How to Become an Actor (Duties, Salary and Steps)

That dream of winning an Oscar just might become reality.

How to become an actor

For many people, actors are heroes and icons, some of whom are household names. So, it comes as no surprise that becoming an actor is a dream job, and a great career to choose if you love entertaining people.

But here’s a lot more to becoming a working actor than what we often see on TV or in the movies.

This article takes you over everything you need to know about the acting profession, including detailed information on the role, the responsibilities an actor fulfills, the salary and working conditions, and a step-by-step guide to making your professional acting dream become a reality.

What is an actor?

An actor is a type of artistic performer who typically portrays someone or something in a production.

Actors use speech, language, movements and other mediums such as dance to communicate their character or situation to an audience. They’re most famous for working in movies, television or theaters, but there are many different types of actors, as we’ll discuss below.

What are the different types of actor jobs?

The acting profession is very broad, and there are many different types of actors who work in a variety of settings and mediums. Actors can stay in one line of work or learn new skills and branch out into different areas of acting.

  • Background actors: Sometimes called “extras”, these are smaller roles that are often non-speaking and appearing in backdrops.
  • Character actors: These actors play unusual or memorable personalities in productions, as opposed to leading roles.
  • Commercial actors: Appearing in advertisements, these actors might have a leading role or appear as an extra.
  • Episodic actors: These actors work in a regular role in serial productions like TV shows.
  • Film actors: These actors have large and small roles in both big-budget and independent movies.
  • Theater actors: These actors perform the same roles regularly – and live – for the duration of theater productions.
  • Voice actors: These actors will only do voice-overs or play the voice of animated characters on screen.

What do actors do?

There’s a lot more to being an actor than just memorizing scripts and getting out in front of an audience. Here are the six main responsibilities of actors:

  • Read scripts and research roles with agents before deciding to accept them
  • Look up acting roles and auditioning for parts
  • Rehearse lines and work with the director and other cast members on how to enhance their role and the wider production
  • Research characters and situations to accurately portray the part
  • Perform roles to instructions and clear guidance from directors and producers
  • Market yourself to gain new roles

What is their workplace like?

Some types of actors, like voice actors, might spend a lot of their working week in a studio, which can be hot and noisy. Other actors might perform on location, which is challenging in terms of travel and time away from home. Meanwhile, some acting jobs can be physically demanding, and some can be emotionally or mentally intense.

Therefore, actors need to be physically fit and have good resilience. They must be comfortable with temperature extremes, loud noises and punishing schedules, as detailed below.

What kind of hours do actors work?

A lot of work goes into acting, and both entry-level and seasoned actors can work very long hours. Even a quick role or shoot can take lots of time to complete, with rehearsals and retakes being time-consuming.

Additionally, actors will often be asked to take up work at short notice and work flexible hours such as late nights, early mornings and weekends.

Sometimes, acting work requires long days and intense schedules, with actors working a series of jobs one after the other. At other times, a working day can be super swift!

How much do actors earn?

Acting wages are reactive to how “in demand” you are, such as the scope of your work and the fame you have achieved. In ScreenRant’s list of the highest-paid movie stars of all time, some household names command a high paycheck.

For example, one of the highest-paid actors, Tom Cruise, has reportedly earned $100 million from his performance in Top Gun: Maverick, and all his films sport a collective gross of $4.82 billion. Movies of another famous actor, Julia Roberts, have grossed over $4 billion globally, and in 2000, she became the first woman to get paid over $20 million for her part in Erin Brockovich.

Aspiring actors might have to work a separate day job until they become more established. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for actors is $36.06. The hourly wage at the 10th percentile is $13.20, $15.61 at the 25th percentile, $17.94 at the median, $29.63 at the 75th percentile, and $109.46 at the 90th percentile.

You don’t have to move to Los Angeles to get a well-paid job as an actor. The best-paid states for actors are New York ($63.39 per hour), followed by Georgia ($50.53 per hour), New Jersey ($41.28 per hour), Mississippi ($40.12 per hour), and Michigan ($37.65 per hour).

The highest-paying industry for actors is Employment Services ($73.36 per hour), followed by Accounting and Payroll Services ($41.66 per hour), Motion Picture and Video ($38.92 per hour), Independent Artists ($38.50 per hour), and Performing Arts Companies ($34.10).

In a snapshot:

Actors Salary Graphic

What’s the job market like?

With media and entertainment being part of our way of life, there will always be a need for fresh acting talent.

The BLS has predicted that the acting industry is expected to grow annually by 3% from now until 2023, an average growth rate across all locations in the US. This equates to an extra 2,500 actors in the workforce in 10 years’ time.

This growth rate is driven by people watching more shows in different ways. Streaming services are still enjoying increased popularity, and with US revenues predicted to rise to $115 billion by 2026, services like Netflix and Hulu can invest in more and more talent.

Live theater is also enjoying a strong resurgence after the COVID-19 pandemic, all meaning that long term career prospects for actors are very healthy indeed.

What are the entry requirements?

Getting into acting requires a mix of formal training, natural talent and passion for the role.

Budding actors will get the best head start into the industry if they attend acting or drama school, as acting theory (and general knowledge of classical acting) is an important first step.

Passion for the industry is essential, especially as acting is hard work and takes a lot of dedication.

Finally, raw talent is important. The acting industry is competitive, and having an innate ability to act in different mediums and settings will ensure that you stand out to talent scouts and agents.

Should you become an actor?

As mentioned previously, being an actor is a true labor of love. You have to love entertaining others and have a true passion for the profession. The best actors put their heart and soul into what they do and, in some cases, will sacrifice a lot to do what they love.

You should also consider if your career goals, skills and abilities align with what is needed in the acting world, such as:

  • Creativity
  • Patience
  • Memory skills
  • Physical fitness
  • Presentation skills

If you’re unsure if acting or any other career is for you, then consider taking CareerHunter’s career test. The six-part test, which has been professionally validated, covers interests, personality, motivations, and abstract, numerical and verbal reasoning skills, all balanced to help match you to the perfect career.

How to become an actor

If you’ve gotten this far and still feel that acting is the profession for you, then now is the time to start thinking about ways to break into this exciting industry. This section takes you through five key steps to becoming an actor, and what each one entails.

Step 1: Get involved in theater at school

The best way to become a professional actor is to start early at high school. Drama clubs or acting classes will help you hone your style and could get you thinking about what your career in acting might look like, as well as getting you to network with like-minded individuals. Debating clubs will also be useful in terms of your oration and public speaking.

Academic options could be languages or film studies, which would give you theoretical knowledge pertaining to the profession. Getting involved in community theater or productions at school might seem like a significant time investment, but if you’re wondering if a career in acting is for you, then volunteering for even a small part in a production at school can help you make your mind up.

Step 2: Get formal training

If your time at school exploring acting opportunities has affirmed to you that this could be a good career to explore, then the next thing to do would be to get formal training in the profession.

There are dedicated acting schools all over the country with varying entry requirements that can range from being quite loose to very strict. These can offer higher education in acting as well as help you find a network of people such as acting coaches that can help you further your acting career and introduce you to new opportunities.

Other ways to explore further direction could be in an academic degree related to acting such as film studies or media studies. Not only will these degrees improve your knowledge, but you might also benefit from campus activities like more drama clubs or even casual acting work in your spare time.

Step 3: Prepare your materials

As you become more knowledgeable and experienced in acting, you need to build your résumé and a portfolio of materials to send to agents, studios, directors and producing teams.

A portfolio will, in its most basic form, consists of a résumé tailored to showcase your acting experience, whether it’s education, extracurricular clubs, or any amateur or professional acting roles you’ve held so far.

You might also want to consider including links to a demo reel, which are videos or audio clippings of you performing parts. These need to be professionally edited for the best results, so seek some support in putting these together.

Finally, a cover letter and a collection of photos will help demonstrate to talent hunters your versatility, motivation, as well as what you’re capable of as an actor.

Step 4: Start auditioning

One of the most infamous steps to becoming an actor is to undertake auditions.

Auditions and casting calls are the actor’s interview, where they have to perform prescribed parts from a production in front of the producers and other production decision-makers.

It’s vital that you research both the part you’re auditioning for, as well as other relevant information like the character’s backstory or the director’s style. You also need to rehearse your own skills and ensure you approach every audition presenting your best self and in a positive frame of mind.

Auditioning can be frustrating, as there’s often a lot of competition for the best parts. Be ready to take feedback, learn from rejection and use your time in front of producers to improve your network, even if you’re passed over for the role.

Step 5: Secure an agent

As you take on more and more parts (even amateur ones), you’ll want to start thinking about securing an agent.

Sometimes, agents will come to you, especially if you’ve already landed more major roles or they’re impressed with your portfolio. In other situations, you might need to seek out agents and ask them to represent you.

Agents make their money by taking a percentage of what you earn as an actor, though some representing industry newcomers might ask for upfront fees. In return, agents present your profile to studios and producers, and help you to secure roles by giving you mentoring and advice on how to apply for roles, how to present yourself and, eventually, which roles to accept and which ones to turn down. (In the world of acting, this is a great problem to have!)

Final thoughts

Being an actor is a creative and exciting profession that allows you to meet people and entertain them. It’s a role synonymous with fame and fortune, but it does have a challenging working environment and it is challenging to get into.

Many actors wait years for their big break; consequently, it’s vital to develop a strategy to become one. Once established as an actor, you’ll need to hone your craft by learning new skills and techniques in workshops, keeping your portfolio and demo tapes up to date. Doing this will give you the best chance of making it big in this glamorous profession.

Got a question about becoming an actor, and want to share your own journey? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on December 6, 2017.