Whenever people come to me for advice on being an actor, I always tell them this: if you can imagine yourself being happy doing anything else, do that thing instead. This industry is cutthroat. It doesn’t care who you are, how much experience you have, or how hard you work.
Guys, it’s hard.
Disclaimer: I’m trying really hard to write this without seeming like the classic “bitter actor”. Because, I’m not. Really. I am just fully awake to how difficult and abusive this industry is. I just want to give other actors who are in my position a few years ago some advice.
So, you go to acting class to learn from a teacher how to effectively navigate the industry. Some know from experience what it’s like, but most don’t.
Every acting teacher I’ve ever had has told me that being an actor means I need to drop everything in my life and make acting my full-time career. Because of this advice, I worked menial and meaningless day jobs for years, didn’t get a college degree, and had few friends. You know in the Pixar movie Soul, the ‘lost souls’ who are trapped in ‘The Zone’? Yeah, that was me. Complete tunnel vision.
When I finally found my way out of The Zone, I realized how much of life I’d missed; how much travel I’d turned down, friends I could have had, romantic experiences…. Even some time to just take a day off and rest, for goodness sake. Now, I’m here to give you permission to not follow any of that “being an actor means giving up everything else in your life” advice and do what you want.
Here are the concepts that I now abide by.
1.Don’t get too caught up in having an agent
Unfortunately, most agents will not sign ‘developmental talent’ – aka, actors without heavy-hitting resumes. Why? Because it takes a lot of time and energy to get these actors auditions. If an agent signs an actor without a strong resume, the agent has to pitch the actor to the casting director, which most agents these days don’t like to do. Why? Technology. In the old days, agents had to pitch all of their clients to casting directors and send their assistant over with hardcopies of headshots. Now, agents can submit their actors for auditions with a click of a button, no pitch necessary. Unfortunately, this is not a good process for actors who do not yet have network credits or studio films on their resumes.
2. You probably won’t be getting any auditions even if you do sign with an agent
There are two main reasons for this. The first is that casting directors like to call in people they know; the people they can count on for a good performance. This makes them less likely to call in someone they don’t know. Many casting directors have their list of reliable actors. The second reason is that the business is incredibly over-saturated. There are an incredible number of casting directors now, and even more actors. Each casting director gets hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions per role. The competition is high, which is why they like to call in their favorite actors. It’s a very overwhelming process.
3. Talent, work, and training are for you, and only for you
What I mean by this is that the industry doesn’t care what kind of talent or training you have. The training that you decide to do is for your own artistic integrity, so do not let the nature of this industry take that away from you. Set aside your expectations of winning an audition or role purely off of merit. Yes, you heard me right. Most roles and auditions are won from personal relationships, not from your training. Your training is for you, for if you are lucky enough to get that audition or role. Keep working out your acting muscle, but know that it won’t get you on the next season of Stranger Things.
4. There is no ‘ladder’
Let’s say you do end up booking a substantial role in a tv show or movie. Maybe it’s a guest star role, the best friend in a studio film, or even a series regular on a network tv show. Once that job is over, it’s over. There is no guarantee of a next job. There is no ‘working your way up’. I have many friends with strong, heavy-hitting resumes who are still having trouble getting auditions. The entertainment industry is one of the only industries in the world without any sort of clear cut way to work your way up the totem pole, because there isn’t really a totem pole. Even famous actors don’t have job security. Diane Wiest is one of the most well-known examples of a highly successful actor who stopped getting cast in movies and was unable to pay her rent.
5. You’ll most likely be spending more money on being an actor than you’re making from being an actor
Is being an actor important to you? Be prepared to be spending A LOT of money. Let’s do some math. I am including AVERAGE annual prices for headshots, for basic casting websites, uploading headshots to websites, uploading a reel to websites, sending postcards to casting directors, and taking classes.
Actors Access: $68
Photo upload to Actors Access: $40 ($10 per photo, averaging number of photos)
Reel upload to Actors Access: $44 ($11 per minute, so two two-minute reels)
Casting Frontier: $76
LA Casting (cheapest subscription): $70
Photo upload to LA Casting: $55 ($25 for the first photo, $10 for each additional)
Acting classes: $2,400 ($200 a month, which is a conservative estimate; most acting classes are more expensive)
Postcards: $240 (about $20 a month)
Added together, these costs are $3,493 a year. If you are a member of SAG-AFTRA, there’s an additional $223 a year for base dues (if you make money from an acting job, you have to add a percentage of your earnings), and if you are a member of Actors Equity, that’s an additional $174 annually. If you choose to take more classes, to create a home studio for self-tapes, pay someone to read with you for self-tapes, etc., then you’re paying even more money. Many people pay well over $5,000 per year…. Just to TRY to make money acting.
6. Don’t skip your college degree.
It’s true that you don’t need a degree to be an actor. But, as stated above, it’s also true that you most likely won’t be making any sort of substantial amount of money from this career. Get your degree so that you can get a job that’ll actually pay you a decent amount of money. The whole trope of being a ‘tortured artist’ is, frankly, bullshit. It’s not romantic to be living out of your car or unable to pay rent. Places where the entertainment industry is booming like Los Angeles and New York are EXPENSIVE.
–To give you a frame of reference, the average person in LA pays approximately $2,258 per month in rent, and minimum wage is not proportional to that.–
Get your education so that you have a better chance of getting a well-paying job. That’s much better than working several minimum wage jobs. You are worth it – plus, you need the money to be able to pay for the items listed above.
7. Get a day job you enjoy.
I can’t tell you how many day jobs I’ve worked that I’ve just hated. I took these jobs because I always believed that I needed these meaningless day jobs because they offered me the flexibility to go to a last-minute audition, if needed. But, for most people, that doesn’t happen very often. To get a job that you hate and holding out for that elusive audition is a recipe for desperation. Don’t buy into that. It’s worth it to not only get a well-paying job, but one that brings you satisfaction. It’s healthy to have many interests. Yes, you like acting, but if you also like psychology, or animals, or molecular biology, go do that. It’s not an either/or thing. You can do both.
8. Take care of yourself
It’s ok to take a day off. Really. If you’re feeling stressed out and/or anxious and/or down about how cruel this business is, take care of yourself. Having personal problems? Take care of yourself. Tired? Take care of yourself. Sick?Take care of yourself. If you don’t, this industry will take you down. Plus, every other profession outside of the entertainment industry allows you to take sick days and vacation days, so why can’t you in this industry? Many acting teachers will try to convince you that taking time off is a bad idea because you might miss your ‘chance’, or they’ll make you feel guilty by telling you you’re not working hard enough. Don’t listen to them. Your health is the most important thing. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen, and you have to trust that.
9. Have a life
It’s ok to have friends, a romantic relationship, hobbies…. Don’t let acting detract from your life. Let it add to your life. You CAN have it all. Many acting teachers and industry professionals will tell you to always put acting first. But, you know what? No matter how important acting is to you, there are always other things that are worth your time. Go for everything you love. Odds are, you’re not going to be making your living being an actor. Don’t cut everything else out of your life for something that may never happen. You want to look back at all of the experiences you took, not the ones that you turned down for something you had no guarantee would happen.
10. Don’t measure your success by how many jobs you book or how much money you make
The times when I’ve loved acting the most are when I’ve been creating my own projects. Did I make any money with them? Hell, no! Did I spend money on them? Yes. Do I regret the financial loss? Absolutely not. Those were times when I learned the most, worked the hardest, and got the most satisfaction. It was so fulfilling. Change your definition of success. Especially in our current topsy-turvy economy, it is old-fashioned to equate money with success. Remember, success in the arts is about love and fulfillment, not about financials. Take that weight off of your shoulders.
11. Remember to do it because you love it.
Anyone who goes into acting for a profession has to have a deep, deep love for it. This love is absolutely mandatory, because otherwise you will be beaten down by the business. If you find yourself losing your love for it because of how heartbreaking and cruel the industry is, take a break. It’s ok. It’ll still be there when you’re ready to come back. Step out of the business side of things and work on a scene from your favorite play in your acting class, or maybe even just step away from it completely for a little bit. If you really love acting, it’s the work that you crave.
People get destroyed by this industry.
People lose their homes, go into deep financial debt, and lose friends because of the cutthroat nature. It is so easy to get sucked into unhealthy habits. Mental illness and addiction is rampant. Why? Because this is a cruel, unforgiving industry, and I would not wish some of the experiences I’ve had or heard about on anybody.
If you do decide that this is what you want to do, be prepared for a very tough road ahead.
The best thing you can do is find a community – a wonderful acting class or friends who will stand by you through the tough times. Get a good job and do your best not to get too stressed. The vast majority of setbacks that you experience will not be your fault, so keep that in mind. Everyone will tell you about manifesting your success, but also be aware that there is a lot of luck that goes into it. Being at the right place at the right time is not something you can control. No matter how hard you work, you may never get that big break. And that’s ok, if you are able to see success in unconventional ways. Just keep working the craft, and that will get you through.
Also, if ever decide to quit, you are not a failure, and don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are.
You just decided that enough is enough and you’re tired of the abuse you’ve had to suffer at the hands of Hollywood. You have to be strong to go into this business, so always hold that knowledge dear.
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am in actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.