He shared his thoughts with me and I think they are extremely insightful and very valuable. Chris is the consummate professional and I truly cannot think of anything that I would add to this wonderful guide.
Thank you, Chris for taking the time to put your words of wisdom on the page and your generosity in allowing me to share them with others.
Advice to New Actors
I wrote this in response to getting several requests to give advice to new actors starting out. I use the term new vs. young for a reason.
My choice to become an actor was late in life. After a career in tech, with a college degree in engineering, I never had any interest in acting. My love was turning a new technology into a business.
“We think too much and feel too little.” —Charlie Chaplin
Yet I worked in marketing and sales, which did require creativity. I live in Dallas, try to travel to other parts of the country for acting, however 90% of my acting experience has been in the Dallas area in front of the camera.
People always ask why I got into acting. Hard to say, but rather I will answer why I stayed in acting. Yes, it is a business, a job, but it is also one where creativity is rewarded. The willingness to do something that no one else has done. Bring a character to life in your own unique way. To make it so interesting, that in Theresa Bell’s words (my acting coach for 10 years), “it is undenialble”. To make it so worthwhile that someone else will spend their money and their valuable time to watch, is a thing of wonderment for which all actors strive.
“Without wonder and insight, acting is just a business. With it, it becomes creation.” —Bette Davis
With that brief background, here is my 2 cents worth of advice. My apologies in advance to the really great working actors for any miscues here.
Get A Day Job
Also called your “side job”. Acting is not free and you will need money for acting classes, workshops, headshots and printing (yes, some casting directors still want paper), gas money for driving all over for auditions, gym memberships, haircuts, and so on. It can take years before you hit it big (if you do).
First thing you need to do is decide if this is going to be a serious endeavor. Do you want to be a professional making money from it, vs. just a hobby? Keep in mind that acting on the stage is pretty much a hobby. You will be working at community theaters that may pay a stipend ($50 for “gas”), but most pay nothing. People that do this are the ones who did theater in college, work in a good job, and still want to be on the stage. They have a job that doesn’t require them to work late at night nor do they have to travel. Community theater requires you to be home for 6 to 8 weeks of rehearsals several nights a week, plus weekends. Then the shows run three weeks, Thursday – Sunday roughly. If you can sing and dance, then you are way more bookable and will have more fun. Theaters lose money on stage plays and make money on musicals. Thus, they prefer to produce more musicals.
If you want to make money at acting, then consider camera acting. This includes TV, Film (although the terms are blurred these days) and commercials (video or print). Actors starting out like to book commercials because it pays. However, some successful TV and Film actors never are successful in commercials and vis versa. Everyone finds their niche.
Study The Craft
Attend an acting school if possible and or sign up for weekly acting classes. There are classes and coaches for both theater (singing) and camera. I went the camera acting route, so that is what I will focus on here. However, classically trained actors are versatile and not only do both but enjoy the richness of stage vs. camera work. Further, some actors also enjoy doing voice over work. Many camera actors I know have an audio recording set up in their home for VO work. More on equipment later.
To find a school or calls, ask around, talk people and read up on the different ones available to you locally. Ask to audit a class. You will discover that the personality of the teacher, the structure of the class and the methods taught can very greatly from school to school. Find one that you believe you will enjoy attending.
I have known many actors who do not take classes weekly. Maybe they did a workshop or two. Or took a class for a semester at a local junior college or studio. When I asked why they quit, they said “I learned all I can learn. Now I just need to do it”.
Let’s look at professional golfers. They are in an industry (sport) that does not rely on a team or a group. They work for themselves. It is competitive. No one else is part of the team to pull them along. Every pro golfer, and every golfer that is serious about getting on the pro tour, has a swing coach. In addition, they may have (if they can afford it) a personal trainer and nutritionist and so on. But at the least, a swing coach.
If they make it as a pro, why do they still need a coach? Because they cannot see or analyze objectively their own swing. A coach sees things that can push them to improve. It is the same with acting. An actor is incapable of seeing and hearing themselves objectively. A TRAINED acting coach sees all the hidden things. The more you work with them the better they become at picking up on a look in your eyes, facial tics, voice inflections and body language that is not genuine or just not enough as demanded to make the scene interesting to watch.
“Sometimes you can’t see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.” – Ellen DeGeneres
We also need to practice our craft, work our acting muscles, on a regular basis. You should strive to do this daily. Being forced to prepare and do an acting class weekly is at least a good foundation. Layer on top of that daily auditions, or even self-rehearsing and videoing yourself doing a monologue.
For variety and expanded training, hire a voice coach and learn to use your voice. Learn how to do dialects, accents. Learn how to sing. Sign up for improv classes. Also, look for workshops being put on in your area by local casting directors, or acting coaches visiting from LA or NYC. Do the research on them to find out if they are good or not of course. The acting world is an easy target for scammers. Sign and take VO classes if that is goal. Learn how to audition for commercials vs. theatrical camera work. They are two very different animals.
A recent development in Hollywood and the Stage is the Intimacy Director role. There are workshops you can attend for learning how intimate scenes can be choreographed to make realistic nude and or sexual content scenes while keeping the actors safe emotionally and physically.
“Success isn’t always about ‘Greatness’, it’s about consistency. Consistent, hard work gains success. Greatness will come.” – Dwayne Johnson
Audition, Audition, Audition
After a period of classes – weeks or months – you will be eager to get in front of a camera and hear the words “and.. action”. Your goal is to get paid, however, who is going to hire you without any experience? Although stories are told all the time about someone being “discovered” with little to no experience for a big break. This does happen. But extremely rare.
What do actors do then? They do student films with no pay. They get in their friends’ short films for no pay. They volunteer to act in 48-hour film festivals and other “themed” film competitions for shorts. These will get you started in building your resume. They write their own scripts and get friends to film and direct, etc. the film. They migrate up to indie films submitted to festivals. Win awards. Make good impressions and eventually they get called without having to audition for a role. Also, there are casting sites you can join without having an agent for self submitting. Backstage, Casting Networks, Actors Access, local Facebook casting call groups, etc.
When you go to an audition that asks for a hardcopy of your headshot and resume, don’t print the resume on the back of the headshot. Print it separately and staple it at both corners of the top on the back of the headshot. Busy working actors do this so they can update resume every few weeks while keeping the same headshot for a year or more. Update your headshot if it is more than a few years old or if you look as changed.
Show up early to give yourself to study any instructions, sides, etc. that are posted. Just because they are not provided when asked to audition, doesn’t mean they won’t be posted when you show up. Or, just as bad, the script (“sides” has changed.
“Auditioning is your job as an actor” – Brian Cranston
Auditioning is what you prepare for, what you do and how you get booked. Approach the audition as if it is a chance to show off what you can do. Have fun with it. Take risks. The riskier it feels, then most likely it is the more interesting choice for them to see.
To get audition, you will need a headshot. If you are just starting out and cash strapped, you can even have a friend take some shots using an smart phone. Google how headshots should look. Yes, there is a “look” that is more suitable and acceptable than just a selfie. If you really want to be prepared, have two headshots. A commercial one and a theatrical one. Look it up. But it is not necessary just starting out.
These days, many young actors seem to get by on just a smart phone. Even studying a script. There are apps for breaking down a script and rehearsing it as well. You can even rehearse with a scene partner before class via a video app – Facetime or Zoom for example.
Personally, if you want to truly be professional, I advise you buy a computer (laptop) and a printer. It is more effective to print a script, highlight your roles, mark up your breakdown and notes on the paper, etc. than a small screen smart phone. And when you show up with a beaten up, highlighted, marked up script to class or to the set, others will take note and know you are serious.
For home self-tape auditions (more and more common now) buy a stand for your smart phone. You can get a camera, but make sure it is HD (1080). If you want to use a camera then you will need software on your computer to edit before sending emailing it or uploading.
Smart phones have such good cameras that you don’t need a camera by itself. Buy a tripod – a tall one with an adapter for holding a smart phone, or if you have something to set it upon, they you can get the smaller tripod for a smart phone. A big advantage of a smart phone is that the software is good enough to easily edit it on the phone and upload or send it right from the phone.
Buy light(s). Get the LED type that varies in intensity as well as two or three colors. The LED ring light is very useful and can be used by itself to light your face up.
Either buy a background drop, can be a dark blue or solid off-white sheet, or a wall at home that is uncluttered and solid color.
For VO work from home, that is an entirely different subject for equipment, software, and creating a dead audio space. Quick hint – I’ve known (and done it myself) actors to do voice recordings in their car with the engine off, or in their closet. Both are acoustically quiet.
Actors starting out are always eager to get an agent. Getting an agent means instant bookings and money. Right? Wrong. If you couldn’t book gigs by yourself then you most likely won’t do so with an agent.
Ask around about which agents are taking on new actors. (Another good reason to be in a weekly acting class). Look at the agent’s web site, and if you see a lot of faces that look like your type then they probably don’t want to add a third or fourth “Tom Hanks” look to their portfolio.
Then get referrals from acting coaches, directors, fellow actors for that agent.
After you have taken some classes, have some credits on a resume and feel you want to get an agent, then pursue it. Get referrals in order to get the meeting with the agent. Be confident when you walk in. Be able to list a few projects you have done – doesn’t matter if they are not paid. Talk about any training you had in college or even just high school plays or film class. If you have an advanced degree, mention it. It shows you are committed to hard work and finishing something. Never pay an agent to work for you. They get paid a commission when you get paid.
A good online resource is the SAG AFTRA listing of Agents in your area. It is a kind of validation – but not a complete list.
You will learn that working actors will have multiple agents. This can be done only if the agents work different markets. For example, an agent in Dallas handles the Texas area, where as an agent in Atlanta handles Georgia and maybe the South East. Do this only if you are willing to travel to audition in another location.
“If you’re an actor, even a successful one, you’re still waiting for the phone to ring.” – Kevin Bacon
Extra or Background Work
When you are just starting out, you can do it a few times. Especially if it is a big budget production. It is worth it to see how things are done on set. To start to understand the lingo, the protocols, etc. Some people really enjoy it and continue doing it. However, most actors want to become paid professionals and desire the more substantiative speaking roles. They want to work their way up and become the lead actor with the character story arc and the serious paycheck.
“Sometimes you can have the smallest role in the smallest production and still have a big impact.” – Neil Patrick Harris
Books and Podcasts
Read them. Listen to them. From the basics of Meisner to the latest from NYC and LA working actors, coaches and agents. Study the ones on the craft of acting as well as the business of acting for the latest hints and tricks.
Recent books I found useful include:
“The Power of the Actor” – Ivana Chubbuk.
“The Warner Loughlin Technique” – Warner Loughlin
“Audition” – Michael Shurtleff
A podcast I found to be the most informative ran for about 6 years, every week. “Inside Acting” by Trey and AJ from LA. Sadly, they closed it up in 2018.
Webinars – more classes and instructional videos are online and sometimes free. Take advantage of these and watch them.
You will discover that certain ideas, techniques resonate with you. They speak to you and improve you. Just like in golf, a good instructor will give you the foundation and then continue to tweak your technique based on your unique character. You have to “find your voice” so to speak.
“The minute that you’re not learning I believe you’re dead.” – Jack Nicholson
Soon, you will discover your type. What role you are normally cast? E.g., a gangster vs. an executive? The flirty blonde vs. the nerdy glass wearing computer type. Study all of them, but when self-submitting for a part, don’t submit for a gangster thug if you are really more of the suburban dad look. Unless you have the acting chops to pull it off.
“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” – Judy Garland
The Business Side Of Acting
“A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.” – Mae West
It is just as much a business as it is a creative craft. You need to be aware of and proficient in both to become a serious actor.
You will need to put together a marketing package. This includes the headshot(s), resume, demo reel, social media sites (Facebook, Instagram and maybe a few more), IMDB page, Website. Be creative to find out what not only what looks professional but will work to get you noticed.
Network. Attend industry events, and meet the people who can cast you, put you in their film, get you an agent, advise on the headshot photographers, etc.
A question I always get – SAG or non-union? Ahhh, a common question. A short answer, don’t worry about it. If you live in a state with strong unions, then you will eventually be told to join the local SAG union to work. If you live in a non-union state, then your agent will tell you to stay non-union if you want to work.
If you can get an agent, be upfront about your availability, the type of day job you have, if you can travel for an audition in another city, etc. Tell them what you want to do and vs. rather not do. If you get an audition request, be on time and be prepared. Agents will get feedback from the casting office on their actors. “They were late. They looked awful. They were not prepared as much as they should have been. Or, “they were great” but they didn’t book it this time. Remember, book the casting office. That is, impress them so they remember you and ask you in again.
Don’t call your agent every time and ask “did I get it” or “Why not”. This chews up their time and they hate it.
Now and then, drop your agent an email, or a post card (yes) or note mailed about recent activities. Such as, I was the winner in my acting studio showcase. I am doing a role in a local play. Or, I just lost 10 lbs and learned a new skill such as martial arts.
Some actors keep a spreadsheet on every audition they do, who the casting director was, the project, the Director (if known) a callback and if they booked it. They watch over time if their booking rate goes up, etc. Just like in golf, there are stats you can keep for self improvement.
Always be polite and professional. Always be prepared and show up early. Always be generous and appreciative.
“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” – Woody Allen
Get a tax accountant who does actors tax returns. You will find out what things you can and cannot deduct such as Netflix, cellular phone bill, hair cut / styling, manicures, and so on.
Acting is both about your emotive self from the inside as well as how you look on the outside. So, eat right and exercise daily. Take care of your teeth, and your skin too.
Practice daily mediation, acting exercises or journaling.
Read something about the craft or business of acting. Listen to a podcast while driving in the car.
Watch a variety of films and TV shows. Study the story, the acting, the camera work.
Look at your list of casting sites and self-submit where you can.
Finally, promptly do the video tape requests for auditions or rehearse for an upcoming audition.
Even with a day job, you should spend a little time every day on acting. Treat it like a job.
“A lot of people give up just before they’re about to make it. You know you never know when that next obstacle is going to be the last one.” – Chuck Norris
Acting is a journey of many steps. And you will discover that there seem to be “levels”. Levels in your growth in the craft and levels in the business. What roles you get cast for playing. Getting an agent. Getting more pay. You will get stuck on a level from time to time. These is normal. To get unstuck and go to the next level, you can’t keep doing more of the same thing. You will need to find a different approach. Different skills to get unstuck and move forward.
Amy Jo Berman, an acting coach and counselor in LA, says you must balance the 3 C’s: Connections, Confidence and Craft. Connections is really the business side of acting – networking and doing all the business stuff needed. Confidence is not usually mentioned but it is so important to be able to be confident when going into an audition or taping one. And of course, the Craft. Amy Jo claims that all three must be in balance in order to move up to the next level(s).
The pursuit of professional acting is difficult. It is both a business and a well-honed craft in addition to a business. Learn both. You will have to be independent, ambitious, work well with all types of personalities and able to handle rejection. Then, most importantly, enjoy the everyday steps of becoming an actor.
“Learn to live your life—there’s no recipe for it. You can’t go to acting school to learn to be a deep person with a lot of experience to draw from; you can only become that person by feeling, by getting hurt, by feeling incredibly happy, by seeing the world; those are the things that make you richer as a person and give you a much bigger bank to draw from when you bring characters to life.” – Pablo Schreiber
Acting Studio: TBell Actors Studio, Dallas, TX
IMDB page: http://www.imdb.me/christopherphipps
“Always trying to be a better Husband, Father, Golfer, Dog Lover and Actor.”