Tips for the New Actor in LA by a New Actor in LA

I originally created this post 1.5 years ago as a "cheat sheet" to the business side of acting. Some things have changed (Goodbye SAG, AFTRA, hello SAG-AFTRA!), but a lot of my advice is still applicable to the acting machine that is Hollywood. I've re-posted this (slightly edited) article for you, the new actor in LA, by me, the still new actor in LA.

Tips for the New Actor in LA | imshayshay.blogspot.com
Image Credit: dsearls on Flickr

A lot of the acting information I've come across is tailored to more established actors and the information is often overwhelming. What about us new guys, the ones that know nothing and need help getting started so we don't a) waste our time  b) make fools of ourselves?* If one of my acting buddies moves out here and asks me "Shay, how do I navigate this business?" how would I respond? I'd likely talk at them for an hour or, perhaps, I could just write them a cheat sheet.

(*If you're brand new, and super green when it comes to this business, I highly recommend you read my "How to Become an Actor in LA" article, then come back here for more specific advice.)

If you're still reading this, you're either a curious information seeker, considering becoming an actor or already decided to go for it. I say to the latter group: Congratulations on taking a risk. Regardless of what happens for you, remember that who on God's green earth has achieved major success without taking risks? At the same time, you need to be realistic: you've chosen one of the hardest fields to break into. If you’re like me, it wasn’t really a choice. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like acting found me, not the other way around. I moved to Southern California and started making a go at it about 6 months 2 years ago. I’m still green (yes still green after 2 years), but I have learned a lot about the industry since I started. I decided I’d share it with you, my 2.5 readers, in 20 easy to understand points:

1)  Save up some money dudes. You will throw a lot of dough into the machine before any bread comes back out. You need money for headshots, classes, gas, haircuts (yes, haircuts), membership fees, acting industry services, and more, and this doesn’t even include what you’ll spend on normal, everyday expenses like, I don’t know, food, rent. 

2)  On that note, here are some survival jobs (or day jobs) I’ve personally considered or tried myself: server, barista, grocery store night shift, hotel night shift, catering, background acting, temp work, valet, personal assistant… do what you know and what you know won’t drive you crazy. Your work schedule needs to be flexible and shifts early in the morning, at night and/or on weekends are a must. Forget high pay for now, expect you will live like a pauper for a good long while. Some companies do provide benefits and healthcare (score!) for their part time employees: Starbucks, Peets, Nordstrom, REI, Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe’s. I'm currently working as an Internet Marketer. All I can say is, thank goodness for the Internet. It has opened up a whole new field of work that can be very, very flexible.

3)  Get some good headshots. They will really make or break you. If your headshots aren’t professional looking, high quality and reflect the your true self (both physically, and personality wise), no CD (casting director) will take you seriously. They also have to look good as a thumbnail (about 2inX2in) otherwise CDs will just glaze over your submission without clicking. Go for professional retouching (especially for your printed headshots), but make sure they don’t go overboard – your headshot should look like you on a good day so removing zits and fly always, for example, is fine. I get mine printed at Reproductions, but Argentum is good too.

4)  This deserves to be reiterated: Hire a professional HEADSHOT photographer they know what they’re doing. You will waste your time if you try to cut corners here. The focus should be sharp, the photo should “pop,” your clothes should not distract the eye (nor should the background), your makeup should not be anything you wouldn’t wear on a regular day. Also, your wardrobe should reflect the “type” you’re going for with bright colors for commercial and more muted colors for theatrical. A good photographer will help you with all of this and make sure your headshot looks fabulous. 

The current industry standard (or trend, I should say) is 8X10 color, with border, your name on the bottom somewhere, with your resume cut to size and stapled, glued or printed on the back. **I’m not saying TFP (see #11) won’t ever yield a good headshot, I just wanted to guarantee that my photos would be excellent. Plus, a good headshot photographer with a lot of experience will understand the business and help you understand “your type.” However, a less professional looking headshot would most likely be fine for getting student films, so it’s really not a terrible way to start out if you don’t have much money.

My first LA headshots were taken by David Muller. David is a fantastic photographer and is very affordable given the quality. I highly recommend him. That said, I am planning on retaking them soon. Why? My haircut is different now, I got glasses, I've honed in on my most marketable "look" and "type," and I don't think these headshots accurately reflect my personality. Also it's been almost 2 years since I took them initially, making it a good time to replace them anyway. Getting good headshots is a skill, and for many, it can take a few rounds to know what you want, what you don't want, and finally get ones that you are truly happy with. I'm not quite there yet.

5)  Sign up for LA Casting and Actor’s Access. Pay for the unlimited submissions and get the email notifications. You will need to apply to everything that works for your type/look/schedule at first just to get auditions. You will need to go to many auditions to book just one job. In the beginning, very few (if any) of the jobs will pay you. As time goes on and you acquire footage for a reel + items for your resume, you can be pickier about what you submit to, and eventually, stop submitting to unpaid jobs all together. 

6)  I’ve also heard that NowCasting is good. Some people find legit work on Craigslist, but I’m too a-scared to go that route. I suppose if you do, you just have to be smart about it and try not to put your self in bad situations. Trust your gut - If you do find yourself at a sketchy audition (from Craigslist or any site, really), just leave. Simple as that.

7)  You should submit to jobs immediately (within a few hours of a posting is best – I wouldn’t bother submitting to anything more than a day old). When you self-submit, ie you don’t have an agent submitting for you, it is to your benefit to be among the first actors to submit to that specific job. If a CD is even looking at self-submissions (which they often don’t), I highly doubt they are going to have time to look through every one. You want to be at the top of the list. 

8)  Add notes to your submissions, when you can. They show CDs you aren’t on auto pilot and may increase the likelihood that they’ll look at your submission. Notes can be recent credits or current training, impressive news updates (ex: one of the movies you’re in made it into a festival or won an award), or appropriate and applicable skills to that specific job. When in doubt, simply list the dates of the auditions/shoot (if listed) and say you are available those days. It shows you are paying attention. List your website, if you have one and if they let you – LA Casting won’t.  Don’t put idle stuff in the notes, keep it short ‘n sweet and to the point.

9)  Get a reel. It has become an industry standard. Some CDs won’t even look at your submission if you don’t have one. Student films are a common way to get clips of yourself in the beginning, just be sure the production value is high before using it for your reel. Keep an ear on the sound quality as well. Sometimes, it takes FOREVER to get a copy of the movie/short/whatever you were in. Sometimes, you will NEVER get the footage, which blows on many levels. 

Instead of waiting and plotting the death of that particular filmmaker, be proactive. Write your own short, find a friend with a HD camera (dSLRs are good), and shoot your own projects. Use these projects to create your reel. Keep yourself busy and create footage of yourself at the same time. Update your reel as you get more professional, more impressive, and more appropriate footage (to fit your "type").

10)  Get a smart phone. You need to have access to your email at all times. If you only check your email twice a day, you will miss things. You will also want it for the map functions, as nearly every job/audition will be in a different place. A GPS for your car is not a bad idea either.

11)  Take advantage of the “trade-for-print” (TFP) jobs if it fits a niche your trying to get into. For example, I wanted to have pictures of my dog to use for dog specific submissions, so I hooked up with a photographer who wanted photos of people and their dogs. She was trying to build her portfolio to get into print for dog food and such. It was a fun shoot, super easy and I received great photos.  I’m also keeping my eye out for TFP for vintage clothing because I think it would be nice to have photos to use to submit for period type projects. 

12)  Get thee to a class! I was told by multiple sources to take LA improv – CDs like to see it on your resume. While listing improv training from some other city won’t hurt you, they do like to see that you’ve taken it in Los Angeles (although, I suspect NY or Chicago are impressive as well). Some well known ones are Groundlings, Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), and Improv Olympic (iO). I chose UCB and I love it, but I’m sure these aren’t the only options. Not only is improv a good tool for an actor to have, it helps with auditions (sometimes auditions are ONLY improv – no sides!), and it is a great way to meet people. I also took a commercial auditioning class (Killian’s Workshop). I might look into a straight up scene work class later (I took a lot of scenework/acting classes in SF already), but for now, auditioning and acting gigs will have to serve as my scene study. Classes are expensive, but if the school is accredited, you can get a tax credit for it.

13)  If you want to do comedy or commercials, try to get into an Improv group. That’s what I aspire to do, once I take more classes, gain more experience, and meet new people. CDs like to see that you do improv on a regular basis, and it keeps you visible out there in the field. It also keeps you super sharp and helps you build your chops. If you’re into live theatre, go for it. It shows you’re a serious actor and you never know who’s watching.

14)  Try Background Acting / being a Extra:  Not for everyone, but I really do think think it's a rite of passage that new actors should experience. Background acting is a great way to understand the ins and outs of a set, network, and maybe, hopefully, get your Union vouchers (see #20). It’s also fun to ogle your favorite actor.

Rules on set: no phones (silence it!), no photos, don’t talk to the famous movie people you see – you have to let them do their job. Just play it cool guys! Show up EARLY, bring lots of clothing options, don’t be too loud (even if you’re off set, in “holding”), don’t sleep in holding (you are being paid for this), be polite and professional, follow directions and stay put (bring a book!). When in doubt, ask the 2nd Assistant Director. Don’t act like a diva, you are paying your dues here. You will eat after the principle actors and all the crew and sometimes you will have a different craft table than the principles and crew.  Expect to wait in many lines and wait a lot in general. As a non-union actor, you will most likely be paid minimum wage, unless you’re working on a commercial, which pays considerably more. 

The background machine in LA is Central Casting – they handle 90% of background casting here. Check their website for details – registration is on MWF 10:30-11:30 (non-union). Expect to be there for 2-3 hours (waiting in line) and be ready to be photographed. If you don’t like your picture, you will have to come back and have it re-done and wait in the same line again, so for goodness sake, smile in the picture; I didn’t the first time and had to go back, ugh. If you want to get near the front of the line, come super early (I would wager at least an hour early) and sit your butt in a chair that’s near the front where the computer desks are. I'm not sure if the process has changed now. Other smaller casting companies include Jeff Olan, Sande Alessi, and Tony Hobbs. There are a ton more. 

Another VERY IMPORTANT point: BACKGROUND ACTING or EXTRA WORK DOES NOT GO ON YOUR RESUME. It just doesn't. If you have a speaking, part, even if it's just one line, it is no longer Background and can go on your resume. As a rule of thumb, parts that go on your resume are parts that you have auditioned for. Background work does not require an audition, so it is not resume material. Anyone that puts background work on their resume or self-submits it on IMDB is cheating, in my opinion. Besides, no respectable casting director, agent, or manager is actually going to be impressed by a resume full of background parts; no one is going to look at an IMDB page full of blockbuster movies and actually think that you were anything but an extra.

15)  Calling Service (aka Call-in Service) – think of them as your Background Agents:
Including Central, all these companies use an archaic phone-in hotline where CDs post jobs; if you meet the description left on the hotline and are available, you either leave a message with your information or call a different number and attempt to speak to the CD. This is how it works with Central – but the line is always busy. 

Enter the “Calling” or "Call-in" service. This service exists solely to get you background work. When I first heard about this, I thought it was ridiculous. I’m not going to pay someone to get me minimum wage work! After calling in myself for 3 months and not getting a single job, I gave up. When I first moved down here, I signed up with the kind folks at Booked Talent and I did book jobs despite my horrendous availability. Their office was very nice, the staff was friendly – they took lots of pictures of me (4 different looks, including one swimsuit) and explained their membership rules. 

The key with a calling service is you have to be available the entire day that you tell them you’re available. If they book you and are in fact not available (but failed to tell them this), you have two options: blow off the other thing  -or-  lose your calling service. They will drop you if they book you for a job and flake. Their reputation is on the line, so you can’t really blame them. 

Most calling services will use all the small casting companies, including commercial, but you will have to register with Central. Once you prove your reliability with your calling service and any given casting company, you will be called in to work more frequently.

16)  Auditioning:   One of my SF acting teachers told us to think of auditions as a way to practice your craft. You can work on memorization, character development, handling direction and cold reading with a wide array of scripts and projects. You will probably not get feedback – in fact, for most auditions, you won’t hear anything at all from anyone after you leave the room, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Auditioning is a skill that can be honed; it is also an actor’s “job,” as most actors are not working daily on projects they’re already cast in. 

So, prepare as much as possible, memorize when you can, and show up with headshots/resumes well before your scheduled interview time. Give yourself an additional 15-20 minute parking buffer, just in case – street sweeping days can really bite you in the butt. Go to your audition location and sign in, relax as best you can, and go for it. Make strong decisions when you’re auditioning; weak decisions are forgettable. When you’re done, thank the CD for their time, but don’t waste their time – it’s okay to ask about the project when prompted, but keep it brief and save idle chit chat for some other occasion. Leave your audition in the audition room. It doesn’t do any good to rehash what you “should have done” on the way home. One of my acting teacher once told my class “Go into an audition with the idea that you don’t have the job to begin with, so you’ve really got nothing to lose.” Be as prepared as possible and don’t hold anything back and you should have no regrets.

17)  Website:  I’m not sure that this is a big help in the beginning, but I figured, it can’t hurt. I bought my domain through GoDaddy and set it up with a Tumblr theme (if you’ve got a better way of making professional looking / easy-to-navigate site for free, go for it).  You can put your additional photos here as well as your reel, other video clips, resume and any other applicable stuff. I ordered some business cards and my name, phone, email and website on it. I suppose it’s good for networking… if I ever give them out to anyone that is.

18)  Agents, Managers and Representation:  It’s easier to get a commercial agent than it is to get a theatrical one. A good manager may be harder to find, but could be a viable option for new comers (managers tend to have a smaller client list and are more likely to "hold your hand" through things). Make sure your headshots are tip-top before trying for any agent or manager. 

For commercial, you will need that fantastic headshot, a LA improv class (from one of the top 4 schools: UCB, Groundlings, Second City or Improv Olympic), and a commercial class. Why don't you need more than this? Commercial auditions don't require acting; they require improv. Agents want to see you understand the audition process and that you can improvise. They also want to make sure they can "sell you" to casting directors (hence the need for fantastic headshots).

You will most likely need a fantastic reel and a decent resume before pursuing a theatrical agent (keep in mind "theatrical" means film, TV, and stage, it doesn't mean "theater"). Ask people in your classes, on set, etc for recommendations. Personally, I’d rather have no agent than a bad/sketchy one  I wouldn't jump on anything that bites. A Google search will likely reveals the quality of any given agent (I like typing in the agent’s name and “scam” to see what turns up… yup I’m that literal). Once you're more established, you can pursue better agents and, as they say, tier jump.

Also, keep in mind, having an agent and doing background or being an extra DO NOT MIX. Why? Your agent could potentially send you out for an audition on any day of the week, unless you "book-out" (ie tell them you are unavailable). Some audition times will come in late, either the night before or the day of the audition. If you've already committed to (or worse, are already on set of) a extra/background gig, you will have to flake on one of the commitments. This means there is a good chance you will either burn the bridge with your calling service or background casting company, or you will burn the bridge with your agent. Don't be a dumb ass and burn the bridge with your agent. If you're already on set, you're taking yourself out of the running for potential auditions, regardless of whether you've booked out or not. It's not worth the hassle and stress to keep up with background work if you're represented. Find a better day job!

19)  The * bum-bum-BUM * UNIONS:  I saved this one till the end, because honestly, if you’re new, you shouldn’t even be worried about joining yet. Except for special cases, don’t join a union until you have to. Here’s why: If you are in any acting union, you can no longer apply to Non-Union jobs. This means you will seriously limit what you can work in and therefore build your resume/reel with. 

Even if you don't care about bending rules, SAG-AFTRA requires an initial fee ($3099, eep) and dues ($198 + 1.575% of acting income whilst in the union, annually). It's not cheap, so make doubly sure you aren't joining prematurely.

  1. By getting a speaking role in a SAG-AFTRA project. You’re non-union, you submit for a SAG-AFTRA job (yes, you can do this), get the audition and call-back, and holy crap, you got the job. You would now enter your "Taft-Hartley" period. It means you get paid as SAG-AFTRA, without being SAG-AFTRA yet (called SAG-AFTRA eligible or SAG-AFTRAe), and can continue working Union and non-Union jobs for 30 days before you can no longer take a Union job without joining. You can be Taft-Hartlied for Film or Commercials, although you are more likely to get it for a commercial as the paperwork is easier. Not every production company will be willing to go through all the shit it takes to get you Taft Hartlied. Unless, of course, you’re perfect for the part and super awesome and they love you. Also, it doesn’t hurt if you’re someone’s cousin or something.
  2. Get 3 union vouchers.  Ah, the fabled union vouchers. They exist, I’m told.  Every SAG-AFTRA production requires a certain amount of union actors before dipping into the cheaper non-union pool. A voucher is basically your pay stub – so if you get to be SAG-AFTRA for one day on a job, you will get paid union rates and be one step closer to being SAG-AFTRAe. You get vouchers by working background on a SAG-AFTRA job where they either: a) didn’t get enough Union actors -or- b) some Union actor didn’t show up. You get them by: a) knowing someone who works in production and hooks you up  b) being lucky  c) being consistently professional and reliable and awesome on set  d) by working background for a LONG TIME. You shouldn’t get them by: a) asking. Don’t be that guy - it’s super irritating. Every non-union actor on set wants those vouchers, you aren’t special  b) bribing with money or something morally reprehensible – do you really want to start your career this way? I don’t.
  3. Be a full-fledged member of a SAG-AFTRA Affiliated Union for one year and have worked/been paid under that Union in one Principle Role. So, you join AEA (the theater union) for a principle role and after a year, if you aren’t eligible yet, you could join SAG-AFTRA as well. Easier said than done, I suspect.
  4. If you're all antsy in your pantsy about joining SAG-AFTRA, look into the New Media route. You can create a New Media project under SAG-AFTRA, and so long as you hire one SAG-AFTRA actor, you can Taft Hartley the non-union folks in. 
So that's it for now. But, hey, what works for one person may not work for another – this is just what I’ve discovered so far in my own journey. I'm still learning. I apologize if I stole anyone’s advice and put it down here without permission. I am not, by any means, an expert on the industry and I’m still learning every day I’m out there. Thus, I offer you my footnotes:

All of the preceding info was gathered from: SF friends/teachers from class, new LA friends from class/shoots, blogs (Bonnie Gillespie’s is AWESOME - hers was the first blog I found in SF when researching what makes a headshot "good"), message boards (Backstage Message Board, namely – they’re associated with Actor’s Access), google searches + yahoo answers (yes, yahoo answers), and plain ole trial and error. 

Good Luck, friends. You’re gonna need it.



  1. Thanks for the post and good list! Best of luck!

  2. Thank You. Very helpfull!

  3. Very realistic but at the same time not discouraging. Great post!

  4. Thank You Brother, I just moved here 4 months ago with the dream. I appreciate the advice.

  5. Thank you so much for this article!


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