Whether you’re a fresh-faced drama school graduate or a grizzled, veteran board-treader, it’s safe to say you’d agree an actor’s life is one of variation and uncertainty. Hell, it’s probably safe to say you knew that if you’ve stumbled across this page completely by accident (and if so, welcome)!
Actors’ careers can be wildly different from one another—based on such factors as location, level of training, professional/personal connections and luck. For this reason, it can be extremely difficult to find unbiased information about acting as a career that isn’t tainted by personal experience or hearsay. There are some truths that are universal to the actors’ experience; the more you know about them, the better prepared you can be for times of unexpected fortune both good and bad.
In this article, we’re going to do our best to get past the myths around acting and give you the facts: what this business actually entails, what to do if you wish to enter it and how you might navigate a career. No matter your individual path in an acting career, it can be invaluable to know what to expect and what will be expected of you on this terrific—if sometimes fraught—adventure.
- What is an Actor?
- Training as an Actor
- How Does An Actor Progress Their Career?
- How Much Does an Actor Make?
- An Actor’s Lifestyle
- Should I Become An Actor?
What Is an Actor?
An actor is a person who portrays a character as part of a performance. Usually working from a stimulus text such as a play or script, they use skills and techniques to convey narrative, emotions, thoughts and ideas to an audience. Actors usually train at a drama school or equivalent institution before entering the entertainment industry with the hope of securing paid work. This may be in the field of theatre, or screen media such as film, television and online content. However, many actors also work in advertising by filming commercials or lending their voices to products. Because of the low artist-to-work ratio in the creative industry, most actors supplement their income from acting with secondary jobs. Some actors regard this as anathema to their artistic integrity, whereas others regard the hustle of the ‘day job’ as simply another facet of an actors’ rich and varied life.
A Brief History
The roots of acting as an art form can be traced back to countless storytelling traditions in cultures around the world. The first recorded actor in history was a performer named Thespis who, in 534BCE, was the first person to stand on a stage and portray a character—a person completely different from their own self. Depending on the culture or historical period, actors have been both lauded and derided members of human society. They have been embraced or persecuted for their ability to convey thoughts and ideas to the general public—who may regard them as artists/thinkers, simple entertainers or layabouts who offer no practical societal contribution. This attitude has effectively carried through to the present day, although some modern actors in more industrialised entertainment systems (such as Hollywood) have emerged as wealthy cultural elites and influencers.
Training as an Actor
A large majority of professional, working actors have some kind of formal training. They may study at a dedicated drama school or pursue a degree at a university or college with a drama program. These programs usually run for 1 – 3 years, after which the actor graduates with a certificate, diploma or bachelor’s degree. These courses can cover a wide variety of topics, and as there are multiple schools of thought on acting training they may be informed by differing methodologies. However, each course is geared towards producing industry-ready graduates—to the degree where they may help an actor secure an agent by way of an industry showcase or the production of a showreel.
Despite having graduated from drama school, many actors will continue to seek formal training well into their professional careers. They may participate in acting workshops, one-off masterclasses with industry professionals or prestigious acting teachers. An actor whose background training stems from the teachings of, say, Konstantin Stanislavski, might study the methods of Tadashi Suzuki to augment their skills or to gain a new perspective on their craft. Beyond additional formal training, actors may also engage in personal scene study or join a scene or drama club to keep their skills honed and sharp.
Of course, while formal training is the best and most direct path for actors, there are some actors with less or no training who enjoy successful careers. For example: “non-actors” with zero experience may be discovered for a role by a producer or director and find themselves quickly elevated through the industry ranks. In other cases, an untrained actor may transition into the job from other performing arts fields such as comedy, music or dance.
Finding the Right Training
Given the allure of acting as an exciting and glamorous profession, it is unsurprising that the training of actors is, itself, a profitable industry. When an actor decides to seek formal training, it is vitally important that they choose a reputable, trustworthy institution—one that is backed by respected teachers and alumni. Actors should be doubly wary of less-established teachers and companies, who will happily promise quick results (and sometimes industry clout) in exchange for the money of a would-be performer. Any actors looking for training should conduct careful research into the various options available to them; finding the right kind of training will produce far better results than attending a prestigious institution that fails to meet one’s needs.
How Does an Actor Progress Their Career?
Actors secure the vast majority of their work by auditioning: delivering a short performance to a director, producer or casting director that showcases their ability and suitability for a given role. They may come upon auditions by themselves in the industry, or find them on purpose-built casting website like StarNow. Most actors, however, will be sent to auditions sourced for them by their agent. An agent is a person in the entertainment industry whose job it is to find work for the actors they represent. While some actors have no representation or choose not so sign with an agency, finding a respected agent is one of the first major milestones in an actor’s career. Without one, many actors feel ‘locked out’ of an industry heavily regulated by interpersonal relationships—the dreaded “who you know”.
As actors gain more recognition, they may find themselves having to audition less. This can be because their work is more widely known, or they have worked with that particular director/producer in the past. However, some actors enjoy the auditioning process and may even insist on being seen for a certain role: they may get to play an unexpected character, or even completely reinvent their established brand.
Networking is vitally important to an actor’s career. The creative industry is a very small place, meaning reputation can make or kill careers faster than missed opportunities or the occasional bad performance. Actors are required to make connections and build relationships with other creatives: not just other actors, but directors and producers and anybody with power to wield. An actor must always remember that dynamics in the industry can shift rapidly—and one can never afford to alienate somebody in case they end up running the theatre/studio/world.
As with auditioning, networking is something that actors with more status can afford to do less of should they desire it. Some famous actors throughout history have been famously private individuals, while others remain open and accessible to industry, press and general public alike—especially in the age of social media. As with any other aspect of the business, an actor needs to find a balance between public and private, networking and simply making friends. A phone-book full of actor friends are usually far more helpful than a phone-book full of high-powered industry contacts.
A contentious issue, and rightly so. We’ve discussed when you should work for free elsewhere on StageMilk, as it is sadly an unavoidable part of the creative industry. Many actors will take on unpaid work in order to raise their own profile, or to make connections with artists they hope to collaborate with in the future. Depending on the circumstances (which should always be thoroughly examined), unpaid opportunities can be very beneficial to an actor’s career—especially at an earlier stage when their contacts and resume are limited.
However, an actor must limit these opportunities to protect themselves. It can be very easy for emerging actors to say “Yes!” to every unpaid job that is put in front of them—even if doing so will negatively affect their own living stability or mental health. Indeed, one of the more difficult things an actor needs to learn is how to let go of potential opportunities (and learn which of them are genuinely worth your time and effort). Here at StageMilk, our advice is this: work for free when you can afford to do so, and that work doesn’t conflict with other paid opportunities. Respect yourself, know what you’re worth and if you have to tell somebody “no”, use it as an opportunity to separate respectful future employers from the self-serving users.
N.B.: As actors can often find their skills and labour exploited, it is strongly recommended that they join an arts union that will protect their interests and inform them of their rights. Unions do not just ensure safe and fair work practices, but may be able to support actors who find themselves struggling with financial security, personal hardship or mental health.
Making Their Own Work
Some actors have enjoyed great success in their careers—sometimes after years in the wilderness—simply by making their own work. Actors-turned-writers, actors-turned-directors, actors-turned-producers make their own opportunities happen. Sometimes they act in these projects, but may transition completely to a writer/director/producer role in future projects. There are many famous examples of this happening throughout the history of acting (Barbara Streisand, John Cassavetes, Warren Beatty, Jordan Peele to name a few). However, actors making their own opportunities is something that can happen at any level of the industry—and with great effect. Every actor should consider writing their own starring vehicle, becoming a producer or getting started on the directing path. Even if they have no aspiration beyond raising their own profile as an actor, the creative industry respects nothing more than ingenuity and hustle.
How Much Does an Actor Make?
It is notoriously difficult to put a number on the average acting wage. Most statistical data from countries such as the United States, England and Australia put the median actor’s income at somewhere around $40,000/p.a.—with the hourly wage sitting somewhere between $35 – $48. However, these figures fail to reflect actors who earn far less than this, far more than this and the actors who are employed in another industry to sustain their living expenses.
Given the large pool of acting talent in any given market, as well as the proportionately small number of acting jobs available, very few performers work in the industry full-time. In a sobering, pre-pandemic article, The Guardian reported that just 2% of all actors in England are making a living off their profession, while 90% are unemployed (as actors) at any one time. For these reasons, most actors will hold down a ‘day job’ and treat income from acting work as supplementary. Some will stick with this day job for a number of years—even building healthy reputations in their secondary field. Other actors prefer to keep to professions with minimal commitment, allowing them to leave at a moment’s notice for that perfect opportunity.
Teaching—especially in the field of drama and acting—is a popular profession for many actors, as it allows them to exercise their training in a professional setting. Likewise, many actors will work support roles in the creative industry such as ushering at a theatre, as industry employers may be more sympathetic to an actor’s needs (such as attending auditions).
An Actor’s Lifestyle
Actors lives are fraught with rejection and uncertainty; it is an existence that requires a lot of courage, hard work and an inch of thick skin all over. That being said, actors often lead socially rich lives—buoyed by their natural networking skills and the close-knit nature of creative communities. They may form strong bonds with their peers, especially those they studied with at drama school, who provide support and understanding about aspects of the life that non-actors (such as family) may not fully comprehend. Sometimes, these friends may be professional competitors; actors constantly need to navigate feelings of jealousy. But these bonds are usually forged by a shared passion for the acting profession; the desire to see one’s friends succeed often trumps any ill-will.
Despite the worrying numbers and statistics in the above section of this article, a large majority of actors lead lives of financial comfort and stability. This is not because they’re always getting high-paying gigs—and certainly not because they’re collecting government hand-outs—but because most actors are hard workers who will take a second job to fund their passion or training. Actors learn to budget and plan ahead for leaner times in their calendar when acting work is scarce. They may also engage in seasonal work, or longer-term contracts in fields such as education. Very few actors have the privilege to treat their acting income as anything more than a ‘windfall’. And while those who do can live very comfortable lives, the remaining ninety-something-percent will happily opt for stability over the occasional lottery win.
As artists, actors lead wonderful lives. Their work will require them to be well-read across multiple fields, and to develop a rich knowledge of history and culture to inform the hundreds of roles they may portray. In order to stay up to date with current trends in their industry, actors tend to consume a lot of media and see as much theatre as possible. Many actors, at some point in their career, will also branch into other areas of the industry such as writing, producing, directing, stand-up comedy or even music. It might sound overwhelming, but it makes for an extremely fulfilling existence. To work as an actor is to appreciate art, as well as the world in which you live that might inspire it.
Should I Become an Actor?
If you have a genuine passion for acting, if you’re not afraid of hard work and reading this far hasn’t scared you off: it’s definitely something you consider! For many acting hopefuls, this question is more philosophical than logistic, and we’ve talked through that angle elsewhere on this site. But whatever your reasons for wanting to actor might be, it’s important to approach this career with a clear understanding of what it takes … and what it might take from you. As we said at the start of this: an actor’s life is one of variation and uncertainty. There’s never a dull moment.