What Does it Take to Make It as an Actor?

Written by on | How-To Guides for Actors

For one reason or another, you have decided to become an actor! My deepest condolences.

I joke, of course… but there is a small patch of truth, isn’t there?

You have chosen a path less travelled, and a path even fewer stay on long enough to see success. I get it, though: while it’s a fraught journey, you feel the artistic gods call to you. Or maybe you think getting paid to play is your idea of a dream career. For whatever reason, you are compelled to act and you have a desire to turn your passion into a career.

Many people dream of ‘making it’ as an actor, but the reality is that only a handful will. This is the stark reality of the industry. However, I do believe that all actors have the potential to make it. Success is not something you are born into, but something you obtain through overcoming challenges and taking risks, as well as defining what success means for you— and only for you. In this article, our goal is to break down what it takes to make it as an actor… as well as what that actually means.

I’ll tell you this much for free: this is not a “how to make it,” guide. We already have plenty of those, in the guise of big-picture questions such as “How to become an actor?“, “What do you need to become an actor?” and “How to have a lasting acting career?” In this article, we’re going internal, not external.

So grab a notebook and pen, a nice warm tea and put on your best thinking face. We’re going to ask ourselves some very deep and important things.

What is “making it” as an actor?

“All I would tell people is to hold on to what was individual about themselves, not to allow their ambition for success cause them to try to imitate the success of others. You’ve got to find it on your own terms.” – Harrison Ford

Sixteen year old me used to think that when you made it, some fat-cat-business-type in a pin-stripped suit would pull up to my house in a stretch limo, wind his window down and say to me in a thick, old time-y, New York Accent “Ya made it kid. You’re a star. You got the stuff to make it in this city. Hop in! I’m gonna take ya to the top!” 

I had quite the imagination… BUT I’d warrant more than a few of you have a similar image in your heads of what ‘making it’ might look like. It could be some big event or job (your entry into the MCU, perhaps), a level of fame and recognition you attain or some monetary milestone. Such ideas are what society and media peddle to would-be actors, which creates unrealistic pressure when they set career goals.

At the end of the day, the only way to ‘make it’ is to redefine what success is and what it means to you specifically. Make your version of ‘making it’ personal. Give yourself a deeper meaning, and ask yourself the most important question of all:

Why do I want to be an actor?

“He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche 

Why is it that you desire the perilous road before you? Why do you do what you do? And, given the ups and downs of this existence, should you become an actor, even if you want to? Such questions are vital to ask, because on the road to obtaining success (whatever that may mean for you) you will face failures, setbacks, self-doubt, and other moments of discouragement.

If your purpose (or why) is brittle or hollow—such as glitz, glamour, and fame—then it has the potential to break against whatever life decides to throw at you. The stronger your purpose, the stronger your resolve is. Therefore, it does not matter so much that you experience failures and all the like, because you have something to fight for. It’s a bit like a character and their objective in a scene. Without a strong objective, or with a vague one, you’re likely to flail about and bore your audience.

The artist’s life can be rewarding beyond anything you could ever imagine. But it is a struggle at times, and having a good reason to keep on going when times are tough will stop you quitting before you get to experience your version of ‘making it.’ 

Find Your Why

A “Why” Activity

Before we continue, let’s stop and think about some more of these “why” questions. I’ve prompted a few down below, but dig deep and think of some others that may apply to you. I would recommend writing down what it is you want to achieve, and why it is you do what you do. Be realistic and honest with yourself, but also kind and encouraging. 

Also remember that it is okay for your why’s and purpose to change and evolve over time: this is only natural as you grow as an actor, an artist and a human being.

  • Why did I start acting in the first place?
  • Has that “why” changed? 
  • Why have I chosen acting as a career? (Give at least 3 reasons)
  • What does “making it” look like for me?
  • What steps will I need to take to get there?
  • Who am I trying to impact with my career?
  • What drives me to act?
  • How does acting contribute to my overall purpose in my life?
  • What do I want my purse in life to be?
  • How can I use acting to serve others?

And just to help you along, here are a couple we’ve answered elsewhere on this site.

It is a lot to think about, I know. You don’t have to have all of the answers today, and they will change the more you think about them. Just keep checking in with yourself, openly and honestly.

Honour The Struggle

“My career is a journey for me, and any journey is incomplete without the struggle.” – Yami Gautam 

If you have ever mentioned that you want to be an actor to anyone, at all, ever, they will tell you how hard it is followed by some unsolicited, unhelpful advice. You know what I mean. It’s that moment when you’re at a family gathering and your weird aunt who has no clue how the industry works tells you that “It’s not what you do, it’s who you know,” and “Make sure you have a back up plan because it’s a hard industry to break in to!”

And of course they mean well; I would wager that they’re just trying to look out for you. But it’s still a pain to listen to, especially early in your career when you have less self confidence and experience telling such people to politely back off. So what do you do? Listen to them.

The truth of it is, breaking in is hard. Choosing the career path of an actor is probably one of the hardest things you can do. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can work out how you are going to do it. Honour the struggle. Accept that it’s going to be hard, and push on anyway. Do not have disdain for it, because if you start to hate how hard something is to achieve, you will grow to resent it.

There’s a quote that comes to mind from Brendon Burchard: “Struggle will either destroy us, or develop us, and the hardest of human truths is, that ultimately it is our choice.” When you start to fall in love with the challenge, and respect the hard work it is going to take to make it, that’s when you will start to see a clearer path forward. Getting rejected is hard. Having periods of nothing is hard. But you have to persevere. It’s the only way. If your aunt annoys you because she’s making too much sense … she might just have a point you should hear.

A “Challenges” Activity

What are you currently struggling with in regards to your acting goals? Write down each hurdle, challenge, doubt or whatever else you might be struggling with. Then, next to each one of those things, write down a way you can rise to/overcome/prepare for it. Having some foresight can help you out when the struggle actually happens.  

What are you willing to sacrifice?

“You have to fight to reach your dream. You have to sacrifice and work hard for it” – Lionel Messi

We all know that good things require certain sacrifices. I’m not talking about slaughtering a goat on top of a pentagram (although you do you), more certain aspects of your life that will inevitably get knocked down your list of priorities. Working on something like an acting career means sacrificing free time in order to do that, or maybe time with friends and family.

Not long ago, I had an audition at nine o’clock in the morning (very early for some.) The night before, I’d been invited to a friend’s birthday party with an extremely generous bar tab. I still went along, but instead of taking advantage of free booze, I decided to not drink and came home at a reasonable hour. In the morning, I felt great—not tired or hungover—and gave it my all at the audition. Now it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not) at the amount of stories I have heard in regards to actors being hungover at an audition. Choosing to be fresh at an audition rather than tired or hungover doesn’t sound like a huge sacrifice, and that’s because it isn’t. It’s one of the little ones you might have to so you can be your best. 

These little sacrifices aren’t always obvious, but they are crucial … and they do build up. Giving up a shift at your day job to attend an audition costs a little money; if you’re giving up a day a week to rehearse for an indie theatre show, you’re suddenly looking at a significant financial commitment. So the little sacrifices become larger, and start to affect things like stability and comfort of lifestyle. Not to mention the uncertainty that comes with it all. As you navigate your career, look for balance so that you aren’t miserable, stressed and lonely.

Fortune favours the bold, and the bold take calculated risks. After all, that’s what sacrifice is: calculated risks. 

A “Sacrifices” Activity

Create a list of things in life that you might need to sacrifice on this journey to making it: free time, money, stability, family/friends time, relocating away from your home for work. Then make another list of what you are actually willing to sacrifice so that you can make it. Don’t shoot for the stars, think of small things: drinking coffee at home so that you can save money for a class. Less time playing video games and more time reading plays. Then compare the lists and look for a balance you can strike.

Acting as an Actor

Your Craft Is Your Key

“Study, find all the good teachers and study with them, get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or for the money.” – Philip Seymour Hoffman

An interesting and insightful thought popped into my head not a few months ago: I was analysing a script for no other purpose than to practice the art of analysis. It was a tough nut to crack; after a while, I was getting flustered and I thought to myself, “Why am I even doing this?!” Then, out of no where, a little voice in the back of my mind replied, “Because your career depends on it.”

Getting to the level that you need to get to, in order for you to be working regularly, is tough. People often try to get to the top of a career that they may not even be ready for. If Big Hollywood came out of no where right now and offered you a lead role in a blockbuster film, would be you be ready for the task? Would your skills and craft be up to the task? The people at the top got there because they had something to give. The desire to become great takes them over. You have to become a little obsessed. Acting isn’t just a career choice, it is a lifestyle choice.

I was recently told that the chances of becoming a regular, working actor, was about the same as making it into the NBA. If that’s the case, then you need to do what those basketball players do. Work hard on your skills and craft, the same way an athlete would. This doesn’t stop at just acting, but all the skills that encompass that. An NBA player doesn’t just work on their jump shot, dribbling and passing. They also work on their fitness, endurance, nutrition, strength, health and mind set. Actors should work on adjacent skills like vocal control, physical movement, improvisation skills, communication, the ability to work with others and, like an athlete, your health and mindset. Each skill feeds into each other, just as a rising tide lifts all boats.

A “Skills” Activity

You’ve probably got some great skills, my fellow actor, but can you pinpoint them? Can you accurately say what it is that you are good at, and the level to which you can perform that skill? Write down your current skills and rate them on a scale of 1 -5 (1 being nothing, 5 being Christian-Bale-level good). Then write down the acting skills you think you might need to develop (accents, voice work, a specific technique) below are some articles that can get you started.  Create a personalised curriculum that you can break down into manageable, bite sized chunks everyday or week. 

Mindset

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, either way you are right.” – Henry Ford

Everything you ever do, every big decision you make or change you enact upon your own existence, starts with your mindset. How you look at life usually depicts the quality of your own. Sure: bad things happen, but you can’t control that. You can only control yourself.

So how does this relate to acting and making it? Well the good news is: you’ve already started to change your mindset after reading everything I’ve written before this sentence. I asked you to change your perspective of what success looks like. I got you to ask “why?” I even made nice little activities to help you along. Basically, I tricked you into thinking and reflecting. Because you have to change your mindset. In order to make it, you have to believe that you can make it. 

If you think you are going to fail and quit, you probably will. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has had the mindset of quitting and giving up who went on to succeed despite this attitude. In general. In any field. Moments of doubt are natural, that’s just being human. But in order to have what it takes to make it, you have to believe—to know—that you have what it takes to make it. 

Your mindset isn’t just “positive thinking” and “belief,” either. It’s how you look at, not just yourself, but the world around. When you walk outside of your house every morning, do you see the world as a beautiful place full of opportunity and potential? Or do you see it as a horrible world with nothing but trouble and darkness? The truth probably lies in the middle, but you get my point. Now think about acting. How do you view auditions? Networking events? The people you work with? How about events in your life? My life changed when I decided that things in life aren’t happening to me, but for me. And this kind of attitude affects those around you: when people see you as a positive figure in the industry (rather than somebody full of cynicism and bitterness), they’ll be more likely to bring you in for jobs. Because that person sounds a lot more interesting to work with.

A “Mindset” Activity

Think about your current mindset, beliefs, and perceived limits that you have in regards to acting. Are these beliefs about acting—yourself as an actor—your own beliefs, or the echoes of what people have told you over the years? Now write down what kind of mindset you think you will need to adopt to “make it” and what mindset you want to have. Can you start shaking it up today? Can you start believing a new way of thinking so that you can break through whatever barriers you feel are in front of you? Lastly, write down your views on different aspects of acting. What is your current mindset on craft, challenges, auditions, directors, writers, other actors, yourself; now adjustments could you make to these mindsets

The Mindset of the Actor

Final Thoughts

I know all of this sounds near-insurmountable, but making it demands that you have to work hard. After all, hard work and effort is what separates the dreamers from the doers. Have peace of mind, though, that half of the satisfaction lies in the effort you give to all aspects of life, especially acting.

So the question is: do you have what it takes to make it? I hope the answer is “Yes.” Or even a “Heck yes!” But if it isn’t, then that is okay too. It is totally, 100% valid for acting to be something you want to do for fun or as a hobby, or a creative outlet. That is more than okay, and don’t let anybody else convince you otherwise.

For those who do want to, “make it,” I hope you get there. We’re all in this together, after all! Work at your goals everyday, be the best that you can be, and never give up. Live well and stay hungry. And go for it!

 

About the Author

Samuel Hollis

Samuel Hollis is a Brisbane based actor, writer, and pop culture enthusiast. He grew up with a love for storytelling which fuels his passion for acting and writing. His works span from theatre to screen, and from script writing to mediocre poetry. He believes that the key to improving your craft is to improve the greatest tool that you own; yourself. When Sam's not spinning up a riveting story or typing until his fingers fall off, he's rolling dice with his Dungeons & Dragons group, playing the sax, or taking long walks at sunset.

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