Establishing yourself in this industry is no mean feat, but it's also far from impossible. Here are our tips for proactive actors looking to take their careers to the next level.
1. Have an Advocate
In the competitive landscape of acting, you've got to have someone in your corner willing to fight for you. When sizing up potential agents and managers, look for a rep who's honest with you, has a big-picture perspective, and isn't afraid to go the extra mile to shape your career.
For instance, agent Mimi Mayer of Angel City Talent is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating everything her clients have to offer, so she can submit them for the jobs that are right for them. "If I'm repeatedly talking to casting directors about a client and pitching her for breakdowns that look like a great fit, and the casting directors pull up her picture and say, 'I'm not feeling it; I'm not seeing it in the picture,' we need to revisit that client's photos," she says. "I need the best tools available to help me sell that client."
But talent reps aren't the only potential advocates. You can also cultivate this type of relationship by impressing your acting teacher with your work, by befriending and keeping in touch with more-experienced actors you meet on jobs, or by catching the eye of a casting director at an audition.
Though he was fairly unknown at the time, Ken Jeong impressed CD Allison Jones so much at their initial meeting that she kept bringing him in, eventually hiring him for a small co-star role on "The Office" and ultimately for his breakout turn as cranky Dr. Kuni in "Knocked Up." "I really owe it all to her in many ways, because she would just keep bringing me in for these projects, sometimes straight to producer reads," he says. "She always believed in me."
2. Find a Supportive Environment
Acting classes provide you with a place to fine-tune your technique. Theater companies offer a chance to be part of a bona fide community, all working toward a common goal. Networking groups like the Actors' Network allow you to bond with others on the same path as you. And sometimes, if those arenas aren't providing you with all you need, you have to create your own environment.
Actor Blake Robbins says he found great environments at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and theater groups like New York's Naked Angels. But he has also explored other, less conventional communities. For example, he has a standing lunch date with actor and director friends. "We talk about life, films we've seen, our experiences in the business, and the hopes and dreams we hold for each other and ourselves," he says. "They inspire me to be better and do more. This time with them gives voice to the things I will one day do. As an artist, I can think of nothing more valuable to the artistic process."
Robbins also attends Naked Angels' weekly cold-reading series, Tuesdays@9, where a group of actors meets and reads material submitted by writers. "The primary purpose is to serve the writers," he says, "but I get tremendous value out of showing up, being handed material, and, without preparation, just taking a rip. It allows me to stay in the moment, serve the material, take risks, and learn to trust myself."
There are many similar series in New York and Los Angeles. "The best thing to do is keep your attention tuned to the word of mouth," Robbins says, "and you'll hear of them through other actors and writers."
3. Do Student Films
Student films get a bad rap. The sets aren't always the most organized, trying to score a copy of the project can be like pulling teeth, and the "pay" usually consists of a harried "Thank you" and a bag of Cheetos. But doing student films provides an actor with valuable benefits: practical experience on a set, tape for your reel, and a chance to network with the A-list directors of tomorrow. And some student films eventually make their way into festivals, giving you some exposure.
Kito Robinson, who has acted in a number of student films, notes that you have to prepare for a less-regimented environment—but ultimately it can help you hone your craft. "When I'm on a student film set, I know there probably won't be a script supervisor who will pay attention to continuity issues, so I make a concerted effort to pay attention to where I am, what position my body is in, and what I was saying at any given moment," she says. "The pressure of being on set is different from practice at home or in class."
And once the project wraps, do your best to stay in the loop. To ensure she gets her copy, Robinson usually follows up with emails to the director.
Actor Tommy Smeltzer, who has done student films and recently directed a short of his own, says it can only benefit you to be part of any life a film might have beyond the classroom—by attending festival screenings, for instance. "It's important to support the filmmaker," he says. "But it's also one of the very few opportunities you get to mingle in a room full of filmmakers and industry pros who have just viewed your work."
4. Create Your Own Work
Only you know what you're capable of. And sometimes the jobs you book don't represent the full range of your talent. With filmmaking technology more accessible and affordable than ever, from DV cameras to editing software like Final Cut Pro, there's nothing stopping you from crafting your own project—something to finally show the industry what you can do.
For Internet-savvy actors, Web series are especially fruitful ground. They allow for plenty of artistic freedom and can attract buzz in our short-attention-spanned society. Actor Felicia Day, creator of the online hit "The Guild" , recommends using the Internet to tell the story only you can tell. "Take a risk and do something that you haven't seen before," she says. "We've seen six friends who live in New York. Tell something that's really unique about you. It might not appeal to everyone, it might not get a TV deal tomorrow, but at least you're going to find a voice."
In putting together your own project—be it a Web series, an independent film, or a play—you will likely be involved in all aspects of the production, from fundraising to casting to marketing. It can be exhausting, but it can also provide a valuable education on the mechanics of production.
As Day notes, there are many resources for networking with other filmmakers and finding crew, such as the L.A.-based organization Tubefilter , which hosts monthly Web TV meet-ups. But if you can't get a crew together, she says, "don't let that stop you. You can have a consumer camera, and as long as you have good sound and put a little thought into powdering your face and putting something colorful in the background, you can make something that's pretty good."
5. Hone Your Audition Skills
You know all the maxims: Be prepared, be on time, make strong choices. But here are a few little items that have tripped up even the best actors:
If you receive sides for several scenes, check the page numbers to see when in the chronology your scenes take place. This will help you better understand the characters' evolving relationships. Don't try to play the whole story at once; just find the central action of your sides and play that.
Practice walking across the room, shaking hands, and saying hello, and know that your audition begins even before you step into the audition room. You may be under scrutiny before you enter the office—and in L.A. you could have a camera trained on you as you drive onto the studio lot. Andrew Barnicle, artistic director of Laguna Playhouse, usually polls staffers who worked the lobby about the pre- and post-audition attitudes and behaviors of auditioning actors. "I don't want to lock myself up in a rehearsal room for four weeks with neurotics," he says.
Upon entering the room for an on-camera audition, casting director Chris Game advises, don't plop down in the first chair you see. Slate first, then ask whether you should sit. And don't move the chair; it's preset.
If you're asked to read an additional scene, writes Basil Hoffman in his book "Cold Reading and How to Be Good at It," say, "I'd be happy to. How much time do I have?" In other words, see if they'll give you some time to prepare; try not to get sucked into a very cold reading.
If your character is reading, don't put the book in your lap and look down at it, Game suggests. Hold it up without covering your face. They don't care if that's not the way a real person would read.
For Shakespeare monologues, rarely do they want to hear a British accent. Chris Acebo doesn't when he auditions for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This applies not just to Shakespeare but to most auditions: You can use an accent if it's indicated in the script, but only if you're sure yours is flawless.
And this from Barnicle: "Don't complain about the room: too much sunlight, too cold, too many mirrors, bad acoustics, etc. All that comes with the rooms I can afford to rent."
6. Understand the Business Side of Acting
Perfecting your craft can seem like a full-time job, but don't forget about the business side of your career. "You need to treat your career as a business as well as an art form, because you, as the actor, are a business," says Ryan Revel, a manager at BenderSpink. "The people you employ as your representatives are there to give you advice and counsel, but the final decision should be made by the artist. The actor is the CEO, and the manager, agent, lawyer, publicist, business manager are the board members."
And you need to be able to trust those board members. Learn how agencies work, thoroughly research an agent or manager before signing a contract, and seek the counsel of fellow actors. "Never sign a contract with representation without reading the full contract and getting legal advice to see if it's legit," says Revel. "Also, if a rep promises representation if and only when you sign a contract, that should be a red flag."
That said, don't get so wrapped up in the business of acting that you neglect your art. Manager Jon Rubinstein of Authentic Talent & Literary Management says it's rarely helpful for actors to spend a lot of time poring over the industry trade papers, for example. "It simply induces anxiety about what other people are doing that you're not," he says. "You'd be better off spending the time looking at what actions you can take to bring yourself closer to your vision. One of our clients recently wrote, produced, and starred in a tiny-budgeted film that subsequently went to South by Southwest. She could have complained about the lack of opportunities for her in the film business, and instead she chose to take action, using her talent and her network of friends to create a terrific little indie."
7. Be Smart About Promoting Yourself
Most actors know the basics: Have a headshot that pops and looks like you; assemble a clear, honest, well-organized résumé; be savvy about sending out post cards and the like. But sometimes seemingly inconsequential elements of your self-promotion are just as key.
Acting coach and casting director Jason Buyer, who runs the consulting service Marketing the Actor , notes some little things that can help an actor stand out. For instance, choose a headshot that will look good as a thumbnail image. A lot of casting is done online nowadays, so "most casting directors are bringing in actors based on the thumbnail," he says. Because a thumbnail is so small, it's "even harder for actors to get noticed," he adds, and a good thumbnail allows the CD to still see the actor's features.
Sometimes clever marketing entails a bit of legwork, even if you have an agent working hard on your behalf. Actor Stephon Fuller has had a lot of success by personally dropping off his headshot and résumé at casting offices. "It helped get my name and face out in the marketplace," he says. "I was able to help casting directors become familiar with my existence even though, in some cases, we had never actually met."
Fuller, who works steadily in film and television, notes he has booked roles in projects such as Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal" thanks to drop-offs. "It helps my agents because there are casting offices that will call me in without my agents having to pitch or submit me, sometimes for roles that aren't released on the breakdowns," he says. "My agents appreciate the fact that I'm doing what I can to help the entire team move forward."
8. Find Your Niche
There are a million and one talented actors out there trying to make it. So ask yourself: What unique qualities do I have to offer agents, CDs, and directors? Honing in and capitalizing on them will help you move ahead. "Be comfortable with being who you really are, as a personality and as an actor, because that comfort is what will mold your type and define what casting directors see you as," says agent Gilah Elul of the Kolstein Talent Agency.
So how do you figure out what those qualities are? "Ask," says Mark Atteberry, an actor who also teaches a class in figuring out your type. "Ask people who'll give you an honest answer, not the answer you necessarily want to hear. Talk to your agent or a casting director. Hire an image consultant. Take a 'type' class. Ask your acting teacher. Or another approach would be to watch yourself on film: Take note of your habits and your quirks, the things you do over and over. How do you handle situations and confrontations compared to others? What choices do you most naturally and often make? Embrace those qualities and get comfortable being you."
Though typing can be your friend, no actor wants to fall permanently into the typecasting trap, of course. Atteberry suggests utilizing indie film and theater if you're looking to broaden your horizons. "The stage is the actor's medium," he says, "and there is no better place to try out new types than in the theater."
Getting others to see you in a different light could also involve something as simple as new headshots, says Elul. "Think about taking a shot that's out of the box, something to shake up the way that casting directors have been thinking about you so far. If you're typically cast as the ingénue type, think of perhaps trying to capture more of an edgy look or appeal."
9. Learn How to Network
There are two types of networking: meetings by chance and meetings by choice. "I believe that the odds of success are greater when you get the ability to identify people and draw them into your life by choice," says Los Angeles actor Kristine Oller, who coaches other artists on career strategy .
Oller recommends starting by asking yourself the following question: What are you focused on achieving at this time? "Most people are not specific enough with their focus," she says. "It's not enough to say, 'I want to be an actor.' That's so broad. What do you want? Even in the field of voiceover, there's audio books, there's animation, there's commercial, there's narration."
Once you've narrowed your focus, ask yourself: What information do I need to know to move a step or two toward that focus? "And it could be anything," says Oller. "It could be, 'If I want to get into audio books, how does someone with my background start like that? Has anybody else ever started from my same circumstances? Who are the people in that world that find people like me?' "
Next, ask yourself: Who could answer these questions for me? "If you network with people connected to your focus, you're going to get guidance and you're going to get opportunities that move you toward your focus," says Oller, adding that it's not the quantity of your contacts that counts but the quality. "You have to meet a few of the right people for you. If you meet one person a month, that's 12 people a year. Even if one of those business contacts turns into a valuable relationship, that one relationship can rock your world."
Oller says you can increase the odds of getting the response you want by tweaking the way you phrase your requests. So, for example, instead of asking someone, "If I think of any other questions, can I email them to you?" try the following: "If, further down the line, I had a question that fit your area of expertise, would you be open to having me send it your way?" "This phrasing reassures them that you will not send them every single question you ever have—or worse, become an unwanted pen pal," she says. "Also, this request is more difficult to say no to, because what you're actually asking is would they be open."
Lastly, many people equate networking with schmoozing and selling, "but it's really about marketing, and marketing is just educating," Oller says. "I tell my clients that you're just educating people. You're saying, 'Let me tell you about what I'm doing right now in case you or someone you know might find it beneficial now or at some time in the future.' There's no pressure."
10. Get A Life!
How easily we forget there's life beyond acting. It's essential for actors to have passions outside the business, providing themselves with other creative outlets and a balance against what can be a stressful and frustrating pursuit. And to play different characters, you need to bring a variety of life experiences to your work.
Los Angeles actor Kelly Stables has several outside interests: Producing a Web series , home improvement, yoga, painting, and hiking are some of her favorites. She says, "It's always good to be reminded as an actor in L.A. that there is in fact life outside of driving around from audition to audition and getting, if you're lucky enough, your two minutes in the room to say your piece and then drive two hours back. Because that can be really daunting for your soul and your time. I'm of the philosophy that art really does imitate life, and that's why we find it so intriguing and so interesting, whether it be dance or painting or, in our world, acting and performing. If you're not out there living, how are you to know what it is that you're supposed to perform or how it is you're supposed to be" in a role?
Stables also finds that her extracurricular activities affect her attitude. Take her participation in a softball league: "You only get so many chances at the plate, first of all, if you're lucky enough to get on a team, and the odds of booking a part are a lot like the odds of even getting on base or getting home, really. But you've got to keep trying and you've got to believe that you can do it."
Here's what a few other actors say about a life outside of acting:
"I still play piano for enjoyment. There's almost no better stress reliever than performing the music of Billy Joel while channeling his persona. I get to play and act! Embracing the craft, in a general sense, and not being 'that theater person' sometimes causes me to doubt the ability to truly call myself an actor. However, my solace is found in the fact that I am a human with various creative interests. You have to be a human to effectively play one."
"Although I'm a musical theater performer, my degree is not in acting. I have a master's in psychology and use it as a certified life coach. I love the freedom of having a steady income source and a job that I can take with me to regional theater gigs, since I do all of the coaching in the morning on the phone. Life coaching also allows me to hear people's stories and understand how they operate, which definitely helps with acting."
"A life outside of acting grounds me. I think too much of one thing will make one insane. A major block in my life was my relationship with money, and hyperfocusing on acting never helped. Hyperfocusing with money issues actually sabotaged my drive for an acting career. I'm okay now."