HOW TO BECOME AN ACTOR WITHOUT ANY ACTING EXPERIENCE
By Doug Morris
“I’ve just always had a real enjoyment of putting myself into other people’s shoes.
I do that all the time. Right now I’m imagining what it would be like to be a journalist. So it’s that fascination that keeps me moving forward and interested.”
WHEN SHOULD I BEGIN?
How and when does an individual finally decide they’ve come to a point in their life when they feel the need to try their hand at acting?
For some, such as Christian Bale, his film career began during childhood: Bale was only 13 years old when Steven Spielberg cast him to co-star with John Malkovich in “Empire of the Sun.”
“The film tells the story of Jamie “Jim” Graham, a young boy who goes from living in a wealthy British family in Shanghai, to becoming a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp, during World War II.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_the_Sun_(film)
For others, the decision to become an actor gets made sometime later in life, often when they’re much older, perhaps even after they’ve retired from another career.
Richard Farnsworth for example, began working in Hollywood as a stuntman in the early 1930s, falling (or getting shot) off of horses for many years. It wasn’t until Farnsworth was 43 years old, and suffering the myriad aches and pains of a life in stunt work, that he received his first credited acting part in a film. Farnsworth went on to star in a number of TV shows and critically acclaimed movies, from “Comes a Horseman” (1978) to “The Grey Fox” (1982) to “The Straight Story” (1999) for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Regardless when you choose to start, there is one simple factor that all actors have in common (and one important thing you must never forget.) Nobody was born an actor. They all started out in the same exact spot you find yourself in right now – dreaming of a career as a successful actor and having no idea how to accomplish it. This may be a good time to mention, choosing acting as a profession must come from a deeper commitment, not so much from a desire for wealth and fame but from a sincerely deep passion for the work. Too many people get into show business for all the wrong reasons.
OKAY, LET’S BEGIN.
You can start by committing yourself to a process: A process that will involve a lot of research, study, practice, introspection, and hard work.
You’ll also need to develop the knowledge, skills and relationships necessary for agents, managers, casting directors, producers and directors to imagine you playing a character in one of their productions so apply yourself to it.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot you’ll need to know about the film industry: And by film industry, we also mean TV programs, stage plays, commercials and other acting endeavors.
Let’s begin with a list of questions to test your current film knowledge:
- What’s the 180 Degree Rule and why is there an Axis Of Action running through the space of a scene?
- Can you explain how the Eyeline Match preserves the spatial relations between characters and objects and keeps them consistent from one shot to the next and why this may be helpful to a viewer?
- What does Mise-En-Scene mean with regard to sets, props, costumes, make-up, acting and lighting?
If you knew any of the answers to these questions, congratulations! You’re off to a good start with a basic understanding of some of the industry terms commonly used in film production.
If not, let us recommend some reading: This simple website offers you a rich film lexicon to help you start learning the glossary of terms you will eventually come across in your acting career. Not every term applies equally to acting but you’ll want to know what people are talking about whenever you hear these terms spoken on set. Now is as good a time as any to work on improving your filmmaking vocabulary.
There are many good books you can read about acting, too. This is one, however there are lots of others out there that are worthy so do your research.
WHAT AM I UP AGAINST?
First off, you need to get comfortable hearing the word “no” and dealing with rejection. Rejection is a common denominator in the acting industry. In fact, you’ll be rejected in the vast majority of the auditions you submit.
Why? Perhaps your eyes are the wrong color. Or your nose isn’t straight enough. You’ll be rejected because you’re either too short or too tall. You’ll be rejected for how you sound or because your teeth are too crooked or they’re too perfect. There is no limit to the number of different reasons an actor can be rejected in an audition.
What matters is, developing a thicker skin and lettin criticism of you, and your appearance, roll like water off a duck’s back: All while not losing your sensitivity to others, which you’ll need to perform successfully as an actor in any ensemble.
Like the plethora of other talented individuals out there who want to become successful actors, everyone has their limitations. So you’ll need to take stock of your assets, and your limits, to know how to take advantage of the first, and to overcome the second.
OVERCOMING YOUR LIMITATIONS
Peter Falk was a successful television and film actor who eventually overcame a serious physical limitation to star in the TV detective series “Columbo,” which ran for many years, first on NBC and later on CBS. That’s right, the series ran on two major networks from 1968 to 2003. That’s a practically unheard of success rate in TV Land!
But did you know that Falk lost an eye to cancer at the age of three, and was advised by agents to not to expect much in the way of a film or TV career with a prosthetic eye since it caused him to squint and limited his vision?
Falk persevered however, and eventually lied his way into a class for professional actors taught by the Broadway legend Eva Le Gallienne.
“One evening when I arrived late, she looked at me and asked, ‘Young man, why are you always late?’ and I said, ‘I have to drive down from Hartford.’ She looked down her nose and said, ‘What do you do in Hartford? There’s no theater there. How do you make a living acting?’”
Falk then confessed that he wasn’t really a professional actor and, according to him, Le Gallienne looked at him sternly and said: “Well, you should be.”
Falk studied with the Le Gallienne group for a while and eventually obtained a letter of recommendation from her to the William Morris Agency. That was enough to convince the budding actor to quit his job and move to Greenwich Village to pursue his newly found passion full-time.
But Peter Falk wasn’t the only actor to overcome a liability to find stardom.
Even as Peter Dinklage was struggling as an out-of-work actor, he refused to take parts playing elves or leprechauns out of principle. Yet once he landed a starring role in “Game of Thrones” Dinklage ended up turning the conventional image of Hollywood masculinity on its head.
“There is a different definition of the leading man now. It’s fantastic. You look at the leading men of the past and you look at them now and they are very different. Hollywood is finally opening the door wider to more realistic portrayals of who people are, not just beautiful Hollywood stars. In the past people had a very limited imagination in terms of character – the size was defining the role for me.”
DEVELOP THE SKILLS YOU’LL NEED TO BECOME AN ACTOR.
You can start by creating credible backstories for your characters. Work to understand their motivation, their likes, dislikes, prejudices, etc. and practice writing your own monologues for them. You might even select your own wardrobe for your rehearsals.
If you are lucky enough to be cast for a part, try to understand what the director may mean, not just what they might say. Jazz musician Branford Marsalis once witnessed an actor question Spike Lee about his vision for a film, Lee was said to have responded saying,
“I paid you good money to act, now act, that’s my vision.”
If in doubt, always ask for clarification but whatever you do, know your lines backwards and forwards and pay close attention to whatever the director tells you.
REHEARSE TO PERFECT YOUR CRAFT.
The German word for power is Kraft so, with that in mind, practice your craft to increase your power and influence as an actor. Rehearsals not only help the director know the actor’s strengths and weakness, but they also allow the actor to get to know their character better.
You should also spend plenty of time rehearsing your lines on your own: Practice them in front of a mirror, in front of a live audience, in front of a camera and watch your performances critically. Few if any actors find success if they don’t set aside plenty of time to rehearse their lines on a routine basis.
NAIL THOSE PERFORMANCES
By practicing different behavioral expressions, movements, and activities you’ll master the art of using your body, voice, and expression together to play a character. And you should always consider the reaction you want back from your audience.
“If you could make everybody laugh at the same time, and you had arranged it in the way that you delivered the line, and the way you punctuated it, where you paused or where you put the last consonant of the last word at the end, because they would then all receive the word at the same time and laugh… That kind of technical stuff — it felt like something real.”
Bill Nighy also noted in an interview of the importance of watching other actors practice their craft by attending their plays, showcases and film performances. He spoke of the time he flew to New York to see Christopher Walken in a play because he thought that he might never get the chance to see Walken live again.
“I’m going to be dead and I won’t have seen him live on stage. It was a comic Master Class! The whole audience was howling. I was howling! You collect memories like that because they give you hope. It makes you proud to be in the same business. He was completely authentic, completely real, and there were no stylistic concessions made to the fact that he had comedic responsibilities, none whatsoever.”
THE MERITS OF HARD WORK
And of course, you will need to be willing to work long hours and never, ever complain if you are asked to work a weekend or during the evenings.
“There’s something about exhaustion which just simplifies you and makes it more… I hesitate to use the word truthful, because obviously the whole thing is an elaborate, long-term lie.”
– Bill Nighy
THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING
It’s also critical to try to stay positive and avoid negativity in yourself and in others. Emma Stone once suffered tremendous mood swings and panic attacks.
“I wouldn’t say that performing is a cure for anxiety, but when you have excess energy that turns inward and makes you an over-thinker, you can begin to panic. Acting is therapy, especially as a kid, it was nice to have an outlet like that when I was really struggling with panic attacks.” – Emma Stone
And here’s a survival tip for staying positive while working on set:
“Walk away from complainers. People will see you standing there, listening to a group of people complaining, even though you didn’t complain. Just walk away, be polite, but walk away. It may sound cliché, but if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” – Hester Schell
STARTING PRACTICING YOUR CRAFT AND SHARE IT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Act as much as you can. Visit or join a community theater, drama clubs and acting workshops. And try to attend as many film festivals as you can.
Write and share your own monologues on Social Media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Tik-Tok. Put yourself out there because, and make no mistake, good casting directors note the number of social media followers an actor has.
And whatever you do, don’t be afraid to fail, especially if your character needs you to show emotion, anger, fear, or compassion.
“For a long time I thought being a sensitive person was a curse.
Things affect me deeply sometimes — a lot of times. In that sense your wings can feel broken. Especially when I mess up, when I make a mistake. I never feel like I am doing it all right all the time. But that’s okay. Being human is okay. That’s a hard lesson if you are a sensitive person, it is hard, when you care about people and you don’t want to hurt anybody, you don’t want to fuck up. And it’s hard, because you will.
NOTE: You can find more revealing interviews with scores of successful actors and directors at this informative website on acting and directing.
WHAT YOU NEED TO FIND WORK IN THE INDUSTRY
“Your best bet to find work is to first find a good talent agent. Make sure you’re on same page with potential agents. Find somebody who will consistently pitch for you. Look for agents with long time relationships with casting directors and agents. And make sure your agent takes the time to learn who you are and knows your skills. The only thing harder than finding an agent is finding a good one.”
But finding a good agent can take time. You can begin by making a list of talent agencies, managers, and production companies and try to figure out who are the real influencers. You can also connect with them through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Tik-Tok.
Without being a nuisance, try to get your work in front of them. Casting directors all have different approaches to zoom and video auditions, computer versus phones, etc. Since COVID-19, video auditions have quickly become the industry standard so if you’re actually in their office, it’s probably a call back.
This is all critically important because, besides gaining your own acting proficiency, making connections in the entertainment industry is probably the single most important move you can make to advance your acting career. And as mentioned earlier, be sure to network with industry colleagues by attending acting showcases and other performances.
But be patient, in time you’ll be set to show off the acting skills you have gained and earn the attention you deserve for all your hard work.
EQUIP YOURSELF FOR YOUR AUDITIONS
First, you’ll need an honest and compelling resume. It may appear skimpy at first but you’ll add to it as you enroll in various acting workshops, drama classes, etc. And when you actually start landing parts, you’ll add them to your resume as well.
Second, in order to submit yourself for auditions you’ll need a variety of headshots so the first thing you’ll need is to find and hire a talented photographer. Spend the money and hire a professional: It really is worth it.
Your headshots should showcase your personality over glam shots, and make sure all the photos look like you, not how you wish to look. It’s important to pay close attention to framing, lighting, and background: You might consider using natural light versus studio lighting for a more honest look. And don’t go crazy with wardrobe and props but do watch the make-up. Too much is always too much. You can learn more about taking decent headshots here:
Also consider purchasing a video camera with a tripod and a microphone together with some editing software and learn how to put it all together. That way you’ll be able to record your own monologues, audition videos and slates. We’ll discuss slates in a moment.
Once you’ve got all of this together, it’s also important you develop your own YouTube and/or Vimeo Channel where you can showcase your work.
AUDITIONS AND CASTING CALLS
Once you’re all set with headshots, video capabilities and a resume, you’ll want to find your own acting opportunities. Be willing to take every part offered and to work for free if necessary to build up your industry relationships and to gain actual work experience. For most actors there are four main websites that can provide casting opportunities:
Here’s a tip for using Actors Access: You should create a “slate shot” to use when you upload your headshot and reel to audition for a part. Casting directors can easily click a box to hide all submissions that don’t have a headshot and a reel: They can also hide submissions that don’t have a slate shot. In this way you can avoid batch rejections.
“Slate shots are short clips in which you introduce yourself in a way that matches the style and tone of the headshot you pair it with. It is common to have multiple slate shots to compliment your various headshots so you have options when submitting for different types of roles.”
HOLD OFF ON MOVING TO LOS ANGELES AND NEW YORK CITY
In case you didn’t know, the cost of living in those cities is too high for actors without experience. Rather, consider moving to a regional center like New Orleans or Seattle. In fact, Georgia is the top location in the country for the most major TV shows and films in production. Stay put, gain experience and save money before making your move to a major market.
WHAT TO DO ON THE FIRST DAY OF YOUR FIRST SHOOT
“When I show up for an acting gig on set, I make sure I know who the Production Assistants (PAs) are. They’re going to be your lifeline, God Bless the PAs. Learn their names. If you genuinely care about people, that comes across. Because you don’t know, that PA may be hiring you in five years when they’re directing a feature: You just never know. You can’t make judgments: Somebody you might think is an idiot might be the sharpest tack in the box. We all have to work against that stereotype of the hard to get along with, fussy actor that’s overly demanding. Whatever you get for a dressing room is whatever you got! And for the newbies, there’s a reason we talk about sports when we’re hanging around the craft services table. We don’t talk about our personal life, sex or politics. Those are the rules! Stay away from those topics.” – Hester Schell
And always remember to be kind to the people you meet on your way up because you may end up meeting them again on your way down.
Best of luck!