Shay has trained at Studio ACT SF and UCB LA. She currently lives in a mountain cave, but ventures out each spring for sustenance.
Hey, Kid. You Wanna Be a Movie Star?
Before I get to the advice, let's scrape away some of the glitz and glamour that so many people associate with Hollywood; building a successful acting career is hard work. It is one of the hardest careers to break into, and it's expensive to boot. A lot of young (and not so young) people flock to Los Angeles because they’re special, talented, and WANT it more than everyone else, but many have no plan or understanding of what awaits them.
Everyone in LA is the toast of their small town and the star of their high school theater group. Everyone in LA is special. Everyone in LA wants it. What makes you different?
Success Does Not Happen Overnight
You have a better chance of winning the lottery than being discovered in a coffee shop. Don’t expect to step off the plane, out of your car, off the boat, and into a good agent’s or casting director’s office. Generally, a reputable agent or casting director won’t even look at you until you have recognizable credits, a reel, and a SAG/AFTRA card. It can take years to get to this point.
Those that bypass these steps either have family connections and/or are young and really, really good-looking. Like pre-High School Musical–era Zac Efron young and good-looking.
Sorry to Be a Debbie Downer, But It Had to Be Done
I needed to knock some sense into you because you're acting crazy. Because even if you manage to get through those big, heavy, oft-locked doors, you will need to show that you are worth something once you get inside. Know the bull you are facing and make sure you are prepared to do a little dance for him. Or however the saying goes . . . That's not a saying, is it?
Remember! Like anything in life, success in acting is due in large part to variables that are beyond your control. So what do you do? Run out of your house and into the street? Drop to your knees and scream at the sky? Cry because life is so terribly unfair? Panic and wet yourself when a car comes?
Focus on Money and Training
Rather than lamenting your lack of control and turning into a quivering mass of insecurities, it's probably best to get a grasp on the variables you do have control over. That would be money and training, friends. Fun stuff! Money and training! Really!
Sidenote on Markets
New York and Los Angeles are the biggest markets for actors and actresses. While both have opportunities in film, television, commercials, and theater, Los Angeles is better for on-camera opportunities, and New York is better for stage opportunities. The focus of this article is how to get started with acting in Los Angeles, but many of these tips apply regardless of where you are.
But I Don't Live in LA! Or New York!
Calm yourself. San Francisco, Atlanta, Vancouver, Chicago, Austin, Philadelphia, DC, and Portland are a few of the many regional markets for acting. If you live near a large metropolitan city, you will probably be able to take acting classes, find auditions, and target agents. BUT. If you really want a career in acting, you will need to move to either LA or NY eventually.
Why? Because even if a movie/show/whatever is being shot in your area, there's a good chance they're getting their actors from LA or NY. Unless you're Julia Roberts, you won't be able to get an LA or NY agent without actually living in LA or NY. And without the LA or NY agent, you won't be able to get in front of the casting director. Thems the breaks.
This is a big one. Maybe even a bigger one than that. Possibly even the biggest one. Money.
Not only do you need money for rent, utilities, food, and transportation, if you want to pursue an acting career, you will also need money for headshots, training, casting services, headshot retouching, and printing, mailings, union dues (at a certain point)... the list goes on. Many would say that you also need to set aside money for regular haircuts, makeup, gym membership, and clothing. Movies, television, and commercials are visual media, so your “look” is very important. Maintaining that look can be expensive.
It isn't likely that you're going to be able to make a living solely from acting during the first few years. Or five. Or ten. I'm not kidding. Make a financial plan for yourself because nothing stinks more than desperation in an audition room. If you “need” the job, the casting director will be able to smell it on you. Beyond this, your income and your acting need to be kept separate, so you don’t lose your mind.
Develop a Financial Plan
So, before you even think of packing up and moving to LA, you need to figure out how you are going to make money. Save as much as you can before you move for all the initial expenses, and ensure that you are able to have a financial “cushion” for emergencies. Once you are in LA, make sure your job is flexible. Waiting tables, bartending, and catering are the clichéd actor day jobs because of their flexibility.
When you live in LA and work in a restaurant, bar, or catering, the vast majority of the people you work with will be involved in the entertainment industry somehow. This means that when you need time off for an audition, meeting, or job, your fellow actor co-workers can cover your butt, and you can do the same for them.
If food service isn’t your cup of tea, fear not. You just need to focus on finding something that you’re good at and finding an employer that is willing to work with your weird schedule. If you can find something you can do from home on your own time—hell, if you can be your own boss—even better.
Money is one of the major roadblocks to being a professional actor. Figure this part out, and you will give yourself one less thing to worry about while you’re pursuing your dream.
The classes below are the basics. I recommend taking them in this order because they build on each other:
- Improv teaches you to think on your feet and react genuinely.
- Commercial Class builds on your experience in improv and puts it to use in a very practical way (book paying jobs! get into the union! get exposure!)
- Scene Study will teach you how to analyze a script, understand your character, react to your partner and bring personal life experiences and real, honest nuances into a scene. It will teach you to "act" without the "acting" part. Actors are storytellers. The "acting" should never take you out of the story.
- Cold Reading will help you in what may seem to be a scary place: the audition room. Auditioning and Acting are separate skills that need to be learned to do well in this industry.
When in LA, agents and casting directors like to see your training done in Los Angeles by reputable teachers or from a known program or school. If you can't move to LA right away and you're not in one of the smaller markets such as SF or Chicago, don't give up just yet. Find a community college or local theater to take classes at. Make sure this is even something you want to do before you drop everything and move.
Define Success for Me
I've stated that making it in LA is hard, but what does that mean exactly? What exactly do you have to do to get there? Truthfully, there is no one path to success, but some defining characteristics exist.
- Put In the Time. This is key. You need time to train, time to build your resume, time to meet people, time to meet the people that know those people, time to meet the people who know those people who know those people… which brings me to my next point:
- Build Your Network. Meet people. Do projects with people. Be courteous and kind and helpful to people. Hollywood is smaller than you think.
- Hone Your Talent. Everyone is born with certain talents, acting included. Some are just naturally better at it than others. At the same time, talent also comes with training and practice. If you're brand new, don't stress about it. Everyone gets better.
- Work Your Butt Off. Work means training and honing your craft, sure, but it also means figuring out who you are and what kind of parts you can play so you can develop your "type" and market yourself properly. Work means getting good headshots that reflect your "type" and retaking them every few years or when your "look" changes. Work means amassing enough footage to create a reel so you can reach out to agents, managers and casting directors. Work means "bringing it" to every audition and performance you do. Easy, right?
Preparation + Opportunity = Luck
As any actor will tell you, all this work is nothing without a little luck. LUCK. Crap. Before you run out into the street, shaking your tiny fists at the sky, remember that luck is simply when preparation meets opportunity. Work harder than everyone else long after everyone else gives up.
If you don't have an agent, do as many independent and student films you can. If you aren't booking jobs, take more classes. If you aren't getting auditions, write, produce and act in your own web series or short films. If you can't do that, get out there and meet people (noticing a trend?). Do something every day to bring yourself closer to your goal. Create every day. While you may never win an Oscar, at least you'll be doing something you love.
Must-Have Books for Actors
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
felise munoz on May 18, 2018:
what if you live in close to la
Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on September 11, 2014:
I have no desire to become an actor and even less to live in LA, but I was curious when I saw the title. Looks like good advice. No sugar coating here.
Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on November 14, 2013:
Some excellent advice and suggestions here. Many would be thespians find it hard to relate to acting as a profession. I'm sure many aspiring young actors will gain a good grounding in reality when they read this article!!
fearless on April 04, 2013:
This is a really really good article. I live in LA pursing an acting career and this article summed everything up very well.
Lady Wolfs on February 02, 2013:
Interesting article for anyone pursuing a career in acting. I have always felt the performing arts would require hard work, time, and effort. I agree, one would have to consider their survival while going to acting school, along with the competition. It certainly sounds like it could be a stressful career and not all glamour like many may feel it would be.
Voted up, useful, and interesting!