In our latest honorary Mate guest contribution, theatre blogger and co-operative agency actor Briony Rawle provides a step-by-step guide on how to break into the acting profession – like a professional, not an amateur.
I’m an actor who is part of a co-operative agency. Co-ops are made up of actors who act as each other’s agent, taking it in turns to man the office, make the tea, and find each other work. As such, I have seen a few really bad applications from people who want to enter the acting world but haven’t had the right advice about doing it.
Sticking to the code will mean, even if you’re brand new to the business, you won’t give yourself away and come off as an amateur who just fancies having a go at being an actor
The edges of the acting world have relaxed in recent years, becoming so grey and mushy that there are as many different pathways into it as there are people willing to put on wellies and trudge in. You don’t necessarily need training, an agent, or even experience (although these things make it a hell of a lot easier).
The problem is that when you get to the more central bits of the industry, (where they say the mythical ‘paid acting work’ is), the way things are done is actually pretty black and white. Not conforming to these dictates will show you up as a newbie and you’ll be spat out back into the grey and mushy quicker than Madonna backwards off a podium.
Even drama schools don’t teach this stuff because you’re just supposed to learn to act and then get the hang of the other stuff on your own. So I’d like to give you a guide to the basics of finding work in the industry, right down to the nitty-gritty: what you’ll need, whom to contact, and how to contact them.
You need to start with a good headshot.
This should cost a fair bit of money, and it’s not advisable to scrimp because your headshot is your very most powerful tool. Shots by family photographers or high-street photography studios, or your hipster mate who got a swanky DSLR for Christmas will stick out a mile and show you up.
Find a photographer who specialises in actors’ headshots, and get several shots that suit the particular casting brackets that you fit, whether it be the young mum, the cool teenage rebel, ageing hardman, mischievous pixie, buttoned-up schoolteacher, or crazy-eyed eccentric – whatever suits you. Your casting is something you need to give a lot of thought to, because even if you’re basically a chameleon, the casting industry isn’t always very imaginative.
Then get a profile on Spotlight.
You might need to build up some credits before you can get onto Spotlight, and membership isn’t cheap, but it’s essential if you want to be taken seriously. Upload your professional headshot(s) on Spotlight (no more than five), and keep your profile updated.
There are several other casting websites you can join, including Casting Call Pro, to find paid and unpaid work to bolster your credits.
You’ll also need an acting CV.
Insert a small version of your headshot near the top, as well as your contact details, a brief description of your appearance, your qualifications and training, and your skills (singing, tap dancing, playing the tuba, conveyancing, competitive eating, etc).
Below that, list your credits with the most recent at the top, stating the year, the name of the production, the director, and/or the name of the venue or company. Make separate sections for film, TV, theatre, and roles played while training if appropriate.
Now you can start bandying these precious materials around as if they’re Shakespeare’s toenails. But first you have to know whom you’re writing to and why.
Someone recently emailed my co-op agency saying she was ‘looking for acting roles.’ While this is a perfectly fair eventual expectation, you have to demonstrate awareness of the structure of the casting system.
On the whole, a director who wants to cast a production will appoint a casting director. The casting director will then look for suitable actors to present to the director to choose from. Agents are coming from the other direction – they represent actors, and if they know a casting director is looking, they will suggest suitable actors to the casting director from their ‘books’.
If they’re casting Hamlet, and you just always thought you’d be pretty good at playing Hamlet, keep it to yourself
Then the casting director will invite the ones who look most suitable in for audition. Sometimes the agent and the director approach each other directly without a casting director. Sometimes the actor him or herself will approach the director or the casting director personally if they don’t have an agent. But the actor has to know exactly whom they’re talking to, and where they fit into the system.
It’s always best to approach a director, agent, or casting director with something particular to say.
Emails and letters simply introducing yourself aren’t a bad idea, but are stronger if they contain an invitation to see you perform, or a showreel. Then they can see you in action if they want to, and they also know that you’ve been getting work as an actor.
While I’m on the subject, a showreel should be a reasonably short video made up of clips of you acting, preferably in dialogue rather than monologue, definitely not silent or a music video, and where it really shows off your acting in the right casting bracket.
When writing an email (or a letter – check the person’s website to see which they prefer), keep it short and to the point.
Be polite without being reverential, don’t waffle about your hopes and dreams, but be confident about what could sell you to them as an actor.
If they’re casting Much Ado About Nothing and you played Beatrice last year, put it in. If it’s an agency that specialises in stage combat and you’re handy with a broadsword, put it in. If it’s for a film about bikers and you have a Mohawk, put it in. If it’s Hamlet and you just always thought you’d be pretty good at playing Hamlet, keep it to yourself and tell them about any relevant Shakespeare experience and how good you are with verse.
Don’t document your entire performance history; pick out the most relevant experience, and then if appropriate write ‘other credits include…’ and simply list the names of other things you’ve done. Attach your headshot and your actor CV, put a link to your Spotlight profile beneath your name, and click ‘send’ before you get cold feet.
I wouldn’t claim that this is the only possible process through which people get work, but don’t be drawn in by the urban myths.
You know the ones – about people with no acting experience being picked up while working as runners on film sets, or who turned up at an agent’s door dressed up as the agent themselves and got representation, or those who found out a casting director’s favourite cake and got the lead in a movie because they sent them a nice lemon drizzle.
That may work one time out of twenty thousand, but the rest of the time you’ll get laughed out the door and people will remember you for the wrong reasons.
Sticking to the code set out above will mean, even if you’re brand new to the business, you won’t give yourself away and come off as an amateur who just fancies having a go at being an actor – there are many of that type, and they look just like you and me.
If you’re serious about the business, you’ve got to pull on your wellies, wade through the grey mush, and follow the right path until you get to where you want to be. Good luck!