Every now and then, I get an email like this one:

Dear Bonnie,

I hope I am not wasting your time by sending you this email. If I do then I am terribly sorry.

I found this website for getting onto Disney Channel and I saw your video with Judy Kerr on MySpace and I was just wondering if you could give me tips.

I live in Chicago and I am 13 years old. I understand that you should find a casting director and get a headshot of the role that I want to audition for. Although, I have no idea what I am doing. My family and I have never been into the acting industry, I have no family members that have been into the industry or anything. On my own I have looked up sites and sites and I went to John Robert Powers acting school, which they said was originally an audition to get on Disney Channel. That wound up making my parents spend over $3000 for me to get absolutely nothing out of it.

If you could just give me a few tips on how I can get into the industry and be on television, you would be my dream maker. You seem like a really nice person and I am sorry if I wasted your time. My parents just take me to the places and spend the money but I’m pretty much on my own when it comes to finding the stuff. I have looked for many years and I have wanted to be an actress since the first time I watched TV.

Thank you for your time.

But this time, that email was followed by one from one of my favorite people on the planet, who also happens to have a gig writing up advice for actors.

I’ll do my own research on this — PROMISE!!! — but thought I’d ask if you’d ever put together what you’d call your “boilerplate” post to send people to when they say, “I think I might want to be an actor. What next?”

You know — that kind of really specific, focused, easy-to-answer question.

No rush. Thanking you.


Now, of course, I realize that the lovely young lady who emailed me quite possibly emailed Colleen at the same time, or it could just be that this sort of thing is so often “out there” that we’re bound to run into a need to chat about it at some point.

But when I began to look for previous answers I’ve emailed to actors who have sent me similar questions in order to put together a quick little email to Colleen, I realized what I needed to do was take some of what I’ve previously emailed to folks and create a column about it all (so that I could both answer Colleen and start sending a LINK to the column rather than reinventing the wheel each time I get this question, from here on out).

So, here goes.

“I think I want to be an actor.”

Great! Welcome to one of the coolest, most exciting, adventure-filled, emotionally-fulfilling, scary, and delightful careers out there. History is filled with people who have chosen to be the storytellers of their generation, charged with making sense of (or commenting on) the politics, social issues, and psychology of the world around them. By choosing to inhabit other (usually fictional, sometimes historical) people for moments, hours, or weeks and weeks at a time, actors are shining a light on all sorts of things we can’t — or won’t — put together on our own about the mysteries of the human condition.

Whether you’re pursuing acting as a hobby in community theatre somewhere or packing up and moving to Hollywood to become a full-fledged movie star, there are some elements about being an actor that are universal.

Do you feel it?

I mean, do you really, really feel it in your bones? Do you have to be an actor? I ask this because I am often asked whether I miss acting. (The answer to that is really easy: If I missed acting, I’d go back to acting. That’s the great thing about this business. You can change directions many, many times over and be given a shot at whatever it is you want to do as long as you’re good at it and willing to work your ass off.) I don’t have acting in my bones right now, although I did up until about seven years ago and I certainly may again someday. It’s like a spiritual calling, I guess. You know if you have to do it. You just know.

Okay, great. So you know. Now, are you prepared?

There are a few rules in this business. Many will tell you there are no rules and that’s true too, which is one of the rules. 😉 This is a confounding, confusing, crazymaking business and no two people will have the same journey, ever. That’s a guarantee. You could have identical twins pursuing this career and they will not have the same experiences every single time. It’s just not how this thing works. So, learn early on not to compare yourself or your experiences to what anyone else has going on. Your journey is your own and, while you should study up on those who have succeeded before you, you should not expect to have the same life, just because you do what worked for them.

Aside from that, here are a few absolutes that I always share with beginners:

Don’t ever pay for representation. Agents and managers only get paid when you do. Don’t pay to be on their website, to be in their book, to get registered with their services, or any of the other creative ways they work around the law. Agents and managers earn a commission (a percentage of your pay) when you book work, and unless you are giving them an advance against commission, you going out of pocket to fund their business expenses is almost always unacceptable and usually illegal.

Buy headshots from professional headshot photographers. Take classes from professional acting coaches. Watch out for package deals — usually created by folks posing as agents or managers or, worse, casting services that say they can get you in front of people at major networks or studios if you’ll only drop a few thousand bucks to get the right walk, the right talk, the right photo, the right style, the right whatever they say you need for that chunk of change, when really they have no access to the decision-makers at those networks or studios in the first place. Yeah, I’m looking at you, big companies that advertise “searches” on the radio and drop the names of the biggest kid-friendly shows in an attempt to woo money out of parents who think they’re doing something good for their star-wannabe kids. You’re bad! And “real” Hollywood knows it.

I mentioned classes in the paragraph above, and training is essential to an actor’s success. Just like a professional athlete trains more than he actually gets into the uniform and onto the field in front of the fans, actors do too. Audit as many classes as you can (that means, sit in and watch a class as an observer — most coaches allow this for free or a very small fee) and be sure you’ve found the right fit for your needs. Don’t get complacent or lazy and stay with one coach for too many years. Stretch your acting muscles and learn new elements of the craft, like improvisation and standup comedy and voiceover. Have fun!

Don’t join SAG (or worse, AFTRA) until you absolutely, positively must do so. Yes, actors’ unions are a great thing, but until you are ready to work consistently in professional projects and never again in nonunion ones, wait! You are killing off your chance to work at the pre-professional level, gaining wonderful experience, building relationships, amassing footage for your demo reel, and learning about the business if you make Premature Moves. That includes signing with an agent or manager before you have a career to manage. It also includes picking up and moving to LA for pilot season before you have anything going on that would make you a good candidate for getting in front of anyone for a pilot.

You’ll need headshots. Everyone does. When you’re first starting out, don’t think you need to throw a ton of money at professional headshots, retouching, and printing. To get started, you can generally use a good, well-lit, well-cropped, color-balanced photo of yourself that looks exactly like you (very important), and sometimes even a school photo will do! Only when you are really getting auditions and meeting people will you need to invest several hundred dollars in your headshots. Look at the books (and you can do this online, by visiting any gallery of headshot photographers’ work) of photographers and see what professional headshots look like. If your mom or your buddy can shoot something that competes, that’s good enough to get started. Buying a $1000 headshot package from a “top, Hollywood photographer” who is visiting your tiny town and advertising on the radio about it is not a smart move. Not even “top, Hollywood actors” shoot with that guy.

You’ll need a resume. I’ve talked about billing here and here. I’ve talked about tips for resume formatting and content here. Until you have credits, listing your training and your skills is fine. We know what beginners are up against. And we were all beginners once. Own where you are in the industry and be your authentic self. That’s far better than fudging credits in order to look like you can compete, in the audition room, against people who have actually been on professional sets for years. Don’t put yourself through that. There’s plenty of time!

When you have a few credits, you’ll hopefully be able to amass tape. We work in visual media and that means we like to see what you can do. A demo reel answers questions that a headshot and resume alone cannot. For more on demo reels, read this and all of the previous columns linked within that one. There are a lot of them. Demo reels are important. But until you’re at that stage, don’t overwhelm yourself with worry about getting your tape together. Plenty of time.

When you’re working or hoping to work in a major market, you’ll need an online presence at Actors Access or the big, local submission service in your area. Don’t get suckered into those $50/month services that guarantee access to “real, Hollywood breakdowns from top casting directors, directly to you, the actor.” We’re not putting out our breakdowns on those sites. Most of them are running out-of-date, modified versions of copyrighted breakdowns we released elsewhere. Your submission will never be seen by the decision-makers and you’ll think you’re being proactive in your career when you’re actually just funding some scam artist’s retirement fund.

Okay, so how about your support system? How’s that?

I’ve talked about The Costs of Acting (and The Other Costs of Acting) before and both of those columns are good reads, when you have a minute. But the bottom line, there is this: It costs money to start a business (which is what you are doing, when you choose to pursue a career in acting) and the emotional support you get from your family and “civilian friends” is some of the most essential stuff.

Actors need to spend money on classes, headshots, submission services, demo reels, the trades, gas and auto insurance and car payments in order to get to and from all of those auditions, and on and on and on. So, there’s got to be a source of income until acting becomes that source. See my piece on Survival Jobs for some ideas.

And then there’s the emotional support required of anyone, in any life (but especially required of an artist, in the artist’s life). Have friends who aren’t into show business at all. Connect with “real” people who have no idea what it means when you say the words “headshot” or “improv” or “Star Meter.” Yes, be focused on your career, but not so focused that you lose sight of its place — and your place — in the real world.

If you’re a kid actor, all the more important to have that support (and I mean the kind that is really well-balanced and not so focused on showbiz). A stage parent is a scary, scary thing. I was very lucky as a kid actor to have a mom who would haul my butt around to auditions all over town but never indulge any of the “crap” that came with the ‘biz. If my grades dipped, I was pulled out of that play. If I sassed back, I was booked out with my agent for a week. I did not have a parent that wanted me to be an actor to fulfill some lost dream of her own. If you’re a kid actor whose parent is anything other than balanced and supportive (without being crazy greedy for your success), consider waiting to pursue acting until you’re on your own. Then you’ll know for sure whether it’s your dream or theirs. And then you’ll have a chance of exiting childhood emotionally unscathed.

And now for that big, ridiculous question everyone asks, when consulting aspiring actors.

Can you be happy doing anything other than acting?

I actually despise this question. It’s so weird to me, when I read other experts saying, “If you can be happy doing anything other than acting, do it.” I get why they say it. They’re trying to keep you from experiencing all of the rejection and heartbreak that comes with a career in acting. But honey, there’s rejection and heartbreak in every life. To believe that choosing to pursue a career in something other than your life’s dream is to steer away from heartache is ridiculous. It’s flat-out ignorant about what life itself contains in its journey (oh, and in case it matters, I don’t really believe rejection exists in this business. It’s just the matter of a paradigm shift, actually).

Anyway, my point is that you’re not going to spare yourself feelings of hurt by leaving your dreams behind. You’ll always wonder “what if” and that’s a recipe for Bitter Human Syndrome.

Want to try acting? Great. Try it. Start with community theatre or a school play or a church musical or a big open call that comes through the nearest town. And if you really love it, spend your free time between those types of opportunities in your area doing stuff like writing a play for yourself, creating a character you can put up on stage, shooting scenes in your living room with a cheap camcorder in order to get aware of what works and what doesn’t, when you watch it back or subject your friends and family to a screening.

Contact your local film commission to find out what’s shooting near you and when. Don’t get suckered in by those “they’re telling me everything I want to hear” scam artists. They’re slick. And that’s why their line of bull works. Believe me, there is no amount of money you can throw at a career in acting in order to shoot to the front of the line. It’s just like the weightloss industry. Everyone is selling some “quick fix” or “miracle cure” but the only thing that really works is discipline, hard work, and time.

WHEN YOU ARE READY, and that means you’ve read everything I’ve ever written here and everything Colleen has ever written there and everything Judy has written in this book and everything Jackie has written over there, as well as everything in my SMFA Hot Sheet recommended reading list (and others), then you should consider whether pursuing this career in a major market might make you blissfully happy. Don’t consider whether “being famous” would make you happy, because that’s not the question. It’s never the question, so the answer to that question is totally irrelevant, when you’re considering a career in acting. Remember, it’s the pursuit you’re going to have to love, because that’s what you’ll be doing most of the time: pursuing work. That is the work. Getting paid to be on the set? That’s paid vacation, baby. Enjoy it, when it comes. You really will have earned it!

Wanna be sure your tools *and* your mindset are in peak form? Let us get you in gear with some FREE training right now!

Woo HOO!

Bonnie Gillespie

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/000861.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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