How to Begin a Successful Acting Career in Film, TV, and Voice Over
Always aspire to a career in entertainment? Here's how to get started.
When we’re little kids, we aspire to become famous performers, pro athletes, great explorers, doctors, firefighters, and superheroes out saving the world.
Some of us realize our dreams, but most of us … well, settle into the real world. Especially if our sights were set on a snazzy cape and the ability to fly.
But I believe that dreams can come true. Even later in life after we’ve had a more traditional career and raised a family. That’s exactly what I’m doing now as a film, TV, and voice actor.
It IS possible to begin a happy and successful career in the entertainment industry. Granted, it’s not easy, nor is it achieved through shortcuts. I would also encourage you to define what “successful” means to you, because if fame and fortune are your only standards, it’s likely you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re undeterred, here’s how to begin.
It's never too late to begin living your dream.
Part 1 - Getting Started: an Acting Career is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
It’s said that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master a craft. Within the acting world, I’m told it takes at least 10 years of solid training and experience.
The typical “overnight success” story actually has a prequel: many years of serious training, auditioning, self-discovery, rejection and failure, and small successes before a breakthrough moment is achieved. If you’re easily discouraged or need a consistent paycheck, acting is probably not the right career for you. It’s an investment of time, money, and talent with no guarantee that you’ll be able to support yourself with your art. Most actors need full or part-time jobs to pay the bills.
Still with me? Great! Glad to have the company. Here are the essentials you’ll need:
Learn to bring the essence of who you are to every role you play. Casting directors don’t always know exactly what they’re looking for in a particular role … until they see it presented to them in an audition. Don’t guess what a director wants; understand the character and the scene(s) you’re given and show them YOUR best version of the role.
How do you get there? Training: acting fundamentals, script analysis, on-camera technique, character development, improvisation, and (optionally) accents/dialects. Study one or more of these classic acting techniques, too: Meisner, Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, Practical Aesthetics, Michael Chekhov, Stella Adler, and Chubbuck (and there are others). You also need to learn how to self-tape (and edit) your auditions. Since the pandemic, most auditions are submitted online.
Interested in voice over? You’ll need to study vocal and microphone techniques, as well as script analysis and different read styles: conversational, real person, informative, character, and whatever is in vogue at the moment for the various voiceover genres. Study and practice the genre(s) you’re most interested in: radio/TV commercial, corporate narration, eLearning (training videos), documentary, animation, video games, audiobooks, medical narration, political, automotive (to name a few!). To be competitive, you’ll need a broadcast-quality home voiceover studio and the equipment, software, and training to know how to record, edit, and submit your auditions remotely.
Are you overwhelmed yet? Now you see why it takes years to develop and sharpen your skills! Remember, though: you study and grow over time, not in one fell swoop.
So where do you find these classes? Look for reputable teachers and coaches and referrals from current students. I prefer classes taught by working actors with strong credits and whose students are themselves booking paid work.
On-camera classes for film and TV may be in person or online, though I strongly prefer learning in person at local acting academies. Voice over classes and coaching are a bit different, given that the industry is focused solely on audio. You can find great instruction both in person and online.
Recommendations? While I can’t begin to list all the options for on-camera classes everywhere in the US (or worldwide), the VO world is smaller and easier to summarize. Click here for a short series of blog posts that will walk you through the essentials and resources to begin your voice over journey.
Last word on training: always vet those who offer classes. Scammers are ready and waiting to swoop in and take your money. If a teacher, coach, manager, or agent promises you an easy path and quick success for just the low, low price of whatever … RUN. Especially if your actor is a child or young teenager.
Tools of the Trade
To pursue opportunities on camera in film, TV, commercials, industrials, and print, you’ll need:
taken by a photographer who specializes in actor headshots and can advise you on hair, makeup, and wardrobe choices. They can refer you to hair/makeup artists who specialize in headshots and can appropriately style you before and during your session (i.e. to look like your real, best self). You’ll need, at a minimum, a smiling commercial headshot and a serious, non-smiling theatrical one. Depending on your market, headshots are taken:
- shoulders up
- chest up
- or waist up.
Acting Reel/Voiceover Demos
- An on-camera acting reel is less than 90 seconds and hosts short (10-20 second) clips of your work from films and TV shows you’ve booked. No commercials or industrials.
- Voice actors need a 60-90 second demo for each genre they work in.
- Reels and demos should be professionally produced and show your acting range.
- Self-Taping Area/Home Voiceover Studio
Your one-page film/TV acting resume is attached to the back of your headshot, gives agency contact info, and lists your film, TV, and online (streaming/internet) projects. No commercials, industrials, print, or voiceover work listed, but you will include your training and special skills. VO typically doesn’t require a separate resume.
Self-Taping Area/Home Voiceover Studio
While you can go to a professional taping service for on-camera auditions and an outside voiceover studio to record your VO auditions and projects, you’ll save a lot of time and money by having a pared down version at home. Learn what you need and how to use these tools from your acting/voiceover instructors; online resources are useful, too.
The typical “overnight success” story actually has a prequel: many years of serious training, auditioning, self-discovery, rejection and failure, and small successes before a breakthrough moment is achieved.
Part 2 - Finding Work: Bloom where you’re planted
Don’t pack your bags for Hollywood just yet. You’re far better off establishing yourself first in your local or regional market.
There are two ways of finding work: through representation and on your own.
Here's what you'll want to know:
Representation: Agents & Managers
Agents and managers anywhere, before they add you to their rosters, want to know:
Are you bookable? Are you trained and prepared with the tools of your trade?
Have you already booked legitimate, paid roles?
Are you a unique type that they don’t already represent? Or at least don’t already have six others just like you on their rosters?
There are other factors, too, such as if you’re a union (SAG-AFTRA) member or non-union, whether you live in a right-to-work state, etc. Some agencies accept developing talent (newer, less experienced actors) while others are far more selective. Do your research and talk to represented actors and teachers for suggestions. Some acting schools offer showcases featuring their students to which they invite agents. Others host workshops with agents as guest presenters.
Your Own Initiative
While the higher-paying, more high-profile work traditionally comes through representation, there is much you can do for yourself. Most agents want to see that you’re a go-getter and willing to get work on your own. Here’s how to start:
Talk with fellow actors, attend film festivals and (if you’re a voice actor) voiceover conferences.
Be active on social media and develop relationships with decision-makers. Create and post original content.
Marketing is especially important if you’re a voice actor. Why? Because you’re also a small business owner. You’ll need a WEBSITE to host your demos and promote yourself. EMAIL potential clients and invest in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to manage your contacts efficiently.
Self-Submit for Jobs
On-camera casting sites like Actors Access, Casting Networks, and Backstage list smaller roles for TV and film and roles of all sizes for independent projects. Voiceover sites like Voice123, Voices, VO Planet, and Bodalgo post auditions for all sized projects.
Student (usually unpaid) projects are fine for getting started, as long as you receive footage for your reel. Thinking of doing background (“extras”) work? Careful! Too much “extra” work and it may be hard for casting to consider you seriously for speaking roles.
Part 3 - Enjoy! Acting is supposed to be fun.
The beauty of this business is that you can work as long as you want to and for as long as you can. There are roles for every age, size, shape, and blend of human features and qualities, especially now with productions looking to be more inclusive and diverse in their casting.
Laura's Quick Tips
"Overnight success" often takes years to achieve.
Training is on-going, no matter how successful you may become. It's how you keep your skills sharp!
There's more to becoming an actor than just your training. On camera actors need professional headshots, a reel of your film/TV work, a resume, and the space and equipment to self-tape your auditions. Voice actors need at least one professionally-produced demo (one per genre of the work you're pursuing), a home studio, and a website.
Start in your local and regional markets. You have to prove yourself before the larger national markets will take you on.
Learn to find your own work, especially as a voice actor.
Don't forget to have fun! Or what's the point?
Acting IS fun and a wonderful creative outlet that helps keep our minds sharp, our spirits high, and our bodies active.
Decide what you want to get out of an acting career. Are you looking to pursue it seriously full-time? Part-time? As a hobby? For pure enjoyment or as a means to make some extra money? Whichever is right for you, create the opportunities that fit your interests, time, financial situation, and goals.
Now, go “break a leg!” (You knew I had to say that at some point, right?)