Simple answer: yes!
Is it easy? Absolutely not. Will I get rich quick? You’ve got more chance of that by buying a lotto ticket. If I work really hard, hustle like I’m Bradley Cooper, train, diversify and sacrifice the security that comes with working in a 9-5 industry can I make a living off acting? Yeah, I think you can! It ain’t easy ladies and gents, but it’s not impossible either, here is a how-to guide for making a living off acting.
This is step one, not only for acting but any industry – you gotta work your backside off. That counts in all sectors of acting, your skill at your craft, your relationships with your agent and other industry folks like casting directors, directors and producers as well as making sure your package of headshot, showreel and CV is up to date and beautifully presented. Are you working on your voice? Working on accents? Reading plays, seeing theatre, engaging in your artistic community?
Part of being an actor is seeing others work, really immersing yourself in your local theatrical scene, even if you consider yourself more of a screen actor. I am always amazed by actors who come to an acting class and don’t watch theatre! You can learn so much from watching other actors do their work, you can also buy them a drink after the show and grill them on their choices, their process or their approach.
We’ve said this a lot on StageMilk but the great Larry Moss says actors should be working on their voice every day, reading two plays a week, be learning a new monologue every month and trying to do two hours of creative work every day. Is all of this going to take time? Yes. No doubt. But this is the sacrifice and the hard work that being an actor requires. This is the stuff you need to do before you’re even making a living – just to put you in the best position to be able to do so. The other side of this coin is the hustle, a la Rebel and Anne.
So the hustle covers two major points, building relationships and actively pushing for work. Let’s talk about building relationships, the first and most important relationship an actor has is with their agent. Your agent is your conduit into the film, television and theatre industry in your city and around the world. Not only do you need to like them and vice versa, but they need to believe in your work enough to fight for you and put you forward for gigs. This means you need training, a great package of headshot, reel and CV and that you are constantly trying to get better.
This comes back to hard work, but the actors I know who are regularly going for bigger gigs are the ones who are regularly sending their agents self-tapes, having constructive conversations with their agents and really nurturing that relationship.
Don’t have an agent? Read our handy how-to guide here.
So let’s say now, you’re working hard, you’ve got an agent and you’re ready to work and start earning a living. These are your options for how to actually make some coin:
Guys, commercials are where the money is at! We are talking those big dollars to look like an idiot and eat fast food. Which, let’s face it, you were going to do anyway! Commercials are usually a big, single sum of money. Which is a great cash injection into your bank account. The sad news about them is, once you’ve done a commercial in one industry you cannot work for that companies competitor for at least a year. So while it’s great to get those dollars, be aware that’s going to do you for fast food for a little while, so make sure it’s worth it. Frequency tends to be an issue for commercials too, I usually book 1-2 per year. I have friends who have earned upwards of 35k in a year from booking commercials! But you really have to have points one and two in this article absolutely firing to make that work. You can read our guide to booking commercials here.
#2 Voice Over
Now as soon as you have your showreel up and running, getting a great commercial voice reel together is essential. Voice overs are a great way to make a living as an actor. They are super easy, most of the time you don’t have to audition (they can cast you straight from your reel) and you don’t even have to learn any lines! What a time to be alive. The money is not as good as being in an on-camera commercial but it is still solid. One of Sydney’s premiere voice-artists, Dorje Swallow, wrote a great article for us all about voice over here. With the explosion of digital advertising, video games, animation and audiobooks there is more work for voice artists than ever before and it is a great time to get your foot in the door here.
#3 Film and TV
So this is the goal right? Everyone wants to book a repeating major role in a new Netflix show, obviously, the money is great, the scripts are amazing, so are the casts – it really needs no explanation. But if you are just starting out it is pretty unreasonable to expect you can just walk into a Netflix casting. You gotta start from the bottom and work your way up. Auditions for those big shows might come up once to twice a year, and if they are casting a wide enough selection of actors to have a bunch of newer actors auditioning, there will literally be hundreds in contention here. It is not impossible, but it is difficult.
However, network TV gigs in your local area should be casting for their regular shows very often. Mullinars casting in Sydney, for example, has someone employed all year round just to cast Home and Away. This is a great way to be seen by a casting director, do great work and hopefully be called back for something bigger! TV pays well, film does too depending on the role you get, the budget of the film and how much of a cut your agent takes. Again if you have been working hard on your craft, smash the audition and get on set, working in film and TV is the ideal way for an actor to be able to make a living.
Check out our video guide for getting on Home and Away here.
Now listen, if you have come to theatre for the money, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Especially in Australia. Even in main stage productions for STC or MTC the money is not amazing. You’ve got to be in it for the love. If somehow you managed to get the role of Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway, the pay packet would probably be pretty awesome, but if your name is Lin-Manuel Miranda and your reading this, please reply to my fan mail, good job, I love you. That all being said, theatre is amazing. Every actor should do it, you will make some money out of it but the real reason is the sheer inescapable thrill of being on stage in front of an audience, forming a community with the rest of your cast, working incredibly hard on something you really care about. Theatre is extraordinary. Get amongst it.
Teaching actors or young people who are interested in acting and performance is a great way to share your skills and knowledge with others. It usually pays well and is an excellent opportunity for you to give back to your community. I am teaching a beginners acting class in Sydney at the moment for Darlo Drama and I am absolutely loving the experience!
Freelance writing can be a great way to make a few bucks if your very lucky StageMilk.com takes you on board as a writer and then you get to write about acting all the time and it’s awesome. I recommend it. Additionally, writing scripts, putting on plays or producing short films is a great way to get yourself more acting work and to expand your network of creatives!
Working as a casting directors assistant or a reader is also a great way to see other actors work and to keep your fingers on the pulse of the industry in your area. Quite a few actors I know work in casting while still auditioning for projects themselves. It works for the casting director too, having an actor or two on staff means they don’t have to read with the talent as they come in and can really focus on their job. Win-win.
So as you can tell, working in all of the above industries is going to mean you do not have the security of a full-time job. In fact, working as an actor means at points you will find yourself unemployed. Side hustles are a fact of an actors existence, even great Aussie actors like the legendary Kate Mulvany still has a side hustle in transcription even after winning AACTA awards and an OAM! The truth of the matter is, making a living solely from acting gigs, is near impossible for most. In fact, most actors in Australia earn less than $10,000 per year from acting. So what does this mean? You are going to need to diversify. You can either work at a cafe 5 days a week, or you can find a job that pays you well, but is still in the industry. Like the aforementioned – casting directors assistant, teacher, writer, producer etc.
If routine, reliable income and every-day-being-the-same are important to you, then looking to make a living as an actor is not going to be a great option for you. If riding the ups and downs, focusing on your creative output and riding the lightning of flexibility sounds like your jam, and you are super passionate about the craft, then you can make a living as an actor!
So there it is ladies and gentlemen, the definitive list of how to make a living as an actor. It is not impossible! You can absolutely do it, you’re just going to have to hustle, diversify what you think you’re capable of, get toes in all of the pies and be prepared to sacrifice some security in favour of creativity. You can do it folks, god speed.