A few days ago, a good friend got in touch with a request; her sister is going into professional acting and wanted to know if I had any wise words. It made me think of all the things I wish I’d been taught at drama school. So here is what I told her; with any luck, it’ll reach the ears of hopeful young thespians or maybe even further the career of working actors.
Edit: This article assumes you have some experience in acting – if you don’t, then before you do any of this I’d recommend you join some am dram groups, take some part-time classes, or create something yourself. If you go in before you’re ready, you’ll just get burnt.
A killer set of headshots should be your number on priority. Do your research, find a photographer whose style you absolutely love and call them – the great ones book up months in advance. It will usually cost you about £250-£350. Please do not get your Mum/neighbour/postman to do it. This is an investment in your career. A Casting Director will receive between five hundred and two thousand applications for each role (yeah not kidding) and the tiny little thumbnail of your headshot needs to FLY off the page.
On headshot day, I recommend getting someone to give you super natural makeup (if you’re a girl, or hey even if you’re a guy – not judging). Make sure you’re happy with your hair. You want to look like you on a really really good day, without the help of too much post airbrushing. Embrace your age! Don’t try and look younger or older. Ever since I got into ‘mom’ territory, I’ve had loads more opportunities. Get some sleep the night before, and do whatever you need to do to look your best. People who say it’s good to look average in headshots can sod off. You’re in competition with thousands.
Now its time to get a showreel. Without a showreel, it will be next to impossible to be seen for TV or film. I’ve known casting directors who have been so inundated with applications, they just get rid of the ones without an attachment.
There are a few ways of creating a showreel – signing up to student films and collecting material; getting friends together, renting some amazing equipment, and shooting some scenes; or getting a showreel company to do it. If I could do it all over again (oy vey) I would get a showreel company to do it. This is my biggest regret. I spend two and a half years working my butt off for free on student films, most of which were either bone-chillingly awful or simply never sent me a copy. If you must work on student films, focus on graduate films from the more recognisable schools. If you have just one scene, put it up. All you need is something that can show you can act.
Edit – as with headshot photographers, there are some truly shoddy showreel companies out there. Do your due diligence and research all you can.
In total your reel should be about a minute and a half long. Forget montages or musical intros – go bang into a shot of you acting, within the first five seconds. Agents and casting directors have next to no time, so you need to make it easy for them or they’ll just skip your reel. If you must have a montage, put it at the end.
Credits and your CV;
While all this is happening, work on getting your CV nice and juicy. To become a member of Spotlight (see below), you will need four professional acting credits. Sites like Starnow and Casting Call Pro can be useful here though you’ll have to wade through some rubbish. Get your amazing new headshots and showreels uploaded and apply, apply, apply.
Do your research – what does the role require? Can you find other work by the company online? Directors love if you’ve made an effort to see something they’ve done in the past. Keep your application succinct. They are going through a tonne of them and you want to make a great impression in a short amount of time.
Do not lie on your CV. Especially when it comes to accents and abilities. I’ve seen a guy come on set at the last minute because he said he could do a flawless American accent. He couldn’t. It was super embarrassing and he got cut from the whole production.
Later on, when you start to pile on the credits, delete the ones that aren’t as impressive. A CV with five amazing credits is better than a CV with twenty mixed ones.
On the plus side, all this applying for jobs can be done in your pyjamas with the cat/dog/guinea pig on your lap. When it comes to auditions, unfortunately you’ll have to get dressed.
Get to the audition on time, or even better, early. Make an effort to look nice and gear your clothing, hair and makeup towards the character you are going for. If you’re being seen for Mom-of-Three, be mom-of-three. Not lumberjack girl.
Above all, enjoy the auditioning process – its fun! You’re getting to act, meet new people, and walk into a room with twenty or more actors that look just like you, which isn’t creepy at all. If you enjoy the process, the casting director will know. And you will be much more likely to book the job.
As for the Casting Directors? When you walk into that room, they are hoping against hope you are the perfect person for the job. They want you to do well as badly as you do, so don’t forget – they are on your side.
My final tip for this, and I probably shouldn’t be sharing it with you – go in pretending you’ve already got the job and its the first day of rehearsals. Sure it’s a little nuts, but it works.
Spotlight; or the centre of the universe;
So you’ve got your four professional acting credits! Great. Get your butt on Spotlight. Spotlight is an online directory for acting jobs. Without it, you pretty much won’t be considered for representation by an agent because its where they get 99% of their work. When you sign up without an agent, you will automatically be listed under ‘care of Spotlight’.
This will give you access to a pool of casting breakdowns you may apply to yourself. These jobs will be way better than Casting Call Pro and Starnow. Agents will get access to higher calibre breakdowns on Spotlight than you will, and the better the agent, the more access they will have. Which is why you will likely need the next step.
Yay! Now you are ready to write to agencies. I really like the book The Actor’s Yearbook as a resource for agencies and more, but you could also do research online and ask your friends. It is best to write to agencies when you a. know someone signed to them and b. have something to invite them to.
Aim to land a great role in a fringe show to invite them to, and always remember to give them three or four weeks notice – they are ridiculously busy. When you sign with them, remember they are on your side – you work for each other. Do not fear the agent. However you must keep them up to date; write to them frequently with your availability – you don’t want them to call you in Malaga with an audition for the BBC that afternoon. They will always be working to get you auditions unless you tell them not to.
Formal Training and drama schools;
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention drama schools. This is because I have some incredibly talented acting pals who never went – but equally I know some who did very well out of it. This is entirely up to you. If you don’t wish to get formal training, write to one of the schools and see if you could be mentored. Either that or take classes with The Actors Guild or at The Actor’s Centre.
This is important not just to learn new skills, but to make contacts and the occasional fab friend. Being self employed can be isolating at times. If you do want to get formal training, focus on getting into a really, really good school. I’d say there’s only about five of them. With the rest you’d be better off using your money (£19,000 a year, usually) for individual classes, and you know, for eating.
Work; like, regular old work;
While you’re doing all this running around preparing the entertainment world for your greatness, you’ll need to pay the rent. Most important here is to find a job that is ok with you taking off for auditions at the last minute; your regular nine to five ain’t gonna cut it. I’ve done a lot of promotional work, hostessing stands at exhibition centres, and handing out goody bags or samples.
These days I am super lucky to be working at a film school with directing students, and with a lovely catering company at the weekends. Lots of friends work for call centres or with temp agencies. Ask your friends. Believe it or not, we’re all here for each other.
Another way of making a living is through role play. Now if you can get in with one of the good role play agencies, and you will need to be with an agency, you’re golden. I have a friend who was sent to Florida for a three day job, and in general it is much better paid than your average job. Role play requires incredibly strong improvisational skills, and there are generally two categories; medical and corporate.
Medical role play involves pretending to be a patient and getting diagnosed by doctors or trainee doctors, often in examination situations. Corporate role play involves working with big companies on improving their skills; like how to deal with difficult customers or employees, how to fire someone, etc etc. I am desperate to get into corporate role play, so if anyone has an in, hook a sister up, m’kay?
In addition to acting, role playing, catering and teaching, there are other things you can and should do. For instance, voice acting is an avenue I’ve just begun to get into and I absolutely love it – but that comes with a whole other set of rules which I can’t even begin to get into. But it’s great.
At the present moment, I have an acting agent, three modelling agents, a voiceover agent and a role play agent. This world is a constant juggling act and your calendar will be your best friend. Just because you have an agent doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax. Keep writing to Casting Directors with your materials, keep applying to jobs on your own. Go to film festivals, plays, attend meetings with your local Equity branch. Meet people. Talk to them. That’s what its all about.
A few years ago, I discovered that keeping ‘office hours’ worked best for me. If I wasn’t at a job, I would try and spend the hours of nine to five (at least) furthering my career in some way or another.
It will be a hella lot of work, and you might miss some great parties and holidays but let me tell you – nothing beats that feeling of waking up at five in the morning to go on set and do your thing. And me, I like my sleep.