Experts Share Their Wisdom

Training is important, but not everything an actor needs to know about the craft and the business of acting can be learned from a teacher. Whether it's how to handle your finances or how to handle a casting director, the real world presents the working actor with an endless series of challenges. Back Stage reached out to industry experts and asked them to provide a little education on the things they don't teach you in acting school.

About the Craft

You're never done learning

Agent Victoria Morris, senior vice president of talent at Kazarian/Spencer/Ruskin & Associates in New York, believes that a new acting-school graduate should concentrate on getting into shows, writing, seeing everything, taking chances, asking questions, and learning. "Live with gratitude that acting is your chosen profession," she says, "and carry on every day as if you are accomplished and humble."

Morris adds, "Acting schools teach the idea that acting is a deepening of a soul for a lifetime, not about finding a job." She thinks actors must continue to study because the audition process is difficult and unnatural: "Actors must reach in and pull out collective images and emotions while desperately trying to be hired and impress the person watching. Once actors are in need, they are vulnerable to a business that is not art." Bringing those pieces together, she says, "sometimes takes years."

Language is the actor's medium

New York acting teacher Maggie Flanigan sees many young people graduate from acting programs unprepared for the language demands of scripts by the likes of Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, or Stephen Adly Guirgis. "Language is much debased in our society. Much of our language is meaningless generalities," she says. "The actor must love the pleasure of really speaking these words and the fullness of this kind of expression. The actor must be able to handle the words, and not be intimidated by the words."

Flanigan suggests that actors learn to "ingest the words, resonate with the words, and find the rhythm and music in the words. The actor will sharpen his skills, clarify his execution, and enhance his love of language. For, after all, language is an actor's medium."

Acting is different from performing

"Acting colleges really don't teach you how to act," says Carolyne Barry, a Los Angeles–based commercial audition technique teacher and casting director and the author of the book "Hit the Ground Running." "They teach you about acting. They teach you how to perform. But acting is different than performing. There is no way in an academic situation you can do the emotional connecting work that needs to be done in order to really be a quality actor."

Barry believes that while university professors around the country may know more about theater history and playwriting than most actors do, they often can't provide the same level of instruction in acting that professional coaches in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago can.

About the Business

Where you fit in the industry

Barry, who sometimes speaks at colleges, often asks students, "Where do you see yourself in six months?" They'll say, "I'll be on a series" or "I'm going to win an Academy Award," she says. Barry tells them, "No, you're not. At least not in six months." She also asks them how they see themselves and what kind of roles they think they'll be auditioning for, and, according to Barry, they often don't know the answer, or they'll say, "I can do anything!"

"They are living in an academic delusion," she says. "You have to know your type, you have to make sure it's connected to who you are, your essence, your personality, and you have to market that for a while. That's the kind of stuff they don't teach."

Transitioning from big fish to little fish

Manager Brad Lemack, founder of Southern California's Lemack & Co. and author of "The New Business of Acting: How to Build a Career in a Changing Landscape," thinks acting schools don't teach actors how to be employable after graduation. "Where there is a significant difference between talent and skill," he says, "there is also a huge difference between being able to act and being able to get hired—as in paid—to do it."

Lemack worries that actors who graduate at the top of their class and who always landed the best roles in school will think it's going to be just as easy in the professional world. But any professional knows that starring roles in school productions do not open doors to roles in professional productions. "Students who do not embrace this reality and who demonstrate an entitlement about what they have done versus what they think they deserve can create an energy, an attitude, and a behavior that can prevent opportunity finding them," he says. "It will kill any 'it' factor that might exist."

How to get a handle on your finances

Having a solid financial footing is necessary before pursuing an acting career, according to Lemack. Even older, seasoned, so-called "working" actors sometimes have a difficult time paying their bills from acting work alone, he says. "The launch of your career journey will necessitate funding for the tools that will be required: headshots, self-submission casting services, ever-rising gasoline to power your drive to and from auditions, work, and classes, etc."

Lemack suggests finding or creating a job that takes advantage of the talents and skills you have in areas besides acting. Rather than work at a coffee shop, he says, you should make money doing something that "feeds your need for creativity and doesn't derail the pursuit of your dreams while you pursue opportunities to act and to build your résumé."

About Representation

It's not your job to find an agent

Morris always tells actors that it's not in their job description to find an agent; "it is in my job description as an agent to find you, the actor, doing what you do best." Actors should stop worrying about getting in her door and instead focus on creating interesting characters, she says. "You will attract interest. We will be all over you! Live your dream and it will become your life, and everyone will want a piece of that."

Know your self-worth

Robin Harrington, a commercial agent with Lemon Lime Agency in Los Angeles, believes that knowing your self-worth is essential to a successful career in the commercial acting world. "Knowing your self-worth helps you negotiate successfully, interact with potential agents and managers with confidence, and appear as someone who would be great to work with," she says.

Harrington often sees new actors who are so desperate to work or become famous that they will take any job. Actors who know their self-worth, she explains, make informed decisions about the jobs they accept and are willing to turn down low-paying or unfair contracts.

"If you are willing to accept any job regardless of the fairness of the pay rate, you are not only doing yourself a disservice, but everyone else in the industry as well," she says. "For example, if you are so desperate as to accept a $1,000 buyout for all uses in perpetuity—i.e., forever with no additional pay—for a nonunion car commercial, you're limiting the number of available jobs for yourself and others. Because they can use your footage forever, there will be less need to produce more commercials, thus less work for you, other actors, agents, casting directors, makeup artists, hair, grips, etc. You are not only shooting yourself in the foot, but the entire economy that is dependent on production of commercials."

Harrington wants actors to remember that a lack of self-worth can make them seem desperate, and desperation is the ultimate repellent. As an agent, she wants to work with people who know they bring something to the table. "When meeting with potential agents, you're looking to form a partnership, not get something from them," she says. "Someone who has a strong sense of self-worth knows they have something to offer and appears as someone who will be easy to work with. Lack of self-worth can come across as someone who will be needy and difficult to work with. So decide today that you are worth it."

About Casting Directors

Casting directors want you to do well

Piel/Shoai Casting's Katie Piel, who casts film, television, and new media, often tells nervous young actors that she wants them to do well. "We like you," she says. "We brought you in specifically because we already like something about you and think you could book the role." Rather than being derailed by the sight of a panel of "suits" in the audition room, Piel says, actors should be excited and remember that most of those people probably acted in school and know what you're going through.

"No one is going to make fun of you in the lunchroom, so have fun," she says. "Do what you're there to do and entertain. Yes, even if it is dramatic, screaming, crying, soul-baring stuff, it's entertainment."

Don't argue

You read the script, spent $100 on coaching for your audition, made strong choices, and presented those choices to the casting director. If he or she wants to see it again a different way, don't argue. The CD isn't insulting you; he or she likes you. "You were so great that we like you enough to keep you around to read the same sides we've heard 40 times today a second or third time," Piel says.

Piel doesn't think schools teach actors to take the adjustments they're given by casting directors. "We know what the director is looking for," she says. "We want to bring out nuances in your terrific performance that will help you book the job. Don't argue and tell us that the character wouldn't make that choice, or that the reason you are making the choice is what it is and you can't see it differently." However, if you don't understand her adjustment, you should ask a question to clarify it, Piel adds. "We want you to shine like the star that you are."

Don't be upset if casting has you read only once. "It doesn't mean we hate you," she explains. "You either nailed it—and why mess with perfection?—or there's something else going on that has nothing to do with you and we really only need to see it once."

Don't shake hands at an audition unless the CD initiates it

"We know you were raised well," Piel says. "We also don't want to get sick, and while you may only be seeing us today, we're seeing 100 people, and germs are gross." Unless the casting director extends his or her hand first, Piel suggests a polite wave and nice smile. "We promise we won't tell your mom."