How to Become an Actor

It seems that many who aspire to the profession of acting forget that indeed it is just that –a profession. As we have interviewed and researched those who have had some success in this business, it has become increasingly obvious that the idea of becoming an actor and acquiring the trappings of fame and fortune is a misguided notion for the vast majority of aspirants. This fantasy of being a “star” is quite alluring and has compelled many star-struck youth to board the proverbial bus to Hollywood with a dream but often little else.

The reality is that “The Business” is one that is extraordinarily challenging and requires great commitment and sacrifice. It helps to have a sober view of one’s self and a non-deluded appraisal of not only one’s stamina, but one’s ability to be released of the firm grasp of ego and to allow a perhaps unimagined vulnerability and ease in front of a camera or an audience.

The Difference between the Stage and Screen

For the purposes of this article we will primarily focus upon a career in film and television. Before delving into the specifics of this industry, which is primarily headquartered in Los Angeles, it is important to illustrate the general distinctions between that of theatre and film/TV performance.

In talking with professionals in TV and film, especially those who are behind the scenes, it becomes quite clear that the most valued of actors are those who got their start onstage and were educated at a university or conservatory. As Rebecca Graves, a union costumer in film and television, succinctly puts it, “Actors who have a background in theatre are always my favorite; they not only are more often prepared, they also tend to have an understanding and respect of all aspects of production. For example, whenever the day is over it always seems that those who have a background in theater are the ones whose wardrobe is picked up, folded, and put on hangers as opposed to left in piles strewn about the floor. I cannot tell you how much we appreciate such gestures. Word does get around and the ‘high maintenance’ types are always remembered for their behavior and attitude around that…”

It always makes a positive impression when one is aware and attentive to the needs of other professionals on set. It is important to keep in mind that everyone has a “part” to play in the success of a film or a stage play, and each is essential and no more deserving of respect. It seems many actors forget this.

Big is not always better…

In a nutshell, here is how these two main mediums of acting can be differentiated: When one is performing on stage it is necessary that all audience members, including those in the back row, hear and see your performance. As such, it is incumbent upon the performer to “project” so he or she can be heard, while at the same time, retaining a sense of realism and truth to the performance. Sometimes gestures need to be more broad, and one’s position on stage is always placed so that as many audience members as possible can see the performer’s actions and gestures clearly. The trick is to simultaneously keep all of this in mind while also being convincing and “organic” in the performance.

Conversely, those who are performing for the camera need to keep in mind that every gesture or facial expression is magnified exponentially, so it is absolutely essential that the film and television actor remember and take to heart the adage that “less is more.” An excellent book on this subject was written many years ago by legendary actor Michael Caine, entitled Acting in Film. Backstage Magazine also has an excellent encapsulation on the subject available here: “Differences between Stage and Film Acting.”

Below you will find an informative and interesting infographic on this subject.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Scott Vance

Veteran Professional Actor

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
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  • Scott Vance
  • San Francisco, CA
  • @scvusa
Scott Vance, a veteran professional actor recently interviewed for The Art Career Project’s “PRO-Files in Art,” series had the following advice for new actors.

Advice

On education

A college degree (Bachelor in Arts) from a university was the decision I made, and it benefited me in several unexpected ways. For one, just being a college graduate afforded me opportunities outside of my desired career path, which was extremely helpful in securing alternative sources of income as I came up. Two, I was given much exposure to a myriad of other skills that made me all the more rounded and informed. Three, and perhaps the most valuable of all, I made so many friends; some of whom remain close to me this day. Also, I was afforded opportunities to perform on stage (and elsewhere) that otherwise would not had been available to someone with little to no experience as I had at the time. I am forever grateful for my college education.

Kelly Perine

Actor and Stand-up Comedian

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  • Name:
  • Years in the Industry:
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Kelly Perine has appeared in numerous commercials, television shows, films, and is also a stand-up comedian. His first big job was a recurring role on the Drew Carey Show. He will soon be gracing the small screen as a series regular in the upcoming sitcom The Rev.

Advice

Always be creating

As long as you’re getting better, taking chances, and not sitting around your apartment waiting for the world to come to you, you have a shot. Always be creating. Write and perform and create –grab an iPhone and film a short movie; just work! There’s no excuse to not be creating. Many young actors allow the business of survival to supersede the diligent plying of their craft.

You can’t make any excuses

There is a big difference between how you make your money and how you practice your trade. They are separate entities and you can’t make any excuses; you just have to find a way to make it happen.

Put in the time
What I have learned on my journey is pretty much summed up this way: If you put the time in and don’t quit, something will come your way. And always put in your eight hours a day just like any other professional. If you can’t put in the time, then do something else. This is Show Business, emphasis on business.

Mike McGill

Actor

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  • Name:
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  • Mike McGill
  • California

Mike McGill is a long-time character actor known for his many television and film roles including recurring runs on Shameless and The Fosters over the past few seasons. Recent film work includes Dark Skies, Bad Words, and Jersey Boys.

Advice

For any actor starting out

For any actor starting out, I would suggest getting headshots ASAP, and jump into a class. I highly recommend improv classes of any kind. Maybe try to get a commercial agent first, and branch out from there. You have to realize that there are thousands of people out here trying to do what you do and all vying for the same jobs.

Regarding typecasting

I know actors hate to get ‘typecast,’ but I suggest rolling with it… Better to be typecast and working than not typecast and not working. I noticed early on that I was considered a blue-collar cop type. Sometimes I’d think, ‘Oh, no…not another cop audition…’, but being a cop has given me an opportunity to work with Dennis Franz, James Spader, William Shatner, Tim Roth, Tony Shalhoub, David Duchovny, and Clint Eastwood to name but a few! Find out how the casting community perceives you and what kinds of roles you’ll probably be cast in, and embrace it! That will be your foot in the door… In the meantime, do plays, do student films, do YouTube shorts and videos, and stay busy. You probably won’t be getting paid on a lot of them, but you’ll be making connections and getting tape on yourself. And always remember, work begets work.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Actor?

Beginning actors can be easily overwhelmed by the all options available to learn the craft. There are several routes one can elect to travel on the journey toward a professional career in acting. Many opt for university degrees, while others seek out workshops and acting coaches, of which there are untold numbers in the Los Angeles area. There is no one right way to go; though a degree can be helpful in other ways on your journey. Near the end of this article are some helpful links for the aspiring actor regarding workshops and schools.

In researching and in being in communication with several professionals encountered during this process, the following schools come highly recommended for the aspiring actor. None of these are easy to gain admission into, but this kind of career in general is so very challenging anyway. Obtaining a degree from a prestigious university also offers the person other benefits as Scott Vance mentioned above. Have a look:

  • Yale School of Drama
    Much practical experience can be had by those who attend this school as it has a working professional theatre component, the Tony Award-winning Yale Repertory Theatre. This is a graduate conservatory for the training of professionals in every aspect of the art form, from acting to the design of sets, costumes, lighting, directing, stage management, dramaturgy and playwriting –to name just some of the many areas of instruction.
  • The Juilliard School
    Julliard was established in 1924 by a bequest from Augustus Julliard, a very wealthy textile tycoon. In 1926, it merged with the Institute for Musical Art to become the Juilliard School of Music. In 1951 and 1968 respectively, the Dance and Drama Divisions were added. In 1968, it became known by what it is today, The Juilliard School. It is now one of the most prestigious schools for the study of acting.
  • NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts
    Created in 1965, the School of the Arts at New York University provides extraordinarily intense and comprehensive training in theatre and film. Since its founding, the school has acquired the reputation of being one of the leading arts schools in the US.
  • Carnegie Mellon University
    The School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University was founded in 1914 to provide a highly concentrated education to theatre artists in a rigorous conservatory setting. It prepares students to excel in stage, film, and television.
  • Northwestern University
    Particularly renowned for its theatre arts school, Northwestern offers a full range of instruction in practice, history, and theory along with a well-rounded liberal arts education.
  • State University of New York, Purchase
    SUNY’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts provides an intensive and focused training program in acting and in theatre design/technology. Only a limited number of students seeking to pursue professional careers actually are accepted into the programs. It is one of four schools in the Consortium of Professional Theatre Training Programs and has a valued faculty from the ranks of professional theatre and elsewhere.
  • CalArts
    CalArts, in Valencia, CA just north of Los Angeles, is an internationally renowned school for the performing and visual arts with an emphasis on film, theater, art, dance, music, and writing. It is a highly respected institution started by Walt Disney and his brother, Roy O. Disney, when the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music merged with the Chouinard Art Institute in 1961.
  • American Conservatory Theater
    ACT in San Francisco, CA is one the last remaining true conservatories in which actors are trained by and amongst working professionals on the company stages. It offers multi-disciplinary training and has a storied past with such alum as Annette Bening, who upon her own graduation, became a member of its professional theater company and taught students, as is the tradition.

Schools Outside of the US

  • London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts
    This renowned school has the distinction of being in operation for over 150 years. The School of Drama offers top notch training to actors, stage managers, technicians, directors, and designers and has an unequaled reputation for excellence.
  • Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
    The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) was established in 1904 and provides vocational training for actors, stage managers, directors, designers, and technical stage craft specialists. RADA has, over the years, become reputed as a world-renowned conservatory with some of the best facilities, extraordinary teachers, and strong connections with those who are in a position to employ graduates.

HOW DO I GET MY FOOT IN THE DOOR?

From the input of those queried on this subject, the overwhelming advice is to attempt to get one’s start in a smaller market. Generally, there is a much smaller talent pool in these regional markets than one would find in Los Angeles, and newer actors are more likely to be considered for smaller roles and sometimes even supporting leads depending on their resume and the budget of the film or TV project. Often, in Hollywood, these kinds of roles would be snapped up by those with more experience. However, over the last decade or so, there has been an exodus of production out of California toward states that are offering tax breaks and credits as an incentive. With long time pros being adversely impacted financially by the loss of jobs, it has been a bit of an upheaval of late. Though it has disrupted many a professional’s life in Los Angeles, the job exodus to other states means more work in smaller markets such as the Southeast and Midwest (Georgia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico and Arizona are just some examples.) Conversely, many Los Angeles based actors now have agents in these other states and offer themselves up as “local hires” complete with P.O. boxes or addresses of friends as their supposed “residences.” Though this is frowned upon by unions and the states which strive to have their own residents hired, actors continue to audition for these projects and then pay their own transportation and lodging in order to keep working. Additionally, there are numerous “New Media” jobs available in which production is specifically geared to the internet and is of a lower budget. More experienced actors tend to shun most of these contracts as they are well below an acceptable pay rate for them. This can mean an opportunity for a less experienced actor.

As an aspiring actor, you need to gain experience. Often the best way to build up the resume is to start in Community Theater and work your way up from there. Audition for non-union film and TV projects, and you can then start to gain some credibility as an on-camera actor. In your local market, seek out agents who can represent you for commercials. Generally it is a lot easier to get representation for commercial work as opposed to “theatrical,” which refers to film or TV. Sometimes you can have a leg up if you are young and extraordinarily attractive or if there is something about you that is unique. That is what you would be wise to exploit.

Seek out workshops where you can learn the craft of acting for the camera, and be sure to get the industry standard headshots. You have to pay more for a professional photographer, but it makes all the difference. (It is strongly advised to avoid Uncle Harry and his $300 digital camera.) What casting people expect as far as your image is concerned is always changing, and it is paramount that you, for example, not have a ¾ body shot while the rage is once again the “head” shot. This return to the old-fashioned headshot is due to the now common practice of online submission of images, as opposed to hard paper copies, and often these images appear as thumbnails which means a full body shot would not allow casting to actually see your face.

Check out online submission services such as Actor Access, Casting Frontier, and Now Casting.

This link is from a Backstage West magazine article in which several A-List actors share where they were trained: “9 Oscar-Winning Actors and Where They Trained.”

The top 25 film schools according to the Hollywood Reporter:
Top 25 Film Schools

For those who are determined to move to Hollywood:
“Advice for Actors” and “Los Angeles Acting Schools & Coaches”

And, finally, some very moving and inspirational words of ultimate truth for the aspiring actor:
10 Rules for Actors