What do you need to become an actor? | StageMilk

What do you need to become an actor?

Written by on | Acting Tips

Becoming an actor is just like becoming a plumber, or any other trade for that matter. It consists of a desire to do it, training to do it, experience doing it and finally contacts and connections that can help you do it more! There is a misconception that to be an actor you just need to be discovered. That innately in your heart, you have this unbridled talent that if you just got seen in a cafe by a casting director they would be like ‘Hey! You’re perfect to be the new Superman! Sign this contract!’ Folks I am here to tell you – this doesn’t happen. Very occasionally it does and I mean in the same way that some random guy turns up to pitch a baseball and is given a million-dollar contract – sure it happens, but if you’re betting on that you might as well buy a lotto ticket every day and wait for your numbers to come in! What it really takes to become an actor is work – hard graft every day and an unquestionable, unrelenting passion to tell stories.

#1 The Need to Act!

Let’s talk about the need to do it, and I say a need because that is what it has to be. A genuine need in your bones. Bryan Cranston, the wonderful actor famous for Breaking Bad says ‘If you can do anything else, you should.’ You have to have a need in your bones to do it, especially if you want to work professionally. If you are just in it to do some community theatre and have a hobby with some friends, then that’s awesome! You do you! Love that.

However, if you decide that you want to be an actor because you want to be famous – you are going into the wrong industry. I cannot stress this enough. Fame is the symptom, not the cause of being an actor. Every famous actor you know is in that position because of their innate, powerful, desperate need to tell stories. A need to act. Their craft, passion, performance and connection is what has got them to this position of fame. Not the other way around. I always tell students: if you want to be famous, be a serial killer. You’ll get a true-crime podcast named after you and spend your life in jail or on the run. Maybe someone will make a Netflix series about your escapades. If you want to be rich, go into finance – learn about hedge funds and investments. If you want to tell stories, if you need to tell stories or your insides will explode – be an actor.


#2 Training

The first question – do I really need to train? Yes.

Unequivocally, unabashedly yes. You wouldn’t’ want a doctor who said ‘Yeah I didn’t go to medical school, I just sort of figured it out as I went’ or a plumber who said ‘Yeah plumbing school just isn’t really for me’ or a mechanic who said, ‘I just sort of feel it out as I go’ No way right? Now are there actors out there who haven’t gone to drama school? Absolutely, Jodie Comer, the incredible actress from Killing Eve is famously untrained as is Ryan Gosling.

However, this does not mean they have never taken an acting class. Or engaged a private coach, or worked on it in some structured learning capacity. Further to that, for every working actor who is untrained, I can throw 50 at you who are. Check out the Alumni lists for American Drama Schools, UK Drama Schools, Australian Drama Schools or our massive list of drama schools. The alumni of these institutions have been the vast majority of the talent on our stages and screens for the last fifty years. This is not by chance or fluke. It is just like any other trade, the better teachers you have, the more you practice, the better skills you are going to have. 

Certainly, these institutions offer connections and opportunities that you cannot get anywhere else, but also the training you get there is exceptional. Now on the other hand, just because you go to a prestigious university does not mean you will be a successful actor. See here’s the thing, this industry is incredibly mercurial. However, high-quality training will put you in the best position to make the most of your opportunities. If you don’t want to go down the drama school route, you can step around it! We have written extensively about this here. If this is a better option for you, you’re instead going to be looking for short courses at a variety of studios, and experiencing a variety of teaching methodologies and a wealth of on-set or onstage experiences in the independent, amateur, community and self-funded sectors. 

A note on mental toughness…

Okay, guys let’s get real. Becoming an actor, and I mean a professional working actor. Requires mental toughness on a level that is absurd to most people. It’s tough folks, it really is. If it was easy everyone would do it – and god knows they try! The difficulty comes on two fronts, the first is the emotional rollercoaster and the second is the rejection. Let’s deal with the emotional rollercoaster. See in modern acting, especially working on film and television, you can’t lie. You can’t fake an emotional experience if you do the audience knows immediately, and the scene doesn’t work, instantly the casting directors, the producers, the man on the street, they’re changing channels. You have to genuinely experience the emotion of the character, every single take. Now, this requires you to genuinely feel like you’re standing over your mother’s grave, or breaking up with your partner, up to 30 times in a row or 99 times if you’re in a David Fincher movie. Not only does this take skill and preparation, but it also requires you to have outstanding coping skills.

Speaking of coping skills, let’s talk about rejection. If you want to become an actor – you need to be okay with rejection. You are going to get rejected and you’re going to get rejected all the time. More wonderful advice from Bryan Cranston:

“I knew I wanted to make my living as an actor. Rejection is part of that living. It comes with it, like rain on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can sugarcoat it. You can use a euphemism if you wish. But the bottom line is that sometimes they are simply not going to want you. And if they do want you, they may fire you.”

mental toughness for actors

For every 50 projects you audition for, you might book one or two. Hell, you might book six in a row and then nothing for 6 weeks! Or 6 months… or 6 years! See so much of our success is out of our hands. Producers, casting directors, directors, advertising agencies, studio executives, costume designers, other cast, finances, global recessions, copyright infringements – all of these are reasons you might not get a gig. To make matters more complicated – you actually can’t worry about any of this stuff. See if you concern yourself and concentrate on what you think people want from you, you will get into this desperate, uncontrollable need-state to be cast or validated by others. Once you’re in this mindset, you’re in the spiral and the only way to go is down.

The way up is this: process. The process of working on a script, discovering the truth of the character and finding pure, unadulterated joy in doing the work of the actor is what will set you on the path to success. Not only this but if you completely turn your attention to embodying your values in your preparation, the joy of storytelling, the discovery of the unexpected and bringing your real, genuine, honest and vulnerable self to the role all of a sudden you will start to get cast. 

If this sounds difficult, it’s because it is. However, the reward, the joy that comes with doing the work and doing the work honestly and vulnerably is greater than any financial or social reward that could be offered. 

#3 Experience

Great! So now you have the need in your bones, the training behind you and the mental toughness required, it’s time to get out there and bloody do it! I always recommend getting experience in as many areas as possible! Don’t think of yourself as only a theatre actor or only a film or television actor – think of yourself as a student of life, a patron of existence and throw yourself into every damn opportunity possible! Do the student films, do the community theatre, do the independent features and the profit-share plays. See this creative life is a beautiful, weird, wild and wonderful thing. The people you meet are the best humans on earth and as you jump from gig to gig it’s the people that you meet that will keep you acting and keep you accountable to being creative!

Now to get these gigs you’re going to need a couple of things, a headshot, a showreel and a cv. We have written about all of these bad-boys extensively so check those articles to wrap your head around those things. Your headshot is to show who you are, the CV gives them a rundown of your credits and training and the showreel is the proof that you can actually act. Then get yourself on casting websites in your area, be that showcast, starnow, actors access or Casting Networks. We also have lists of casting websites for Australia, Canada and America

Get all of the experience you can! Keep working and keep pushing yourself! Also getting an agent is absolutely vital in all of this. Which brings me nicely to my next point.

#4 Connections

The final cog in this becoming an actor machine is the personal connections you can make. The first and most important of these is getting an agent. Having a good agent is the big separator between you being a professional and not. Now again, there is nothing wrong with NOT being a professional actor – doing it for fun is awesome! However, if you are passionate about being a working actor, a good agent is the most important connection you will make! Now getting an agent can be tricky, we have written enough articles about it to sink a small ship.

The most important being Getting an Agent, but also check out Is it Hard Getting an Agent? What to Avoid in an Agent, and most importantly Is Having an Agent Enough? I know right? It’s like we’ve thought about this a fair bit! 

Your agent is your entry point into professional work, but they are not the be-all and end-all of the personal connections you can make. The more experience and training you do, the more fantastic people you will meet, who will bring you in for more and more opportunities as time goes by, as you improve and as they advance in their careers! See, we are all in this together – directors need actors, writers need directors, directors need producers, producers need everyone! Around and around it goes! So get out there and help out! Work on set as a runner, or an extra or a production design assistant. Pitch people on your projects do workshops with casting directors, go to openings at theatre companies. Meet people! Work. Make connections and feed the creative practice of as many other people and yourself as possible.

It’s by becoming a part of your local creative community you will feed energy and life into your industry that will in turn feed it back to you! The creatives, united, will never defeat people! If you help people make work, they will help you get work! So get out there and get amongst it!



So, to sum all of this up, what does it take to become an actor? It takes passion, guts, persistence, friends, connections, hard work, training and experience! Behind every overnight success is ten years of hard work, sacrifice and education – so get out there folks and begin your overnight success today! If you are unsure where to start, or want to take your journey to the next level, check out our awesome scene club at the link below!


About the Author

Patrick Cullen

Patrick is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster based in Sydney, Australia. A graduate of the Actors Centre Australia in 2014, Patrick has been working in film, TV and theatre across Sydney and Brisbane ever since. Patrick can be found glued to test cricket in bars across the land.

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