Ah, moving to Los Angeles—it’s the first step in so many aspiring actors’ journey. But acting in L.A. can be an overwhelming, even intimidating, process. That’s why we’ve put together this in-depth guide to becoming an actor in Hollywood. From the city’s top acting agencies to the best places for L.A. actors to train, here’s everything you should know about starting an acting career in the City of Angels.
- What tools do I need to become an actor in L.A.?
- What training do L.A. actors need?
- How do I find auditions and casting calls in L.A.?
- How do I book an audition?
- How do I land a gig in L.A.?
- How do I find an acting agent in L.A.?
- How and when should I create my own work?
- Where in L.A. should I live as an actor?
- What other cities are actor-friendly if L.A. doesn’t work for me?
- How long will it take me to be a successful actor in L.A.?
- How do I make a living as an actor?
To succeed as an actor in L.A. you’ll need three things:
- Thorough industry knowledge
- Sizable savings
- Unquestionable drive and professionalism
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for success in the film industry, but there are several tools that will prove indispensable as you pave your way.
Industry knowledge: Do your research. Reading this guide is a great place to start! The more you understand about how the industry works, the less likely it is that you will be scammed or succumb to common pitfalls of those who may be naive to the realities of the business.
Savings: Unfortunately, L.A. is a pricey place to call home. Rent and transportation costs alone are some of the highest in the nation. As an aspiring actor you will also need to invest in yourself financially before you book your first job. You will need to pay for high-quality headshots, acting classes or coaching sessions, and possibly membership dues to SAG-AFTRA once you start booking jobs. Needless to say, you should come to L.A. with at least a few months of living costs in the bank to set yourself up for success and avoid financial disaster!
Drive, motivation, and professionalism: The number of actors flocking to L.A. can be daunting and discouraging at times. While you will need some degree of luck to achieve success here, drive, motivation, and professionalism will take you a long way. Be persistent and relentless with your goals. Develop a thick skin and don’t let a rejection (or 30) keep you from pursuing your passion. Be early to every audition, meeting, and gig you have scheduled. Directors look fondly upon actors who treat their work seriously and respect their time. The film industry is a small place here in L.A., and one unprofessional experience really can jeopardize your entire career.
This has to be what you want to do regardless of the accolades, otherwise the stress of auditioning and rejection might be too much to handle. Fame shouldn’t be the goal, but instead a byproduct of your dedication and consistent hard work. Many financially stable actors never achieve tabloid fame, and they’re no less successful for it.
While you don’t necessarily need formal training to become an actor in L.A., enrolling in an acting class is a great way to simultaneously hone your craft and build a creative network. There’s no shortage of acting schools, conservatories, and private coaches in Los Angeles. Many schools and coaches allow students to audit a class before committing to a full term, giving you the freedom to shop around until you find the best fit. We’ve outlined a few here:
Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatre: This world-renowned acting school, with campuses in NYC and L.A., offers actors the chance to train in the original Adler method and follow in the footsteps of greats like Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Adler offers a two-year immersion program, as well as individual course offerings for students seeking a more flexible option.
The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute: The Lee Strasberg Institute is the only school that teaches Strasberg’s work “in its consummate form,” drawing from his trademark Method acting techniques. The school offers a variety of elective classes, including acting for TV and film, improv, script analysis, and audition technique, to name a few. Additionally, it offers part-time and full-time 12-week program options, as well as a two-week intensive program for those looking for a full immersion into Method acting.
Speiser/Sturges: As acting coaches to some of the most successful actors in the film industry, Aaron Speiser and Shannon Sturges joined forces to start one of the leading acting schools in L.A., focusing exclusively on training actors for work in film and television. The school offers both technique and scene study classes, and is a practical choice for those looking to prepare themselves for the acting world of L.A., rather than those seeking a more conservatory-based approach. New students must commit to three months of classes. After that time period, memberships are available that provide flexibility to actors who may book out-of-town gigs.
As most acting opportunities in L.A. are in film and television, taking an on-camera technique class will give you a leg up when auditioning. Many acting schools and coaches also offer courses focusing directly on on-camera auditions. Doug Warhit is a renowned acting coach who specializes in audition and on-camera technique. All of his acting classes are taped on-camera and then reviewed at home—a valuable experience for even a seasoned actor.
Early in your acting career, you can find L.A. auditions through online casting platforms like Backstage. Once you have an agent, they submit you for most of your auditions—but self-submissions via Backstage is a great place to start getting experience. Casting calls range from small projects like student films, regional theater productions, and independent films to high-budget blockbuster movies. Memberships start at just $8 per month and allow you the opportunity to apply directly for over 6,000 roles per week.
Never underestimate the power of networking and making connections face-to-face. Your charisma and presence as an actor don’t always translate through a headshot, so use any opportunity you have to make in-person connections to your advantage. This could happen anywhere from the waiting room of your local kundalini yoga studio to the Hollywood coffee shop and screenwriters’ hotspot Bourgeois Pig. If you have business cards, always have a few in your wallet. You never know when you could strike up a conversation with an agent from CAA while sipping coffee at Intelligentsia.
Weekly SAG-AFTRA Foundation or SAG-AFTRA screenings and panels are a great forum to meet other actors and engage with community through Q&As and panel events. If you aren’t a union member, see if you can tag along with a friend from acting class who is. Film festivals are also an excellent place to meet other actors, directors, and screenwriters. Make sure you stick around for any Q&A sessions and even afterward, where cast and crew often linger to chat with moviegoers. The AFI Fest is held every November in Hollywood and features a wide selection of narrative feature and short films from first-time directors to seasoned veterans. Best of all, the screenings are free to the public, a rarity for a film festival of its caliber.
To book auditions in Los Angeles, you’ll need:
- A great headshot
- An acting résumé
- A demo reel
In most cases, casting directors won’t have met you in person before reviewing your submission, so make sure these materials represent you as accurately as possible. Bring a few copies of your printed headshot with a copy of your résumé stapled to the back to every audition.
Headshot: Investing in a great headshot is crucial to getting you into the casting room. Do your research before deciding on a photographer. Seek recommendations from fellow actors and make sure you scour the photographer’s website to ensure the quality and tone of their images is in line with what you want. Of course you want to look great in your headshot, but make sure the image actually looks like you. Minimal makeup is best.
Acting Résumé: Your acting CV is your opportunity to summarize your acting experience, training, and special skills. The document should contain a chronological listing of all relevant acting experience, a summary of your training (if applicable), a list of special skills (e.g., fluent in three languages, excellent Southern accent, double-jointed, former competitive gymnast), and your contact information. If you don’t have extensive acting experience yet, don’t sweat it; including student or amateur productions is totally acceptable for a new actor. Your CV should also include a section listing your age range (actual exact age isn’t necessary), eye color, hair color, and height.
Demo Reel: Your reel is a short video compilation (two minutes or less) showcasing your best work. Your reel should demonstrate your range as an actor and ideally encompass your talent in a variety of roles. For everything you need to know about creating a great demo reel, check out our in-depth guide here.
Once you’ve booked your audition, you’ll want to do everything in your power to actually land the gig. So, make sure you arrive on time. Allow yourself significantly more time than what your navigation map estimates (terrible L.A. traffic is a real thing), and make sure to add in extra time for parking, which can be challenging in parts of the city. There’s nothing worse than arriving at an audition frazzled and out of breath because you are or were nearly late. Worst-case scenario, you’ll spend an hour at a nearby coffee shop decompressing and looking over the audition sides.
Always be courteous and professional. This can’t be said enough. Creating a name for yourself as a dedicated professional will take you far. Even if you don’t end up booking this job, casting directors love an actor who is prepared and ready to go, and you never know what other opportunities an audition could lead to.
Follow instructions. If you are instructed to memorize sides, make sure you know your lines backward and forward. Some directors prefer that actors don’t come in with their sides memorized. If that’s the case, spend your time preparing to really get to know your character, their motivations, and personality traits.
You don’t need an agent to get acting jobs, but having an agent makes it significantly easier to land those roles. Finding a reputable agent who believes in your potential for success will allow you access to industry connections and auditions that you would never be able to get on your own.
There are hundreds of talent agents in Los Angeles, and figuring out which agencies to apply to can be a daunting task. Backstage has a conveniently compiled a list of reputable talent agencies in Los Angeles.
Once you’ve figured out which agencies you want to pursue for representation, follow the directions on their website for cold submissions. In most cases, that means submitting a headshot and résumé via old-fashioned snail mail (it could help you stand out from the other digital submissions), or occasionally via email or an online submission form. Some agents may also request to see your demo reel, so make sure you have that completed and ready to go.
For more tips and tricks, check out our in-depth guide to landing an acting agent.
Once you’ve gotten your feet wet in the world of acting and auditioning, you might want to consider casting yourself in a project of your own making. There’s no right or wrong time to start working on your own projects, but it makes sense to spend some time establishing yourself and building a solid foundation as an L.A. actor first. Working on your own screenplays, films, or plays will require collaboration with other industry professionals (cinematographers, editors, etc.), and these connections will be easier to come by once you have some experience under your belt.
As an actor in L.A., you may want to live near where you’ll be working. Your auditions will likely be concentrated around Hollywood, the Valley (mostly Burbank and Studio City), and Westside locations like Santa Monica and Culver City.
Los Angeles is a massive city geographically, and as you’ve probably heard, traffic can be a huge problem. But if you’re car-free in L.A., you’ll want to live in an area convenient to public transport, like Koreatown or Culver City. If you have moved to L.A. with a car, look to centralize your life as much as possible. Minimizing your time spent stuck in traffic will significantly improve your quality of living. While it may be impossible to completely localize your life, picking a place to live that is close to your work and/or acting classes will help to minimize your travel and maximize the amount of time you have to prioritize your acting career.
It might be a good idea to wait a few months before signing a lease, if you can help it. This will allow you time to figure out where you will be working and studying, and which area makes the most sense to live in. Luckily, there are plenty of sublets and even long-term Airbnb options available in the area, due to the transient nature of many of L.A.’s artistic residents.
L.A. offers a plethora of opportunities for actors looking to break into film and television, but it certainly isn’t the only city for the aspiring actor.
New York: While L.A. is the undisputed film capital of the U.S., NYC is the place to be for aspiring theater actors with a multitude of opportunities in Broadway, Off-Broadway, and community theater. That being said, there are ample opportunities in film, TV, and commercials as well.
Chicago: The Windy City has an impressive theater and comedy improv scene, and an abundance of opportunities for actors looking to start their careers on the stage. Recently, film and TV opportunities have also skyrocketed, with many projects currently filming in Chicago.
Miami: Miami is known for its thriving commercial industry, with a wealth of opportunities for actors looking to audition for commercials and music videos. For Spanish-speaking actors, Miami is the ideal place to book roles in telenovelas as the largest U.S. market for Spanish-language soap operas.
The timeline for an actor’s success is nearly impossible to predict. Sure, you could be discovered by Steven Spielberg while waiting tables at Madeo, but you could also win the lottery. In the age of social media, it’s not impossible for success to happen overnight, but the vast majority of actors making a living off their art have dealt with a massive amount of rejection. A strong sense of self and patience will get you far. There are no small roles, only small actors.
Most L.A. actors make a living by booking jobs and keeping a side gig going during dry spells. While it is definitely possible to be a working actor and derive income solely from acting jobs, the reality of the profession is that it is based on a gig economy, meaning that salary is never consistent or reliable, even for the most successful of actors. Even Geoffrey Owens was recently spotted working at Trader Joe’s, which just goes to show that many working actors often need to pick up side jobs for more income stability. When you’re first starting out, you’ll need to find a side hustle (or three!) to pay your rent and expenses. Ideally, you want a job that allows you flexibility—there’s nothing worse than having to turn down a same-day audition for an amazing opportunity. You also preferably want something you can enjoy and that will provide you with good money so you can minimize your hours working.
Working as a waiter or barista is one of the most common side hustles for the working actor, as shifts are generally flexible. However, if the service industry isn’t your thing, there are certainly other ways to make your monthly rent. If you’re good with kids, consider applying for a part-time babysitting gig (ideally for a family with schedule flexibility). Being a nanny or “manny” can be extremely lucrative, and depending on the nature of the children, it can be a lot less taxing than being up on your feet all day. The Westside Nannies temp team is a great resource for picking up one-time babysitting jobs and temp assignments, and may be ideal for actors with busy audition schedules.
If you love animals, sign up for an account on Rover, where you can find local jobs walking dogs and providing in-home pet care. TaskRabbit is a great option for those looking to pick up odd jobs (anything from installing a TV to writing a résumé to organizing a closet).
Many actors also find work as personal assistants, oftentimes for industry professionals. This line of work definitely requires you to leave your ego at the door, but it can be a great learning experience and sometimes even lead to other industry opportunities (though this should be a bonus, not the expectation). The Help Company is a trusted domestic agency and always has a high demand for personal assistant roles throughout the city.
Looking to get cast? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.