“Hey, I want you to introduce you to my friend Brian. You’ll really like him. He used to hang out with us back in college. And he’s an actor!”
“An actor, huh?” (Snicker and sneer). “So what’s your REAL job?”
Does this conversation sound familiar? I’ve been through it myself many times throughout the years. I’ve gone down a different path since I’ve had my family, but for a long time I was trying to make it as a working actor. Even when I was making some money, this was a pretty disheartening conversation. As soon as the word “actor” leaves your mouth, people form a mental picture of you waiting tables or living in a cramped apartment with half a dozen other wannabes.
Interesting–people know that actors have the ability to make money, but they always assume that you are not. If you ask around, people will be able to quote how much money Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt made in their last films, but they seem to have no concept of actors working but making less than that.
We’ll I’ll tell you a secret that you’re not going to like–we are part of the problem. Yes, us. The actors.
Do you have a current headshot? What are you doing to market yourself? What sort of acting classes are you taking? What are you doing to polish your craft, to network, or to create new work for yourself and others?
If you’re doing all of these already, then kudos to you. If you’re not, you’re probably not taking your craft seriously enough. If this is just something you do for fun, and sometimes to make a little extra money on the side, then that is awesome and absolutely great–but please stop telling people that you are an actor. When you tell people that you’re an actor they assume this is something you’re pursuing to make money, and that you are a professional. If you’re not a professional, or if you’re not doing all of these things to get yourself towards that level, then you should probably just tell people that you wait tables, and sometimes like to act for fun.
The problem with the entertainment business and acting in general is that there are a lot of myths surrounding the whole industry. Many people have acted in one film or in one commercial, or even nothing at all, and then promote themselves as experts. This has caused a lot of confusion among lay people, and even the acting community itself. Here are some of the common myths that I have heard:
Myth 1: Acting is not a business
Well, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Again, if this is something you’re just doing for fun and have no intention of going any further than the amateur level, please keep having fun with it! But if you want to be a professional actor, then you need to act like a professional actor, and arm yourself with the training and tools you need to get there. To give a real life example: if you really want to make it in business, you’d probably go to business school, get an MBA, hang in the right social networks, attend trade shows, network your butt off, wear great suits, and have a great resume. If you just wanted to have fun working for a business, you would wear jeans and a blue polo shirt and work at Blockbuster. There’s nothing wrong with working at Blockbuster, but you certainly wouldn’t tell people that you were a business exec when you’re really a clerk at the video store. Get my point? The same thing goes for acting.
Myth 2: You don’t need a headshot to get work
I don’t care what you’ve heard or who you’ve heard it from, if you’re an adult trying to make it in acting, you need a professional headshot. And by professional, I mean not your cousin taking a photo of you on your front porch–a professional shoot from someone who knows how to work with models and actors, and what clients are looking for. Casting directors and producers can tell the difference, and a poor quality headshot makes you look like a hack. Your headshot is your calling card; it’s what people will remember you by after you’ve left your audition. Even if you’ve been able to get some work without it, you will never be able to get the big, well paying jobs on a consistent basis without having a headshot. Any reputable agency will require that you have headshots so they can submit you for work in commercials, film, television, and print. The industry is a little more forgiving of young children not having them, because kids change in appearance so quickly it would be expensive to keep getting headshots redone. But even for the big film, television, and commercial jobs, those children all have their headshots taken at least once a year.
Myth 3: Your agent will get you work
Many inexperienced actors sign on with agencies thinking that this is their ticket to make it big. So they stop doing their own networking, auditioning, and acting lessons. Huge mistake! The priority of most agencies is keeping the clients happy, not the talent. By clients I mean the producers, casting director, and ad agencies who are booking the talent. Agents will do whatever it takes to please the clients, even if that means actors lose out on jobs or make less money. That’s very important for you to remember as an actor. From a business standpoint, it makes sense–the clients are the ones that are paying the actors (and the agent’s commission), so they agency will do whatever it takes to get them to keep coming back. I’ve seen deals where actors have made about half of what they would have normally in order to keep a client happy. Does this mean that you shouldn’t sign with an agency? Of course not. You just have to keep things in perspective. Agencies usually represent hundreds of people, and excited as your agent may seem to be when he signs you, remember that you are just one of hundreds of other actors. You’re probably not going to get special treatment. When you’re a fit for something, your agent will probably submit you for a job. But if you hear of a big audition, or if you really want to audition for a big film in LA, you need to be proactive and do it on your own (just make sure you’re not violating your contract by doing this; in most cases you’re fine). Keep networking with clients, keep going to auditions on your own, and keep trying to meet with casting directors and producers. There are many times when clients will call an agency to book a talent that they’ve worked with, seen at a class, or met at an audition. Your agent will then step in to get you the best deal possible for that gig. Just remember that agents are good to have, but you shouldn’t rely on them to do the work for you.
Myth 4: You should not ever work for free
There’s a fine line here between what you should and should not do for free. There’s a great website called www.gotpay.org that will give you some guidelines (UPDATE: The Got Pay website is now defunct, but the following basic tenets still apply). Basically, if there’s a job where the client is going to make money (i.e. an ad, a video spokesperson for a website, etc.) then you should be getting paid. You should not do this type of work for free. But that doesn’t mean that you should not do unpaid work. The more experience you can get, the better you will be. Student films, deferred pay indie work, photographer test shoots, acting workshops and classes are all great ways to get some experience. I’ve never taken a class, no matter how basic, where I did not walk away with something–whether that was a new concept or a new way of looking at something I’ve done hundreds of times. If you’re primarily a film actor, try auditioning for a play. It will probably be a frightening experience at first, but it’s a great way to really work on the physicality of acting in a way that’s much different than film acting. If you can get the opportunity to be on film or on stage, try to take it if all possible.
Remember, these are all guidelines for actors that really want to progress to the next level. There are many other things I didn’t touch on, such as marketing yourself, resumes, demos, and professionalism. But if every professional actor works on these few concepts, it will raise the bar for the whole acting industry. If you take yourself more seriously, then the rest of the world will as well!