Recently, I wrote an article on StageMilk about how much actors get paid. So, it seems only right to me that the hot summer sequel to this is all about fame. How does it happen? Why does it happen? Why do we insist fame isn’t for us, but then turn around to try and achieve it anyway? It’s a fascinating socio-cultural phenomenon, and something that drives more of us to become actors than we might like to admit. So let’s dig in and see if we can find some answers to the question: “How do actors get famous?”
Actors become famous for a number of reasons; these are often tied to the larger entertainment industry and its support of talent they deem to be marketable. But there are other pathways that actors may find themselves on that lead to fame and recognition as well. However, being a famous actor doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. There are lots of exceptionally successful actor/artists who aren’t so well known, and a lot of famous actors who aren’t necessarily good at what they do. Whether or not you strive for fame, it’s super important to understand that becoming successful actor does not depend on becoming a famous actor.
Before we jump into the list below: The discussion around fame is somewhat fraught due to a long and entrenched history of racism, sexism and classism within the entertainment industry. It’s important to recognise that privilege does, unfortunately, play a big role in who gets to stand in the global limelight and who doesn’t. Is this changing, and for the better? Yes. But there’s a long way to go until a person’s background is a diminished factor in their level of fame.
The Breakout Role
The best, most promising and (save perhaps for “Freak Accident” below) most romantic way of becoming famous. You’ve been hustling away as an actor for years. Commercial here, showcase there. Day job, bank account more pennies than dollars. And then… Suddenly… Without warning… BAM! A lead role in a brand new series, or a supporting role in the next big superhero movie.
There are 25 years, count ’em: a whole quarter century, between Morgan Freeman’s entry into the arts industry and his recognition by Hollywood as a viable star. Was he out of work? Hell no, he did incredible films and award-winning theatre work right up until 1989, where films such as Driving Miss Daisy and the incredible Glory put him on the map. Arguably, these were breakout roles for him as an actor and his career took off into the stratosphere.
So what’s the lesson, here? The breakout role path to fame does happen. In fact, happens more than you might think. The problem is a point I’ve already made once—and will likely make again before the bottom of this page. Fame does not equal success, any more than success equals fame. There’s nothing stopping an actor achieving a great amount of fame with a break-out role, only for their career to founder just years later. “Remember [INSERT NAME]? Gee, whatever happened to them?” Exactly…
Throw a stone in the air and it’ll land on a renowned actor who studied conservatoire. Whilst training for three years at a renowned drama school doesn’t guarantee fame and fortune as an actor, it can do a great job at putting you on the path. Drama school offers structured education with professionals and exists to refine both your theoretical understanding of acting and your acting practice itself. What’s more, they often have standing relationships with agencies, meaning that their students get at least a guaranteed look-in come graduation.
But most importantly, drama schools produce great actors. And great actors generally have a better shot at fame. Some actors in your your drama school year will find work and representation almost immediately after graduating, if not slightly before. Why’s that? Let me throw you a few possible reasons:
- #1 They’re great actors. They’re diligent, they’re talented and they love what they do. They’re the kind of people you want to watch on stage and screen.
- #2 They’ve got the right look. An unfortunate truth about the industry is that there are aesthetic trends. Sometimes people fit the bill based on appearance alone. I don’t mean that these people are getting cast because they’re drop-dead gorgeous, rather they have a certain look/type/brand that the industry, and indeed audiences, deem “in-fashion”. Sad but true
- #3 They’re lucky. Sometimes it’s a simple as right place, right time. You certainly need talent and drive to meet the luck, though. And not all of the golden graduates manage to stick the landing.
Social Media and Self Promotion
Now more than ever in our cutthroat industry, actors are empowered to self-promote and build their brands. We have access to casting profiles, cheap and effective solutions for showreels and even the chance to build awareness through platforms like TikTok. Yay for us, right? Sort of.
Recently, one of the writing staff here at StageMilk told me a story about being in a casting meeting for a tv show they were working on. They said the executive producer checked the Instagram accounts of each potential actor and noted their number of followers—stating that it was most beneficial to secure the talent whose social media might translate to new, loyal viewers. Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter produced a list of 11 up-and-comers known to have started their acting journey on social media.
If you want to be famous—not good, not necessarily respected but famous famous—you need a presence on social media. This metric will become increasingly important as our industry melds and clashes with new and diverse media. Even if you’re not looking for fans in the tens of millions, it’s still an important field to be across.
Nepotism is the practice of favouring friends and family members in professional settings. When someone has familial connections in Hollywood, there is more of a chance that doors will open for them that otherwise would’ve remained closed. “Hollywood Dynasty” is a term used to describe families with a long history of success in the industry who pass fame and acclaim from one generation to the next. The Barrymores, Baldwins and Coppolas are all prime examples.
The debate around nepotism is largely centred around issues of inequality and privilege. People arguing against nepotism insist that it stifles diversity and opportunities for talented people who lack the same powerful connections. On the other hand, proponents of nepotism cite the benefits of passing down industry knowledge through generations to create a lineage of exceptional talent and familiarity with Hollywood. I don’t think I subscribe to such an idea personally, but it’s certainly worth knowing what is being discussed.
An example of nepotism in Hollywood is Angelina Jolie. Her father is Jon Voight, an Oscar Award-winning actor. It should be noted that her success, and many other actors who achieve fame by way of nepotism, isn’t entirely due to her familial connections. Jolie proved herself to be a transformative and talented actor, winning an Oscar for her role in Girl, Interrupted. That said, it would be naïve to say she started on the same level as everyone else aspiring to win Oscars some day.
A.K.A. “getting discovered”. Showbiz, baby, is unpredictable. There are a handful of actors whose journey to fame began with a twist of fate, a chance encounter or truly wild circumstances. Let’s talk about Charlize Theron and how her path to stardom began, of all places, in a bank.
One day, Charlize was in a bank, arguing with the teller. It just so happened that on that particular day, a talent agent was also in the same bank and watched in awe as as she quarrelled with such zeal, such presence and control. The agent approached her at once and asked if she’d ever thought about being an actor. Now set on the perilous path of acting, Charlize Theron had a breakout role in Monster, for which she won the Academy Award.
Charlize Theron is an example of just how unexpected and downright random the industry can be. There’s no tried and tested path to becoming a successful actor, it can happen over many years or it can happen one day in a bank: you just never know. Do be careful about exploitation when you are ‘discovered’, though. When you operate outside the usual systems, it’s possible for directors or producers to take liberties with safety or appropriate conduct. It can end badly.
Let’s be a little more positive: some actors achieve success purely through hard work and recognition for their craft. Meryl Streep comes to mind, as does Daniel Day-Lewis. Especially in the case of Day-Lewis: do you remember any talk show appearances from him? Any long, profound Oscar acceptance speeches? No. But I bet you remember the conviction with which he approaches roles, the way he throws himself into everything from making canoes to making shoes to painting with his feet.
It’s rare, and it’s often in conjunction with another path to fame (such as a breakout role), but actors can become famous simply by the calibre o the work they put out into the world. Remember this at time, and let it comfort you.
Being a Delight to Work With
This final point relates less to being famous as being internationally idolised and paid in piles of gold. Let’s re-think more about the concept of recognition. You know which actors receive recognition, and with it lasting and fruitful careers? Those who are kind and thoughtful collaborators. Be a delight to work with and fame will come a lot more easily to you. Because people will like you and want to work with you again!
The best part about this point is that it’s true for the entirety of your career. We’ve written a lot of articles about the importance of getting involved in short films, independent theatre, workshops, readings—the list goes on and on. One of the reasons you should go out of your way to find these smaller opportunities is so you can build your reputation and work with the same people again. This is also known as “nepotism”, but this time it works for you!
If you’re a decent person, people will want to work with you again. If you do a good job, and make them look good, there’s no reason they won’t propel you alongside their own careers. Look at what Edgar Wright did for Nick Frost: you may not even know who Edgar Wright is!
To quote Jason Bateman: “You’re one job away from changing your life.” That breakout role us actors chase can come about in bizarre ways. It can take many years of hard work for little pay and recognition, steadily building connections that one day lead you to that coveted role… Or it can literally happen overnight.
Regardless of what sets one on the path to stardom, it takes skill, talent and determination to maintain a steady course. My tutor says that you can either go for celebrity or you can go for integrity, and I tend to agree. There are pitfalls and traps on every side of fame that most of us are completely unaware of. But the allure will always be there and truly there’s nothing wrong with striving to be recognised for something you love and work hard at.
Hope this helped. See you around the traps!