What makes a good actor?
1. Understand the Industry
Before you enter it, become an expert on the acting and entertainment industry. Read twenty books on the business of acting, talk to dozens of actors and meet with as many people in the industry as possible (directors, producers, agents, editors, grips, stage managers, etc.). Pick their brains. Take notes. Send thank you cards.
Interview a working actor with a career you’d like to one day have. Ask them to share their roadmap with you. Study it.
With this knowledge you’ll have fewer surprises and disappointments down the road.
2. Manage Your Expectations
Remember that your chances of becoming a star are extremely small. You may be able to make a living after years of training and hard work, but 99.99% of all actors are unknown and unburdened with paparazzi and plenitude. If your goal is to win an Oscar, you will most likely find disappointment.
However, if your goal is simply to act, fascinating audiences with your ability to bring characters to life, working among a community of fellow artists, then there is little to stop you. All you need is a bit of talent, and a huge helping of persistence, flexibility, and hard work.
3. Get Training
Study at a university with a good drama program. In addition to acting, take courses in literature, psychology, history and philosophy. A broad liberal arts background will provide you with more tools and a broader palette from which to paint your portraits.
Never stop training. Take a few classes every year to address your weaknesses (auditioning, camera work, stage combat) or to improve skills that will increase your stamina, awareness, or psychological well-being (yoga, aikido, dance are all good bets).
4. Get Awesome Headshots
Headshots are your primary means of getting work – don’t rush or skimp on them. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune; it’s more important to find a photographer who can bring out your best qualities.
Great headshot photographers will take time to get to know you, identify your type, and give you lots of options. Job-winning headshots are bursting with personality.
5. Get Practice
Don’t wait for the perfect role or the big gig: get out and act. The most successful actors I know are continuously searching for and working on various projects.
In addition to improving your abilities, working consistently keeps you on directors’ and agents’ radar and increases the number of people you’ll meet. And work leads to more work.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take on projects that aren’t perfectly interesting or which don’t pay well (or at all). Especially in the beginning of your career, you’re better off acting than not. Remember that you can learn something from every acting experience, no matter how dismal.
As in all industries, personal connections play an important role in progress. Agents and directors work with those actors that they know, like, and trust. So make sure people know you, and earn their respect. You can accomplish this by always being professional and positive.
Many people don’t like the idea of “networking” because it feels impersonal and false. Think of it as building a community of people who can support you in your aspirations. And you can support them. The more advocates you have out there, they more work you’ll be offered.
7. Be Positive
People like to be around those with a positive outlook. So don’t be grumpy, especially on set or backstage. Don’t bring personal problems to your job. Not only will the project be more enjoyable and rewarding for everyone involved, but you’ll almost certainly do better work.
And nothing helps get recommendations down the road than being remembered as a person who was a joy to work with.
8. Never Stop Learning
Great actors are insatiably curious. They are full of wonder at the world and the people who inhabit it. They ask questions, they listen, they read, they watch plays and films and great television. And even more important, they watch themselves.
In all these activities, they take notes and reflect, constantly honing their craft.
9. Know Your Type
It’s natural to want to try new characters and normal to fear being typecast. However, especially in the beginning of your career, it is important to know your type. It will determine the feel of your headshot and the roles you initially aim for.
It’s best to get advice from an experienced actor or casting agent as to what your type could be. I’ve heard of actors who asked strangers on the street: “What job do you think I do?” That can give you an objective idea of what your look is (heartthrob, funny guy, young dad).
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t break free from your type, just that you understand your place in the market. You should also realize that while most stars are quite attractive, there are actually many more acting jobs for average or even quirky looking people.
10. Know Success When You Have It
If you work for five years at becoming an actor, one day you may wake up to find that you’re consistently acting. A student film here, a “downtown” play there. A commercial every now and then (you were called in at the last moment because someone remembered you from that student film), and maybe a one-woman show at your corner club.
You’re doing work that you love, you’re doing what you do best, and you’re part of a community. You’re a successful actor.
Don’t fall into the trap of feeling like a failure because you don’t make millions or aren’t in constant demand for big city tours. Appreciate the fact that you are doing what you love. Very few people can claim that.
BONUS TIP: Take the Next Step
Many actors never become successful because they never take the first step. They are afraid or too busy, so they only dream. Others stagnate in their careers because they don’t know how to get to the next level.
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