Get Ready for LA

I keep promising myself I’m going to write the dang “how to prep for a move to LA” column and I keep not doing it, because the task is somewhat overwhelming. I mean, the easiest thing to recommend is that everyone read everything I’ve ever written and then hit me up with a specific question after that. But over a lovely gathering of friends on Christmas Eve, an actor I’ve worked with this year mentioned his first anniversary in Los Angeles coming up in a few weeks. Another actor I’ve worked with and I started counting how many years we’ve been in LA (13 or so years for each of us) and talking about how many more resources exist for the actor planning to relocate to Los Angeles today.

Not to say I was flying solo when I first moved to Hollywood in 1993 (then a second time in 1998). I had friends in my acting classes at the Alliance Theatre and Image Film and Video back in Atlanta who rallied to share all sorts of hearty LA resources with me. I spent weeks on the phone in the summer of 1993, making contact with friends of friends who were willing to answer all my annoying questions about how to best prep for “the big move.” When I plugged in my phone in my new Hollywood apartment, it was already ringing. My fellow Atlanta native (now a major showrunner, producer, director, writer; then a staff writer on a new show called Friends) Jeff Greenstein was calling to welcome me and arrange our first lunch date.

The best thing you can have going for you when you move to any new city is a connection to a community of wonderful people who will help you avoid missteps and show you the ropes. I am still connected with some of the fine folks who helped me when I arrived in 1993 and again in 1998. Their advice kept me from having a harder road than is necessary. Their support helped me through times when I drove into proverbial ditches despite their best efforts to help me steer clear of them. I am very fortunate to be connected to a community of amazingly generous and genuine people. Survival tip number one for moving to Los Angeles: Find your people!

Luckily, that’s even easier to do before you move now, because of the huge community of actors who gather online, worldwide. Of course, I recommend groups like Hollywood Happy Hour (not only because I founded the group with superstars Nelson Aspen and Kristyn Burtt back in 2002, but because it became a hugely popular and very support-filled resource via the associated Yahoo Group for many years, when we were not having our in-person events), because groups like this are fantastic pockets of support actors can find online. Now, there are a bunch of free HHH-like resources out there that are not affiliated with HHH or Team Cricket Feet (Showfax message board, Backstage boards, PARF for parents of kid actors, Acting Answers, and all manner of other Yahoo Groups and Facebook Groups springing up every day). No matter where you go for online support, do the site regulars a favor and perform a SEARCH of a topic before you post a question. Chances are, it’s been discussed before — maybe even very recently — and you can ask a better-informed follow-up question, rather than a general, unresearched one.

It’s also very easy to read about LA-based actors’ experiences, thanks to the blogosphere and actors’ interest in putting their lives “out there” for all to see. Many years ago, Stephon Fuller was one of the first actors to track all of his auditions, meetings, close calls, and bookings via the web. Now, thousands of actors of all levels are posting about how they Taft-Hartleyed themselves, how they got their first agents, and who shot their best (and worst) headshots. The only caveat I’ll mention here is that many, many, many people are out there posting their experiences anonymously. DANGER! If someone is unwilling to say who they are, so you can check their credits to know if their advice is even worth reading, beware. There are people who create Twitter accounts, blogs, and even Facebook pages saying they are casting directors, agents, managers, publicists, directors, producers, etc., when they are NOT. Be very careful taking advice from ANYONE whose experiences and credentials you cannot verify. Back in the day of the face-to-face meeting, you could be sure you were getting advice from someone you could trust. Now, anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection can call themselves an expert and advise actors in ways that are irresponsible.

So, read everything, yes. But before taking action, be sure you’ve filtered the advice carefully.

As Stephon himself says, his “Long-Ass Bio” is an account of what steps he took in his career, not a prescription for success for anyone else. And if anyone is selling something, keep that in mind as your read their “free advice.” They may lay out tips that make you feel that the only real answer is to take their expensive “master class” or buy their materials. That means the “free advice” is just enough substance to bait you, flavored with a spin of “you can’t do this without me.” And that’s bullshit. People move here every day without a net, without a plan, without a connection… and they do just fine. The great power of the Internet is that now you can tweet, Facebook status update, blog, or post in a forum a quick, “Anyone have firsthand experiences with so-and-so’s class?” before plunking down your money. Awesome. Take advantage of that, to avoid unnecessary pitfalls. Oh, and speaking of training, for a starter list of schools and coaches in LA, check out Backstage‘s latest list (they also do one for New York).

Read everything at The Actors Voice (of course) and also at The Actors Voice: POV, The Casting Corner, Commercial Actors Should Never, Act Smart! Good Tools for a Great Career, The Working Actor, Brains of Minerva, New Thoughts for Actors, I’m Moving to LA, and follow all the links in Ben Whitehair’s amazing resource list for actors. I also recommend a lot of books, have some favorite podcasts, and other fantastic actor blogs, but I tend to recommend specific ones to specific people, based on each person’s level and best next steps.

I shared some great links in a Your Turn a while back, for an actor who wanted to prep as much as possible before heading to Los Angeles. Check that out (and this) and also hit these highlights:

Have your profile up (and updated) at Actors Access and LA Casting, as those two sites are the two most-used sites for theatrical and commercial casting, respectively, in Los Angeles. Check in DAILY (if not hourly) to see what’s actively casting in your soon-to-be new market. Keep in mind that there are significant (the highest-end) breakdowns NOT available for actors’ direct submissions. So, what you’ll be seeing at these sites is a sampling of what to expect. Also keep an eye on the sides at Showfax, production info at CastingAbout, It’s On the Grid, Hollywood Wiretap, Production Weekly, The Futon Critic’s Devwatch, etc., to develop an overview of the massive amounts of production going on here, every day.

Reach out to your alumni. Wherever you’re from, there’s a posse of folks in LA that are also from there. Whether that’s your old acting studio, your college, conservatory, or even high school, there’s someone here who has that in common with you, and that’s someone with whom to connect.

Get clear on your type. Especially if you’re from a minor market where you can be less specifically branded, narrowing your type and age range will help you. Start by reading this column in the archives. Follow the links within that column to go deeper.

Research headshot photographers. They all have websites. Find the ones who shoot your type very well. Don’t look for glamour shots. Look for fantastic marketing tools that just happen to be photos of people like you. Ask at your chosen online community what locals’ opinions are of a few photographers you’re considering. You’ll hear a lot.

Prep for LA auditions. Grab sides from Showfax.com for co-star level auditions in episodics and supporting role auditions in films. Grab your video camera and practice! Until you’re in Los Angeles taking classes from folks who can advise you on how to nail the first auditions you’ll experience here, you can teach yourself a lot, just by watching yourself deliver these one-liners.

If you can make a trip to Los Angeles for a visit, that’s awesome. I’d say, when my above-mentioned actor friend and I were talking about having been here over 13 years, we agreed that first trip out here (that FIRST move we each made) was not well-planned enough for us to have stuck it out. It’s why we both ended up “going home” and then boomeranging back to LA after we figured it out a little bit. If you’d rather not have that boomerang experience, the more planning you can do for your move, the better. A reconnaissance mission to get the lay of the land, the pace of the day to day, the flow of it all can make a huge difference in your ability to plan for the move. Again, I’ll recommend that you check out this archived Your Turn for some great ideas about events to hit while you’re in town, if you’re here long enough.

I started writing for actors in 1999 at (what was then called) Back Stage West. One of the things I did in support of my weekly column was answer questions in the “Casting Qs” forum of the Backstage.com message boards. Many of the actors I helped out with advice before they moved to Los Angeles are not only actors I’ve auditioned and cast over the years, but they’re also people I would call my friends. There’s a certain type of actor who is smart, savvy, asking good questions, and building relationships from out of town that can sustain once they’re in town. One of the actors I met via fan mail for my first book, Casting Qs: A Collection of Casting Director Interviews (based on that Back Stage West column), was Jonathan Spencer. Recently, he emailed me some suggestions for a column like this week’s, so here’s what he had to say.

I love helping people who hustle, but I cannot stand lazy actors who want to be discovered. Thought it would be a cool idea for you to write an article to help weed-out the lazy ones. “30 Things You Can Do for FREE for Your Acting Career in 30 Days” or something like that.

Here’s a few starters:

  1. Read all of Bonnie Gillespie‘s old columns at The Actors Voice.
  2. Ditto Mark Sikes‘ columns at The Casting Corner.
  3. Watch all of Marci Liroff‘s awesome coaching interviews.
  4. Download the sides from every TV show that films in LA off of Showfax. Watch clips online (look at the sides, get the rhythm of the show, etc.).
  5. Read all of Risa Bramon García‘s backposts on her Facebook group.
  6. Make flash cards and memorize the three key people in every casting office in LA (refer back to Showfax sides and CastingAbout.com to be sure you’re looking at a current office).
  7. Take the materials from #4 above and put yourself on tape for a different role every day (30 roles in 30 days). Watch yourself. Make adjustments.
  8. Practice memorization. Get off-book on a 2- to 3-page scene (again from #4 materials), one per day for 30 days.

…and so on.

Yeah, it’s work, but so’s success in this career. These are some great tips. Thank you, Jonathan!

Oh, so back to another actor I’ve worked with (the new-to-LA one I mentioned above, from the Christmas Eve party). Aaron Graham is celebrating his first year in Los Angeles next month. I asked him how he prepped for success in LA before getting here — and upon arrival — and he generously shared the below. Here we go!

I moved to LA in January 2010 after working for ten years in Chicago doing theatre and improv comedy. I knew a lot about acting and Chicago, but basically nothing about LA or acting in LA. So, here’s some of the stuff I did, and some free advice for other newbies:

Before moving to LA, I talked to anyone I could get to. I reached out to friends living in LA, former Chicago actors living in LA, friends of friends living in LA, people who used to live in LA, etc. I had a ton of questions and knew basically nothing about the city and the business here, so I needed data. Most people I reached out to were very helpful and glad to chat. I asked things like: What neighborhoods should I live in? How much is rent? What agents should I mail headshots to? Do I need an agent? How do I get an agent? How long have you lived in LA? What has worked for you? What hasn’t? What’s it like living there? After chatting with a ton of people, I started to build a picture in my head of what life was like here.

Two months before I moved to LA, I visited LA for about a week to do research, take meetings and see what the city actually felt like. I drove something like 400 miles that week (in the rain) and got lost pretty much everywhere. I stayed with a friend in Koreatown (on his floor) and a friend in Santa Monica (in her guest room). I saw shows, met with agents, hung out with friends, and checked out potential neighborhoods to live. It was a great week. By the end of it, I knew the basic layout of the freeways, what neighborhoods I liked, and decided I could certainly give it a go here. I highly recommend visiting and driving yourself around before officially moving here. See what you think for yourself!

Before visiting LA, I worked with my agent in Chicago to put a cover letter together recommending me to some LA agents. With my agent’s name on the letterhead and envelope’s return address, I was able to line up a few agency meetings during my visit here. Out of those meetings, I ended up with my first commercial representation. Knowing I could hit the ground running when I moved here with an agent on board, I felt great about getting started.

Before moving to LA, I used Craigslist and Westside Rentals online to begin my apartment search. It was helpful for me to see rents and neighborhoods and such ahead of time. However, I had the foolish notion that I was going to get an apartment lined up before I moved here. That’s a very difficult prospect and I do not recommend even considering signing any lease before you actually see the apartment. Most apartments don’t look anything like their photographs and even if it’s a killer pad, it may be on a killer street (literally). I was glad I did the research ahead of time, but ultimately it takes your boots on the ground to find the right place for you.

Once I moved to LA, it took me about a week to find an apartment. I stayed with my friend in Koreatown (again, on his floor), and did a lot of apartment hunting during my first week (again, in the rain). I made appointments through Craigslist and Westside Rentals, and also just walked around streets I liked making phone calls to apartment managers. If you find a place you like, jump on it. Put in your application fee, then you can decide if you want to bail. I lost the first apartment I really liked because some evil woman had put in her application fee that morning. But a week later, after looking at another 15 to 20 places (in the rain), I landed on another great apartment. And here I am. Oh also, get off-street parking if you can. It’s a beautiful thing.

Get a job. It’s great to keep your schedule wide open so when that phone rings you can instantly blaze a trail across the city to audition for that awesome deodorant national spot, but the fact is that everything in this city costs money, you don’t want to completely drain your savings your first year here (you’ll need it later) and, quite frankly, it feels good to have a some daily structure and do work that may or may not have anything to do with the business. Pay your rent. You’ll feel better.

Build your reel early. You need a good acting reel in Los Angeles. I came from Chicago, where I was too busy living the glorious life of a legit theatre actor to contemplate (or even understand) needing a good reel. I wish I had taken more time in Chicago, where the permit situation is much more lax, to film more comedic shorts or do student films. That way I would have had more footage to put into my first reel. As it was, I spent my first six months in LA doing a lot of student films and short projects to start my reel. I met great people during that time and I’m proud of the work I did. By my first summer here, I had put my first reel together. I used a professional editor. So worth it. But it would have been nice to have a little more material upon arrival.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Everyone I talked to here says it takes years and years to build a career in LA. So, pace yourself. For 99.8% of people here, it’s NOT going to happen overnight (whatever IT is). So take your first year here just to get settled. Plan some practical goals. Get out of your apartment and explore. Absolutely, get your face out there and start to get to know people — agents, directors, and casting directors. Do all those student films, go to some workshops, take classes, hear talks, etc. But just remember, you are building the foundation for the rest of your decades-long career, so take your time and make sure you feel good about your life in the process.

Expect your first year here to suck. That way, you’re pleasantly surprised on days when it doesn’t. They say it takes 12 to 24 months to feel really settled here. I’ve also heard four years. Either way, it is a monumentally difficult task to set up a new life in a new city. On top of that, it can be exponentially more challenging to break into the acting business in Los Angeles. It’s a massive task. So, let yourself off the hook and take care of yourself. Your first year here may not feel very good. You WILL have awful days. I did, and look at all the diligent pre-planning and research I did. Don’t give up. A friend advised me once that whatever neuroses and issues and baggage you have inside your own head, LA is most definitely going to take them out, spill them all over the floor and have a field day playing violent sports upon them. It will. So, make sure you keep a strong support structure for yourself. Use your carefully-chosen friends, family members, and therapists to talk to. Keep a journal. Exercise. Eat right. Enjoy the city. Have fun. Give yourself breaks. You will certainly have many awesome days and terrific successes during your first year here, but if you expect it to suck, at least you won’t be as surprised on those days when LA plays rugby with your brain.

Join The Actors’ Network and take Bonnie Gillespie’s Self-Management for Actors class. Getting involved and meeting people is crucial out here. These two groups have been fundamental in helping me build a strong network of friends, get advice, start to learn the business, and devise my own strategy for approaching in the industry. There are a lot of organizations, workshops, and networking groups out there. I’m sure many of them are awesome. I know firsthand about these two.

GET INVOLVED. Take a class. Meet people. Do things for your career and also for fun. Improv is one of those beautiful things that is both. I’d heard great things about Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) out here. Even though I am an experienced improvisor, they wanted me to start at the very beginning of their training program. Putting ego aside (AN EXTREMELY USEFUL THING TO DO IN LA), I said, “Sure. Why not!?” and I started at level 101. Less than one year later I finished all of their core classes, learned their cool approach to improv, had a great time, and made a bunch of awesome new friends. Success!

DO IT FOR YOURSELF. A lot of people write and produce their own webseries. I decided to put up a live sketch show. A little daunting at first, sure, but totally worth it. Just make yourself a list and start checking off your tasks. I got a couple trusted, talented friends together and we started meeting once a week. What do we like? What do we want to say? What do we think is funny? (By the way, the answer to all three questions is, apparently, “Justin Bieber.”) A couple months later we got slot at The Second City Hollywood and were performing a run of our brand new, original sketch show! Success!

To conclude: Take your time. Be good to yourself. Do your research. Do some legwork. Get a job. Get out of your apartment. Meet people. Have fun.

If any of you readers have any questions, of course, I’d be glad to chat. After all, that’s how it works. Good luck!

Awesome, Aaron. Thank you!

Bottom line, take advantage of the rich resources available to you via your computer. Google everyone. Read all the blogs and message boards and support sites out there (but remember to strain all advice through a filter of “This is what worked for THIS person, not necessarily what will work for ME” before charging into anything, especially if money is involved). Realize how very lucky we are, right now, to be in an era where people who used to pride themselves on being harder to reach, mysterious, protective of anything that helped THEM get an edge are now sharing — usually for free — career notes and tips about their journeys. What a wonderful time to be an actor! You can create your own content, you can figure out how to succeed in a market you’ve never even visited, and you can give back to others who are coming up after you by mentoring in much the same way. This business is changing for the better every day.

Notice I did not say you need to join the unions before moving to Los Angeles. I’ve covered this in Premature Moves, and you should read that (again) if you’ve been told you MUST join SAG before moving to LA. Joining too soon can hurt you. Yes you will join someday. Someday! Don’t rush. You have your whole career ahead of you and you may need to build up relationships, credits, and demo reel footage before focusing on joining the unions or signing with an agent. Take your time. Since you can’t undo some of those early career-changing steps, be really, really sure. That includes being sure you want to live and work in Los Angeles. This is the Superbowl of Acting. Be ready. And ’til you’re ready to suit up for the biggest game in the world, train. Prepare. Build a life that is a great foundation for success at the top tier.

Congratulations on your decision to try Los Angeles on for size, should that be where you’re headed. It’s not easy, by any stretch. But it’s a place that is beautiful, warm, and filled with people from all over the world all in pursuit of their dreams. What a wonderful place to be! Welcome!


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001283.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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