Our blog took a short break from publishing to recap what actors and readers of Acting in London really want to know. In return, we’re bringing you an extensive and very detailed article on acting career basics and what every new aspiring actor needs to know. Bookmark this page (CTRL + D) or otherwise save it for future because it’s going to be a long read.
Getting into acting can be very confusing for someone who just decided to start. There many things to know about this industry if you want to appear professional and improve your chances of success:
- Who are casting directors, and what do they do?
- Do actors need talent agents right away, and what about managers?
- What type of most common acting scams are out there?
- What are actor’s essential marketing tools and how to use them?
- Do you need private acting classes, or group classes, or both, or neither?
- What about nudity? Acting showcases? Staying safe when auditioning?
Below, I will try to answer these and other questions. In the future, I’ll come back to this article to update it with more information (so definitely bookmark it!) and if you have any questions on acting basics that haven’t been answered – let me know if the comments section.
In addition, if you’re new to the pursuit of acting career and show business in general, I also recommend browsing through some of these other extensive articles we published before:
- Acting for Beginners 101 – The Ultimate Guide
- 5 Step Plan on How to Start an Acting Career
- How to Get an Agent 101: Acting Business How-Tos
- Networking for Actors & How to Get Your Big Break
- How Old is Too Old to Start an Acting Career?
Acting Career Basics: What Every Aspiring Actor Needs to Know
1. Pick a path and narrow down your goals
If you think you want to do “something in the entertainment” or “any kind of acting”, but you aren’t sure what exactly, you need to hit the brakes for a second. Don’t make another step until you have figured out what exactly is it that you want to do and what interests you the most.
It’s very important to narrow down your goals, and I’ll explain why in a minute. Here are a few sample questions for you to ponder on.
- Do you want to be on stage?
- Do you want to be in front of cameras?
- Do you want to be a comedian?
- Is it film work or TV work that you’re after?
- Do you want to be a comedic actor, or are you not funny at all?
- Do you write your own screenplays or plays with parts for yourself?
- Do you want to do improvisation and comedy sketches?
- Maybe you’d like to become a commercial actor first?
- Are you interested in voice-over work?
- Do you produce your own things?
- Do you also want to be an all-around filmmaker, or actor-writer-director?
- Do you want to do it all, or exclude some of these paths?
You’re going to have to make a choice here. It doesn’t matter which one it is. What matters is that you know exactly what you want, and you are sober enough to understand how much more difficult it’s going to be to get anywhere in every one of these fields.
Many ambitious newcomers who just get into the industry want to do everything. They want to write, direct, film, act in every play, every student film, and so on. But it’s very naive to think that you as a person can actually accomplish that. Remember, acting is a business and you are a product.
Think about it: if you were looking for the best quality product, do you pick something from a company that focuses and specializes in that specific category, or a company that does “a bit of everything”? To become a great actor and a working one, you must stay focused and grounded in that specific area until you’re free and established enough to venture out further.
So pick a specific path, and then expand into other sectors (if that’s your aspiration) once you begin to cover some ground in the entertainment industry.
In this business, pretty much everyone has to put in years’ worth of dues and each branch of the industry has a different set of dues to be paid. If you start out along one path, and later decide to switch to another, there is a good chance you’ll have to step backwards. How far you are going to have to step back will depend on individual situations.
True – the experience from your first “trip” may have given you skills that are fully transferable, and that’s great because it’s not the same as going from being a plumber to being a film actor. But in this business, credit for your experience as a comedian will not always be transferable towards your new entertainment career as a stage actor.
In fact, it might even hinder your chances a little bit.
People have done it successfully before (Steve Coogan and Robin Williams come to mind), but you’re still going to have to put in those early dues. And to make matters worse, the further you go along any of those paths, the harder it will be to switch. Do you think you can follow all paths simultaneously? Think again. A few is an advantage; all of them is a mistake.
The dues to be paid along each path are long and arduous if you’re going to be working hard, and trust me, even fueled by espresso and Red Bull mixed together (topping it off with any and all illicit substances), there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Don’t be one of those “do it all” people who eventually accomplish nothing.
Be great in one or two things rather than average in multiple. Once you’ve mastered a certain field, go ahead and expand.
Just like it was said over and over before, this is show business and there are no rules for one out of a thousand people. But that one person has to be incredibly lucky, or be the offspring of some big-shot producer. So for most of us, the advice is sound. Pick a direction and follow it religiously; believe in it.
If it’s a film acting career that you’re after, then you’re in luck – our responsibility here is to serve all kinds of actors as the title of this website implies. However, that is not to say that any other creative mind cannot apply the advice given here or in any other of our articles to pursue their career in the entertainment industry.
You can always have several related pursuits. You can do short films, indie films, TV work and features, and even stick commercial auditions in there. But you’ll have to prioritize and remember which path matters more to you, and which acting credits have the most weight on your resume based on the path that you have picked.
To sum up, before you go any further in your chosen path, decide what it is that you want to be.
If you want to be a stage actor, don’t miss rehearsals because of commitments for your comedy classes. If you want to be a screen actor, don’t sign up for a stage tour of half a year. If you want to balance both, it’s possible, but it’s going to be tough.
Remember that entertainment industry loves youth above all else, so you never want to waste a day if you don’t have to. Efficiency, strategic planning, sticking to your specific goals and making smart choices will bring you success.
So how does one make this decision?
I recommend reading no less than a dozen show business books regarding those paths you’re considering, and talk to as many people as possible who are pursuing their dreams along those paths.
Then take a bunch of classes, go to places where you can be with yourself for a moment and think, consult your spiritual leader, do some yoga, talk to your family and friends, do anything else you think might help, and then – flip a coin.
Well, don’t really flip a coin, but decide; and once you know what you’re destined to be, commit to it 100% until you completely fail, succeed or completely change your mind (not recommended, but things happen).
By the way, “dozens of books” was not a metaphor. Check out the books we recommend for actors to read; you can get them either in your local library or, if you have an extra penny, buy from Amazon.
Read them all and learn.
How long will this take you? 40 to 60 hours? You’ll be working at least that much each week in the industry. Maybe even for the rest of your life. So consider this reading assignment your first week on the job of being an actor; you just won’t get paid for it. This is an easy edge you can get over the multitude of uneducated aspiring acting wannabes against whom you are competing.
You’ve already made the first smart step by reading this article (and hopefully browsing further through website), which will put you slightly ahead of your fellow thespians. You’re an actor, for Pete’s sake, so do your research and do your homework!
2. Your first baby steps in show business
I know that we have already busted your chops all over this acting blog on how hard it is to become a working actor. But now as we are going through some additional information on the acting business, I would like to quickly remind you of that. Very few in the entertainment industry has it quite as rough as actors. In fact, Business Insider rated acting as one of the toughest and most competitive careers to pursue, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
The reason so many actors in Los Angeles, London and New York are so thin has nothing to do with aesthetic standards – it’s because they can’t afford food. Screenwriters may be at the bottom of the totem pole, but at least they don’t get rejected just because their breasts are too small, or their face is the wrong shape, or they’re too short.
Yes, actors pretty much have the raw deal.
This obsession with looks is more common in Los Angeles than in London, and it usually pertains to screen actors, but it gradually transfers itself all over the world and onto the stage as well thanks to films, television and internet (thanks, media!)
So if you insist on trying to be the next Brad or Jen or Jen or Ben, well, all I can say is – stay strong. Hopefully the following section will help you to get over to the other side. Alive.
While there are a few different points along an actor’s path that could be dubbed the first “meaningful” step, until you have had a significant speaking role with enough screen time in a major indie or studio film, or a recurring role on a TV show, or are getting enough commercials and bit parts to eke out a reasonable living, your life is going to be a constant struggle of auditions, classes, schmoozing, and primping.
Certainly a significant initial accomplishment would be getting a really good manager or a decent talent agent, but signing with one will not guarantee you roles, just as not having one will not necessarily prevent you from getting roles.
Moreover, while a manager is something you’re able to get somewhat easily – but not necessarily need to in the very beginning – signing with a decent talent agent that will get you into rooms of important auditions will be a challenge. So my advice focuses on a two-pronged attack: focusing on getting roles without an agent or manager, while continuing the search for one.
When you finally arrive and settle in the city you’ve picked to pursue your dream career, chances are you won’t have any representation, you won’t have much of a credit on your resume and you probably are not in any actor’s union, such as Equity in the UK or SAG-AFTRA in the US. In this case, you’ll be starting from square one.
Your earliest steps should be focused on finding and taking any role that comes along, paid or non-paid gigs, both to build a reel and to try to generate interest in yourself as an actor among industry people, until you finally catch the eye of someone who can get you that breakthrough part.
Here’s what you do: if screen acting is your goal, perform in any short films you can get into (but preferably good projects with professional filmmakers attached to it) and audition for student films (thesis student films are usually best).
And above all – network, network, and network so more. Get into various organizations and groups like “Surviving Actors”, follow news and events from Equity and stay on top of updates from Acting in London website.
If you can afford it (and since you’re an actor, you probably can’t), or if you manage to find a paying job with flexible hours, another good option for networking is to try to do an internship at a small casting office, management company, agency or production company (or possibly all of them – just not all at once). Aside from expanding your network and building connections, such an internship will also provide you with an internal view of how these places are run, and more importantly, how this business works.
Now let’s quickly look at the most important things that make the acting industry what it is.
3. Private acting classes and not drama school training
For the benefit of this example, I’m going to assume that you have recently either graduated from a drama school or a University with an acting degree, or that you decided not to go to one (that is, you’re free to do whatever the hell you want).
If you are currently training at a drama school, I would suggest to keep the below advice in mind for the day of your graduation. You won’t have the time or the energy for this right now; plus, you definitely need to buckle down on your drama school training and grades, so make sure that when you’re out of that place, you are the best actor you can possibly be.
Now, based on the initial assumption of you currently NOT being a part of a drama school program, I will advise you on how an actor can approach the situation of being a new face in the city.
After your big move and while you’re doing all of this schmoozing, auditioning and interning in your huge city of dreams, you’ll also need to think very seriously about taking acting classes. This is a whole other scary world where money seems to disappear overnight and hacks abound. Fortunately, you have us to straighten you out.
First, research, research, research for a month or two until you are sure what acting class best fits you, and not who you think is the best name for your resume. Find a class that meets every week, and that guarantees personal attention from the acting teacher.
Your acting coach should be a mentor who can guide you and help you understand the artist’s lifestyle. Choosing the best acting teacher for you is a very personal process and it may take you years to finally find the perfect fit. You can also find the rundown of all acting classes, drama schools and acting teachers on this website.
4. Headshots that are not portraits, and not modeling photos
A headshot is a professional 8 x 10 photograph of you. In the US market, a headshot is exclusively in color, but in the UK’s market, it should be black and white; however, it seems that the changes are coming onto our land rapidly, too. Very slowly, people are switching to color headshots, which is a very positive change.
Casting directors use actor headshots to decide if you have the “right look” for the part. If they don’t like your acting headshot, you won’t even get to audition. Consequently, if you call yourself an actor, you must have a headshot. It’s that simple.
Without a headshot, you won’t be cast unless you know the filmmakers personally and maybe not even then. And no, your friend cannot take a snapshot of you to be your headshot. The reason you’re reading this article is to stop yourself from making amateurish mistakes like these.
While you’re networking and taking acting classes, ask for recommendations on photographers. Before you settle on one, take a look at his or her work. Make sure the style suits your taste. This, alongside your acting resume/CV, will be your “business card,” so it should represent you favorably.
Also, pay attention if everyone looks the same in all the photographer’s pictures. If they do, don’t use that person’s services. Some of the most expensive photographers in the city who get a lot of hype do that, and after you spend £500/$1000 on pictures, you have something that looks good, but that looks like everyone else’s headshot and does not show off your amazing and unique personality.
Using black and white headshots in the 21st century seems a little outdated, but we all have to follow the trends set by casting directors. US actors are luckier, while UK is a little behind still.
For a headshot to be great, it is critical to capture your true personality and essence of who you are; the headshot must represent the kind of feeling people get when they meet you in real life. A little off to the side, and the casting director will hate you for misrepresenting yourself. Make sure to play safe, and get both, color and B&W headshots done, and always use both of them.
When you have found the right person to shoot with, a good photographer will fill you in on the dos and don’ts in terms of clothing, hair and make-up, but as a general rule, make sure to do your hair and make-up as you would normally look. Don’t try to be prettier than you normally are, or pose as a character – this is considered very unprofessional.
Go for one commercial shot (smiling) and one theatrical shot (soulful) at the bare minimum, and have them both in color and B&W (if you’re pursuing acting in London). If you’re an actor in Los Angeles or New York, then get only color headshots. Otherwise, check the trends in your country and see what are the most common headshot submissions on casting websites.
You can find a photographer that can do a decent job in a bigger city for about £200/$350. This is on the cheap side of “okay” headshots. I’d say if anything less than that, then you have to make sure that they definitely know what they are doing. Headshot is not a portrait, and you’d be surprised how many photographers don’t realize that.
Also, don’t pay any more than £300/$500 for a session. It’s not worth it for now when you’re just starting out and trying to stay on a budget. Once you start booking commercials and making £50,000/$150,000 per project (yes – that does happen), you can afford services that are more expensive. Until then, tread carefully.
After the photo shoot is over, they’ll make a “contact sheet” so you can see mini versions of the shots and/or give you a disk. You pick your favorite shot(s) and pay to get that retouched and maybe ask for some prints. Generally, a photographer will retouch one or two looks free of charge (that is to say the service was included in your initial price), but you can always pay a little more to get more looks.
After, you go and get yourself about two hundred copies of that stuff, and always carry around some with you like a bible. You never know who you might accidentally bump into in the city – stealthily hand them over your acting resume/CV and headshot.
Here’s a detailed article on one actor’s experience of getting actor headshots in Los Angeles and what he has learned from the process.
5. Background work or what it’s like being an extra
People doing background work are known as “extras”. Listen closely – if you’re trying to become an actor, there’s only ONE reason why you would want to do background work. The reason is to see how a filming set works and what it’ll be like when you have an actual acting role.
Try being an extra for a day or two, or possibly even three, on each type of set: film, hour-long episodic television drama, and comedy-based show. Each category has differences in the way they work that are worthwhile to know before you chase after parts in feature films (plus, you’ll probably find it fascinating as you start off your journey).
The shine of being a background artist should wear off pretty quickly though, and if you spend any more than a few days on a set as an extra, you’re just wasting your time. You don’t earn much, you’re treated like mindless cattle, and most people doing it have nothing else going for them in life (on the other hand, if you need to research a role for a psycho-killer, it’s the perfect place – in the US, background work is one of the jobs on the list jails hand out to ex-cons telling them where they can work without a background check).
What did you say? Discovered on a set?
Please, I thought we already settled this matter in multiple instances throughout this blog. You will NOT be “discovered” while doing background work, not even if you’re a stand-in, but you’re welcome to try (remember that people like Brad Pitt and Clark Gable couldn’t get “discovered” while they worked years as extras).
Background work is a dead end, and it’s NOT acting.
Sure, you’ve probably heard the old wife’s tale about some extra who was asked to say a line, but it probably didn’t happen and even if it did, it’s not going to happen to you. Brad Pitt tried all sorts of tricks to get noticed when he used to do background gigs – none of them worked; he never got discovered that way.
But above all, if you spend your time doing a lot of extra work, you won’t have a life outside of it to do all of the important things you need to do for your actual acting career, and here’s why.
Call times for extras are usually very early, around 6 a.m., and go well into the night, sometimes even 11 p.m. or 12 midnight. Or even worse, a lot of films do night shoots that require you to be there from 11 p.m. until 11 a.m. Unlike actors who get to come and go and chill in their cushy trailers, you’re on the set the whole time, most likely getting bored to death because there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go.
You’ll be sitting on a folding chair during downtime, if you’re lucky. Most of the time, they even expect you to provide your own wardrobe and make-up, so figure another hour dealing with that, unpaid, at home.
Forget about it. Background work is great to start off and learn the ins and outs of the way film sets work. Once you’ve been there a couple of times, move on and don’t look back.
6. Online casting calls, secret breakdowns and regular mailings
Casting calls, castings, or casting listings or sometimes casting breakdowns (in the US) refer to the industry’s websites that provide real-time publication of all open castings – job positions for actors to submit themselves (usually online). In the UK’s market, the biggest and most reputable website where experienced actors submit themselves for jobs is Spotlight.
Since everything these days is Internet-dependent, casting offices and talent agencies do the exact same thing – publish online casting calls and submit actors for them. An alternative to online submissions is mailings (using the regular mail, with envelopes and everything); however, this method is outdated and is now only used on two occasions.
First, submissions for a very particular bigger part that you somehow got information about and know the mailing address of the casting offices that are auditioning for this role (you better be REALLY fitting for that part if you’re going to do this).
Second – and this is not actually casting call related – mailings of your headshots and acting CV/resume to talent agents or managers in hopes to get invited for a meeting and ultimately be signed by that person.
However, my advice is to not bother with regular mail unless it’s the only way an acting agency or casting offices accept submissions (which is rare). Otherwise, stick to online casting websites.
There are three kinds of online casting calls:
- the ones that are intended for the eyes of agents and managers only, who must register and prove their business to get access;
- the ones that are more open and available for anybody with a paid account on one of the reputable casting websites;
- and those usually named “open castings” or “opportunities”, where anybody can submit for free without any membership or even a proper headshot (these are mostly non-paid, low quality projects but can be a good opportunity at the very beginning).
The first type of casting calls is the most valuable as this is where the biggest feature films or stage productions like Broadway and West End are looking for talent. If you’re not signed with a good talent agent, there is almost no chance that you can get access to such casting breakdowns, which means you can’t even show up to audition.
However, if by any chance you somehow find a way to submit yourself for a casting call of that caliber, there’s a potential for big success and some serious money, provided that you actually: a) get the audition, and then b) book the part. It’s not easy, but these casting calls is what your whole career is all about. These are the opportunities that you’ll be after for most of your career as a working actor.
If, thanks to some mystical powers, you do get access to these very special, very pretty, very magical and rare casting calls without having an acting agent, know that television and commercial submissions must get to casting offices the same day those calls come out or you’ve missed the opportunity to be called in. You have to be on top of this.
Everything is very fast-paced in commercial and TV world, so casting for those projects happens in less than a week; they start seeing people the day after the openings go online, if not the same day.
NEVER try to drop off in person, which will be a big waste of time, and show how unprofessional you are. Play by the rules. If you’re sending in your casting submission by regular snail mail, use the very best delivery service – they will deliver your stuff the very same day.
Submissions for certain movie projects can be sent through regular mail as well, and even though the casting is done over a couple of months, try to drop your stuff in the mailbox the very same day to increase your chance of exposure. Just remember that regular mail submissions are seen less and less these days, and will completely die out in another few years.
When searching through the membership-based casting breakdowns that you DO have access to, and if you find something a casting call that is very unique (i.e. a required unusual skill or look that they will have a hard time finding), you can even try to call the casting office. More often than not, they will want to meet you if you might be the solution to their casting dilemma. However, this is only for very special instances; do not do this for regular parts, as this might put you into agency’s theoretical blacklist.
Additionally, there are people out there posing as agents or managers for their friends to “submit” them for auditions. It’s sort of a “soft scam” type of thing, and many actors do take advantage of this. You can try it, but it’s risky. If you and your friend get caught, you can get into a big legal trouble and most likely ruin your acting career. My advice would be to stay clean.
7. Casting directors – gatekeepers to your acting success
Casting directors (CDs) are perhaps the most important people before you’re “established” in the city, therefore, much of your existence should be geared towards impressing casting directors and getting them on your side. They are the ones to whom your agents send you to and who decide either to give you the job or not.
All auditions with CDs are critical – even if you do not get that particular role, a casting director may remember you for future projects (assuming you made a good impression). There isn’t much else to say about these people aside from the fact that you should always try your best to maintain a good working relationship with them. It will definitely pay off one day; trust me on this.
As for submissions to casting directors without having a talent agent representing you, keep in mind that casting directors tend to move with every project, so it’s a bit of a chore to keep track of them for mailings. That means you’ll have to get your own database (a nightmare to keep updated; I’ve tried) or just forget about this widely unpopular idea altogether (advisable).
The reason this practice is close to being useless is because a lot of what you will mail out is going to be returned when you do large, unsolicited mailings. Other part might get chucked into the trash bin without even being opened, as not every casting director likes when actors send their headshots directly and not through their agents. It’s no wonder though, because basically this is just SPAM.
If you still want to do this and have all the necessary contacts, make sure to put some thought into what casting people you include in your mailings, personalize it all so that you wouldn’t completely waste your money.
Those of you who want to learn more about casting directors and what they do (and you should, since they directly affect your career), I recommend watching a documentary called “Casting By” (2012). It’s pretty difficult to find, but I was able to rent it from Vimeo about a year ago.
8. Casting directors’ workshops
You may or may not have heard the recent scandal about casting director workshops in Los Angeles, and how The Hollywood Reporter has launched an investigation into some of these shady business. Many actors didn’t even know that something like casting workshops exist, so let’s talk about what they are and how they can help your acting career if you avoid scams and play it right.
Casting directors workshops are forums in which actors pay to meet casting directors (CDs, as the Internet casually abbreviates them) who “might potentially” cast actors in their projects. The controversy should immediately become apparent without even reading the article from THR: isn’t it a bit crooked for casting directors to take (lots of) extra cash from desperate, penniless actors, just to do the very job directors, producers and studios are paying them to do in the first place – i.e. find new talent?
You’re not supposed to pay for auditions, yet arguably that’s all these “workshops” are – paid auditions. Yes, you’re right, and you’re not the only person to notice this.
And to top it all off, while the casting directors themselves are usually fun people, the other actors pretty much kill the buzz during these workshops because they tend to be highly competitive and needy, seeking attention in whatever way they can during the sessions.
Unfortunately, we’re in the showbiz now, and nothing in this industry is fair, so let’s just agree that this is the way things are run, get over it and move on to the next paragraph.
Some actors will argue that it’s awfully nice of these overworked and underpaid casting directors to spend time “helping” actors after their long day is done. Where you come down on the debate probably depends on your general worldview, so I will leave this up to you. The fact remains that although rare, these CD workshops do work out occasionally for some actors.
You can also learn something from these workshops (other than cynicism), and it may be valuable to do one or two just to take the intimidation factor out of dealing with CDs. Workshops tend to focus on comedy/improvisation material, and the CDs make these evenings as light as possible (for their own enjoyment as well as yours).
Keep in mind that casting directors are NOT acting teachers, so just know what you’re buying.
In this case, you’re pretty much only getting “access” and very little legitimate acting advice. If you’re going to part with big chunks of hard-earned cash to learn how to act, pay it to a highly respected, knowledgeable acting teacher who has made it their life’s work to find a way to communicate with actors about furthering their craft and technique.
Some CDs have stellar training and backgrounds in acting, and indeed are excellent talent scouts, but
a lot of them most of them came to the city without any education and with no training in any vocation and somehow ended up casting (usually gave up on acting).
Many casting directors’ advice on your acting should be taken with a grain of salt; you’re there strictly for the business, and not the craft.
Some of these places also offer agent or manager “workshops”. I would advise to stay away from these programs. While many casting directors who do workshops are actually legit, even prominent, the managers and agents who hold workshops are solely third tier people that you probably don’t want to meet anyway. They certainly aren’t worth paying to meet, and there’s very little they can do for your career.
Besides that, you can meet these people for free or nearly free in a zillion different ways (i.e. as guest speakers at various actors’ gatherings and events, through schmoozing, acting showcases, doing plays, going to film festivals and through good old fashioned requests for meetings).
As you begin your acting journey, you’ll be getting emails from “agents” and “managers” who will promise to represent you, but first you’ll have to attend one of their training workshops (which usually costs around £100/$100-200). DO NOT fall for this.
The allure of the concept of casting directors’ workshops is understandable. I’ve been there myself before I knew better.
CDs are the gatekeepers to producers and directors who can make or break your career, so you naturally we all want that connection. But for most people, attending these workshops will not be nearly as effective as all the tactics you’re being provided here on Acting in London, for free.
Basically, if there’s nothing that truly distinguishes you from all the actors CDs see all day at work – actors sent to them by A-list agents, actors with better credits, strong training, great connections, a lot of previous exposure, etc. – they will not go out of their way to call you in from a workshop.
On the other hand, if they’re casting the next Godzilla movie and haven’t been able to find an actor to play the part, and you’re a mutated reptile the size of a 5-story building attending a workshop, you’ll probably get your lucky break.
But then again, you could have found that specialized role if you were submitting yourself to casting calls at home and just contacted the CD directly, without all the added expense of the workshop. So there it is again. Spend your time and your money as wisely as possible – both are in short supply. In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether to attend or not. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
9. Talent agents and managers
Aside from becoming a member of the actors’ union, putting together a showreel and a solid acting CV/resume, and honing your skills in an acting class – attracting talent agents’ and managers’ attention is a matter of getting out there and doing the groundwork.
There are several time-tested ways to get the attention of these highly valuable industry personas. Obviously, acting in a very successful play or an indie film that becomes a film fest phenomenon and gets you some good reviews and buzz would be ideal. But that isn’t going to happen all that often, especially now with all those household names stealing good indie roles and the studio-fication of independent films.
Networking is still the best way to eventually get somewhere, assuming you have the necessary look and/or talent, and you’re following the previous advice of making smart and calculated decisions, being persistent and working hard.
In fact, networking is so critical that any other method you use to attract agents and managers should supplement networking, and never replace it. Other methods for attracting agents and managers include referrals (an outgrowth of networking), cold mailings of headshots and acting CVs/resumes that we have already talked about, and mailing/emailing invites to your shows.
Some print and modeling agencies will only sign you if you “take their classes or get headshots with their people.” Again, DO NOT do this. If you’re approached by any of such agencies asking you to pay anything in advance, even if it’s just a penny, RUN AWAY. This is not how reputable agencies work, and all they’re trying to do is take your money. Money you don’t have.
Remember this for the future: a legitimate agent or manager will NEVER ask you for any money in advance. All the dough they make is 10-20% commission based on what you get paid from the work they provide you with. This is the only way legitimate talent representation or management business works.
10. Nudity and other shady things
I’ll be straight with you – I do NOT recommend doing nudity. Not until you are an A-list actor, and even then be careful about how much you want to show. If you do nudity once, you will forever be labeled as someone willing to do nudity.
From the first “yes” on, producers and directors will pressure you to strip down on every project you’re hired for. This is particularly relevant for women. If you abstain from the beginning, it is much easier to negotiate yourself out of nudity for the rest of your career. And if the dozens of stories on the entertainment pages haven’t made this clear already, this will come back to haunt you.
Do not do revealing sex scenes for anyone other than an A-list director in a big budget movie. Use nipple covers and crotch patches so that if the shot is wider than they tell you it will be (accidentally or on purpose), they won’t be able to use it. Do this even if you know and trust the director. If s/he says those parts won’t be seen, then there’s no harm in covering them up just in case, right?
Definitely stay away from the any kind of porn and late-nights, even though it’s a paycheck. Get a job as a waitress or a waiter instead. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you’ll be stripping and then working as an escort and then… Well, you know where this is going.
11. Showreels or demo reels
When paying someone to compile and edit a showreel (term better known as “demo reel” in the US) for you, always check their previous work first. Try to stay away from MTV-style editing that shows off the editor’s work rather than yours. You don’t need all the flash they can get you; what you need is exposure of great performance, period.
Don’t get sucked into something overly complex, which will also needlessly increase the costs. You can try to find a friend of a friend who’s an editor and who can do it at home for you super cheap. Keep it simple to show off YOURSELF; just two or three clips that demonstrate your talent, not a dizzying montage.
Your showreel should be under five minutes, ideally around 2-3 minutes and look professionally done. Clips must be taken from a well-done production. Try not to use any home shoots, monologue shoots or anything similar to that.
I’ve seen so many unprofessional looking showreels displaying parts of bad acting that it would benefit an actor to actually take that video off their casting profile. Make sure you put the best parts in the very beginning, don’t leave “the best for last”.
Agents, managers and casting directors go through many of these a day and a lot of the times they are not interested to watch the whole showreel till the end. Therefore, you have to guarantee yourself an opportunity to expose your best work within the first minute of that video.
Do not include any recorded monologues or very bad quality stuff. Don’t make yourself look like an amateur; it’s always better wait to get some decent footage and edit it then.
12. Your personal actor’s website
If you ask around agents, managers, casting directors and working actors, they will all say the same thing – remember to set up your own website. Dean has written a great column on why every actor must have their own website.
Having your own acting website is a great tool for promoting yourself to people you meet and hand your business cards to because they can easily access your headshots, resume, showreel, biography and any other promotional stuff.
A personal actor’s website is also perfect for submitting yourself to student, non-union, and other projects that permit submissions online. Another neat feature is that you can track the spike in website hits following a mailing process to agents and managers. Connect with your fans and brand yourself using your website and social media channels.
Here’s a guide on how to make a website for acting for free or almost free and save yourself a few hundred by avoiding website building services.
13. Acting showcases
One thing you can do if you aren’t getting the exposure you want is to create your own showcase. You don’t have to be a drama school graduate to get an opportunity to be in one.
A showcase is a series of scenes selected by an actor, put up using a stage or other space with very sparse props, with post-show food and drinks provided for the industry people. It’s true that this is mostly done by graduates of colleges/universities and drama schools, but who says that you can’t get together with your fellow actors and do the same? Nobody. Nobody says that.
You can pay the producer or the director to participate, and in exchange the producer/director promises to get industry people to come see the show and to provide a typed list of who attended after. Attendees usually do not need to pay anything, and you must provide food and drinks for them stored not too far from stacks of your headshots and resumes. This is costly, but can be a career-changer.
Acting showcases are a reasonably good option if you are not having any luck auditioning for full productions, if you don’t have a lot of stage experience and need to build your resume. They are also worth it if you have already met with an agent, manager or a casting director who is very interested in you and wants to come see your work. Showcases are also a good opportunity to meet other actors.
However, showcases can also be a waste of money if you already have real theatre credits or decent representation, especially given that most showcases are mediocre or downright bad, and few producers/directors will actually get any industry people to come to the showcase. In other words, do it in the beginning of your acting career to speed it up, but don’t waste your time once you’re somewhat established in the city.
If you do a showcase, stick to the one produced and/or directed by a coach or teacher you or your friends know, so you have some assurance of quality and attendance. Even better if they audition participants or have some exclusivity that will promise both you and your audience quality.
Don’t forget to have your resume, headshot and business cards ready. Take advantage of you having your own website and promote your show over there as well.
14. What else can you do?
So let’s sum it up. At this point you’re taking acting classes, actively auditioning around town, mailing/submitting to agents and maybe even CDs, looking for a manager to help you sort out your career, doing decent but short-run plays when you have time, and perhaps even producing some of your own things.
What should you do with the rest of your time before your big break catapults you right onto the A-list?
Aside from sleeping, eating, and bringing home a paycheck, you should be spending your extra time learning more about the business! This is a super-competitive industry and there is always someone smarter, more knowledgeable, better looking and more talented than you. Don’t waste your time watching TV when you could be doing something to sharpen your competitive edge.
Take classes in other areas of the industry such as directing, producing, writing if you have the time, just to understand how the process works.
Intern or volunteer as a reader for a casting office, agency or production company. Get out of the city and do something different, such as a summer or season of theatre. If you can afford it, try going to other big cities for some great training and additional experience.
If you’re an EU citizen, you can travel to multiple great theatre-strong cities in Europe for supplementary theatre training which will expand your worldview and better you as an actor.
If you’re a US citizen, you have Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and many other places with amazing training. Also try to volunteer for some film festivals or maybe find semi-related work in film/TV/stage productions.
Those of you with big hearts can volunteer in programs that offer free theatre, or free acting and writing classes to disadvantaged, foster or disabled children. Some groups travel with shows to foster homes, hospitals and so forth, especially during the holiday season. Others offer classes to children whose parents can’t afford after-school programs.
There are also a lot of programs for reading to children or to the blind, which is a great practice for storytelling, especially for people interested in voice-overs or writing on the side. All of this is not only great for your soul, but also a great way to practice your craft. Plus, the people volunteering for these programs are usually great contacts for your acting career. Everyone wins!