10 Tips for Actors

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I get e-mails daily from actors asking questions. If time (and brain clarity) permit, I’ll gladly answer.

Below are 10 tips for an actor's career culled from these private exchanges.

1. Contacting Talent Agents.

“Paul, I'm compiling a list of agents and casting directors to send my headshot/resume to. Is it recommended to send packets to one person in the office or all?”

It’s best to target one agent in the office.

Most offices have an assistant opening mail. It's that assistant who decides to pass along your materials. If an actor sends more than one mailing to multiple agents in an office that assistant will often trash the additional copies and pass along only one copy of the actor's materials.

If after your first round of mailings there’s no response, try other agents in the office. Wait at least a month.

Note: Pilot season is the worst time of the year to do a mailing. April, May, summer, and fall are the best times to target agents.

2. “Extra” Work on a Resume.

“Paul, I teach at the University of Albany using your book as a text. A student of mine had a question. Below are his question and my reply.

Student: Should background and stand-in have their own categories on my acting resume?

My reply: If your resume is still a bit thin, then for now you can include them under ‘Film’ or ‘Television’ headings. Just be sure, in the 'role' column that you list your contributions to the project truthfully—be it 'Background' or 'Stand In.' Once your resume starts to fill out. then lose these credits.

Any hints on how to better answer this type of question would be appreciated!”

You're near spot on about listing extra work on a resume. Unfortunately because of a stigma of extra—created by some over zealous background actors—and because extra work is more about look and warm bodies than talent, listing the credits drags down a resume. But as you know we all begin with a blank page. Your advisory to the student is the best advice for this point in their career.

3. Giving Up.

“I’m currently wondering whether to try working in the ‘industry’ or just leave the country for good and find a proper job back home? What do you suggest?”

You ask a tough question.

Without knowing your talents, history, goals, strengths, challenges, and overall state-of-mind, I can’t give you an informed opinion.

You need to ask yourself what you want. What are your hopes, ambitions, and desires? No one can give this answer but you. The best person for the advice you seek is you. You know best your strengths, challenges, and frustrations. Ask yourself. But don’t follow the immediate response. Give yourself time to consider alternatives and consequences of your instinct.

4. Filling Out the Resume.

“I've been a professional actor for 16 years. I'm a member of SAG-AFTRA and have no day job. I live in a small market that has very few film auditions and even fewer female roles when there are actual films being shot locally. My list of films is short. As a casting director, when you see a resume that is light on films, do you automatically assume a person is inexperienced?”

With this business being very subjective, I can only speak for myself when I'm presented a resume with few or no film credits. My reactions cover a multiple of reflections: the actor hasn't had opportunities; the actor may be lacking in skill; or simply, the actor is just one among many of the competition fighting for a job.

Everyone begins with a blank resume. Everyone trudges along at the start with a resume thin on credits. Other than an actor honing skills and marketing the hell out of their business, there are few, other, proactive options for the actor. Luck is the major remaining factor to filling a resume.

5. Demo Reels Online.

“I have my demo reels on my website. Is it also important to have it on casting sites? I don't have it on now but when I submit I usually leave a note to check my website. I’m not getting a lot of auditions.”

Imagine yourself as a casting director. What's the easiest way for you to see an actor’s reel if you’re on a casting site? Seeing the video there directly? Or endlessly clicking to find the actor’s reel?

If your video(s) are not on casting sites that casting directors visit, you're giving an advantage to your competition.

6. Crashing an Audition.

“Is showing up to an audition without an appointment something that is a horrible idea, frowned upon, tolerated or encouraged?”

Crashing an audition is generally something—at the Broadway and studio level of the business—that is not welcomed. However, as Broadway actor, Michael Mastro explains in my book, he's used tactics that have worked for him. And if something he does works, it’s great for all involved—if the casting people are open to the crash.

7. DVDs and Digital Marketing Submissions.

“I recently auditioned for the ‘Chorus Line,’ National Tour. I did well, but got cut after learning the opening combination. I know if I had gotten a chance to sing maybe I would've moved forward. Is it completely against protocol to send a reel of me singing 'At the Ballet' to the casting director with a note? Is there anything I can do in this situation? Or just wait for the next time around? Thanks so much!”

Never be hesitant in pushing yourself regarding your marketing. Send the video, but know this: Most casting directors don't open their own mail, an assistant or intern does. Your video may or may not make it to the desk of the casting director. And once on the desk, there is no guarantee it'll be viewed. But, at least you can have the satisfaction of never having to say to yourself "I should have sent something."

8. Paid Auditions and Seminars.

“Is it a conflict of interest to have to pay agents and casting directors to audition for them? I've been a dues paying SAG-AFTRA member for years, but they won’t see me. (OK so I'm world famous in Rockland and not NYC) but they won't see me.”

I still feel uncomfortable with these one-shot seminars. With my own seminars, I alleviate my personal discomfort by offering three weeks of marketing and audition tools to my students rather than the standard hit-and-run-audition seminars. In general, “paid auditions” are now the most effective way of displaying your talents directly to agents. I know many actors personally who have gotten signed by agents and/or landed jobs from seminars.

To actors who object to the seminars, I ask this question, “If they are so immoral then why are actors then ones creating the demand? And how do you explain the actors who have careers because of a seminar?” Times and marketing methods change. Resist and you’ll be as useful as an 8-track tape in a Tesla.

9. New York or Los Angeles?

“I've always wanted to be an actor in film. Which place is 'better' for that between NYC and L.A.?”

Actors with screen ambitions who do better in L.A. have one or more of the following: an agent, past film/TV credits, an 'L.A.' hot look, a definable character, an unrelenting drive.

Actors with screen ambitions who go to New York first do so because there’s an active screen community with film and episodics shooting; there are more opportunity to keep their acting skills strong by doing theater; and New York offers an actor opportunity to build credits which to transfer well to L.A.

There are no absolutes to any of the above. This business is like gambling—you never know if you're going to win or lose. Keep playing at your best and try to beat the odds.

10. Fuel Your Passion.

When my career path is pitted with potholes, I ask myself, "Why the hell do I cast, direct, teach, and write?" You may ask yourself, “Why the hell am I an actor?” when faced with career adversity.

Answer: I know nothing better, at present, which doesn't feel like “work.”

If ever you find yourself continually bemoaning your career participation as drudgery then time has come to move on. You've lost your love.

Nourish your joys and the journey will be more fulfilling.

Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher, and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple, and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Backstage and is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.