Have you ever watched some actor in a minor role on a television show–or even in a lead role–and thought, “Hey I could do that.”
If you’re reading these pages, the answer is probably yes. Most working actors–whether we spend most of our time on stage, working in commercials, in student films and music videos, or even creating our own programming for the web or the stage–have at least a glimmer of hope that we might someday book a regular role on a television show.
Of course there’s the money and the prestige of landing a regular television role. But beyond hitting the big time–which, let’s be honest, is unlikely to happen for the vast majority, and is the last reason you should be pursuing a career in acting–the truth is you don’t have to sacrifice your artistic integrity to work in television.
These days especially, television has become home to an endless stream of high-concept shows that are taking the medium to new artistic heights, seemingly every consecutive season. Even for A-list film actors, working in television is seen as a legit career choice.
So how does an actor much further down the food chain break in to television? Here are a few solid steps you can take to begin your path to booking a role on the small screen.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the bulk of television work gets cast in L.A. and New York. Yes, there are solid secondary markets in places like Vancouver, Toronto and Chicago. And shows like “Breaking Bad” and “True Blood” really opened up the opportunities for actors in New Mexico and Louisiana, respectively. Those areas continue to attract film and television creators, and they have solid acting opportunities. That said, the simple reality of the mathematics is that if you are not auditioning in New York or L.A., you are seriously hampering your chances of booking a television role. For every audition that comes along in a place like Albuquerque or New Orleans, there are dozens more in New York or L.A. If you are serious about a career in television you’ve got to go to where the work is.
2. Take a class
No doubt actors who read these pages have at least some experience. But no matter how loaded your resume is with work you’ve done on stage, or even in film or commercials, there’s no reason not to sign up for an on-camera class if television is going to be your focus. Learning as an actor never stops, and we can all surely benefit from brushing up on the finer points of acting for the camera, especially those of us who have done a lot of work in theater and musical theater. Think of taking an on-camera class as increasing your odds of getting cast: no matter your level of experience, the fine-tuning you can do working with a seasoned teacher or coach can really take your acting game to the next level. By honing skills like listening, stillness, using micro-expressions, and other detail work that is just as important to casting directors as the lines you speak, you will up your game considerably.
3. Learn the language
As stage actors–where most of us begin–we all learned a set of words and phrases that help us communicate: upstage, downstage, blocking, the house, cheating out, entrances and exits. And while some of these are universal to any acting experience, there is also a whole bunch of new lingo you’re going to want to familiarize yourself with if you want to hit the ground running in a career in television. Everyone is familiar with the term “cut,” of course, but do yourself a favor: even if you know terms like call time, pre-call, MOW, and others, do a search for film and television terms before you go to your first set.
4. Work on your patience and maintaining energy
One of the biggest shocks about making the switch from stage acting to film and television acting is finding out just how much longer the days are. Sure, those 10 out of 12 rehearsals during tech week for a stage show can get pretty tedious. But nothing matches the interminable waiting around for your scene to be set up when you’re working on a film or television show. The director shooting take after take and coming up on the fly with new shots he wants to do almost inevitably means a longer day than you were expecting. Not only that, in resetting those takes over and over, you are expected as an actor to maintain the same energy and enthusiasm and commitment you had on the very first take. If you want to be taken seriously as a television actor, be ready to bring your A-game to every single shot, every single take, every single minute you are on set. People make the mistake of thinking a television actor’s job is an easy one spent in the lap of luxury. And granted, the biggest stars get cushy trailers that would put most studio apartments to shame. But they’re working 14-hour days and going in to work at 5 a.m. and they never have the luxury of slacking off at the their desk or getting someone to cover for them. It is a grueling, tedious, high-pressure gig that can burn people out if they aren’t mentally prepared.
5. Be committed
This last one applies not only to what we usually talk about with commitment to acting: that is, knowing your lines, showing up on time, being ready to work with a good attitude and having a generous, friendly demeanor. You must also be prepared to commit fully to going after this life, especially if you plan to focus on television. Consider how many actors are in New York and L.A. right now pursuing a career in television and film. Even if you were cast as the lead in every single production your high school or university put on, you are still going up against actors of the highest caliber–much higher than Stephan from high school who nearly beat you out for the role of Sky Masterson. Your commitment to your craft, to bettering yourself as an actor through classes and scene study groups, as well as your commitment to hitting every audition you can possibly make is going to be the difference between booking your dream role and being a perpetual also-ran. Dig in and get ready for a tough life–but one that is also tremendously rewarding, and might turn out to be a dream come true!