How To Start an Acting Career

People acting together.

Why can figuring out how to get into the acting business be challenging? It could be that there isn’t enough work out there. It could be that no one supports your decision to enter the business of acting. It could be because of the seas of other young performers out there who are more talented, better looking or more driven than you. It could be any number of things — but I say the real challenge lies elsewhere.

Sure, there may be a million reasons why someone’s acting career isn’t taking off, but counting all the reasons isn’t very helpful to an aspiring actor. To excel in any business, the business owner must not only identify problems, but also find solutions to them. A successful performer will even turn problems into advantages.

 In This Article:

Solution #1: The Training 

Acting is unique. Everyone acts throughout their daily lives to some degree. We pretend to like something for the benefit of others, or we may pretend we’re not as tired as we really feel when our friends need a listening ear. It’s all acting. How hard can it be? This may be one reason why many young actors flame out early in their careers: They don’t realize that there are skills to sharpen and muscles to tone within acting. Some might say it’s the parents’ fault. They take them out of sixth-grade chorus, and put them in productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream without batting an eye. It’s cute. They work hard and we give them standing ovations because, “Hey! That’s my kid up there!” Then, when they enter the business of acting, all they’ve had is applause from biased crowds of family and friends, so they’re shocked when they come up against people with real training. That’s the first problem. So, what’s the solution?

Just like you wouldn’t expect a beginning pianist to play a Rachmaninoff concerto, we shouldn’t expect a sixth-grader to grasp the deep undertones of Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Beginning actors need training in order to master the business of acting. Training for the actor comes in many forms. Private coaching, studio classes and majoring in theatre in college can be great ways to learn what the various tools are and when best to use them. Even a minor amount of training can give an actor the edge they need. They can start doing the work required to get their bodies and voices to convey the thoughts, feelings and actions of a fictional character.

Consider acting training. The more, the better. However, there are still other practical things an actor needs in order to really start their profession. 

Solution #2: The Materials

There are two things every actor needs when learning how to get into the acting business: a headshot and a resume. 

Actor Headshot

There are good headshots and bad headshots. The differences between the two may seem subjective, and they are. The industry is constantly changing, and what makes a good headshot tends to change with it. However, there are three overarching rules of thumb that seem to form a throughline in this ever-changing medium: 

  1. It should just be a picture of your head. Anything more than that is better suited for modeling than for acting.
  2. It should look like you. Be wary of doctoring your appearance so much for the shoot that you end up looking like a totally different person when you walk into the audition room. 
  3. It should make your eyes pop. The actor’s eyes are a central element in headshots because they communicate and connect with the viewer.1

These three simple rules should be understood by the actor and the headshot photographer. In the age of digital photography, it’s easy to grab a friend with a camera, but there is something to be said about the jump in quality that can be achieved with a professional photographer. When securing a professional photographer, consider the following: 

  • Look at headshots in or near the major performance hubs (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Orlando, etc.). Find headshot photographers there and look at what they are putting out on their websites. Once you know the look, try to get pictures of the same (or better) quality.
  • It will end up costing money, so be prepared to shell out a decent amount for good pictures. Some questions to ask your photographer include:
    •  “How many looks do I get to bring to the shoot?” 
    •  “Will a professional in hair and makeup be included?” 
    •  “How many touch-ups are included?” 
    • Can I keep all the shots taken from the day in digital form?” 

After the shoot, you get to select which looks you want for your marketing purposes, and then you should get them reproduced. A professional headshot will be an 8x10 glossy image that includes your picture, surrounded by a white or black border. Your contact information and name should go in the border (your agent’s contact info and logo may replace yours). Get between 50 and 100 printed if you must buy in bulk. You will only bring them to in-person auditions, because you will be using digital files for most of your submissions. Getting a headshot is all about logistics. How will you get the money to pay for them? When can you fit the shoot into your schedule? What should you wear? The resume, on the other hand, is a different story. 

Acting Resumes

Resumes will contain all of the actor’s relevant experience. However, there are many who have no relevant experience in the business of acting. How do they solve this problem? Instead of thinking of the resume as a “proof of worth,” an actor should view it as a conversation starter. Everything on that sheet of paper — a single sheet in our case — should spark a conversation. Don’t let a lack of experience keep you from making a resume. There are many templates out there to follow. Simply select one and start filling in the blanks. Be prepared to talk about everything on that paper in a positive way, and you’ll be set. 

Here is a list of essentials to include on an acting resume:

  1. Name: Type your name in a large font at the top of the page. 
  2. Contact information: Only include your email and phone number; no addresses are needed. 
  3. Union status: It’s okay — sometimes even better — if you are unaffiliated with a union. Just make sure you state it on the resume, typically under your contact info. 
  4. Vital stats: Include your height, shoe size and relevant measurements — they’re different for men and women, but weight and age aren’t necessary. 
  1. Experience: Break up your experience: Theatre, Film, TV, Commercials and Industrials. 
  2. Training: Think of anything performance-related, such as dancing, singing, martial arts, styles of acting, yoga and your schooling. It’s typically very broad. 
  3. Special skills: This is where things like sports, active hobbies and special talents can appear — anything you can do in the room with the right equipment. If you find yourself asking, Should I include this?— just determine whether it might start a conversation. If the answer is yes, then it’s a keeper! 

How To Get Into the Acting Business

Now that the practical aspects are in place, it’s imperative that an actor know the difference between their work and their job. Their work is what we all see on film or on stage — that magical thing we call “acting.” However, few actors get to do their work because they do not do their job. An actor’s job is to be seen. Granted, an actor can be seen in movies, commercials and on the stage, but to get those high-profile opportunities, they need to be seen elsewhere first.

Finding a Job: How To Start an Acting Career 

The best place for an actor to be seen is the audition room. In this environment, the roles are strictly defined, and the expectations are clear. The actors are there to bring their best selves to the life of the character they are playing, and the people across the table are “shopping for awesome.”

How does one get into that room, though? For an actor who knows how to be seen, it’s a lot easier than it sounds. We’ll look at some of the strategies for being seen in reverse order. The easiest way to get into the audition room is to have someone else open the door for you. For many, that means finding and employing an agent. Here are three tips: 

  1. Invite agents: Ask people in the cast of your film/show to invite their agents, send links of your work to agencies, or invite them yourself and reserve a ticket in their name. In fact, it is beneficial to get multiple agents there. It’s their job to find talent, so you’re potentially doing them a favor as well.
  2. Interview them: You are entering into a business arrangement that could last decades. Get rid of the mindset that you are coming to them for help and exchange it for the understanding that you are bringing them a viable source of income. You will likely be far happier with an agent who is excited about you (regardless of the size of their office) than you will be with an agent you had to beg for.
  3. Help them: They don’t know you very well, so you can’t stop looking for your own work. This is where some ethics come into play. After you sign with an agent, any type of work you find that is covered under your contract with them must go through them. You can’t have a commercial agent and then book your own commercial through a friend. You must honor your business arrangements. 

Be Your Own Agent

What do you do until you find an agent? Good news — you are an agent. There is nothing stopping you from scouring publications like The Season Overview, Backstage or Actor’s Access. Sources like these are full of auditions for any type of work an actor might want. These are typically subscription-based if you want to get the most out of them, but that is the cost of doing business. Research these publications, reach out to the casting directors you find, and be seen. You’ll have to manage your contacts and negotiate contracts on your own, but many actors get their start this way.

Another way to be seen is to place yourself in a non-performance role within a production. Hang lights at a theatre, be a PA for a film shoot, or assist in a casting office — any role that exposes you to the field can help. Position yourself to be in the same environment as the people who make the decisions about who’s on stage or in front of the camera. Interacting with them daily, where they see your work ethic, can make auditions a bit easier. When they see you walk into the audition room, they aren’t a panel of judges — they are co-workers, mentors and friends. 

Gather a Team: The Business of Acting

There is often an image in many people’s heads of the starving actor waiting tables. It’s cliché, but it’s also common. Many of these actors are starving artistically because they are spending 60 to 70 hours a week being seen by the wrong people. If they could focus their efforts and hone in on a select few, their chances of booking work may increase dramatically. So, just who are these people?

  1. The agent: They are experts at getting around gatekeepers in the industry because they are, essentially, gatekeepers as well. They gain a reputation for having quality clients, so showing them your quality is essential. They can be found in workshops or panels. Some allow for online submissions, but the best place for them to meet you is backstage after they just watched your show.
  2. The casting director: They are the second line of defense between you and your role. They are professional shoppers, hired by a production to find ten people who are exactly right for a specific role. Having one on your side is invaluable. They love discovering talent. You may find them in workshops and panels (or even better, get a job in a casting office). 
  3. Directors: Who needs to slog through agents or casting directors when you can simply become good friends with people who are making the movie or directing the play? One thing to remember is this: if you are in the process of making theatre or film, it is likely that everyone around you is a potential director. Just be kind. Always. People will remember you (especially because kindness is in such short supply). When you do get to work with a director, it’s important to keep in touch. Send them invites and updates about your work, and go see their work. These relationships can last a lifetime.

Mastering the Business of Acting: Setting Standards

Framing your mind around what you do as being a business can help relieve a lot of the stress that can come along with acting for a living. What that means is you must be an artist, a business owner and a human being. To achieve this, having a schedule with business hours may be helpful. These are set times throughout the day to do the “job” part of acting (which is…remember…to be seen), such as:

  1. Networking time: Schedule times to be seen. This may be easier if you have a job at a theatre or on set. If you don’t, consider scheduling time to see the work that is being done. The best places for this are film festivals, screenings or opening nights of plays. 
  2. Research time: Carve out time to look over the trade publications or visit theatre websites to see what work is coming up. Look into who is directing, writing and producing the work to learn about the other work they’ve done in the past. Research time is also a great time to read. Read plays, screenplays and novels. The more you read, the more interesting you become. This reading time often spawns work that you want to produce, so don’t forsake these golden moments.
  1. Communication time: Devote a part of your day to communicating with people. Reach out to the people you’ve researched. Continue to set up meetings, send out resumes, book auditions and keep your contacts up to date. Devoting time to the business of acting can help you avoid persistently checking your email. To set expectations and honor a healthy work-life balance, consider setting up automatic replies in your email.
  2. Closing time: End your business day — your family will thank you. Turn off the computer and put away the phone. You’ve done your work; now go and play. It can be exhausting having to always look over your shoulder, never knowing when the workday ends. 

Union Impact on the Business of Acting: Insights and Strategies

When talking about the business of acting, it is important to address the topic of unions. For actors, there are two main unions to consider: Actors Equity and SAG/AFTRA.

Union membership can offer performers a livable wage, benefits (health, dental and retirement) and safe/respectful work environments when working in the field. Their purpose is to protect actors from the temptation to work without compensation, which many would (understandably) do if given the opportunity.

There are myriad ins and outs of what unions do and how they function, but the key question for actors is: When should I join a union? It’s an incredibly fluid and personal decision. For some, union membership represents a kind of rite of passage, signifying a certain level of skill or success. Others have found union membership too restrictive for the types of work they want to do.

There are many actors in their late teens to late twenties who have talent, drive and no union membership — and producers may pick them because they are less expensive. On the other hand, there may be a role you are suited for in a production that is required to use union talent. In many of those cases, the actor will be offered the chance to join the union upon accepting the role. Before taking that deal, consider where you live. Are most of the existing opportunities union-affiliated? Is there a high population of performers who are “your type”? Joining a union should be an obvious decision, so don’t just blindly stumble in. 

Begin Your Acting Career at GCU

In this blog, a lot of ground was covered on the extensive array of topics about how to start an acting career. The best advice I can give is to seek out wise counsel. Get into a studio somewhere with a wide range of actors. Listen to how they’ve navigated the industry. Consider pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and Drama at Grand Canyon University. Most programs at GCU have a course in place to help you launch into the industry. Ultimately, achieving your goals in the film industry often requires a blend of elements such as talent, dedication, opportunity and, occasionally, luck. 

1 Harris, John. (2020, Sept. 23). Focus on the Eyes for Power Portraits. Retrieved on Jan. 2, 2024.

Approved by the author and faculty of Performing Arts & Digital Arts on Feb. 2, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.