Written and Narrated by Joseph Dean Coburn
I started in theater at age 4, got my first serious lead at 7 and worked steadily for 11 years including 6 years of repertory. Then I turned 18 and worked in commercial broadcasting for 24 years in Seattle and Los Angeles, won a smattering of awards, high ratings, and a reasonable reputation.
For nine years I trained and taught at one of the largest and most highly recommended acting schools in the motion picture industry.
Playhouse West enjoys what is probably the highest percentage of working actors, as students and teachers, of any acting school in LA. I had my own school in Seattle for another ten years and conducted classes independently for many more in Los Angeles.
I saw and worked with hundreds of students every week for years. Some succeeded, some failed. I can tell you what they did in either case and maybe that will help you.
All that makes me a knowledgeable source.
Every day the MOST talented people AND the LEAST talented people, in the world, make their way to LA to “Give Acting a Shot!”. That makes the motion picture business, and acting in particular, among the most competitive industries on earth. Professional sports and the Olympics are only moderately more competitive.
It’s estimated that 500,000 people in L.A. call themselves actors. About 200,000 of them belong to the Union, SAG/AFTRA, and somewhere between 8 and 10 thousand of that number are working actors, those who earn their livings, exclusively, from acting. There are, in addition, a couple hundred movie stars.
It’s that “Working Actors” group you want to crack. That takes work. First you have to get training. If you know how to act then you will be more successful in your auditions. High School or College training rarely gets anyone work in TV and the movies. That’s just the first of many bitter pills.
Find an acting school in Los Angeles that is producing actors who are getting work. If you go to a teacher or coach and ask them who among their students are working, and they cite someone who had a walk on or a 5 and under, two years ago, you may want to look elsewhere.
You’ll need to know what a ‘walk on’ and a ‘5 and under’ are.
Your first time on camera, can’t be your first time on camera.
Make student films, maybe 2, maybe a half dozen of them, just to get some experience and get comfortable being photographed while acting. They won’t pay you anything and they’ll never give you copies of your own work to use on your reels (even though they say they will) but at least it’s a credit and you never really want anyone to see that stuff.
Listen carefully when I say you CAN NOT make a career out of working for free.
Don’t worry about getting an agent at the beginning. When you start getting paid work an agent will find you. You’re always going to have to get your own jobs and agencies are impressed with those who get their careers going without them. Also, if you get offered a job you can walk into any agency in town and tell them you have a contract which needs negotiating and they’ll take the work. They may not sign you but maybe they’ll ‘hip pocket’ you to see if you get more work.
Don’t know what “hip pocketing” is, learn.
Look through IMDB.com and you’ll find that it’s pretty standard to work for 8 to 10 years before you get a big break. Yes, there are those who get lucky and break out sooner but that’s the norm, 8 to 10 years.
Once you’ve put together 6 to 8 credits on prime time network then you’ll start to get good serious small roles in film.
Self-aggrandizement is paramount. You have to get attention in the business of getting attention.
Do your own projects, do showcases, do scene nights, do plays, never stop working. If you meet someone in the business and they ask, “Where can I see you?”, and you don’t have an answer in which you can be proud, then you’re not working hard enough.
You have to educate yourself; learn everything you can about the motion picture business, it’s history, and the people who run it today. You should know who’s who in Hollywood, who Lew Wasserman was and who Keith Addis is. Yes, you should get to know DeadLine and Nikki Finke. I know she’s old business but you will learn a lot if you make the effort to learn.
Make flashcards of all the real players and drill yourself on them. Is Arthur Allen Seidelman sitting at your table or ahead of you in line at the Supermercado? He’s not dead is he? Why does he matter?
And you’d better learn Spanish. Half of L.A. speaks Spanish and you are going to have to live there.
My point is this, if the motion picture industry is where you intend to spend your career then that’s the area in which to make yourself an expert. An expert!
Furthermore, if acting doesn’t interest you enough to practice every day, every day, EVERY DAY, then stay home. Your competition is working harder than you are willing to work and you will not win.
There’s a possibility you’ve never read a screenplay if you’re reading this. Read some. Read a lot of them. Read all the American plays between the years 1930 and 1964. That will give you a good foundation. Read as many screenplays as you possibly can, a couple thousand your first year. You have to learn what a good script looks like, that’s a big part of your job as a professional actor.
So, that’s the life of a working actor: Train, Campaign, Read, and Look for Work.
After a couple of years of acting school, learning about the business, putting together your marketing plan and getting the hang of driving in LA, you will begin auditioning. If you’re doing your job right then you should pursue a hundred auditions your first year out. You may work once or twice from the effort.
Your next couple of years of job hunting, you’ll want to get at least a hundred auditions each year. You are at the beginning of your career, this is the time that you build your reputation. You do that through your auditions.
If you’ve trained correctly and targeted the right casting agents for your marketing plan then you may work two or three times each year.
Over the next couple of years you should aim for a hundred auditions each year. At the end of this biennium you may have worked three or four times each year and may have perhaps been called in for Network Approval.
The following year you might get two or three prime time network credits. That will require about a hundred auditions.
If every time they call you in you’re pretty good, if every time they call you in you’re a little better than the time before, by the time you’re “Ready”, everyone will know it and everyone will agree.
“Ready” is an industry term for work that meets or exceeds the level of expectation one has of a professional.
Here is some advice, show up on time and prepared all the time. If you’re going to do this do it full on. Who is your favorite director and why? Who is your favorite screenwriter and why? Your favorite DP? Editor? Why do you want to work with any of them? Who is Gordon Parks and why did he matter?
If you want to work in the Movie Business then you have to make yourself an expert in it.
Do that now.
As the late Sanford Meisner was fond of saying, “Why would you show up late for your dream?”
My name is Joseph Dean Coburn and I teach acting.