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Acting 101: Everything I wish I knew before becoming an actor

Jeremy Bustin
30 May 2023
20 min read
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Why Do I Want To Be an Actor?

Acting may look glamorous from the outside, and it can be an incredibly rewarding job, but I’ll be the first to tell you that acting is a lot of hard work. Asking yourself exactly why you want to become an actor is the first step in deciding if the pursuit is right for you. 

Perhaps you love film, television and theater or you believe you have a story to tell. Maybe something deep within you is itching to get out and express itself, or maybe you yearn to be seen, to be part of something bigger than just yourself. If none of these reasons connect with you, or if you’re not sure why, you may want to ask yourself what your intention is. Many veteran actors will say that it is more important for your intent as an actor to be about what you contribute to a role than what it is you hope to get out of it. It’s important you are honest with yourself about which side of the fence your true intentions fall.

If you want to be an actor simply because you want to be famous, you are getting into it for the wrong reason. Less than one-tenth of 1% of actors become “famous,” and only 2% of actors actually make a living acting. Buzzkill, right? I do know plenty of people who make their living acting, so it is possible. But it takes hard work, dedication, thick skin and a firm belief in yourself.

If you’re looking for fame and celebrity status, perhaps think about being a social media influencer or a YouTuber, because the real work of the actor is to accurately represent a role in a story that someone else is trying to tell. It is to elevate themes and narrative. To connect deeply to yourself in order to allow a viewer to connect deeply to a story. That is much different than being an influencer or YouTube personality. As an actor, your job is far more about letting go of yourself than it is about people recognizing and praising you.

Becoming an actor is essentially a giant leap of faith. Only you can decide if it’s right for you and how much you’re willing to put into it. If you can be honest with yourself about why you want to be an actor, then you can set yourself on the right path by taking an honest approach toward doing so. If you don’t settle this question for yourself off the bat, it will come back to haunt you in the long run. Sounds ominous, but it’s really a helpful suggestion in order to set a strong foundation as you commit yourself to a new, fun, exciting and truly fulfilling art form.

How Do I Get Started as an Actor?

There is a harsh reality to being an actor. Your work often depends upon other people’s choices and opinions. It is also a game of patience, as becoming the best actor you can be, and finding fulfilling work, can oftentimes be tedious and take a while. Even when you’re on a job, the hours can be long, and a lot of that time is spent sitting around. (You’ll often find many people on a set reading books or playing crossword puzzles.) That being said, there are necessary, practical steps to take that no actor will ever find their way around. Starting with … you got it … a great headshot!

Get a Great Headshot

This is an image of you that accurately represents the best version of who you are and the strongest facets of your personality. Usually, actors have multiple headshots, so that they can give someone an example of different types of characters they can play. (A nerd or a bully, a gentle mother or a stern teacher, a lawyer or a criminal, a comedian or a dramatic archetype.) So much of being an actor is about how you look, and oftentimes a headshot is someone’s first impression of you. It’s important that it is of the highest quality and shows your intent. As a headshot photographer for actors, I spend the most time bringing the drama out of you and capturing YOU. As an actor myself, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had headshots done where there was no intention in my eyes because the photographer did not know how to engage me and help to bring that out.

Learn How To Act

You have to learn “the craft.” Great actors make it look as though they just showed up and spoke, and it was that easy and simple to be believable and present and part of a great and complicated story. The truth is, there is a craft to acting and no matter how naturally talented you might be, you’ll need to learn it and continue learning in order for you to find success as an actor. Every now and then we hear a story about an actor who landed a big job without any experience whatsoever. What we don’t hear about are the countless hours and effort nearly all actors put into learning their craft. Finding ways to learn how to act, and to gain actual experience as an actor, is the first exciting challenge you must undertake. Books, online courses, acting classes, theater groups, YouTube and creating your own work are examples of various options you have at your disposal.

Find Representation

Every actor will eventually need an agent or manager (or both) to submit them for jobs. Finding one always begins with having a headshot to submit to them. You’ll find that when you are signed with an agent or manager, they may want to have you take more headshots. This is perhaps for their own personal taste, or to expand the options you already have, or because they see something in you they think they can help show people as they submit you for different acting roles.

Build a Resume

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was once asked for advice on how to become an actor. He responded by saying that actors should never be too choosey. They should throw themselves into every opportunity they get, obviously barring anything that’s personally or morally compromising or dangerous. If it’s a role you’re not right for, a role that scares you, a role that seems to difficult or complicated, a role that seems unimportant or pointless, an opportunity that may seem like a complete waste of time — whatever it could be, Phil Hoffman was telling aspiring actors to open themselves up to whatever comes. What he continued to say was that your job as an actor is to give a role everything you’ve got so that you can walk away from an opportunity not only leaving a strong impression with whomever may have watched it but also for you to build your craft and experience, inch by inch, line by line, opportunity by opportunity.

Examples of work that can be more accessible and easier to get started in than some of your favorite movies and TV shows are:

  • Theater groups
  • Short films and student films
  • Non-union commercials
  • Voiceover acting
  • Online platforms that you put out there by yourself (more on that later)
Avoiding Scams

This last suggestion may sound daunting, but if you ask the right questions and take a little bit of my advice, with common sense you’ll be able to avoid ever getting caught up in the silly scams that befall people as they attempt to start a career in acting. This is the area in which I see the most people who want to start acting make their mistakes. Read on to learn about scams and how to identify them.

What’s a Scam and Why Would Someone Want To Scam Me out of My Hard-Earned Money?

Everyone wants to be an actor. OK, maybe not everyone. And thank goodness; we need doctors and teachers way more than actors, right? Here’s the unfortunate truth, though: there are people and companies who know this and prey on vulnerable newbies. These scam operations usually run commercials on the radio or ads online as they tout their connections to Disney or Marvel or Nickelodeon or some other major production studio or network. They make tens of millions of dollars off thousands of aspiring actors and their parents every single year, and it’s really difficult to discern between a company that can prove truly helpful to you and one that’s there to take your money in exchange for empty promises.

These companies can start off sounding innocent, saying things like, “Come to our free event or seminar.” “We represent Disney or Marvel.” “We want to see your kid!” If you didn’t know this already, I implore you to hear me now … nothing worth anything is free. Absolutely nothing.

These scam companies will show you cases where they worked with such and such actor, and while that may have been true at one time, they will make it sound like they still represent that actor and are responsible for the greatest successes that actor has ever seen. They make lots of lofty claims. It all sounds very legitimate. But I can assure you a successful actor’s journey includes many, many people helping along the way, as well as their own hard work and a ton of good luck.

To take full responsibility for anyone’s success is a sales job, plain and simple. And once they sell you on the idea that they are the ones who can make your dreams come true, they’ll immediately ask you to open up your wallet. From that point on, they’ll put you through their system, which is designed to milk money from you.

They’ll tell you that you must sign up for their acting classes and get headshots from their photographers, or they may even go so far as to tell you that you must fly to LA to meet with agents they know and work with.

At this point, people can find themselves having spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a dream that they are no closer to achieving than when they first got the idea. It sounds ominous, a little insane and unfortunately dangerous, but it is true. Stick with acting long enough, and you’ll meet scores of folks who have been through the ringer with these types of companies.

While acting classes and headshots are absolutely important, you should be in control of who offers those services to you. And I can guarantee you won’t pay thousands of dollars for those things either. That’s an absurd amount of money to spend before you’ve even booked your first job. The simple truth is you don’t need a company to help you get started. Advice is useful and necessary. Someone’s experience can be invaluable to anyone learning how a business works without any prior knowledge. But if you avoid these types of companies and set out doing the things I laid out in the previous section, then you’ll meet people along the way who will provide you that same resource and information, absolutely free!

The entertainment industry is a lot of who you know, so as you meet people and make honest, good-natured connections with them, you’ll find that you won’t have to pay nearly as much as those companies would have you believe.

Another unfortunate source of scamming comes from poor representation, people who claim to be talent agents/managers but are there to take advantage of your lack of experience. It’s easy to spot once you’ve read exactly this: A legitimate talent agent is not going to charge you a dime until you have booked work. Ever! Not a single dollar should be spent by you in order to audition. They are a commission-based business, and they should not be paid until you are. In fact, many actors will say that you should always keep in mind that your relationship to an agent is of equal ground. You both work with each other, not for one another. The way that it works with any legitimate talent agent or manager is they get a small commission of 10-20% depending on their contract. That’s it, that’s the secret, and now you know! Don’t pay for an agent. Not ever. (And I’ll expand further about how you find a legitimate talent agent in a moment.)

Why Do I Need a Professional Headshot?

Your headshot is the first impression you will make on casting directors, talent agents, managers and other key people in the industry. It tells someone who you are with just a quick glance. It’s not just about your hairstyle or the way you dress, it is about who you are underneath your exterior. It is literally your way of saying hello, my name is __, and I’m a (happy, funny, fierce, tough, deep, light-hearted, sassy, dangerous, innocent, smart, silly, kind and on and on and on) type of person. 

In an industry with an overabundance of workers in comparison to how much actual work there is, oftentimes the people making the decisions as to who gets hired and who doesn’t are simply looking at a headshot in order to make their determination. So, a headshot is the most important marketing tool you have, and it will convey to industry professionals if you either see yourself as a professional or if you’re just someone half-heartedly messing around with acting on the side.

The quality of your headshots matter. The person you’ll be sending it to has seen hundreds if not thousands of headshots before scrolling to or past yours. The subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) quality of a headshot might make the difference between you getting a phone call to help you further your career … or not.

How Do I Find a Proper Actor’s Headshot Photographer?

First you have to understand that many people in many different types of professions need a headshot. And an actor’s headshot is unique. The last thing you want is for someone to glance at your headshot and feel as though you’re handing them a picture taken for a corporate job. An actor’s headshot needs to leap off the page and grab someone’s attention so that the viewer can imagine you in a particular role.

It’s important that the image highlights your unique personality traits, and that it puts forth the best version of who you are. It should engage the viewer with your confidence and overall attractiveness, and I’m not just talking about your appearance. It’s what’s behind the eyes. The character traits that people might see if you were actually performing for them in person. The same facets of someone’s character that casting directors, producers and directors look for when casting a role. This is the ultimate purpose for an actor’s headshot, and it totally differs from the types of portrait headshot pictures people take for a wide variety of other jobs. Finding a photographer who specializes in this type of photography is absolutely necessary.

It’s a tricky thing to discern between an actor’s headshot photographer and the types of photographers who specialize in some other form of photography but claim they also take headshot photos. The difference actually lies in their experience and understanding of how the entertainment industry functions and what actors ultimately need. The last thing you want to do is pay for a headshot twice. Often, agents who take on a new client will find their headshot subpar and request they take new ones. And that’s usually when I get a call. Skip the headache of paying twice and find a true actor’s headshot photographer. As a veteran actor and headshot photographer, I’m already familiar with the thought processes and requirements of agents, casting directors, producers, directors and all the other decision-makers.

A strong set of headshots will allow you to feel confident in your approach to talent agents and casting directors. And it will help someone see that you’re capable and thoughtful in your approach to becoming an actor. The truth is, the industry can be tough, and people want an easy, reliable option when they are tasked with whom to hire or whom to believe in. A lot of time is spent by agents and managers “pitching” talent to casting directors and producers. A lot of time is spent by casting directors and directors trying to decide whom to hire. Oftentimes, a headshot is what they are staring at while they make these important decisions. So, you’ll want acting headshots that speak for you in a unique, strong and professional manner.

How To Get Experience on a Real Movie or Television Show Set

Have you ever actually sat and watched the full list of credits at the end of a movie? When you’re watching two or three actors talk to each other in a scene, you probably aren’t thinking about the 100-200 other people that helped bring that scene to life. Learning about how movies, TV shows, commercials and stage productions are actually made is one of the most amazing, rewarding and necessary parts of becoming an actor. 

One of the best ways to learn all this and what it’s like to actually be on a set, so that you can decide if TV and film acting are right for you, is to experience it first-hand as a background actor. This market has been blessed with a lot of Hollywood productions in recent years. We’ve recently had “The Walking Dead,” “Homeland,” “Swagger,” “Dopesick,” “Harriet,” “Imperium,” “Wonder Woman: 1984,” “House of Cards,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and other prominent work in this market. These are the perfect opportunities for you to sign up as a background actor, sometimes called an extra. Many of the background opportunities here are cast by Kendall Cooper Casting. If you are cast as a background actor, please be sure to maintain professionalism on set and adhere to any non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) you may be required to sign. I’ll elaborate further about the true importance of this in just a bit.

Background actors are critical, as they can elevate the production, help bring realism to a scene and ultimately be a necessary part of a much larger story. What would “Gladiator” be without hundreds of ancient Romans cheering Russell Crowe on? What would “The Walking Dead” be without any zombies? What would “Homeland” be if the only scenes were ones in an office between two characters? Extras play an important and necessary role in filmmaking. And it gives you the wonderful opportunity to take a look behind the scenes and watch up close how the magic of movies is actually done. If you are respectful, attentive and open to learning, you’ll find that this is one of the best ways to learn what it is you’re signing up for when you say to yourself, “I want to be an actor.” And it will give you a strong foundation as your experience and opportunities grow. 

Being part of a film set of any size means being part of a gigantic, well-oiled machine with hundreds of moving parts all working in unison to accomplish the same set of goals. It is complicated, difficult and sometimes overwhelming. Learning the intricacies of how a set works can take months or even years. Examples of the types of things you may not realize you’ll need to know include: 

  • Learning what a call sheet is and how the time in which you start work is scheduled day to day (it can vary wildly one day to the next)
  • How different jobs are scheduled for different times for specific reasons on a set
  • The various places that encompass a full film set: base camp, crew parking, set, hair and makeup, wardrobe, fittings, production, assistant director’s quarters, post-production facilities, rehearsal spaces, craft services, catering, and more
  • Proper etiquette on set. The set can be a quiet and focused workplace. You aren’t allowed to just pop up somewhere to make a phone call. There are a lot of unsaid rules to learn

You will learn a lot being on set, so I highly recommend this for people starting out. There are even people who find it so satisfying that they make a full living doing nothing but background work. Simply, it’s a really great way to get your feet wet, and it’s a great place to meet like-minded people. Acting and filmmaking are, after all, collaborative art forms. So, making connections and watching other people work are invaluable experiences to any actor. 

Another job that isn’t talked about much is that of a stand-in. The principal actors (lead actors) usually need to spend a lot of time getting ready, rehearsing or staying off their feet so that they can conserve energy for their performance. The job of the stand-in was created to literally stand in their place while the cameras and lights are being set up prior to the actual filming.

It’s a unique and difficult job. You must watch the principal actors rehearse, learn their movements along with the camera’s movements, and recreate the scene over and over and over and over again as the director, director of photography, producers and sometimes other actors slowly and carefully craft the scene through rehearsals.

So, for example, if you were standing in for Ethan Hawke during filming for “The Good Lord Bird,” as my friend Chris recently did, you’d watch the rehearsal as he entered a forest with his weapon drawn, said a few lines of dialogue or engaged in a gunfight, and then ran off in the opposite direction once the camera got within two feet of his face. You’d memorize these actions, and while Ethan Hawke was getting into hair and makeup and wardrobe for the scene, you’d continually recreate those actions with another stand-in while the camera and lighting department set everything up.

You’d be the star of the show multiple times a day and you’d gain a lot of experience watching some of the best actors perform super close up. Oftentimes, doing background work can lead to stand-in work. I’ve seen it time and time again. A background actor will have the right look or build or look close enough to the lead actor that they are upgraded to a stand-in.

How To Find Acting Classes

Very few actors are able to carve out a career without any formal training. And when I saw very few, I mean virtually none. You are going to want to work with professional acting coaches and instructors. Not only to learn the craft of acting but also to gain experience. When we watch some of the greats perform their best work, what we don’t see are the countless hours they put in by performing or practicing in classes. Times when they failed and picked themselves back up. Scenes that embarrassed them or challenged them in a way they had never been challenged before.

Standing there and allowing people to look at you can be an incredibly difficult and vulnerable thing to do. Even if it’s for a headshot! Standing there and trying to say all your lines without flubbing them can be difficult too. Acting classes are a great way for you to learn who you are, learn what acting is all about, and gain experience with different types of roles and stories. It also provides a safe place for you to learn, grow, fail and ultimately succeed.

One thing many people don’t know about some of the most successful actors out there, is that many of them still go to acting classes. Between jobs and even for specific roles they are scheduled to play. Acting isn’t just about showing up and saying lines that you’ve memorized. It’s about facing the parts of yourself that make you uncomfortable, the parts of yourself you may not even know exist, and making them part of a role in a story so that the story can come alive and affect an audience deeply. That doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without some training. 

Your resume will look better, and you’ll look more serious to casting directors, if you are spending time honing your craft through professional training, especially acting classes that have an on-camera aspect. These types of classes will put you in a position to actually learn what will be required of you when you audition for a role or when you eventually book one and have to film it. Theater acting and on-camera acting are two completely different skill sets. Both are invaluable and many veteran actors say both are necessary to spend time doing. But nearly every actor wants to be in commercials, film and television shows, so learning on-camera acting is an inevitable part of the journey. Finding a teacher who has a lot of experience acting in front of the camera and a lot of experience helping actors learn and grow is what you’ll need to find for yourself.

Do some research on the different types of acting techniques and who offers those classes. Read some books on different styles of acting. There is plenty of material; you’ll find countless articles of literature from a simple Google search. Some of the most well-known acting techniques are the Stanislavski method, method acting, Meisner technique, Chekhov technique and classical acting. It sounds like a lot, I know. And it can get overwhelming, as some of the techniques I mentioned are more advanced, so the truth is, you’ll want to start with a beginner’s acting class that blends some of these techniques and on-camera practice into a safe space where you can show up not having any experience at all.

Or, if you happen to be someone with experience, a beginner’s class can offer a refreshing take on some of the things you may already know or allow you the opportunity to learn something totally new. Every actor talks about how important it is to continue to grow and to continue to re-energize yourself to acting — to the commitment, passion and artistry of acting. Taking a new class with a new teacher can sometimes provide that to even the most experienced actor.

One amazing benefit to the devastating and difficult COVID-19 pandemic has been the unexpected opening up of a world of virtual classes that I really hope will stick around. Now, some of these top coaches from all over the world offer virtual classes so anyone can take them from anywhere! But do your research before signing on for any classes and check out the credibility of an acting instructor.

Look to see which actors they have worked with before or what their own body of work looks like. Compare pricing and reach out to them to get a sense of what it is like to communicate with them. After all, you’d be spending a great deal of time and money talking with them about all sorts of roles and scenes. You want to make sure you feel comfortable with someone because ultimately that’s what you’ll be working toward in an acting class — getting comfortable exposing your vulnerabilities and sharing your experiences with a seasoned professional who can learn about who you are and help you sculpt your skills as an actor.

In the DC, Maryland, Virginia market, I recommend a few people in particular. They are all very good and have tremendous credibility — and, most importantly, their actors are booking jobs.

  • Elizabeth Byland (Richmond, VA)
  • Keith Flippen (Virginia Beach, VA)
  • Gary Manasco (Virginia Beach, VA)
  • Mark McKinnon (Baltimore, MD)
  • Frances Saxton (Williamsburg, VA)

What’s the Difference Between a Casting Agency, Talent Agency and Talent Manager?

A casting agency is a company hired by producers, production companies or directors to audition talent for a project. They are essentially the “middleman/woman” between the talent, talent agent or manager and the producers/directors. It is their job to meet and audition actors, and to recommend to whomever is making the decisions regarding casting which actors they believe might be the best fit/most talented actor for a given role. 

When it comes to talent agents and talent managers, it can be almost impossible to discern between the two. They mostly serve the same functions in that they represent the talent when it comes to finding them projects to audition for, “pitching” or submitting talent to casting agents, producers and directors, and negotiating pay, contract terms, schedules and almost any and all matters related to the actual filming of a project. Usually, a talent agency is the one looking for projects and pitching you to people, and the talent manager helps you sort through the workflow coming your way from the talent agency. Often, you’ll find that talent managers are a little more hands-on and personable, as you may end up spending more time talking with them about auditions and work. But talent agents can also play that role too. It really just depends on the agent/agency and manager.

How Do I Find a Talent Agent?

Whether you’re looking for your first talent agent or manager or a new one, most of the time you’re going to be cold calling or emailing representatives to try and get an interview with them. Many of them now have online submission processes, and you should definitely follow those. However, another approach, and this is only if they don’t have an online submission process, is to send a polite email telling them about yourself and your experience as an actor. Include a headshot and a resume.

Often a manager will be able to set up meetings with various agents if you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you can meet multiple agents/agencies. Maybe you have a friend who knows someone and it’s worth inquiring whether they’d be willing to ask their representation to meet you. The old saying is, “It’s all about who you know.” And it’s certainly a cliché for good reason. If you don’t know anyone, no worries at all! Everyone starts from scratch. So, don your best attitude, give it all the charisma you’ve got, and send out some emails and make some phone calls. A simple Google search of talent agents and managers in your area will get you started on who to reach out to.

What Are Actors Access and Casting Networks?

Actors Access and Casting Networks are online platforms that allow you to create a profile to show casting directors, producers and directors looking to hire talent exactly who you are! They are incredible platforms that allow you to submit yourself for auditions (essentially doing what a talent agent/manager does), or they serve as a place for casting directors to FIND YOU! There are always tons of opportunities for actors. You’ll upload your headshot, SlateShot, resume and demo reel (once you have a body of work to make one; more on that in a moment) so that you can begin your search for roles you believe are right for you. It’s really just as simple as that. It also highlights, once again, the importance of a top-notch professional headshot. It will be the impression (sometimes the only one) you leave on a casting agent or talent agent as you submit yourself for these opportunities.

What Is a Self-Tape?

A self-tape is an audition. But instead of you going into a casting director’s room and reading with them, you’ll actually be making the tape yourself and sending it to your agent, or directly to them. Most actors make self-tapes from home. Sometimes people pay for them and go to spaces designed to help you tape, upload and send an audition. But that expense can add up quickly and it’s only really necessary if you can’t accomplish an audition at home. 

Veteran actors usually have a small setup that they can prop up and break down in short order, or even a small area at home that is always set up and ready to go. Here’s a list of what you’ll need for a self-tape:

  • A camera or phone
  • Tripod
  • An editing program
  • A background (flat color, blue or gray are usually best)
  • Good lighting
  • A reader; someone to read opposite you (most of the time)

That’s another reason acting classes are useful. It’s a place for you to meet other actors so that you can help each other make self-tapes.


You don’t need anything fancy or expensive. Your cell phone or an iPad will do. In fact, expensive, high-quality cameras might produce files too big to upload/download and you may actually be asked to re-film an audition on a lesser quality camera or compress the file. Any decent HD cam is sufficient as well. You just need to make sure you’ll be able to plug it into a computer in order to put the files in an editing program.


Often you’ll be asked for your self-tape to be shot a certain way. Medium close-up (half of your chest, cutting off just above your head), or a slate that includes your full body, head to toe. Rather than having someone hold a shaky camera or frustrating yourself by trying to prop up a camera on a pile of books, invest in a tripod. You’ll find many great affordable options on Amazon.

Editing Program

This is sort of like the camera in that you don’t really need to go too fancy with it. The program iMovie is probably the best and easiest way to edit your self-tapes. It allows you to upload all the takes you recorded, sift through them for the one(s) you want, cut in and out of when the scenes start and end, and to add titles to give the viewer your name and contact information. You’re not making a movie out of it, so there won’t be any special effects, music or fancy editing. Once you do it a handful of times, you’ll find it’s the easiest part of an audition. The performing is actually the part that eats up most of your time.


A flat color background for you to perform against. Usually, a piece of cloth that’s about 6 feet wide. Some people paint a wall in their house, some use blankets. I use a 5-by-7 feet pop-up background from Amazon. The truth is, if you want your audition to look professional, just buy a professional background online. They are inexpensive and well worth the investment. Almost every time, casting directors want a mild blue or gray background. Unless you are specifically asked otherwise, NEVER use a green screen for a self-tape.


Natural light is the best light for a self-tape, but it can of course be really tricky to find good natural light in your home. Sometimes a lighting kit is necessary. You’ll probably want to invest in a small light at some point, but it’s not a necessary expense up front. They can be costly, but there are inexpensive options. You don’t have to invest a lot of money to find a high-quality light that will help your tape look and feel professional. The most basic and necessary part of a self-tape is ensuring that people can see you clearly. Half your face can’t be shadowed, or you can’t be standing outside where the sun makes the video seem way too bright. You’ll just need to be in a well-lit room, face front toward the lens. Piece of cake.


Someone who can operate the camera (pressing record and stop, or zooming in and out if specifically requested). Disclaimer: Sometimes you might be able to make self-tapes by yourself. And during the COVID-19 lockdown, many actors have had to do this. So, don’t sweat it if you don’t have someone who can help you out; there are ways around it. However, you’ll be far more satisfied and have a much easier time making your audition if you had someone you felt comfortable with to read the other lines in the scenes you’re tasked with performing. Again, it makes the most sense to have friends who are actors so that it’s not so much of a favor to ask of someone. You scratch their back for a self-tape, they scratch yours. Here’s another free pro-tip: Ask another actor friend to read for you over Zoom and put your computer where you want your line of sight to be. Super important for newbies to understand: Unless otherwise instructed, never make your line of sight the camera. Always look slightly over to the left or right or alternate if the scene requires you to talk to multiple people. Just don’t look at the camera. You aren’t Ferris Bueller.

What Is a Demo Reel?

A demo reel is a short video sample of your work. It would consist of multiple projects you and your representation felt best represented your work. It’s another tool you or your agent/manager can use to submit your for work. You actually don’t need to worry about this if you are just starting out. But as your resume grows, you’ll want to start collecting tape of your work in order to make a demo reel. There are professionals who specialize in making these. However, once you’re proficient with iMovie, a couple of short (and free) YouTube tutorials will show you how to make one on your own.

Confidentiality, NDAs and the Importance of Being Respectful With What You Put of Your Work Online

This is a subject that isn’t talked about enough with people new to the industry. Movies, shows, commercials, plays and every other form of performance art rely completely on keeping their product away from public view until they plan on releasing it. In a day and age when we can take pictures and post about literally every moment of our lives, we need to understand the importance of keeping auditions and jobs we’re working on in complete confidence.

Sometimes it’s OK to post about things, but we have to ask the people in charge first. It’s pretty standard that you don’t post about it online. We’ll need to ask an AD (assistant director), our agent or a casting director. Now you may be submitting on projects from home, and you may want to share the experience with friends and family online, but let me tell you, I’ve seen a lot of actors shoot themselves in the foot by doing so. Casting directors, talent agents and everyone involved on a project are very thoughtful and meticulous about what they release online.

Whether it’s a tweet, photo, Facebook post, video upload, whatever. You have to be very conscious that you might be putting yourself in a position where you can be rejected, fired, blacklisted or burn a bridge toward a future relationship. I’ve seen it so many times. An actor is so excited to be working as a background actor on that big production and they post a picture from the set. Next thing, they are being escorted off and are not able to return to filming. Or an actor just had a huge audition for that popular show and then tells everyone on their Facebook page. Don’t do it. It’s not worth jeopardizing your career before it has even begun. 

Often, productions ask actors to sign waiver forms, legally binding them to silence about a project/role they are auditioning for/working on. It’s that serious. So be wise, ask first and when you really want to share the experience, wait until you’re on a project and it’s out to the public, as in it’s about to air, and then you’ll find it all the more satisfying to share your experience with people.

Other Small Pieces of Advice To Keep in Mind as You Navigate the Unpredictable Waters of Professional Acting

Here’s the name of the game. THE RESULTS AREN’T UP TO YOU. Sometimes we can find a role that really feels like it’s meant for us. We really connect with it and can really see ourselves getting the job. We’ll sink our heart, soul, time and money into auditioning for it … and then we’ll never hear a peep from whomever watched it. That’s how auditioning can feel a lot of the time. But I’m here to tell you, don’t take it personally. There is so much that goes into who is cast for a role. So much is determined by so many unseen factors. And little or sometimes all of those reasons have nothing to do with you and your abilities. Sometimes it’s about a certain look or age, sometimes it’s about a particular quality they are looking for. Sometimes it’s about seven or eight different people agreeing on a certain actor and that can be a process that’s really difficult and complicated. Regardless, spend the least amount of time thinking about the results and as much time as you can about acting, the role and the story you’re ultimately trying to tell.

Creating Security for Yourself

Making a living as an actor is tough. It’s freelance work. There isn’t a whole lot of job security and most times you’ll find that even the most successful actors have something else going on in life that helps support them as they continue to pursue acting. Robert DeNiro is a restauranteur. Gwyneth Paltrow owns a large gifting company. Having another facet of life outside the entertainment industry not only helps with a sense of financial security but it also can help with the turbulent emotional side of being an actor. Being an actor means a lot of rejection, and that can be tough sometimes. So, putting all of your value in it isn’t the best decision. Being a well-rounded individual with many interests and passions will definitely help your journey as an actor.

Read Your Contracts and Casting Notices so You Don’t Kill Your Career Before It Starts

You’ve got your first contract. It’s an exciting thing when you get your first paid gig. While you are looking at the contract or casting notice, you see the words “in perpetuity.” If you are like me, you probably don’t know what it means. You will most commonly see these words for non-union commercial gigs, whether they are for print advertising, web or national broadcast. It may even be a project for a well-known brand that is being cast by local casting agencies.

In most commercial contracts and casting notices, you will know how long your likeness can be used and what rate you are making. For example, I did a commercial for Mama Lucia’s meatballs a few years ago. It was clear to me that the company was only paying me a flat rate for usage of the commercial in the New England market and on their social media channels for one year. If they wanted to use that commercial beyond that time frame, then they would have to renegotiate a new contract and pay me more.

For union commercials, and this is where the real money in commercials is, you will typically get paid a low filming rate (usually somewhere in the couple thousand-dollar range), but then you will earn royalties at the union going rate every single time it airs on television.

When I first started acting in the early 2000s, I had the opportunity to audition for the Circuit City commercial featuring Mike Ditka and John Elway. That commercial aired thousands of times throughout the NFL season that year. If I had landed that gig, I would have been paid $2,500 for the initial filming and then a sliding scale up to $85 each time the commercial aired. Needless to say, I did not get it, but I later ran into the mother of the person who did and talked with her about it. Her son had made nearly six figures from that one commercial.

So, this brings me back to “in perpetuity.” A lot of local commercials and advertisements like to include the words “in perpetuity” on their contracts. It means that, regardless of how little the company paid you for the gig, the company can use your likeness in perpetuity (forever) for whatever platforms you agreed to and not pay you a single penny more. It can be exciting getting cast in your first commercial, but if the words “in perpetuity” exist on your contract you’ll have to make a personal decision.

Before you make that decision, you should also know that, sometimes, companies have conflict clauses that will bar you from being cast if you did work for a competitor that is still airing. So, if you sign on for a commercial with the language “in perpetuity,” you could be killing your career for a very small amount. I’ll put this into perspective. If Paul Marcarelli (the Verizon “Can you hear me?” guy) signed an in-perpetuity contract with Verizon, he would have been tied to Verizon forever and would not have been able to sign on with Sprint many years later. Instead, he made tens of millions of dollars with Verizon and is doing it again with Sprint.

Creating Your Own Work and Finding Collaborators

Creating your own work is extremely important! There’s a reason why many famous actors become writer/directors. In order to act, you are relying on someone else to say yes to your work. The auditioning process can feel great when you’re booking, but when you’re not, it can be taxing. So, creating your own work and not fully relying on others to give it to you is one of the best ways to journey into acting. More often than one might think, people who create their own work are given a lot more respect by casting directors, producers, directors and agents as they get to see more of who you are and your capabilities. In the day and age we live in, when anyone with a cell phone and access to the internet can create and distribute their own content online, there’s no stopping you. So, get to it! Star in your own short films. Make your own sketches. Find people to collaborate with and learn the art of writing, directing, lighting and cinematography as well! It may all circle back to acting for you in one way or another, but nothing should stop you from learning and growing and being as creative as you possibly can be. One last thing: Break a leg!

© 2021, Jeremy Bustin