The Complete Guide to Acting as a Career

Becoming an actor can be one of the most challenging and uncertain jobs around. People may seem as if they “stumble” into acting careers or just get lucky in Hollywood. But there’s no shortcut for dedication and hard work. 

Still, navigating the entertainment industry can be a challenge, especially for beginners. We’ve put together a complete guide to acting as a career.

Here’s everything you need to know about being the best actor you can be.


Actor Definition: What is Acting?

When you break it down, the definition of acting is when someone takes on a role or someone else’s behavior. This is usually done in a scripted environment. 

Also known as…

  • Thespian
  • Actress
  • Cast Member
  • Performing Artist

At its core, anyone can act – in fact, you act daily. You pretended to find your boss’s joke funnier than it was, or you hid your bad mood when talking to a colleague. Anyone can pretend, but not everyone chooses to do it as a profession. 

When they’re in character, professional actors are also pretending. Their goal is to portray their character as authentically as possible. During these performances, actors may change their natural mannerisms or voices.

The goal is a believable performance. An actor is likely to get praised or even win awards for their role if they do this well. The most impressive performances may become nominees at award shows like: 

  • The Golden Globes 
  • The Oscars 
  • Or Academy Awards

But, there are different types of acting. You may not recognize their official names. But, you’ve probably seen these techniques pop up in your favorite TV shows or movies: 

  • Classical Acting: Classical acting is one of the oldest techniques. You’ll often see it in plays or live performances. They use dramatic gestures, enunciated speech, and exaggerated actions. The goal is to reach everyone in the audience – whether they’re in the front row or the very back. 
  • Modern Acting: Modern acting aims to portray a character’s emotions authentically. You’re more likely to see modern acting in a TV show or movie. The actors want the story to feel as realistic as possible. They may draw upon their own life experiences to bring out these authentic emotions. Modern acting is more subtle. Actors may focus on facial expressions or gestures. They do this to make the character feel more sincere. 
  • Method Acting: Like modern acting, method acting is meant for the big screen. Method actors often use their imaginations to connect with the role they’re playing. They want the emotions to feel realistic. Actors prepare for a role by exploring a character’s motives. They also call it getting “inside the character’s head.” Some famous actors who use method acting include Jodie Foster, Riz Ahmed, and Steven Yeun. 
  • The Chekhov Technique: The Chekhov technique is a branch of method acting. Actors learn gestures with universal psychological meanings. They also explore what it’s like to live their character’s life. Ex: Robert DeNiro spent weeks driving a cab for several hours a day to prepare for his role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
  • The Meisner Technique: The Meisner technique is all about repetition. An actor repeats and practices their performance to develop unconscious instincts or gestures. This brings another level of authenticity to the performance. 

Whether they’re working in a play, movie, or TV show, an actor’s aim is always to portray their role in a way that’s truthful to the character.


Skills and Qualifications of an Actor

Actor Responsibilities

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.

Actor Skills

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

Actor Qualifications

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
  • Auditions
  • 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.

Acting Experience

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.


Actor Salary

People may be under the impression that all actors make millions of dollars; this isn’t the case.

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.

Depending on what the performance is, an actor’s salary can range from $25,000 a year to $10 or $20 million. Yet, the median salary of an actor is around $40,000, with only 25% of the best-paid actors making more than $58,000. 

Keep in mind that only a small percentage of actors work full-time. The overwhelming majority are part-time, and pay rates can vary from one job to another.

For hourly wages, the lowest ten percent of actors only make an average of $9.39/hour. But the highest ten percent can bring in over $100/hour.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Arts define minimum wages for actors. They set these minimums specifically for union productions.

Producers and film production companies are free to negotiate higher wages. But they must at least meet the SAG and AFTRA minimums.


Actor Education & Training

The education and training can vary from actor to actor. But here are some of the most common steps that actors and actresses take when pursuing their careers. These steps are especially common in big cities like Los Angeles or New York.

Getting an Undergraduate Degree

For actors, formal education isn’t a necessity for every role. Still, many aspiring actors and actresses do go on to participate in college classes. Some even get a Bachelor’s Degree in a field like Theater Arts. 

Formal education helps actors hone their craft and learn skills like: 

  • Memorization
  • Continuity 
  • Creativity 
  • Improvisation 

Attending college also allows aspiring actors to gain a little experience if they participate in any of their college’s plays. 

Participating in Local Opportunities

Many actors also audition for community theater productions. This gives them more experience to put on their resume. It’s also an opportunity to work professionally on stage or in front of a camera.

Other actors may focus on performing at open mic nights, comedy clubs, or other local venues. These local opportunities may not always be lucrative. But, they can give actors a chance to get comfortable in front of an audience. 

Gaining Specialized Skills 

An essential part of an actor’s training is gaining a specialized skill set. The classes you take in college may help with this. But, many actors continue to pursue their education throughout their careers. A specialized skill set goes a long way in impressing casting departments. It also hones your craft.

Working with a vocal coach to learn how to do impressions or foreign accents could give you an advantage. It can also get you more roles on the job market. A voice actor may start their own podcast, while a stage actor may attend a performing arts school. 

It’s not uncommon for many first-time actors to hire an acting coach. This helps them prepare for the roles they want to pursue. An experienced acting coach can help you develop new skills. They also provide feedback on your current performance. 

Using an Agent

It’s not a necessity for actors to hire an agent, but for many, using an agent is part of the process. An agent’s goal is to market you. They may do this by: 

  • Sending your resume to production companies 
  • Finding and scheduling auditions
  • Negotiating contracts

For new actors, experienced agents can help identify what training you should pursue. They can also recommend which roles are the right fit for your current skill set.


Actor Career Outlook 

New movies and TV shows may be in high demand, but what about actors? The current career outlook for actors has a 3% growth rate from 2019 to 2029. Compared to other jobs in the entertainment industry, actors have a lower growth rate. 

Movie and TV show actors have more job opportunities than theater productions. The reasoning behind this comes down to funding. Movies and TV shows often have much higher budgets. They also have an easier time securing funding than theater productions do. 

This is especially true for smaller theaters. They sometimes reduce performances due to their tight budget.

Career Progression

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.

Employers

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.


Acting Work Schedule

Acting is far from a traditional 9 to 5 job. Acting may be part-time for many professional actors. This is primarily due to the breaks between roles or filming.

Filming days are usually long and can last anywhere from twelve to twenty hours when an actor is working. 

There are usually no set hours. Actors may need to work mornings, evenings, or even nights – sometimes a combination of all three. 

Most feature films and TV shows tend to limit their filming days to five days a week. But, shooting could last several months. An actor’s work schedule may also include travel. This is especially true in big-budget movies and feature films. 

Your role may demand that you spend two or three months in another locale during production. Your contract might also have you spend some time traveling to promote the film. This can mean full days of events or interviews. 

Of course, those long hours do tend to pay off. An actor may have anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months off before they work again.

For stage actors, the hours are also irregular. A stage actor may spend several hours a day for several weeks rehearsing a production.

But, once the show opens and they’re performing for an audience, they may only work thirty hours a week.


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.

That’s a Wrap!

The irregular work hours and pay can make acting seem like an intimidating career to pursue. But, it’s also one of the most rewarding.

Not all actors end up with Oscar nominations for the best picture. Yet, most actors are passionate about their work. 

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