How To Jumpstart Your Career As A Working Actor

by Teresa Reilly on March 25, 2009

So you’ve done it!  You’ve decided you want to be a professional actor.  Congratulations!  Welcome to one of the most exciting, challenging, creative, and crazy industries in existence!  Now, do you want the good news or the bad news first?  Right, here’s the bad news: it’s not easy to be an actor.  You’ve got to juggle auditions, rent jobs, performance schedules, bills, networking events, classes, headshot sessions, headshot reproductions, headshot mailings bla bla bla etc.  The list goes on.  The good news?  Being an actor can be intensely rewarding and immensely fulfilling.  It’s one of the only jobs steeped in rich traditions, requiring far-off travel, a healthy body and mind, a fresh imagination, some street smarts to boot, AND the opportunity to dress up like a 18th century courtesan in the morning and an ER doctor in the afternoon. 

So…where to begin?  Well, first thing to know is the greatest thing about the entertainment business: you can be an actor pretty much anywhere!  If you’re not already busy in your community theater, get into it!  Find out about your closest regional theater (and don’t say you don’t have one, they’re eeeeeverywhere), research their local hiring policies on their website, or see if you can wrangle yourself an audition for their next show.  Or (as I always recommend) produce your own!  Get your friends together and put on the kind of theater YOU want to see.  Theater not your bag?  Or, are you even more than a Triple Threat, and you want to do film and/or television too?  Are you even more determined to push your career as a professional actor forward?  Keep reading…
 

  1. GO WHERE THE WORK IS:  And that means New York or Los Angeles.  Of course, there are tons of opportunities all over the country for working actors, but Manhattan and Hollywood certainly have the most opportunities because…well, that’s where the work is being made.  Year round!  If you really want to focus your career on film & television, then sunny California is the place for you.   Most of the major primetime television shows as well as most soap operas are shot there, as well as (of course) most movies.  New York hosts a large amount of television shows and films (uh, every “Law & Order” ever?!) but if theater is your forte, then the Big Apple is where you need to be.  And that doesn’t mean that all NYC has to offer is on Broadway.  New York is home to hundreds of Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Off-Broadway playhouses, not to mention the innumerable theater groups performing in every available space in parks, on the subways, in museums, in classrooms, and even on the sidewalk.  You’ll be part of one big happy actor-family, even while walking to work!

 

  1. GET A RESUME:  You can’t waltz into a business office for an interview with only a smile and a desire to get paid, right?  Same with acting.  You gotta work to get work.  So that means (here we go, right back to my community theater shpeil!) get involved with every performance opportunity you possibly can, perform well, make friends with everybody, and list all of it on your resume.  Volunteer for student films.  Do small parts.  Do big parts.  Audition, audition, audition.

 

  1. GET A HEADSHOT: You know how every time you see that poster image of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the edge of a ship, you always know immediately it’s a picture from “Titanic?”  Well, as a working actor, you’ve got to have your own poster image.  That’s why you need to pick an awesome photographer to take a fantastic photo of you that you can plaster all over New York and LA.  Your headshot is your most important weapon in your arsenal!  So make sure you look happy, comfortable, and, most importantly, exactly like yourself.  Casting directors really hate calling someone in to audition based off their headshot, and then getting them in the room and finding out they’re 30 pounds thinner, twenty years older, and half a head balder than the photo they’ve been staring at for a week.  Got it?  Get a good headshot!

 

  1. AUDITION, AUDITION, AUDITION!  Oh, sorry, am I repeating myself?  The tough part is, this biz is a numbers game.  The more you audition, the more opportunities you’ll create for yourself in the future.  So often, you’ll go into an audition, blow them away, and not get cast.  It’s tempting to throw your hands up, freak out, and quit.  “What happened?!  I was PERFECT for that!  They loved me!”  Want to hear the cold, hard truth?  A depressing amount of the time, it will have nothing to do with you.  You might not get cast, even if you audition perfectly, just because your hairdo reminds the producer of that mean kid in 3rd grade who used to call him “Four Eyes.”  Oh well.  Thank goodness you’ve been auditioning, auditioning, auditioning, and the other producers you saw that week have no such conflicting mental connections.

 

  1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK:  This is the fun part!  You need to make sure you know what’s going on in your business, so go to the movies, watch all the new shows on television, keep going to see live theater.  (Oh, and did you hear?  It’s all tax-deductible!)  Read all the trades like Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and Backstage.  Check out the actors and actresses who have gone through it all and lived to tell about it.  My favorite books are K Callan’s series (I’m currently re-reading “The Los Angeles Agent Book”) and “Acting as a Business” by Brian O’Neil. 

It might seem a little daunting, but being a successful working actor boils down to just simply being a smart actor.  How do you position yourself to make as many opportunities for yourself as possible?  How do you pay your rent and still afford business cards?  Take a breath, read a good play, and then go out and do what you love: act.

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