We are all at differing stages of our acting careers. For some, it is perhaps merely the nagging stage, where Romantic thoughts drift you away from your day job, until a stack of papers wakes you soberingly from your daydreaming. Or perhaps you are at the stage of collapse, where you have exhausted every acting lesson, community play, drained every last morsel of knowledge from Internet articles such as this one, and still reside in a perpetual sense of inertia. Or perhaps you have even reached that final, unfathomable stage called ‘success’, but, rattled by an all too familiar self-doubt, you still yearn to know how to become a “real actor”. How to finally give yourself the permission to call yourself an actor. Well, as always, I have no answers; how can anyone in this vague game called acting? But here I go anyway. These are my thoughts on how to become an actor…
Updated 16 June 2021
Redefine the Title
The word actor gets rather carelessly splashed around the place. This is warranted, given that there are no set rules of who gets to call themselves an actor, and what it is that actually qualifies someone to be an actor.
I imagine that, in taxation terms, about 3-5% of the pool of those claiming to be actors actually make the majority of their living as actors, rather than as, perhaps, waiters. But is it money we are striving for? I strongly believe in the value of actors, and that they should be paid well and have the ability to live off the earnings of their craft. But is this your goal? Are you an actor only when you can live off your craft?
Another component is fame. This is not an invalid desire by any means, although it is often scoffed at by actors when in public together. But is that your catalyst? Do you want fame?
Artistic integrity is another hackneyed term that gets thrown around. But is that your stimulation? Do you want to create great work as an actor? I’m sure this is always preferential, even for the most commercially minded actor, but is that your specific focus? Would you be satisfied working at a café during the day and performing Hamlet at night, working on a theatrical masterpiece, inspiring audiences, however small?
I’m sure, for most actors, it is a healthy combination of all three. I imagine that we each have some fanciful dream of them all working tidily together in the near future, but having a clear personal definition of what acting is to you is essential.
If you clearly know what you’re going after, you will move forward in that direction, however incrementally. It would be invaluable to start a career as an actor understanding what drives you to do this strange and wonderful craft. It means each decision stems from a reason, rather than guesswork.
If your passion is in the theatre, taking a three-day screen acting master-class isn’t the most prudent investment. Likewise, if you’re trying to become famous, having a weekly Shakespeare reading may not be propitious.
Acquire Good Training
Regardless of your goals you need to be well trained, and that doesn’t necessarily mean going to an acting school. However, acting school is, in my opinion, the best way to obtain solid training. For more information, have a look at my thoughts about drama school. Make sure that, if you are going to a drama school, it is a reputable institution and you have thoroughly researched it. Wasting three years and a lot of money is not desirable.
If you want to avoid drama school, or if drama school is repeatedly avoiding you at their auditions, think clearly and cleverly. Seek out people who can help you. Read the best acting books, vocal books, and learn from great actors. Spend some time here on Stage Milk as well; I started this site for curious, hungry actors like yourself.
If you are going to train privately, seek out respected teachers and work on areas that you think are relevant to your ultimate goal. I have seen too many people recklessly spend money on courses and master-classes that often award you little more than fleeting inspiration (and a large bill!)
If theatre is your goal, see a voice teacher, as that will be your weakness against trained actors. See a lot of theatre, read plays, and get involved in community theatre. However, don’t take anything as gospel when working in community theatre; you have to be clever to avoid accumulating poor habits, which can be prevalent.
Get an Agent
Whether you are a well-rounded product of a drama school or an embattled, untrained actor, your first goal in starting this career is to get an agent. Again, be clever. Find out as much as you can about the agents in your city and try your best to obtain an agent. For more information, take a look at our article on how to get an acting agent. If you cannot get representation, don’t give up. Create work, gain skills and try again.
Stay on the Pulse
Okay, so you have an agent, or you have chosen to be your own agent. Either way, the process is the same. Stay up to date with what is happening on stage, on television, and in film.
Networking is a despised word of mine, but try to be social and open. Meet other actors, directors, writers. One day your peers will run this industry, so be good to them. Some great things have happened to me off the back of social gatherings, so don’t underestimate the importance of them. Just don’t network in that fawning, scheming way that comes to mind, at least to me, when you utter that word, networking.
Be proactive in your spare time. Use your time wisely. Regardless of what anyone says, you can work on acting on your own. If absolutely nothing is happening for you, make it happen. Put on a play, make a short film, start a play reading group. As I was told so often at drama school, ‘don’t wait for the phone to ring’.
There Are No Set Paths
As you move forward on any creative journey, it is important you realise that there is no set path. Trying to mimic someone else’s journey will likely lead to failure and disappointment. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have role models: quite the opposite, they are fantastic. Looking at why some people succeed and why you love certain actors is invaluable, but scrutinising your own success based on that of someone else is useless and likely to lead to comparison and bitterness.
Follow good principles, follow your passion, and trust yourself. Make your decisions based on what your goal is as an actor and then you can be comfortable with your own journey.
Appreciate Luck and Increase Your Odds
Someone recently wrote an article for the site about luck and its importance in an acting career. I agree with it. There is a lot of luck/divinity (depending on your proclivity) that is governing the success of us all. So accept that and do what you can do to increase your odds. As Larry Moss recently said in a master-class that I attended, ‘be so good they can’t afford not to hire you’. I am yet to see the fall-out of this adage and many like it that say that hard work and persistence will shine through. I don’t know, yet, if talent and hard work will inevitably lead people to success or if it is all just a truly random, unruly industry and world. Only time will tell, but, for now, let’s not take chances, but work hard instead.