Acting for a Living by Rob McCrerey

Acting for a Living

RATING: 8/10

A very helpful guide for crafting an acting career outside Hollywood, from the creative and business side of the Industry. Very inspiring to learn the other options available to perform and create you own acting path.

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Laurence [Olivier] used to say that an actor must have the body of a god, and a voice equal to the full range and power of an orchestra. Incredibly, even into his later years—he actually had both of those things. –Ian Holm

For an actress to be a success, she must have the face of Venus, the brains of Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of Macaulay, the figure of Juno, and the hide of a rhinoceros. –Ethel Barrymore.

The most important criteria for an actor are reading, speaking, and imagination. These are the three pillars on which the future of your career will depend.

It’s simple; all you have to do is read. Read books; and read them every day. Books force you to activate your imagination in a way that few other things can. As you read, your brain has to process all sorts of information. It has no choice but to create mental images of people and places that you’re reading about in order for you to follow along with the story.

You should be able to read out loud effortlessly, and in your own natural voice. Ultimately you should be able to read so fluidly and easily that anyone listening to you on the phone or in an adjoining room would be unable to tell that you are reading at all. Instead, it should sound as though you are talking to someone.

As an actor, the more articulate you are, the more successful you will be.

What else does an actor need? Well, an engaging personality is a big plus. You don’t have to be a stand up comic, or take over a room every time you walk in, but successful actors are nearly always charming when you meet them. You should find it relatively easy to make a good first impression.

The truth is that your looks will probably be less of an issue than you imagine. Think about all the actors who have enjoyed fabulous careers despite being relatively “average” looking—or even down right ugly. There are roles for every shape, size, color and age in this business. It’s how comfortable you are with your appearance that truly matters.

In the regional markets, 20% of the actors will do 80% of the work. The middle 60% fight over the leftovers, and the bottom 20% never work at all. While these figures are approximations, they closely reflect conversations I have had with talent agents in various markets around the country.

Successful actors aren’t discovered; they are developed.

Hollywood doesn’t need people with special skills. In fact they don’t need any more actors—talented, beautiful or otherwise. They’re already swimming in them…Hollywood needs actors like a cruise ship needs rats.

You want the big shots in Hollywood to notice you? Fine. Then you need to make them come to you. That may not be all that easy to do, but believe me, it’s a heck of a lot easier than trying to do it the other way around.

The result of this bias [serious actors living in LA or New York] is that you may occasionally lose roles to major market actors who are less experienced than you are. The reason? Because, contrary to popular belief, the best actor doesn’t always get the role; the most credible actor does.

What’s the point of living “where all the action is”, if you can’t get a piece of the action? Just because you live in the city where the big game is played doesn’t mean you’re in the game. It’s astonishing how many people in New York and L.A. either don’t seem to understand that, or refuse to accept it. 95% of “professional” actors in N.Y. and L.A. aren’t “in the game” at all. On the contrary; they have effectively taken themselves out of the game.

It’s a commonly held assumption that in order to be a good actor you need to be a good liar. Nope. Acting is about being honest. Great acting means not acting. Instead of giving it your all, you should always take care to hold something back.

You could choose to behave like a professional from day one. That means thinking of yourself as a “product”, rather than an “artist.” When work slows down for a professional, they don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves. They don’t take it personally. A pro gets busy. Professionals know they’re running a business, and if their product isn’t selling, it’s up to them to figure out a way to build a demand for it. Instead of moping, pros concentrate their energy into finding ways to make themselves more marketable.

If you want to be a professional actor, do as the great ones do; develop a healthy disrespect for acting.


-I am a serious actor—–I try not to take myself too seriously

-I am an artist—–I’m not an artist

-Acting is really hard—–Acting is really easy

-Acting is my life—–Acting is my job

-I desperately want that part—–I can do it, but I don’t need it.

-I just need a break—–I just need an opportunity

-One day I’ll be discovered—–My career is in my hands

Performing the role isn’t really the job. Getting hired to play the role in the first place—that’s the job.

–Successful acting is, to a large part, dependent upon successful selling. I would even go so far as to say in the early stages of your career, sales training might be more valuable to you than acting lessons, because sales techniques come into play at every stage of the process.

Nobody hires a starving actor, never forget it.


Don’t think of acting as a set of rules or laws that you need to study, memorize and master. That isn’t it at all. Learning how to act is more about unlearning all the bad habits that you have been accumulating since puberty.

-Reading, speaking, and imagination are the core skills that you should always be developing. Thing of these as your foundation. All the rest is a matter of discarding unwanted baggage in order to set the actor within you free.

Some continue attending classes because they see them as a kind of “therapy.” This is a huge and potentially dangerous mistake. Acting isn’t therapy. Nor is it a valuable substitute for therapy. If you think you need therapy, go and see a therapist.

If a role calls for emotions that you are incapable of producing, you’re not going to get the part, so it’s really a moot point anyway. Nobody is ever going to cast you in a part that calls for emotions you are incapable of showing, so why make yourself sick about it? There are plenty of other roles out there that are more suited to your abilities. Better to focus your energies on the things you can do.

The greatest actor in the world can be made to look a fool with bad writing, directing or editing. On the other hand, top-notch writing, directing and editing can make a mediocre actor look like a genius.

As our world becomes increasingly competitive, it is getting harder and harder for a “jack of all trades” to survive. The people who are in most demand in any business today are the specialists. Actors are no exceptions.

-Robert DeNiro plays tough, likeable, mobster types. Al Pacino plays characters tormented by inner angst. Clint Eastwood is the strong, silent, loner. Johnny Depp seems to have a lock on the odd balls.

The actor must believe in everything that takes place on the stage—and mot of all, in what he himself is doing. And one can only believe in the truth. –Konstantine Stanislavski

In any role you play, it is always you. It might be you in another time, situation or even universe. You might have a different accent, wardrobe and name, but who cares? That is all surface stuff. Deep inside, animating everything is your mind. They are your memories, insecurities and emotions—not some imaginary character’s. The audience doesn’t have to know that, but you do.

Of all the bad direction that a stage actor can receive, by far the worst is the insistence that actors over-project their voice and be “big” in all of their physical movements and reactions.

To a businessman, it is self-evident that if something costs more, it is worth more. In the corporate world, more expensive = better.


COST: More expensive = more credible

EXPERIENCE: Both quality and quantity matter

REPUTATION: A good rep is tough to beat; a bad one, tough to shake.

SELF-CONFIDENCE: If you don’t believe in you, who will?

SCHEDULE: Good actors are busy. Bad ones are always ready and available.

DESPERATION: The kiss of death. Nobody hires a starving actor.

QUALITY OF WORK: Difficult for many in the industry to assess.

TRANINING: Only nationally recognized programs count towards credibility. Everything else is fluff.

APPEARANCE: Do you look successful? If you expect them to believe you are worth big bucks, you had better look the part.

The money that producers and ad agencies spend on an actor doesn’t come from either own personal paychecks; it is a corporate expense. What’s more, this is money that they have already decided to spend. The only question they have to answer now is, “who do we hire?” Obviously, a producer who answers the question with, “the cheapest possible actor” isn’t going to stay in business very long.

By turning down lousy work, you can succeed in categorizing yourself as one of the top actors at an agency. What’s more, if the agent has informed the casting director of your unwillingness to audition for low-paying jobs, the casting director will have more respect for you too. When you finally do make it to one of their auditions, you can be sure they will be watching you closely.

THE IRON LAW OF ACTING ECONOMICS: Actors unable to command above-average wages in a given market are considered by that market to be mediocre. Mediocre actors lack the minimum requirements necessary for sustained professional success.

Are you completely confident in your acting ability? Do you have a great headshots, a resume, and have your received unsolicited, positive feedback from fellow actors or other industry professionals who have seen your work? If the answer to any of these questions is “not”, then you’re not ready.

Forget about courting talent agents. Focus on improving yourself. When you perform in the classroom or on stage, don’t strive to be adequate—strive to be excellent. Your goal is not show people that you can act. Your goal is to blow people away with your acting. Accomplish that, and you will never have to worry about fighting for an agency’s attention. They will fighting for yours.

INDUSTRIALS: Unlike student films or low-budget independents—corporations have plenty of money, and they are willing to spend it. Most companies are aware of the bad reputation that training videos have, and they are eager to jazz up in any way they can. That means spending more for higher production values and better talent.

INDUSTRIALS: They exist purely to inform and educate. How is informing or educating people any less noble than entertaining them?

INDUSTRIALS: Never make fun of the company or their products in any way—no matter how ridiculous it may be. It might seem trite or silly to you, but this is how these people make a living. It enables them to put food on their table and clothes on their children.

Practicing your audition in front of a mirror is a really bad idea. All that does is help you start “posing” and focusing all your attention on how you look. As an actor, that’s the last thing you want.

It goes without saying that directors will expect you to be able to deliver the lines naturally, and in your own voice. They are not looking for someone who can play a particular type; they want some who is a particular type. This is why you should walk into the room convinced in your own mind that you are the character in question.

HOLLYWOOD: Hollywood is an “all or nothing” deal. You’re either in the game, or you’re not. There is no in-between. The only real way to get in the game is by being invited to play.

HOLLYWOOD: A good manager is absolutely vital in Hollywood especially when you’re just starting out. With a manager, you can make contacts in a matter of weeks that would have otherwise taken years. That’s important. When you are an L.A. actor, you’re not just competing against a million other actors, you’re racing against the clock.

HOLLYWOOD: In Hollywood, if you’re a child actor, it’s forgivable that you haven’t starred in a major production. After all, you’re just a kid. But by the time you reach the mid-to-late 20s, inexperience isn’t so readily excusable. Somewhere around your mid 20s, your acting credibility will begin to suffer if you are not booking acting roles. It will continue to drop with each passing year until you start booking. The longer you go without work in L.A., the harder it becomes to get work in L.A. Thus, the vicious cycle. With each passing year, your plight becomes ever more desperate. That’s why one of the first sentences out of every Hollywood agent’s mouth is always going to be, “So what have you been working on recently?”

HOLLYWOOD: If you really want to give yourself a fighting chance, there’s no better way to do it than by creating your own project. This is good advice for any actor, regardless of where in the world you happen to live, but it’s never truer than in Hollywood.

-Write something! It could be a screenplay, sketch comedy, stand up routine, anything. Write it with yourself in mind and use it as a vehicle to further your career. If you don’t know what to write, ask yourself about what your dream role would be. Thing big. Once you’ve come up with something, don’t sit around waiting for that scenario to fall into your lap. Make it happen!

Examples: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with Good Will Hunting—Owen and Luke Wilson, Tina Fey, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Jon Favreau, Steve Martin, Bill Bob Thorton, Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Jackie Chan, Wanda Sykes, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett, Dan Aykroyd, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Ricky Gervais, Tyler Perry, Larry David, Ed Burns, Jerry Seinfeld, Lena Dunham

Hollywood isn’t about strolling down the beach waiting to be discovered, it’s about pushing projects, shaking hands, doing lunch and cutting deals. That is the game. If it isn’t the game you want to play; then you are in the wrong town.

The truth is that in Hollywood, it’s actually a lot easier to raise money for the big projects than for the little ones. That may sound counter-intuitive, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Nobody wants to be part of a low budget production. I know I don’t. They’re a pain in the butt. But everybody wants to be part of a big budget production. There’s more money, more visibility, more credibility, more everything. So don’t waster your time trying to put together a low budget movie. Every resource you need, writers, directors, producers, crew, talent—they’re all around you in Hollywood. Most of them are out of work and looking for something to do. Use them! Think big and aim high.

It’s just so much easier making a consistent living hitting singles in the minors, than it is swinging for home runs in the majors. There may be less glory, but there is a lot more consistency. It’s also easier to live a normal life (house, car, family) and enjoy a higher standard of living.

When you think of yourself as a business owner with a product or service for sale, you take you ego out of the equation. Criticism becomes nothing more than customer feedback. When you lose out on an audition, it isn’t a matter of your talent being rejected; you just didn’t make a sale, that’s all. It’s a business. It’s nothing personal.

“A Celebrity is someone who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid becoming recognized.” –Fred Allen

If you read the biographies of great actors, you will find that nearly all had full, fascinating, and in many cases, tumultuous lives. The general public assumes they led interesting lives because they were rich and famous. In fact, I think it was really the other way around; they were rich and famous in large part because they led interesting lives.

-Acting mirrors life. If you want to portray it convincingly, you have got to get out there and experience it first-hand. Books won’t cut it. Reading is great for lots of things, but it’s not substitute for real life experience. Neither is a classroom. Pack plenty of adventure and romance in your real life, and you probably won’t have to worry about taking a class to recover your lost, childhood emotions. You’ll be experiencing new ones all the time. Not only is that more effective, it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

-When all said and done, maybe that’s the best thing about acting. This is a profession that actually encourages us to better ourselves and live fuller lives.

-Outside interests are a distraction in most careers. Not this one. Hobbies, adventures, romances, thrills, dangers—anything you do to experience life, educate your mind or in any way develop yourself as a human being is bound to make you a better actor.