV and film markets besides L.A. and NYC these days. Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, and Vancouver (if you happen to have a Canadian passport for those last two) all have booming film and TV markets. Some people also prefer to build up their film and TV credits in smaller markets before moving onto the bigger ponds.
However, if you’re doing well in a smaller market, it might be beneficial to stay there and continue as a working actor where you’re known and doing well. It all depends on your eventual career goals and where your support network is based.
Joining an acting guild can be a great asset to securing work and earning fair compensation. For screen actors, the premier union is SAG-AFTRA. A joint organization of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, SAG-AFTRA is the most robust and sought-after union in the industry.
You may be deterred by the age-old paradox: You can’t get a SAG-AFTRA card without work, and it’s tough to get work without a SAG-AFTRA card. Specifically, actors need three days of covered background work or one day of principal work to qualify. But there are some benefits to holding off from joining the union. “When you’re trying to build a career, being able to take lots of different jobs and build up your reel with nonunion work is such an important part of building a foundation,” “How to Get Away With Murder” star Matt McGorry told Backstage. “So I had to delay my gratification, realizing I’d have more flexibility.” If you come to the point where you’re qualified and ready, save up—the initiation fee is $3,000.
Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!