PURSUING A CAREER in film or television is wonderfully invigorating. There’s nothing more exciting than being part of a worldwide community committed to storytelling, with the power to connect, touch, and inspire audiences. However, unlike pursuing other careers, performing offers few guideposts on just how to achieve your dream.

For more than 20 years, I’ve had the good fortune of acting and writing for both media. Below are tips on how I’ve been able to turn my passion into a career and 10 things you can do right now to jump-start your own.

1. Train in your craft
After working with many performers over the years, I’ve gleaned that those committed to training achieve longevity. It may sound obvious, but many people try to get by on what they learned in high school. While it may work in the short term, sooner or later it’ll catch up to you.

Think about whether committing to a collegiate training program is the best option for you. While everyone knows the major programs such as Juilliard, New York University, University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon, and University of North Carolina School of the Arts, there are many other colleges across the nation that also offer excellent programs.

However, if the university track is not for you, don’t fret. If the cost of tuition or the decision to major in another degree precludes you from attending a film program, find local classes that meet at least weekly with a healthy amount of work required outside the classroom. Whatever you choose, the key is keeping your commitment to learn, grow, and flourish in your chosen artistic field.

A student meets with a film school representative during the 2018 International Thespian Festival.
A student meets with a film school representative during the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

2. Get familiar with set life. 
When I was 18 and attending NYU, I booked a television show that moved me to Los Angeles almost overnight. It was amazing, but I had barely been on a set. Thoughtfully, my agent set me up with work as a background artist on soap operas. It allowed me to earn a little money and observe how a set really operated.

I’d suggest researching companies that provide background artists for shows in your area. The idea is to get hired and learn by osmosis. Observe how the crew moves. Watch how the actors prepare. Become familiar with the process so that when you do step on set as a principal, you’re firing on all cylinders.

3. Visit the website of your state film commission.
Almost every state has a film and television commission. On their websites, you’ll find information about current and upcoming productions, job opportunities (performing or otherwise), and even networking events. You’d be surprised how many productions have opted to shoot outside of Los Angeles and New York to take advantage of tax credits. This has spread opportunity for young artists across the nation.

As you peruse the site, don’t be shy about sending emails requesting more information. It’s the job of the film commission to facilitate production as well as opportunities for locals. You fit the second part of that mandate, so take advantage of it.

4. Become a “social” butterfly. 
Think of social media as a tool to define yourself as the artist you want the world to see. This can be a shift in thinking for young people as they enter the business. Until you become a professional, you might see social media as just that — social among your peers. However, once you walk through the door as an artist looking for a job, the powers that be will look at your social media accounts. Be mindful of who is watching, and use these platforms to your benefit by exhibiting some of your best work.

As you progress in your career, you’ll form social media relationships with other people in the community. Over time, that network will help you secure jobs and complement any publicity organized by your representation.

5. Investigate agents and managers. 
The number one question I receive from young people breaking into the business is whether they should get an agent or manager. The answer is yes, but with a caveat. I’ve heard many talented performers say they’re going to wait until they obtain representation before they enter the marketplace. That is the opposite of how you should think.

Thanks to social media, artists are no longer solely reliant on agents or managers to solidify a presence in the industry. As you begin to secure work on your own, they will take note. Agents and managers are in tune with emerging artists. Frankly, if you book a job with a high profile, they’ll contact you.

Another organic way to secure representation is to participate in industry nights or showcases. At these events, young artists perform for a panel of industry representatives. If they are interested in you, they’ll initiate a conversation.

6. Get to know local casting directors. 
A casting director is the liaison between actors and a production. Their job is to audition performers and invite those best suited for a part to meet with the producers and director before a casting decision is made.

While it might seem intimidating to meet someone with so much influence over the casting process, you should think of them as advocates. They want you to get the role. After all, a script could have hundreds of parts that need to be cast. The faster they find their answer, the better for the entire production.

Many casting directors also offer workshops. Actors perform scenes, and the casting director gives a critique. These classes are a fantastic way to meet casting directors while not under the pressure of an audition. And while taking classes is not a guarantee of work, it does make a connection with the casting director that can be remembered when you are right for a role.

7. Snap a headshot. 
Peruse the websites of local headshot photographers in your area. Speak with friends who have interesting headshots and connect with their photographers. Ideally, you want three to four looks to present in the marketplace, which generally means at least two dramatic and two comedic photos. If you plan to audition for commercials, you might add images in which you’re wearing business attire, workout gear, formal wear, and a uniform to cover your bases.

A Thespian Filmworks student practices using a camera during the 2018 International Thespian Festival.
A Thespian Filmworks student practices using a camera during the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

8. Cut a demo reel. 
Search for an editor with experience cutting acting reels. After compiling all of your options, discuss with the editor how to present three types of work: dramatic, comedic, and commercial. The total length for each reel should be no more than five minutes. Always lead with your best work, because odds are the entire reel might not be watched.

“But I don’t have any work yet,” you exclaim. Easily solved. Select your favorite age-appropriate scenes from films and television shows and shoot them as if you were auditioning. In some ways, the audition format is the most pure, because the camera is always focused on you. In an afternoon, you can create a collection of performances.

9. Watch as much relevant content as possible. 
Believe it or not, it’s your job to consume content. The sheer amount can be overwhelming, but it’s important that you watch the latest projects buzzing in the industry. To start, look at the movies and television shows nominated for awards.

You’ll begin to understand what the industry regards as quality work. Plus, you’ll be able to enter into any industry conversation when the topic of the latest project arises. That sort of engaging dialogue will set you apart from your competition. Producers, directors, and casting directors will appreciate how well-versed you are about the industry.

10. Pound the pavement and audition.
There is no time like the present. You should be auditioning as much as possible to get your name, image, and abilities out there. Even if you don’t have an agent, you can learn about casting notices through resources such as Backstage or Cast It. While there is a nominal fee associated with these services, think of it as investing in your future. On these sites, you can scroll opportunities in film, television, commercials, and theatre. Once you find a match, create an audition and send it off to the casting director.

While this business is terribly exciting, it’s incumbent upon you to be the driving force behind your career. Representatives can certainly add opportunities, but it will be your passion that fuels the fire and keeps you working for decades to come.

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