Becoming an Actor at Any Age

So you want to be an actor. Whatever your age, and whatever your prior experience, if this is something you want, this is something you can do. You might not become a star, and it may not be your only means of support, but becoming a working actor is an attainable goal for anyone with the drive, commitment and business sense.

First, six tips on getting started:

* Acting isn’t just about that indefinable “talent.” It takes skill and hard work. Which means you need training. Training will help you be a better actor, a more comfortable performer, and add a sense of commitment to your resume. Training options include full-time theater degrees and classes with local schools or companies. But training can also include working crew (stage managing is a great way to learn a lot about the craft – it won’t let you participate in the same way, but if you’re short on funds and well-organized it’s a good place to start), internships, and short, intensive courses at theater schools here or abroad.

* Thanks to the proliferation of cheap, digital video and editing tools anyone can make a movie these days. Which means as a beginning actor there are lots of opportunities for you to work in both independent and student film. Student filmmakers in particular often have a hard time finding actors outside of their age-group, so if you’re older, this is a great way to land roles as you’re building experience.

* If you live in an area where major film or television is produced (largely New York and LA, but certainly not exclusively), do background work. It’s not glamorous, and it doesn’t pay very well, but it will help you understand what life on a film set is like and what a long, hard day acting can be. It’s one of the most valuable things you can do when it comes to exploring if this is the right career for you. Background casting agencies can be located by a quick Google search. Some of the best known include Central Casting, Grant Wilfley, Amerifilm and Sylvia Fay. Send them your headshot, but don’t call unless instructed.

* You need a headshot, and you need a good headshot. Your headshot should look like you. You should be facing the camera, making eye-contact with the viewer, and not be wearing anything that distracts from your face. This image represents you, and so does its quality. If you make one major investment, this would be the place to do it. The difference between a $99 headshot, a $200 headshot and a $600 headshot is extremely noticeable. Expect to spend at least $200 for a high-quality headshot. And make sure you go to a photographer that specializes in this type of work – it is an art and science unto itself.

* Understand that acting involves homework. That includes watching movies, reading plays, going to the theater and learning your lines. It also includes keeping your body and voice in good shape, learning enough about directing to continually improve your audition monologues, and remembering that being an actor is largely about being a jack of all trades. The more skills you have, the more valuable you are as a performer. Being single-minded about acting means never being single-minded.

* You are your product. Learn how to market yourself. This means everything from understanding the types of roles you’re most suitable for to learning how to build a website, write a great cover letter, or put together a mailing list of those who might be able to give you work opportunities. There are lots of websites to help you with all these things and more. And if you’re in a BA or BFA theater program? Take some marketing classes!

The business of acting can seem overwhelming, which means there’s lots of noise you should filter out. Here are five things you don’t have to worry about, at least, not yet:

There are thousands of beautiful men and women who want to be the next Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt, but if you take a good look the next time you’re at the movies, you’ll realize most of the people on the screen look just like you or me. In fact, it’s often easier to get a role if you’re not exceptionally beautiful. Being a character actor, that is being interesting looking, average looking, or even exceptionally ugly, are all tickets to paying work. Don’t worry about changing your looks or competing with an impossible standard, just focus on being the best you, you can be.

At this stage in your career, you don’t need an agent or manager. The energy you ‘ll spend looking for one is better spent building your resume. And the better your resume, the better an agent or manager you’ll find once you actually need one.

Don’t worry about the acting unions just yet. Really. And don’t listen to all the stuff people will tell you about them. How to get into SAG, Equity (AEA) and AFTRA is probably the number one topic of stress and misinformation amongst actors. If you do want to worry about these things right now, go to the union websites.

If you’re not in New York or LA, don’t obsess on getting to one of those cities yet. There’s work where you are – whether in local theater or commercials, or in large productions that may come to film in your town or city. There will be a time to worry about it , but not yet. Do everything you can where you are first – that makes you more prepared for the competition of larger markets.

Rejection is part of the business, and it’s about lots of things you can’t control from a director’s mental image of a character to random luck. Once during an audition of mine a bug flew into the casting director’s mouth; can you imagine that individual was able to remember anything about my performance? Stuff happens, and we all have hot streaks and cold streaks. Let it go, and go on to the next thing.

Finally, this industry can bring out the worst in people, so here are four situations to avoid:

There are a lot of scams in this industry. Never pay an agent or angecy to represent you. Agents and managers make their money by taking a percentage of the money you earn from work they get you. Legitimate agents don’t charge upfront fees. The only exception to this is that many Extras or Background casting agencies will charge a small fee (not more than $25) to have your digital photo taken and be put in their archive. Otherwise, never pay upfront fees. Similarly, be extremely wary of agents who review your materials (especially if they are professional quality) and then direct you to their photographer. And if a business will only take cash, be careful!

Don’t gossip. At all. Ever. It’s a rule we’ll all break, but try not to do it. You never, ever know who is sitting behind you, but if you say the wrong thing in the wrong place, I promise you, you’ll never, ever forget it. It can be hard to be gracious in this business, but in doing so, you’ll impress everyone you come into contact with.

Never forget safety. from being careful not to horse around on a set or stage to making sure an audition situation is safe, always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t be accusatory. No one can be responsible for you, but you.

Because acting is about emotions, and directing is about eliciting them, this business is filled with people who are very savvy about human nature. That means that desperation and depression are both obvious. Have a good time and go after what you want aggressively, but be careful about coming on too strong, or worse, too needy. Remember, you’re not only being evaluated on whether you’re right for a role, but on whether a team can stand to work with you for weeks or months.

And finally, never forget that realism in this business means never forgetting that anything is possible – good or bad!

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