How to Become an Actress

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Photo Source: “Wednesday” Credit: Vlad Cioplea/Netflix

From Golden Age idols like Grace Kelly and Lauren Bacall to modern Hollywood heavyweights like Viola Davis and Meryl Streep, actresses have been putting on powerhouse performances since the dawn of the artform. But despite the fact that “actor” has become the preferred term for performers of all genders, there’s no denying that women in the industry experience hardships and hurdles separate from their male counterparts. Success takes commitment, dedication, and perseverance—and we’re here to help. 

Below is a roadmap to becoming an actress, from getting started and landing jobs to recognizing—and breaking through—the barriers you’ll meet along the way.


How to be an actress

Although “actor” is the generally accepted term regardless of gender, “actress” is more specific to those who act and identify as a woman. Women in the industry “are always assessing what environment we are in, who we trust, what the relation is with individuals, what we want to achieve, and strategizing how to do so,” says Monique Candelaria (“Lovecraft Country,” “Spirit Rangers”).  

As an actress, you must be able to take on a role and deliver an authentic performance. The question of how long it takes to become an actress depends not just on how prepared you are but also how resilient. 

Hone your craft

  • Consider a formal education: A degree is not a requirement to become an actress, but plenty of stars such as Viola Davis (Rhode Island College), Meryl Streep (Vassar College), and Frances McDormand (Bethany College) earned drama degrees. If acting college is a route you’re interested in, consider whether a B.A. or BFA is right for you. 
  • Take acting classes: Acting classes are an excellent place to develop your skills and practice with fellow industry professionals. Working with coaches is a great way to prepare for auditions, create self-tapes, and practice monologues. “Taking classes to hone [your] skills is essential for the ease of creation for yourself and those around you,” says Candelaria. “Make sure the person you are learning from is credible, [which is usually] as simple as looking up their work and seeing if [it] resonates and is current.”
  • Gain experience: When you feel ready, look for audition opportunities. If you want to try your hand at on-camera acting, start with roles in student films and independent movies. (These parts will also come in handy when the time comes to make a demo reel.) If your goal is to become a theater actor, get involved with local productions. To get a sense of what life on a set is like, background acting is a solid way to get your foot in the door. 

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Build a network 

Cultivating a community of like-minded performers and creators is invaluable to an acting journey, both for job opportunities and support. To start, make sure your social media presence is actor-friendly; consider making a separate Facebook just for your acting career. Engage with fellow performers, and attend local film festivals that advertise networking opportunities. 

  • Women in Film (WIF) is a membership-based organization that helps advance women’s careers and offers professional development opportunities, such as workshops and panels, fellowships, and networking events.
  • WP Theater is “the nation’s oldest and largest theater company dedicated to developing, producing, and promoting the work of Women+ at every stage of their careers.”
  • Women in Media “promotes gender balance in the film and entertainment industries through networking, professional development, and advocacy for filmmakers who work above and below the line.” 

Create a portfolio and seek reps

As you gain more training and credits, it’s important to put together the portfolio that will land you career-advancing opportunities. That includes: 

Once you have a demo reel and résumé that showcase your skills, landing an acting agent can help level you up. Start with our list of agencies who work with beginners, then expand your search locally and based on reps with clients who do similar work to you. 

Set realistic goals 

Securing auditions is a win, but remember that you’ll constantly be competing with many other actresses for a single role. Don’t take rejection personally and don’t let it deter you from moving forward to your goal. 

“Remember that success in acting can be challenging and competitive, so resilience and determination are essential,” says actor Natalie Burn (“Til Death Do Us Part,” “The Enforcer”). “It’s important to be open to feedback and continuously work on improving your craft.” Another thing to keep in mind is that while you’re gaining experience at the beginning of your acting career, payment for your work may not be guaranteed or enough to sustain your lifestyle. This means you’ll likely need a day job or side hustle to cover bills and expenses while you hone your craft.

Unique challenges women face in the acting industry

Don't Look Up

“Don't Look Up” Credit: Niko Tavernise / Netflix

Unequal pay

The gender pay gap has been an issue for decades throughout every industry in the U.S. The Pew Research Center found that “women earned an average of 82% of what men earned” in 2022. Unfortunately, the acting industry is no different, even at the highest level. Data collected by London School of Economics’ Phelan United States Centre found a 25% wage difference between male and female film actors between 1980 and 2015. A 2020 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reported a pay gap of $1 million per movie between women and men. In 2022, Vanity Fair revealed Jennifer Lawrence made $5 million less than her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio for the film “Don’t Look Up,” despite their roles being the same size. 

“I’m extremely fortunate and happy with my deal. But in other situations, what I have seen—and I’m sure other women in the workforce have seen as well—is that it’s extremely uncomfortable to inquire about equal pay,” Lawrence said. “And if you do question something that appears unequal, you’re told it’s not gender disparity but they can’t tell you what exactly it is.”


The downfall of sexual predator and producer Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing MeToo movement brought heightened public awareness to a culture of misogyny and harassment rampant in the entertainment industry. A 2023 survey conducted by WIF saw “46.2% of respondents say they or someone they know experienced abuse or misconduct while working in the screen industries” that year. That number is a reduction from 79.9% the year prior, but the survey concludes: “While the numbers have improved, results and anonymous anecdotes show that abuse and misconduct continues to be prevalent in our industry.” 

The years post-MeToo have seen a growing de-stigmatization and public solidarity for victims. Pew Research Center found that more than double as many people in America support the MeToo movement as oppose it, with 62% of respondents saying that “compared with five years ago, people who report experiencing sexual harassment or assault in the workplace are now more likely to be believed.” Resources for actresses include SAG-AFTRA’s 24/7 safety hotline, as well as WIF’s Hot Line, which offers “resources and support, including referrals to pro bono legal services, low-fee therapy, and free support groups, to anyone who has experienced harassment, abuse, or discrimination while working in the entertainment industry.” 

The rise of intimacy coordinators, too, has led to an increase in safety on set. “A lot of the times, the people that were like, ‘Oh, we don’t need this role,’ hadn’t heard the experiences that people have had where they’ve felt violated or things have gone wrong because they didn’t feel like they could tell [the director],” says intimacy coordinator Lizzy Talbot. “So I think that there’s been a huge U-turn [when it comes to] acceptance that, actually, power dynamics on set do exist.”

Different physical standards

Actresses often encounter pressure to conform to certain standards of beauty and physicality, and the belief is that if they don’t, it will impact their ability to land roles. It’s becoming increasingly rare that a role truly requires an actress to lose weight. Luckily, some of the biggest, most successful names in the industry are speaking out to prove that changing your appearance isn’t mandatory for Hollywood success.

  • Jenna Ortega (“Wednesday,” “Scream”): “A lot of the jobs that I was going for growing up would never work out, because I didn’t look [a certain] way. That was really hard, to hear that something you couldn’t change was what was preventing you [from succeeding].... I thought, ‘I don’t want other young girls to look up at the screen and feel like they have to change their appearance to be deemed beautiful or worthy.’ ” 
  • Florence Pugh (“Little Women,” “Midsommar”): “I had a weird chapter with the beginning of my career, but that was because I wasn’t complying. I think that was confusing to people, especially in Hollywood. I think women, especially young women, in Hollywood are obviously putting themselves in all these ways in order to get whatever opportunity that they need to get because that’s just the way that it’s been, and when I went and did that project, it was expected that you would be on whatever diet that you need to be on, and for me that was just shocking because I’d never done that before. That’s not to say that other people can’t do that. But I think I definitely put my foot down in that aspect. I love food.”
  • Kate Winslet (“Titanic,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”): “There's a big part of me—now, more than ever before, actually—that feels a sense of responsibility for how other women view themselves. My body will never go back to what it was, and I wouldn't expect it to after three babies. To my mind, life is just too short to be spending time focusing on things like that. I want to keep my health and my sanity and be well and feel happy.”


“Aging out” of the industry has long been a barrier for many actresses. According to a 2022 study by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 52% of female characters portrayed in the top 100 films were in their 20s and 30s (compared to 40% of male characters). Female characters in their 40s, 50s, and 60s? Just 18%, 7%, and 5%, respectively. Fewer roles for older actresses means limited career longevity and opportunities beyond a certain age.   

Disproportionate amount of roles

According to a 2023 study by Dr. Lauzen, 45% of speaking characters on original streaming shows and 44% of speaking characters on broadcast series were women. “Both of these percentages represent a retreat from slightly higher numbers in 2021-22,” she writes. 

In 2021, “male [film] characters outnumbered females by almost 2 to 1,” while “85% of films featured more male than female characters.” 

Lack of representation behind the camera

As a woman in the industry, it can really help to pursue projects with other women in positions of power behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the numbers can make that a challenge. A 2023 study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that, among 1,600 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2022, only 88 women were in the director’s chair. On an independent level, the data is unequal but slightly more optimistic. According to a 2023 report from Dr. Lauzen analyzing the films of 20 top festivals, 42% of films featured women directors and 40% featured women writers, up from 40% and 35%, respectively, the previous year. “These are recent historic highs,” Dr. Lauzen writes. 

“Despite [all] these challenges, women in the entertainment industry have broken barriers and paved the way for greater gender equality,” says Burn, citing prominent actors like Streep, Davis, and Lupita Nyong’o, who have “used their platforms to advocate for change and create opportunities for women in the field.” 

While none are acceptable, being aware of these obstacles can help you prepare to face—and fight—these situations as you navigate the industry.

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