Actors play characters in plays, films and commercial productions, and on the radio, following directions and/or a script to create visual entertainment for a given audience.
Also known as…
- Cast Member
- Performing Artist
Being an actor involves a wide range of activities, including learning lines, rehearsing, attending auditions and castings, performing, working with an agent, and studying different acting techniques, just to name a few.
Actors aim to express a character through a range of behavioural activities, using speech and body language to play the part of someone or something else and induce a reaction in an audience.
Actors usually work with other actors under the instruction of a director, who coordinates movement and interaction on the stage or behind the lens. Although some actors work spontaneously, through improvisation, or silently, in mime, most work from a script.
This contains the actor’s lines, which must be learnt, practised and used as the basis for a performance.
As with many artistic professions, acting is a job where work comes unpredictably. The skill of an actor and the demand for their presence will affect how much work they receive, and therefore what salary they earn. Top actors may get paid millions for a single appearance, while an extra in a play, film or advertisement may be paid by the hour, or not at all. Many actors start in very low paid, or even completely unpaid roles, and try to work their way up the ladder, but the money depends entirely on finding regular work.
In actual terms, the majority of actors earn less than £10,000 a year from acting, and only a tiny minority earn over £30,000. Actors often have to supplement their income with other work and it is difficult to make a living from acting alone.
Getting into acting almost always requires formal training, and this is usually in the form of academic courses at drama schools or performing arts centres. Different schools have different reputations and those with the best reputations are extremely competitive. The National Council for Drama Training (NCDT) is the largest body that accredits these centres, and taking a course accredited by this body can be beneficial when it comes to being recognised because they are very practical and lead to membership of a performers’ union called Equity.
Many courses are similar to university degrees, entailing three years of full-time study although it is possible to take a one year postgraduate qualification if relevant previous study has been completed. The most popular courses are in acting, drama or musical theatre and acceptance depends on factors including:
- Relevant exam results: A levels, GCSEs and BTEC diplomas in subjects such as English, Drama and Performing Arts
- Experience in amateur or professional acting
Without these qualifications, the best option would be to pursue practical opportunities as much as possible, and participate in amateur productions and workshops wherever possible.
Being an actor requires a range of skills, including:
- Good stage, screen or vocal presence
- The ability to enter into another character and engage with an audience
- The ability to memorise lines
- Good understanding of dramatic techniques
- Having the confidence, energy and dedication to perform
- Creative insight
Experience and building a CV is important in acting, although it is not everything and strong or appealing actors, especially younger ones, may find major roles without a huge amount of prior activity.
Most actors do work steadily, though, and many see their work as a lifelong progression, using self discovery and internal reflection to improve their skills, broaden their repertoire and build their reputation.
Actors improve their reputation by completing different roles successfully. Moving up to more challenging and better-paid jobs comes from acting well and being well received by critics.
One good performance can be crucial in boosting an actor’s profile, and finding work consistently will depend on evidence of a professional attitude and a good track record, although actors with different styles and personalities may go in and out of fashion, depending on what directors and producers are looking for.
Many actors spend years playing minor roles or working as extras before landing a major part, and the career path varies greatly depending on the individual.
The biggest employers of actors are theatres and production companies, but since there is not a standardised network of acting jobs and no standard working cycle, most actors have to operate on a flexible basis, often using an agent to help represent them and find them work.
One of the most renowned acting companies is the Royal Shakespeare Company, based in Stratford.
Looking for Acting Work?
Learn more about how to become a voice actor and earn money on your own schedule.
Acting may include antisocial hours in the evenings, at weekends, or both. However, the working environment is usually warm, safe and comfortable and the hours may be relatively short, during performance times.
Acting conditions vary greatly depending on the location of the performance. The hours can be long, and the work physically and emotionally tiring, or boring.
What’s it really like?
Joseph Kennedy, 27, is an actor working in London. Jo has acted in a number of major television and theatre productions, including Robin Hood, The Midsomer Murders, Bobby Moore and JFK.
How long have you been working as an actor?
For four or five years, since I finished drama school, although I did lots of acting before that, when I was at secondary school.
My A-levels were Geography, Biology and Business Studies – it was either be a marine biologist or an actor, but I got a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama and went fully into acting.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
The work is very varied and what I do depends on what work I have.
At the moment I am preparing for Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll, the story of Ian Dury and the Blockheads so when I wake up I read the script, practise my lines and research the part.
This involves watching all the other similar films in the genre and on the subject and watching clips on Youtube of the person I am playing. This helps me to get a feel for the character and gives me ideas of how to play the role.
In general, at the start of the week I hope to get information on auditions from my agent and then spend time preparing for the audition.
This week, I have to learn fifteen pages, and it pays to think carefully about costume and to keep fit as, sadly perhaps, appearance is important for getting a part.
It is important to keep attending auditions whilst working on other roles to keep a steady flow of work coming in and to ensure that you don’t go for too long without a part.
What do you like and dislike about the job?
I love acting, almost everything about it: the hours, the variety, the endless scope for new and exciting work. It is a career for me, not a job, in that I really want to do it and it is never a chore.
All the different possibilities, from comedy to sci-fi, in theatre and film and on television, mean that there is always something out there. I love the variety of people, and I love being able to put on a mask, something people do most of the time, anyway, just getting paid for it.
I find the whole process good for my mental state – it sorts out my mind and allows me to release.
On the downside, there are a million and one other people trying to do the same job, I often have to do work which is substandard, in that it is too simplistic and not nourishing.
Some of the people can be a problem as well, and you have to manage working relationships with some difficult characters. Finally, the money is highly variable.
The money can be good when it comes, but being paid a large sum for one piece of work lulls you into a false sense of security because it makes you think you have an income, and then you do not find work for the next few months and it all goes on agents’ fees, tax and so on.
Any other advice?
Never give up. Perseverance is the key and, as with most things, you just have to keep on working hard and trying and trying. If you do not succeed it is disheartening but you have to go on, try to find a different angle and keep going at it.
Some people do not get their break until after twenty or thirty years of playing minor roles. Getting to drama school is a big help, as you get taught so much and it means that people will take you more seriously, but even then it is so competitive that you just have to give each role a hundred percent and hope that what you do gets noticed.