As a film producer in Los Angeles for many years, I have seen a plethora of actors/actresses make mistakes and ruin their careers, before even giving themselves a chance. I believe the reason for his is not necessarily lack of drive, will or talent but lack of information. (Although I have met a lot of wanna-be-stars who are very lazy who wait for someone else to discover them without work…this only works if you’re Marilyn Monroe and even she worked hard – another story in itself.)
The first thing an actor (I’ll use actor in as a unisex word for male/female performers for simplicity’s sake) needs when he gets to Hollywood is a source of steady income (I will discuss that in another article) and tools. The first tool you will need is an excellent headshot. Make sure that the headshot currently LOOKS LIKE YOU, not you from ten years ago. When I first started in film, headshots were in black and white and were from shoulders up. Now, I believe it is required by casting directors for a headshot to be in color and show a full-body shot (upper thigh on up is fine).
Find a reputable photographer in Hollywood (you can find them listed in the back of any Hollywood industry rag, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Back Stage West, or whatever casting magazines are out now. You can also purchase a Hollywood 411 book from most bookstores in L.A. Samuel French bookstore on Sunset is the best industry book store in town. Once you’ve gotten your negative print sheets back, show them to an industry professional or two; acting coach, agent, successful director, etc. and get their opinion on which shots will work for you the best. Then print at least 500 of each of those (lithographs are fine and there are several reputable headshot printers in Los Angeles also). You may make several sets of different poses to send out for various character roles. Whatever you do, do NOT put on hokey outfits, casting directors know what firemen wear, they don’t need you to put it on for them. Just look like you. You’ll need a commercial headshot, smiling and friendly and a dramatic headshot, showing good eye contact and your personality. If you happen to be a character-type actor with a specific look like a biker or a mob boss, then you can play that up in a shot as well.
Now, get an agent. Everyone says its hard to get an agent without being in the Screen Actors’ Guild union and I can’t get in the union without an agent, catch 22. Do not lose hope, you can get around this. What I suggest is audition for every non-union role you can find. Do all open calls. Do non-union college films. Do film shorts for students. Get as much film on yourself as you can. Remember you are not above these things. It will hone your audition abilities and give you practice being in front of a camera. Don’t forget, the students of today are the big-wigs of tomorrow.
Also, join the union AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) because this union is open and anyone can join, you just need to pay the initial fee which is close to a thousand dollars. It is worth it because now you have made a way to get into the SAG union which is a closed union. If you are a member of AFTRA for a one year period and you get a gig on a union show doing just one word, then you are SAG eligible.
Take background/extra work because you can sometimes get bumped up to union if you have the right look or if you beg the first or second A.D. (which is how I got in when I first started). You may get a break if you audition for a commercial because they are always looking for new faces whereas television and film roles want recognizable names. If you book a union commercial, they will Taft-Hartley you into the closed SAG union. This just means that the production company pays a fine and tells SAG that they had to have you because either you had a look they needed or you had some special skill required, like juggling or horseback riding.
The third way to get into the Screen Actors Guild union is this: sign up with the extras casting agencies (they usually charge a small fee and take a digital or Polaroid photo of you to keep on file) and call them daily to see what work is available for extras/background players. When you get to the set, most jobs will be required to be SAG signatory and they must employ a certain percentage of their background talent from the union. The good news is that union actors do not always show up for extra/background work so you can ask of the assistant directors, usually the 2nd AD or the 2nd 2nd AD for the “union voucher”. Tell them that you are trying to get into SAG and if they have any vouchers left over, please give it to you. Now, if you do this three times, and you save your 3 vouchers, you are also eligible to join SAG. So make an appointment and join the union, pay the $1,300 to sign up and you can put those glorious three letters under your name on your acting resume: John Doe, SAG.
After that, get yourself an agent audition through a referral or by sending letters and headshots out. A referral is the best. Commercial agencies will be more willing to take you at first. This is where all of that free on-camera acting work comes in handy. You edit a demo-reel of yourself in the roles you’ve played prior. Then you can send out your demo reel to agents as well.
Last thing, you have an agent, you have great headshots, you are in the unions, so now all you do is keep going to a prestigious acting class (even though you don’t think you’ll need it), hang with working actors, (not whiny waiters who can’t get a break), go to open casting calls, and network, network, network. Introduce yourself to people and ask people for help. If you do this, you’re on your way. It takes years of hard work to make it in Hollywood. There is fierce competition. Just because you were the homecoming queen or the hottest guy in your town does not mean you will stand out in tinsel town. You won’t. So, work hard and enjoy your journey.