What to Consider Before Starting an Acting Career
Hey, welcome! You’ve landed on this page, that’s awesome. Maybe the reason you’ve landed on this page is because you’re curious about acting and considering pursuing a career in it. That’s even more awesome. Congratulations, you’ve taken the first step on a really exciting and unique journey.
The life of an actor (as I’m sure you have heard) isn’t necessarily an easy one. It can be riddled with rejection, doubt, and uncertainty, but it can also be filled with wonder, passion, and positive impact. With these few words, I’m hoping to provide you with some insight into the reality of the career path you’re considering and give equal weight to the incredible opportunities which await you as well as some of the more challenging aspects of the pursuit of an acting career.
As you might have already experienced, everyone seems to have an opinion about what it takes to be an actor, from, “If you don’t end up on Home and Away, you’ll never be famous” to, “My friend was an extra on Titanic and now she’s got an Oscar”. There’s a lot of opinion out there. Read this to get some solid facts about what’s in store for you, coming from someone who is 8 years into their career: enough time to have learnt a thing or two, close enough to the beginning of my career to remember how it felt to go to my first acting class.
Let’s start from the beginning
It’s worth me posing this question to you right at the outset. What has brought you here? ‘Here’, yes, to this article and website, but also ‘here’ in terms of your interest in acting. What is driving you? There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, but what I’m finding in this industry is that the actors with the strongest sense of purpose are often the ones who reach the highest levels of success. So have a think for yourself about what’s brought you here and what you’re hoping to achieve as an actor. The clearer you can be about this, the better you’ll be able to process the following information.
To give you an overview of what to expect as an actor in a clear and useful way, I’m going to break down the typical life of an actor into five main areas:
The life and career of every actor differs drastically, but in these five areas are commonalities which could be useful to you in considering what might be in store for you as you embark upon this career. Here we go!
Let’s look at the big picture for a moment, for this might be enough clarification for you to decide whether acting is for you. The lifestyle of an actor is unique in many ways. At any one moment you are a freelancer, an artist, a small business owner, a professional job interviewee, a student and a professional all at once. It’s a life overflowing with content, and sometimes lacking in structure. ‘Work/life balance’ as often quoted in business, is scarcely found in acting. The balance between work and life is found over many months, rather than week to week. Whether this point (or any of the points in this article) is a deterrent is up to you; none of these points are inherently bad in nature. Many actors thrive in this alternate structure of intense work for months followed by a period of free time. As an actor you are required to create your own structure, that’s for sure. Auditions for acting jobs can arise at short notice, meaning that a level of flexibility is required for us. Some people manage a 9-5 job whilst auditioning well enough, but many people find that too unpredictable, and source financial security through other means.
As an actor you become an instigator. Whether it is creative, social, or financial projects, an actor needs to be on the front foot to get things done for themselves, as no-one else is going to do it for them. They are the owner of their own business, and their business is themselves. An actor needs to self manage their craft, their job opportunities, their health and fitness and their finances. They are solely responsible for the health and success of their business and career.
It’s inherent in the life of an actor to become a jack of all trades both on screen and off. As actors, we must perform characters with a range of different backgrounds, meaning we need a diverse range of skill sets and a high level of curiosity to be able to do this. In lifestyle terms, we also end up doing a whole raft of different jobs and projects to support ourselves and gain experience. A typical month for me, as an example, sees me teaching Shakespeare in high schools, making corporate videos for construction companies, auditioning for Netflix, auditioning for KFC, writing for StageMilk, going to acting classes, acting in a friend’s short film, preparing for an upcoming role on stage, and keeping myself fit and healthy and ready for the next audition which arises. There is very little predictability in this lifestyle, and that is glorious for some and challenging for others.
Now, it’s worth keeping in mind at this point, there are of course exceptions to the ‘rules’ I’m outlining here. Some actors find themselves climbing the ladder of success quickly, and seemingly bypass all the elements I’m speaking about. This is an anomaly and something which is well out of our control. It’s important for you to know, when considering a career as an actor, that this experience is something you cannot bank on. Taking that even further, those actors who shoot for the stars early will still find themselves in a position eventually where they are between jobs and forced to cultivate structure for themselves. It’s a reality of the life of an actor, no matter where we are on the ladder of success.
Acting is a craft. There’s no two ways about it. If you’re hoping to get into this game for the long haul, then training the craft of acting and practising consistently is essential. You need to love the work. There are many ways to start this process, from simply watching films or seeing theatre and trying to figure out for yourself what the actors are doing, to formal training at acting schools and institutions. Again, from my experience, the actors with extensive professional training (2-3 years full time) are the ones who sustain prosperous careers for the longest time. This period of training allows you to explore the craft of acting in a bunch of different ways and expands your horizons about what is possible in performance. In the same way you would not expect to be able to be a famous musician without practising your instrument, you should not expect to have a sustainable career as an actor without training in it.
Acting is a role in many different mediums. Training also introduces us to the many ‘stages’ we can act on, from traditional theatre (classic or contemporary), film and TV, musical theatre, educational theatre, performance art, street theatre, voice over and radio right through to modern mediums such as motion capture, virtual reality, video games and CGI. There’s actually a wide range of ways we can work as an actor, and diversifying your skill set to fit many of these mediums will increase your chances of success.
One thing to consider at this point: are you set on one style of acting or are you open to the range of different opportunities available to actors? Again, no right or wrong, but openness is definitely a useful train for an actor. Being open and curious about the diversity of things you can do as an actor will only increase how sustainable your career is. If you’re set on one path, such as acting in feature films, you may be waiting for extended periods of time for your next chance to act.
I’m sure you’ve come across this point in conversation already. I can remember dozens of conversations I had early in my career with people warning me of the financial challenges of the aspiring actor. Let’s deal with that point directly now and clear up the facts from the fear.
The life of an actor leads to an unorthodox financial situation. That’s the truth of it. Extreme statements such as ‘you’ll never make any money as an actor’ or even ‘become famous and you’ll be a millionaire’ aren’t useful to us because they are generalisations. Like we’ve already said, an actor needs to become a Jack of all trades. This means that income will be coming from a range of different places, especially in the early years of your career. I think there’s a strange expectation of immediate success when it comes to acting, and I’m not sure why it exists. You’d never expect a doctor or a plumber to be able to walk onto the job without experience, training and practise, so why should we feel differently about acting? It will, on average, take several years for an actor to gain any sense of financial structure in their lives, but it most certainly is possible.
Another consideration point here: what sort of financial structure do you think you require? Do you crave stability, or are you comfortable with uncertainty? These feelings can help you identify whether acting is the right path for you, but no matter how you feel you are able to cultivate your ideal structure within this industry, it may just take some work.
I mentioned before, the actor is a professional job interviewee. An audition is an opportunity which requires detailed preparation, courage, and nerve-management, and in busy times an actor may have to do several auditions a week. This is a huge part of the life and career of an actor and worth taking into consideration. Auditioning is a skill unto itself, and many acting classes are geared towards practising them.
One tricky element of consistent auditioning is dealing with rejection and a lack of certainty. There is so much which is out of our control when we audition, nothing we do can guarantee booking the job. Like, literally, even if you ARE the role, (I’ve heard of actors who write their own story only to later have producers recast their role to get a famous actor to play it) there’s no guarantee of booking the job. Rejection is a constant challenge which the actor must face. Resilience is an essential skill for the actor to develop, and riding the waves of hope and disappointment is something we get very good at. This being said – and again, trying to balance the good with the bad here – when everything does go right and you book the job, there are few greater feelings. Moving on from an audition to actually getting to work on a project is an exhilarating experience which we’ll discuss more now.
Let’s talk now about working as an actor. Firstly, just to confirm any dreams you may be fixating on at the moment of the glory of working on set, acting is wonderful. Whether it is on stage or on screen or any other medium, there are few experiences like playing a character and performing. It’s an invigorating form of self expression and I can’t recommend it highly enough. One thing it is not, however, is easy. There is a misconception that acting is a walk in the park or all fame and glory. The work hours are challenging, the work itself can be tiring, emotionally exhausting, and stretch our comfort zones big time. But boy oh boy it is fun. If you’re getting into this gig because you think it’ll be easy work, you’re in for a rude shock! On a film set, for example, you might work on a project with a month of night shoots. You might have to shoot the same scene over and over again until you get the right take. In a theatre, you go from a few weeks of full time rehearsal during the day to evening performances where your energetic peak of the day is at 9:00pm.
Being an actor is the right choice for you if you are passionate, you love working hard, you’re self motivated, and you’re open to working with varying structures.
Let me take this moment to debunk a myth for you. Actors are not all extroverts. I, being an introvert, was quite conscious of this getting into the career. I was worried that my lack of confidence would inhibit my ability to work as an actor. This isn’t the case. Actors come in all ranges of different personality types. There is no one mould for what type of person an actor needs to be, so whoever you are, if you have the passion for this career, you are more than able to pursue it. Fellow StageMilk writer, Emma O’Sullivan wrote a great piece on this topic called In Defence of Shyness that is definitely worth checking out.
So, I hope this has sparked some thoughts for you and given you some clarity about what might be in store for you. StageMilk is a fantastic place to continue that exploration, so feel free to head to our home page and check out the stack of articles like this one which can give you some guidance. Our article How to Become an Actor is a great starting point for you.
Enjoy the process of exploring this career path! It’s a unique one which holds many exciting opportunities and challenges to overcome. Be careful not to get bogged down in the opinions of the uninformed, instead search (as you’re already doing!) for the facts about what’s in store so you can decide for yourself what it is that YOU truly want to do.
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