10 Tips for Up-and-Coming Actors

Someone online asked,

“I am an actress in LA. I am working really hard on getting my career up, but I lack connections that are a very important part of the job I have decided to do. What I would like is to meet successful people of my industry (such as producers, casting directors, and directors) and build a network that would give me the opportunity to get seen as an actress and booking professional parts.”

 

Aloha,

I’m a working actor and director in LA. I’m not a “high level” director… but I’ve been paid to do what I do and I love being part of this industry. 🙂 It’s a tough life, not for everyone… but if your heart’s calling you here, then by all means, KEEP GOING!! It’s a journey, not a race. “Every overnight success is 10 years in the making.” And other platitudes, etc. :-p

But seriously, here’s a few tips for you and any other beginning actors who may come across this post.

Tip #1: Self-submit EVERY DAY to ANYTHING that’s remotely interesting to you, that you feel you vaguely may fit the character breakdown description of. It’s okay if you’re not an exact match. Directors will literally re-write a character to fit you sometimes, if they love your energy and performance. If you want to focus on TV & film, then you definitely need to be on Actors Access. LA Casting (aka “Casting Networks”), Casting Frontier, and Backstage are good options too. But if you can only afford one, I recommend Actors Access. It’s like $70 for the YEAR and there’s TONS of new listings on there constantly. If you want to focus more on commercial work, then LA Casting and Casting Frontier are great for that (although you will find some commercial gigs on Actors Access too). Backstage has a little bit of everything, but to me feels like it’s more populated with either student projects or live theatre. But, of course, there’s overlap in all of them. If you have an agent or manager, great, but don’t wait or rely on them. Always, always, always be self-submitting to projects EVERY DAY. Casting directors will receive (literally) thousands of submissions per role. You want to submit for that role in the first day or two of it being listed, for the best odds. If you submit later, that’s okay too. But you’ve got better odds if you submit for it as soon as possible. Hence, be on those sites and self-submitting *every day*.

Tip #2: You need a reel. I do NOT recommend *paying* a service to film you in a scene to “create” reel footage for you. Get ACTUAL footage from REAL projects. Casting directors can spot “filmed for a demo reel” scenes a mile away. While that may be better than nothing, I still generally don’t recommend spending your money on that, for most people. Instead, get booked on ANYTHING you can — even if it’s a student film — and start collecting footage for your reel that way. You need about 3-5 clips of about 20-30 seconds each, each one showing something different and unique. Different emotional range, character types, etc. You demo reel should ideally be between 1 to 2 minutes long. Eventually you’ll want separate reels for “comedy” and “drama”, but in the beginning, it’s okay to have one reel that combines both. Your reel should only include actual TV/film clips, not you doing self-tape auditions, being live on stage, or anything else. If you want to include those, add them as separate media files to your profile. But have a reel of JUST you acting in TV & film projects. Even if they’re student films. Pick the highest quality ones you’ve got, that provide unique characters/range. But the sad truth is, in my experience, about half the projects you do will never get you a copy of the footage, and of those that do, only have of them will be useable and worth adding to your reel. So act in as many projects as you can, at any level, paid or unpaid, to start collecting footage to begin assembling your first reel.

Tip #3: Student projects are great! But not all schools are equal. I’d focus on USC and UCLA student projects. The other film schools are hit or miss, depending on the student filmmakers. But USC and UCLA seem to do a really good job, in my experience, of consistently teaching and training their students well. Even freshmen or sophomore year students will make decent films. Senior thesis projects are awesome. Typically student projects are unpaid, but they’ll often get you footage for you reel, and more importantly, you’re building relationships with up-and-coming filmmakers like yourself. The film industry is very much a relationship-based industry, as you know. The secret is, you’re most likely going to build relationships with other people at your same level, and you’ll help each other and grow together. If you’re a beginning actor, network with other beginning actors, directors, DPs, producers, etc. Then help each other get to the top.

Tip #4: You don’t need an agent… yet. A lot of actors believe “once I get an agent, I’m set and it’ll be smooth sailing.” Nope. Because as a beginning actor, you’re most likely going to sign with a beginning or small-level agent too. They, too, are trying to grow in their careers. Like in my previous tip, you help each other grow. If you can get an agent or manager or both, fantastic. But the truth is, you don’t need one yet. Once you start consistently booking paid work and bigger and bigger projects (like independent feature films or non-union cable TV shows), then start looking for an agent if you don’t have one already. Eventually you will need one to access the bigger, union, studio-level projects. It’s extremely rare for the “big” stuff to list their openings to the general public. So you can’t self-submit to those bigger projects. You will need an agent to access those opportunities. But FIRST you need to prove that you’re able to consistently book work and do a good job on set, before leveling up to the bigger union projects. You’ll need a strong reel. You’ll want to have some relationships. Because at that higher level, now you’re competing with the best of the best — including name actors who’ve been in this business a lot longer than you or I have. So you’ll want to be ready to stand side by side with them and feel like an equal.

Tip #5: It’s okay — even encouraged — to create your own content. Even if it’s just you and your friends at your apartment, filming it on your cell phone and uploading it straight to YouTube. Producers, directors, and agents all love to see that you WANT to stay busy and stay sharp as an actor, even if that means creating your own no-budget work. Some actors are quite lazy and have this attitude like they can just show up and be “discovered” and overnight become rich and famous. Nobody wants to hire those people. We want to hire people who are passionate about their craft and committed to being the best talent they can be. So if we see you uploading your own creative content to YouTube, no matter how low budget or crappy it is — that looks awesome on you! We have the resources and full crew to bring the production value. What we’re looking for is the passion and talent in YOU. And we can see that in a homemade YouTube video.

Tip #6: Bring your unique energy. I firmly believe that each actor actually has “no competition” … IF you’re bringing YOU into each character and performance. Every human being has a unique essence, spirit, personality, history, lifeforce energy… A unique perspective and interpretation of each character. No one can compete with YOU because there’s only one of YOU. So when you audition, be sure to include YOUR unique energy and personality to the character. Play it how you feel it should be played, but bring the character to life *through* you. When we’re auditioning for a role, we’re seeing literally 100+ actors all come in, one after another, giving very similar performances to everybody else. But when you bring your unique soul into the character, it comes across — there’s a magic to it, the character feels more “alive” rather than just “a well-executed performance.” It makes you stand out as an actor. Doesn’t mean you’ll always book the role. But it’ll make you stand out, and we’ll remember you and invite you back for the next role you submit for.

Tip #7: If a casting director keeps calling you in to audition for multiple projects, take that as a VERY good sign. It just means we haven’t found the right fit yet. But we WANT to find that fit for you. Casting directors LOVE actors and are championing for you. And we do not waste our timing bringing in people we don’t like. If a CD calls you back for another audition on another project, awesome. You’re in the home stretch. They’re just trying to find the right role for you. So keep being positive and friendly, keep thanking them for the audition, be yourself, have fun… and trust, if they keep auditioning you, it’s only a matter of time now.

Tip #8: During the audition, I’m actually looking for 3 things. I can’t speak for all directors. This is just how I do it. First, I need to know you can act. Do I feel emotion? Do I believe you’re meaning and feeling the lines you’re saying? Second, if you pass that test, I’ll ask you to try it a different way. Even if you nailed the character exactly how I envisioned, I’ll ask you to try it with a different emotion or interpretation. Why? Because I need to make sure you’re not a one-trick pony — that you have range — and two, I need to see that you can think quickly and adapt on your feet, and follow direction, because very likely at some point on set, that’s gonna happen. So I need to see now, during the audition, that you’re capable of on-the-spot adjustments and can play it a variety of ways. And third, and this is the big secret, is I’m observing you from the minute you enter the room until the second you leave. I’m getting a sense for your personality. Are you easy-going, friendly, polite, respectful, professional, etc? In short: who are you in real life, when you’re not acting… are you someone I want I spend 12+ hours a day working closely with on set? If you pass all 3 tests, you have a very high chance of getting booked. And even if you don’t get booked on THIS project, I’ve made a note of “this is someone I want to work with on something, sooner or later.”

Tip #9: I highly recommend every actor direct at least one short film. Even if it’s zero budget. Don’t cast all your friends. Actually list the roles on one (or all) of those websites I mentioned earlier. Hold auditions. Find a DP, sound mixer, and editor if you can too (or just do it all yourself, on your cell phone; but working with a team is very helpful and recommended, even if it’s a small team of volunteers). Film in a location where you don’t have unlimited time or outside where the sun’s moving against you (directors are ALWAYS racing against the clock). Then after you film it, be closely involved in the editing process, to see how all the pieces come together. Even if you have no desire to ever be a director. Because you’re gonna learn SO MUCH about what it’s like being a director — what they’re looking for, how they think, what they need… It’s gonna help you audition better. And when you’re on set, it’s gonna help you perform better. As an actor, you’ll think more about continuity. Or why you don’t want to talk over somebody else’s lines if the camera’s only seeing you. Why there’s a small pause at the end of the scene before the director calls “cut”. Lots of little things that will make you a better actor, and make your director’s life so much easier. And it’ll make the director see you as an experience professional, be grateful for you, and want to re-hire and refer you more. Plus it’ll give you more confidence and comfort on set. Help you anticipate the director’s needs before they ask. Help you stand out in the audition room. All sorts of benefits. (And why you should NEVER feel bad for not booking a part… you’ll learn that there were several great actors you wanted to cast, but only one spot to fill… and sometimes the reason you picked one actor over another is so arbitrary, and completely beyond the actor’s control.)

Tip #10: This’ll be my last tip for now. But it’s an important one. Figure out and discover what you want to specialize in as an actor. Do you want to play certain kinds of characters? Do you prefer comedy or drama or horror or historical fiction or what? Is your soul called to live theatre or TV/film or commercials or industrial/educational videos or podcasts or what? Everyone’s afraid of being typecast, but I actually encourage you to do some soul-searching and typecast yourself. Figure out what you want to be typecast for, and start prioritizing that. Make your resume highlight and stand out for that. Have your reel primarily (or exclusively) only show that. Etc. Why? Because the reality is, we want to hire specialists. For example, I recently directed a series of comedy sketches. I had LOTS of super talented actors submit for a very limited number of roles. But you know who I auditioned and ultimately cast? Actors who had a strong comedy background. Their resume showed completing improv classes at a major school like UCB or Groundlings, all the way up through level 4. Their demo reels have a lot of comedy clips. Their headshots were a little quirky, goofy, playful, or character-y. Everything about them said “I’m an actor who does a lot of comedy.” That increases my confidence in hiring them. I don’t just want to know an actor “can” do the job. I want to know that this is their “thing”, their specialty, their passion. Because comedies are filmed very differently than drama or horror or any other genre. Comedies are *performed* differently by the actors. 90% of directing is proper casting. If a director casts poorly or takes a chance on an unknown, it could mean a lot of extra work for them giving you notes on set and requiring additional takes to get it right. On the other hand, if we cast somebody who’s well experienced in this particular genre or type of project, they already know the ins and outs. They know the nuances. They’re already masters at this specific thing. Which means less work for the director. Less takes needed to get the shot right. And that means, just maybe by some miracle, we may even stay ahead of schedule all day! Which means we wrap a little early, save a little money in the budget, and now the producer and studio is happy too! All because we hired a cast and crew who’s already well-experienced and specializing in this kind of project. So, figure out your brand. Decide what you want to be known for and specialize in. Start typecasting yourself. Build your whole resume, demo reel, headshots, etc around that central idea. Make it “obvious” that *you’re* the right actor for *that* character or project. If you want to stretch your creative muscles and do other kinds of projects, great, fine, do that too. But remember that this is a business. And if you want to work a lot, make it easy and obvious for a casting director to look at you and say, “oh, yeah, no question, they’re a perfect fit for ____.” Your resume, headshots, and reel are part of your marketing package. All marketing, in any business, is targeted and specific. If you want to do two different, unrelated things… fine. But you’ll probably want 2 different marketing packages, one for each brand. Don’t submit your “dark, serious drama” profile for a light-hearted family-friendly feel good comedy. Or vice versa. You’re an artist with diverse talents. I completely understand that. But if you want to make a living from it, you’re ALSO running a small business. And you wouldn’t advertise “we do everything for everybody.” That attracts nobody. But if you say, “I’m the best at ____ for these specific people/projects,” now you’re gonna start getting some business.

I hope some of that’s helpful. I know your original question was about wanting to connect with established professionals, to open opportunities for you. In my experience, start at whatever level you’re at. (EVERYBODY starts as a beginner.) Find people at or just above your current level, work with them, and help each other grow. And find them by going to meetups, workshops, seminars, and other networking events. Meet them on set from projects you volunteered to be on or self-submitted for. Find them on LinkedIn and Facebook groups. But please, please, please… don’t “try to network.” EVERYBODY’s doing that. Instead, give a sincere compliment (like “hey, I really liked what you did in your last film” or “your scene in acting class really moved me” or whatever is genuine and appropriate), and find a way you can help them. Without asking for or expecting anything in return. Maybe, for example, you have a house that you can offer them to film at for free one day. Or you’ve got a blog/podcast, and you’d love to invite them on as a guest to help promote them. Or simply volunteer to be a PA on their next project. (That’s actually how I got my start as an actor.) And/or, helping them aside, see if you can find a common interest that’s unrelated to work. Maybe you both enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons or hiking or feeding the homeless… If you weren’t in the industry, would you still be friends with this person? If so, build on that. Actually be friends, for real… and maybe down the road, one day, you may help each other out career-wise too. Maybe not. Don’t ever expect it. Sometimes, just having a fellow friend in the industry to talk shop with is pretty awesome too. And sometimes — sometimes — those friendships open opportunities that no one else has access to, too. But if they do, be grateful and see it as a bonus… be friends with them because you want to be friends, period. “Everyone” in Hollywood is constantly trying to network, and it’s empty and shallow and can be spotted a mile away. But if you both go to the same church, have similar interests, enjoy talking about or doing other, non-work things together anyway… well, IF there’s going to be an “industry connection” that gives you a professional opportunity, it’ll be through one of those genuine friendships.