THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND AS YOUR ACTING CAREER ADVANCES:
Be realistic, not naive: Building your (voice) acting career will take a lot of time and money and may not ever financially pay off:
Building a professional acting career will in all likelihood take years of “going for it,” “paying dues,” making connections and earning trust of gate keepers and colleagues. It may require years to convince yourself you are up for it. It will require patience and a long-term mindset.
“Show business” is equal parts “show” and “business.” If you are deficient in either, it doesn’t bode well. Setting up shop among established professionals may eventually yield good results, but like most start up businesses, it will typically take at least a few years to turn a profit, if it ever does, so you’d better have a great “product” and workable plan of action that pays attention to financial reality.
An actor requires a good business mind in addition to creative and marketing smarts, the right temperament and a good bit of luck.
(Side note: I mention luck only briefly, but it is definitely a factor in an acting career! The way I see it, people move to a larger city like Los Angeles to be exposed to a higher concentration of “luck” and opportunity coming over the plate. The down side is that there is also a higher concentration of “bad luck” and unfortunate accidental set backs in a big city, as well.)
The professional actor as a pizza joint:
You could compare moving to L.A. to be a voice actor to moving to New York to start a pizza joint. First, you must have a stand out slice of pie (you) in addition to a business plan if you want to thrive and endure as a business enterprise.
What’s unique about your product? What’s the word of mouth on your shop? How do people feel when they walk out the door? What’s the immediate impression of a customer? What impression do they leave with?
Remember, you’re not just selling a product- it’s the whole package- an entire experience. And if the pizza stinks, or the service sucks, or the ambiance is unpleasant, or the facilities lacking in some way, no amount of mailers or billboards will save your business.
No matter how good your pizza is, all it takes is one unimpressive experience to turn a patron away for good.
Why should someone try your pizza and not the established well-liked one down the street? What would make them a loyal costumer?
It may sound crass, but there are a lot of parallels to be drawn here, because this career isn’t just an art, it’s a business.
Save yourself a lot of time and grief by earning some “personal armor” in a smaller market before going on to battle in the big city. Get as much paid performing experience as you can before you move to L.A. (or a big city):
Many aspiring actors arrive in L.A. or New York ill-prepared to chase their dreams. It’s as if they arrived at the big race track without having first built their car or learned to drive it. They proceed to waste time and money slogging it out, trying to get to a level of readiness that they should have had when they arrived.
Unfortunately, the Big City is a uniquely difficult place to begin “cutting your teeth.” You’re in for a slog one way or the other, so how about shortening it by arriving ready to make the best of your time?
Without the earned armor of experience, you and your delicate but talented ego may well not survive the slings and arrows of getting started, let alone the rocky climb to success. I hope you won’t be one of those who up and move to a city like Los Angeles or New York with no experience, no plan, and no understanding– just to “follow your dream.” Not that it can’t play out well, eventually, but it so rarely does. It’s frankly a naive and idiotic way to do it.
I’d recommend at least a few years gaining experience in a smaller market, testing out your talent and confirming whether acting and “show biz” are a good fit for you. This could mean trying stage, radio, music, standup, or a combination. Good improv training is particularly helpful.
Does it work for you? Is it fun? Are you good at this? These are other such questions are best answered before you enter the “Thunder Dome.”
Above all, you must become a good actor– an active listener with a tap on your instincts, control of your powers. You must be directable, a fountain of good ideas and fun to have in on “the party” that is the gig. The dynamic of how you get along with others in the booth is probably more important that you think.
Also, I can’t think of any voice actor I work with who can’t make others laugh. Your own version of “funny” is important to have. You don’t need to be a stand up (though it could help), but you need the confidence to hold your own as you stand alone at a mic or sit in a room with VO monsters.
Save up as much money as possible before moving to a bigger city:
Living in Los Angeles is expensive. It’s worse in New York. Professional voice acting is predominantly a “union scale” gig (it pays the minimum the SAG-AFTRA contract allows, sometimes with residuals, sometimes not, sometimes with months of delay before you get your paycheck). Hence, you must book a lot of work to earn a living at V.O. You (and/or your partner) will probably need a “real job” to pay the bills until your career gets traction or as a fall back.
(For more detail on the financial nuts and bolts of voice acting,CLICK HERE.)
Even with talent and a good resume’, an actor should expect at least a few years before earning a living acting kicks in, regardless of your level of experience, training or talent. You may have the goods but you can’t skip the climb from zero, which is where most everyone starts when they arrive in the big city, regardless of their readiness.
And, success isn’t permanent. An acting career typically runs in fits and starts and this includes voice acting. A fallback “plan B” for paying the bills is a good thing, especially for the first few years.
Taking a Calculated Risk
Advancing an acting career requires a series of calculated risks. You establish a good thing in one city you eventually may walk away from in hopes of finding a better thing elsewhere.
You take targeted chances and risks. You go for it. To pay off big, it takes instincts and guts. You must have a good grasp of what you can do and what you’re stepping into.
It can be tough: Good acting requires ongoing vulnerability and it’s hard not to take loss and rejection personally.
Taking your game to a bigger city for more opportunity is sort of like pressing a bet that is already paying off. You up that bet, while progressively peeling off a bit of it to put in the confidence bank.
Actors are gamblers. Which kind do you want to be?
Taking a well-considered calculated risk can pay off or not. But crazy or naive betting (which is what most gamblers do) is almost always a losing proposition, if not now, then soon enough. I would hope you don’t pack all your money in a suitcase and head Caesar’s Palace, plunk your money down on the craps table and say, “Gimme the dice! How do I play this?”
So the project of becoming an actor is not for the timid or faint of heart or the naive. The career selects for savvy gamblers. An actor must take chances, sometimes big ones, with your career as well as with your art to advance your game and build your success. The career tends to select for this kind of person.
Be prepared for your reputation and career to “start back at zero” when you move to a bigger city or market:
You may be an established “pro” in your home town, so it may come as a shock that you reset your “success meter” at zero when you start over in a new city. Why? Because those that create and cast don’t yet know or trust you.
Remember that for someone to hire (or sign) you, they must put their time and reputation on the line. A pro doesn’t do this thoughtlessly or to be “nice,” right? They do that because it makes sense for them (as it should also for you).
No matter your level of talent or experience when starting out, you must still earn your connections, your reputation and other’s trust in a new city. This takes time and work.
You may have already made it up the “smaller mountain,” but that doesn’t give you a free pass halfway up the next biggest mountain. You still have to climb the new one, though you will be better suited for the rigors of the climb, thanks to the smaller mountain you already conquered.
Ultimately, a freelance actor never stops having to earn your career and your place in the the casting roll call, because of the turnover rate of those that create and cast.
There are always new creative decision makers and gate keepers who have no idea who you are or what you are capable of. It is part of your job to make the new generation of casting folks and directors and show creators well aware of this as you build your creative powers and reputation.
Your talent and experience don’t entitle you to a free tram lift up to the top of Mount Actor that everyone needs to climb.
Be realistic about the business side of your craft in a larger market and you’ll have an advantage over most:
I like Vegas as a professional actor’s metaphor.
Moving to Los Angeles to start a career in voice/acting is similar to setting up shop in Las Vegas to become a professional gambler. The odds on most games aren’t favorable (they’re really for suckers), the “house edge“ is steep and your competition of good players may appear overwhelming.
But it may not be quite as bad as it seems when you’re only looking at only the sheer number of “competitors.”
Consider that most arriving in Vegas lack an understanding or even appreciation of the math and statistics that underlie the games being played. Most hit Sin City the lazy way. They tend to gravitate to the games with the worst odds, relying on naive hope as they empty their pockets. They aim to quickly “get lucky” and win big, perhaps with the help of a book they picked up at the airport or a tip from a friend. They just want the short, quick payoff.
Sure, there are a lot of players, but judging from their success rate, most are really just playing for the dumb thrill of an occasional payoff. Their goal is clearly not a sustainable winning streak. For most, Vegas is a losing game, financially speaking. Just like L.A. or New York.
A little losing can be fun, but a sustained winning streak is way more fun.
In L.A. as in Vegas, a big part of your eventual success depends on which games you choose to play, how you play them and how you frame the game in your mind.
A brief look at a gambler playing paints a picture of his/her gambling career.
As I try to show you on my site, your mindset and strategy set the limits and outcomes for your success and failure. Like Vegas, baby.
An essential part of building a career is making professional connections– earning the trust of those who create, cast and work regularly. This will take time.
Be careful driving in L.A.:
Driving can be dangerous in Los Angeles: Don’t get mad at someone else while driving in L.A.
An actor’s job is to have unfiltered, honest passions ready at the surface for hair trigger delivery, but you can’t let this interfere with your driving, where you are surrounded by crazy unsafe drivers in a big hurry to get in front of the car in front of them everytime you go out.
What’s the rush? Don’t get swept up in the frantic energy of those who want to be anywhere but where they are. At the gig you can go nuts, but behind the wheel, keep it cool, man.
Don’t text and drive or handle your cell phone while driving (both are illegal in L.A., though few seem to care). Deadly dangerous.
Also, check the parking signs carefully or you’ll be towed. Some park lanes must be cleared during rush hour times. If the tow truck the nice traffic cop calls hooks up to your illegally parked car before you get there, they’ve got it and you owe, even before the tow.
You may also notice that for many in L.A., turn signals are optional and a yellow stoplight apparently means “floor it.” In most cities, “green” means go. In L.A., a green stoplight means “check both ways then proceed with caution.”
Lock your vehicle and don’t have any valuables visible sitting on the seats. Smash-and-grab is an easy crime.
Don’t be a jerk:
It may be Hollywood, but the Golden Rule still applies, at least for voice-actors.
Respect the pro: His/her time is precious.
There’s nothing wrong with asking a pro for advice. Don’t be shy– be respectful and ask for advice or an opinion. Nothing to be embarrassed about. The pro was where you are once and so long as you don’t come off as needy or creepy, you may well get some good advice or help, especially if you have specific and thoughtful questions. What’s the worse that could happen if you ask for help or insight,? They say “no?”
Don’t creep, don’t stalk- just ask for the advice, thank them and move on. An aspiring pro doesn’t waste an establish pro’s time by asking for insight. We actors want to help other smart creatives out. We are fundamentally collaborative creatures.
“Should I incorporate?”
This is generally a question for a well-established actor who is already earning a living at it.
Weighing the decision to incorporate should happen only with the advice of a good CPA and/or entertainment lawyer who knows the specifics of your finances and can weigh the advantages and disadvantages specific to your income and general financial situation.
It depends not only on your amount of income but also the amount of professional expenses that you incur. It seems everyone eventually does incorporate, after a certain level of income.
Why incorporate? A corporation is a separate legal entity that enjoys significant tax advantages and enables you to put away more of your income for retirement in a tax deferred way, depending on the sort of corp you set up. It can also be more advantageous for you when dealing with professional expenses. Legitimate professional expenses are more easily written off when you are a corp.
Legally creating a corporation is expensive and there are yearly costs associated with maintaining it properly (legally). You need to keep on top of changing tax laws and other formalities, like keeping your personal and corporate finances properly separate. This may well call for ongoing legal and financial expertise to maintain a legal and smoothly running corporation, in addition to your work as an actor. You’d need a lawyer or law firm familiar with the law and an entertainer’s unique situation.
Only set up your corporation with good professional advice and help.
My special thanks to actor Paul Pape who gave a terrific speech I heard once upon a time about becoming a professional actor at a SAG seminar (thank you Screen Actors Guild for sponsoring this awesome outreach!). It helped me to frame my path towards a professional acting career and clarified for me the benefits of committing to union membership and a professional standard of work.