A 4-Step Guide for Success in L.A., Part 1

Too many actors I meet don’t have a plan. They’ve moved to Los Angeles to act and that’s about all they know.

Occasionally they’ll take a class, try joining some actor support group, attempt to network by partying or attending industry events, do a casting director workshop, try stand up or take an improv class, shoot new headshots, try to get an agent or manager, get dropped, try to get a “better” agent or manager, take a “business of acting” workshop, consider doing a play, book a job and get all energized and excited, then not book a job for weeks or months and start questioning everything, and all the while the years fly by like one long summer. One day, they wake up, they’re in their early 30s, they’ve been “at it” for a decade or more, and wondering whether they’ve just been deluding themselves the whole time that this is what they were born to do.

It doesn’t have to be like that for you. You just need a tried-and-true game plan. Having a solid plan can make all the difference in the world in making your journey in acting joyful and the sacrifices you make along the way worth it. If you know where you’re going and where you are on the path that leads there, all you have to do is focus on the next step. Achieving success, whatever it means to you, becomes all the less daunting when all you have to do is focus on one next bite-sized and achievable goal. Will Smith put it this way, “You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say, ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”

So here are the bricks in the order they should be laid as best as I can suggest to you. It’s not the only plan. It’s a plan. Tweak it, mold it, add or subtract to it, but my hope is that it inspires or guides you to set up a framework that will propel you forward with optimism, clarity, and confidence. Whenever anyone from back home in Minnesota asks me what they should do when they come to L.A., this is what I tell them.

Step 1: Stability
If you can, come here with a car and five grand or more saved up. That will buy you three months to get your foundation set up. Your first objective should be stability. Find a place to live and get a job that brings in enough money to pay all your bills and gives you at least a few hundred dollars more to spend and save. It doesn’t matter if that job is at night or during the daytime, it just has to pay enough. Just make sure you’re not working too many jobs or too many hours that you don’t have time for Step 2.

The goal here is to set yourself so you’re not freaked out about how you’re going to survive and gives you the resources to attack Step 2. Don’t worry about agents, acting, auditioning, headshots, or anything else right now. Just get yourself into a stable, sustainable position with some cash to spend.

Step 2: Training
Now that you’re stable, get your ass in class. No matter how many regional commercials or plays you did back in Bumblef*ck, Idawherever, acting in L.A. is a completely different environment. If you think you’re good fresh off the boat, you may be, but you still need to learn how things work here in the Super Bowl of acting.

If all you’ve done is theater, you need to learn how to act on camera. If you have on-camera experience, you need to learn the different genres of on-camera acting work; drama, single-cam comedy, and multi-cam comedy, as well as the tonal differences among shows within a genre, and the writing styles of specific writers of network shows and films.

If you come to an audition where we’re looking for jazz and you play heavy metal, it doesn’t matter how good you are. We can’t use you. And, we can’t waste our time bringing in an actor that doesn’t understand how things work yet. That was me for the first four years in Los Angeles: My head up my own ass, thinking I was good because I worked consistently for 10 years in Minneapolis doing print, industrials, and regional commercials.

But I wasn’t great—not by L.A. standards. And I didn’t start booking until I humbled myself and realized that I needed to learn how to be brilliant, not just good, not even just great; brilliant. That’s what it takes to book and book consistently at the highest level in L.A.

With those few hundred bucks of disposable income, get yourself into a great class, doing all the auditing and due diligence described in my previous articles and my book to make sure you’re in a good learning environment. Eventually, your coach and you will begin to recognize that your work in a particular genre is consistently solid. With competence comes confidence. Now you’re ready to attack Step 3, coming to you next week in Part 2.

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Shaan Sharma
Shaan Sharma is a session director, on-camera acting teacher, and author of “A Session Director’s Guide to Commercial Acting in L.A.”
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