Actor Career Guide

What is an actor?

An actor is a performer who assumes the role of a character in various forms of media, including stage plays, movies, television shows, radio, and more. They bring to life the characters in a story, employing various acting techniques to convincingly portray emotions, motives, and actions scripted for their roles. Their value in any performance-based presentation is immense as they play the critical task of communicating the essence of a story and engaging the audience.

They use their voices, body, and emotions to depict a wide range of characters, from the everyday person to outlandish fictional characters. Their work requires a deep understanding of the human condition and the ability to invoke empathy from an audience. In a broader sense, these professionals contribute significantly to society’s cultural and artistic life, often sparking conversations, evoking emotions, and promoting thought and change through their performances.

Duties and responsibilities

An actor’s responsibilities primarily revolve around portraying a character within a story. They study scripts, learn lines, and develop their characters. In addition to dialogue delivery, they use gestures, body language, and facial expressions to bring their characters to life. They collaborate with directors, fellow actors, and other professionals in rehearsing scenes and adjusting performances based on feedback. Their roles often require research to better understand the character’s traits and background, ranging from understanding a profession, era, or lifestyle.

Work environment

The work environment for actors varies widely depending on the type of acting they are engaged in. They may work on a stage for theater productions, on film sets for movies or television shows, or in recording studios for radio or voiceover work. Some might perform in unusual environments, such as outdoor locations or live events. The job can be physically demanding and sometimes performed under challenging conditions. These professionals often travel for work, especially those involved in touring theater productions or filming in various locations.

Typical work hours

Acting does not follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule. The hours can be long and irregular, often including early mornings, late nights, and weekends. Work hours can be particularly extensive when an actor is part of a production, with intensive rehearsals leading to performances or shoots. Additionally, they might have periods of unemployment between jobs, a common aspect of the profession. However, when not actively performing, they typically spend time auditioning for roles, attending read-throughs, or honing their craft through training and workshops.

How to become an actor

Becoming an actor involves a combination of talent, training, and tenacity. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Begin acting classes

While it is tempting to begin your acting career by moving to bigger cities like Los Angeles and New York City to gain traction, it is essential for actors to focus on improving their talent. While those cities provide many job opportunities for prominent actors, it is a competitive job market for those just beginning their careers. That is why the first step is to start taking local acting classes. There are several different workshops and camps you can attend that will improve certain aspects of acting that you may struggle with.

Here are some of the different types of acting classes available to aspiring individuals:

  • Acting Technique Classes – This is the most common acting class actors take. This class provides a foundation in the acting world by being taught different ways to better their technique and skill. Common techniques like Meisner Technique and Method Acting will be taught in these classes.
  • Audition Technique Classes – Once you become familiar with the different acting techniques, enrolling in an audition technique class will be necessary. This class will help individuals become more comfortable auditioning for potential roles in the future.
  • Scene Study Classes – These classes allow students to watch and analyze various play, television, and film scenes. Students will be given certain material for the class to memorize, rehearse, and act out. 
  • Cold Reading Classes – This class will help individuals dive deeper into the auditioning process by learning how to cold read. Cold reading requires you to deliver a script with little to no preparation. This class will teach students to quickly read, analyze and memorize the text while properly delivering their lines in an animated way.  
  • Improvisation Classes – This class will teach you the skill of improv. While improv isn’t required for some acting, it is a very valuable skill that will teach students to think quickly on their feet to deliver a usually funny performance. 

There are also online courses available to help you get started. Here are some of our recommendations:

  • Acting doesn’t just have to be a dream! Take a self-paced online course from Udemy, Directing the Actor, that will teach you the acting basics, from memorizing lines to taking stage instruction.
  • To learn from a top professional, take the Masterclass from Natalie Portman. She talks about the skills that have led to her success and how you can use those skills for your own success.
  • If you wish to be in front of the camera, then this Acting 101 course is for you. From working on auditions, monologues, and scene study to sharing the secrets of success in local markets and in Hollywood, you will learn the ins and out of marketing yourself. 

Step 2: Hone your acting skills

Start by participating in school plays or community theater to gain initial experience. Consider taking acting classes or workshops to develop your skills further. This can provide a safe space to make mistakes, receive feedback, and improve. Some individuals may pursue a bachelor’s degree in theater arts, drama, acting, or a related field, but formal education is optional in this industry.

Step 3: Gain experience

Look for opportunities to perform in front of an audience. This could be in school or community theater, student films, or online platforms. Audition for a variety of roles to gain experience in playing different characters. This will not only help you build your acting skills but also give you exposure and help you start building a portfolio.

Step 4:  Consider formal training

While not necessary, formal training in a drama school or university theater program can give you a comprehensive understanding of the craft and expose you to various acting techniques and styles. It also allows you to perform in professional-grade productions and network with industry professionals.

Step 5: Get a headshot and create a resume

A professional headshot and a well-crafted resume are vital in this industry. Your headshot should be a high-quality, current photo of yourself. Your resume should include your physical characteristics, training, and experience. As you gain more experience, keep your resume updated.

Step 6: Find an agent

A good agent can help you find auditions you might not be able to seek out on your own. They have industry connections and know about casting calls and opportunities. When choosing an agent, do your research to find someone reputable who is a good fit for you and your career goals.

Step 7: Audition

Auditioning is a fundamental part of an actor’s career. Be prepared to face rejection, as it’s a highly competitive industry. However, every audition is a chance to perform and gain more experience.

Step 8: Network

Making connections within the industry can help you learn about upcoming opportunities and gain valuable advice. Attend industry events, join acting guilds or associations, and engage with online and offline communities.

Step 9: Continue learning and improving

Acting is a field where you can continuously improve. Take every opportunity to learn, whether it’s from a formal acting class, a workshop, a mentor, or even from watching other actors. Stay updated on industry trends and continually work on your craft.

Remember, every actor’s journey is unique, and this career has no one-size-fits-all path. Persistence, passion, and resilience can go a long way in this industry.

How much do actors make?

The income of actors can significantly vary based on a wide range of factors, such as the type of work (TV, film, theater), the size of the role, the production budget, their level of fame or skill, and geographic location. Many work part-time, and the nature of the profession can lead to periods of unemployment between jobs. Bonuses and profit-sharing arrangements can also contribute to their income, especially for high-profile roles in successful productions.

Highest paying industries

  • Motion Picture and Video: $75,000
  • Performing Arts Companies: $68,460
  • Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers: $62,870
  • Promoters of Performing Arts, Sports, and Similar Events: $56,180
  • Radio and Television Broadcasting: $50,860

Highest paying states

  • California: $70,490
  • New York: $68,290
  • Texas: $59,810
  • Georgia: $58,670
  • Illinois: $56,240

Browse actor salary data by market

Types of actors

In this section of the career guide, we dive into the various types and specializations of actors. The acting profession is diverse, with many choosing to specialize in a particular type or style of performance.

Theater actor

Theater actors specialize in performing in live stage productions. They may work in various settings, including professional theaters, community theaters, and dinner theaters. These actors often have a strong background in performance techniques such as voice projection, physical expressiveness, and improvisation. They might further specialize in specific types of theatre, such as musical, experimental, or classical.

Film actor

Film actors work in the motion picture industry. Performing in various film genres, from dramas and comedies to action movies and science fiction films, these professionals must adapt to the technical demands of filming, including working with cameras and often out-of-sequence shooting schedules. Their performances reach audiences worldwide through cinemas and streaming platforms.

Television actor

Television actors perform in TV programs, including dramas, comedies, soap operas, and reality shows. They may work on episodic series, playing a character over a long period, or in made-for-television movies. The pace of television production can be fast, requiring adaptability and versatility from actors.

Voice actor

Voice actors specialize in providing voices for animated characters in films, television shows, and video games. They also work in radio and commercials, providing voices for off-screen narrators. Voice acting requires exceptional vocal control, versatility, and the ability to create a character through voice alone.

Commercial actor

Commercial actors perform in advertisements for television, radio, and online platforms. They promote products or services through short, engaging performances designed to appeal to specific target audiences. Commercial acting requires various skills, from comedic timing to conveying sincerity and trustworthiness.

Extra or background actor

Extras, also known as background actors, perform non-speaking roles in films, television shows, and commercials. They fill out scenes by portraying everyday people, like pedestrians on a street, customers in a restaurant, or spectators at a sporting event. While they typically don’t have lines, their performances contribute to the realism and atmosphere of a scene.

Top skills for actors

Actors breathe life into characters in a play, film, or television show, transforming written scripts into engaging performances. Essential skills for success in this role include creative interpretation, emotional expressiveness, physical stamina, effective communication abilities, and adaptability.

Creative interpretation is at the heart of an actor’s work. They must be able to analyze scripts, understand the motivations and personalities of their characters, and devise creative ways to portray these elements convincingly. This requires a deep well of creativity and a willingness to explore different approaches to their roles. Their interpretive skills directly influence the believability of their performances and the audience’s connection to the characters they portray.

Emotional expressiveness is crucial. They must convincingly convey a wide range of emotions to bring their characters to life and engage the audience. Human emotions must be understood deeply and accessed and expressed on demand. The ability to express emotions authentically makes characters relatable and compelling, contributing significantly to the success of a performance.

Physical stamina is often overlooked but is another important skill. Whether performing on stage, in a film, or on a television show, actors often work long hours under physically demanding conditions. They may need to perform their own stunts, dance, or maintain high energy levels for extended periods. Physical stamina allows them to meet these challenges and deliver consistent, energetic performances.

Effective communication abilities are essential to convey their characters’ thoughts and feelings through their dialogue and physical movements. Additionally, these professionals must communicate effectively with directors, fellow actors, and other crew members to understand their roles, interpret feedback, and collaborate on scenes. Good communication skills foster a productive working environment and contribute to the overall quality of a performance.

Lastly, adaptability is a key skill, as scripts and directors’ visions can change quickly, and they must be able to adapt their performances accordingly. Depending on their roles, they may also need to switch between different acting styles, such as drama, comedy, or action. The ability to adapt ensures they can meet the demands of various roles and contribute to the success of different types of productions.

Actor career path

A career as an actor often begins with a passion for performing arts. Many aspiring individuals participate in school or community theater to gain experience and develop their skills. While formal education like a bachelor’s degree in theatre, drama, or performing arts can be beneficial, it’s not always required. Many continually hone their craft through workshops, acting classes, and other training programs.

Early in their careers, actors often start with smaller roles in local productions, commercials, or student films to build their portfolios. They may also work as background actors or “extras” in larger productions. In the U.S., joining acting guilds or unions, such as the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), can provide more opportunities.

As experience and exposure are gained, they may land larger roles in more prominent productions. Many also find it beneficial to work with an agent who can help them find auditions and negotiate contracts.

Successful actors often have careers that span many years, with roles in theatre, television, and film. However, it’s important to note that this career can have periods of unemployment between jobs, and many professionals supplement their income with related work, such as teaching acting classes or working in other production areas.

The acting profession is dynamic, with trends heavily influenced by cultural shifts, technological advancements, and changes in consumer behavior. Over recent years, the rise of streaming platforms has resulted in a surge of new content, providing actors with additional opportunities outside traditional media such as film and television.

The growth of virtual and augmented reality technologies is also creating new spaces to explore. The gig nature of acting work has been amplified by these developments, with actors often juggling multiple roles and projects simultaneously. The demand for diverse representation in media has also increased, opening the industry to a wider range of talents.

Employment projections for actors

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of actors is projected to grow 8 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. Several factors are contributing to this growth. One factor is the increasing popularity of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. These services are creating a demand for new content, driving up the demand for actors. Another factor contributing to the growth in employment for these professionals is the increasing popularity of international film and television markets. This is expanding their opportunities to work on projects that are seen by a global audience.

Actor career tips

Understand your character deeply

As an actor, your primary responsibility is to embody the character you’re playing, which requires a deep understanding of the character’s motivations, backstory, and emotional landscape. Analyze the script and develop a rich, nuanced understanding of your character.

Build a professional network

Creating a solid network is crucial in the acting industry. It helps you learn about auditions, get advice from seasoned professionals, and potentially land roles. Consider joining relevant professional associations and networks such as:

  • Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)
  • Actors’ Equity Association (AEA)
  • British Actors’ Equity Association
  • International Federation of Actors (FIA)

Create a diverse portfolio

Casting directors and agents want to see versatility in an actor. Work on building a diverse portfolio that showcases your range and talent in different roles and mediums. This can include stage work, commercials, film and television roles, and voiceover work.

Stay physically and vocally fit

Acting often requires physical stamina and vocal strength. Regular exercise and vocal training can help you meet the demands of various roles, from stage performances that require projecting your voice to film roles that require physical agility.

Pursue continuous learning and professional development

Acting is a craft that requires constant honing. Consider taking classes, workshops, and training programs to improve your acting techniques, learn new skills, and stay competitive. Some areas to focus on might include:

  • Improvisation techniques
  • Voice and speech training
  • Physical theatre techniques
  • Scene study and script analysis
  • Camera acting techniques

Understand the business of acting

Acting is not just a craft; it’s also a business. Understanding the industry, including how to market yourself, how to work with agents and casting directors, and how contracts work, is essential for a successful acting career.

Develop resilience and perseverance

Rejection is a part of the industry. Developing resilience and the ability to bounce back from disappointment is crucial. Stay motivated and persistent in pursuing roles, even in the face of rejection.

Cultivate patience

Success in acting often takes time to come. Landing significant roles or achieving recognition can take years of hard work and perseverance. Cultivate patience and stay committed to your craft, even when success is slow.

Where the actor jobs are

Top companies

  • Warner Bros.
  • The Walt Disney Company
  • Universal Pictures
  • Paramount Pictures
  • Netflix

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Texas

Top job sites

  • Zengig
  • Actors Access
  • Casting Networks
  • Playbill
  • Voice123


What type of training is beneficial for an aspiring actor?

While some actors find success without formal training, many opt to study drama or related fields in undergraduate or graduate programs. Courses in drama, music, film, and dance can provide them with various skills and knowledge. Additionally, many participate in acting workshops or drama clubs to gain experience and hone their skills.

Do actors need to join a union?

While it’s not mandatory for an actor to join a union, many choose to do so as they provide benefits such as contract negotiation, dispute resolution, and sometimes health insurance. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Actors’ Equity Association are two of the most prominent unions in the United States.

What are the typical working hours for an actor?

Working hours for actors can be irregular and long. Stage performances often occur in the evenings to accommodate audiences, and weekend work is common. For film and television actors, days can start early and end late, and they may be required to work on location for extended periods.

What skills are necessary to succeed as an actor?

In addition to talent in performing, actors need a host of other skills. These include interpreting scripts, expressing emotion, and conveying characters convincingly. Good communication skills, physical stamina, creativity, and the ability to work as part of a team are also critical.

How competitive is the acting field?

The acting field is known to be highly competitive. There are often many more actors than there are available roles. Persistence, networking, and continuous improvement of acting skills are often key to success in this field.

What’s the role of an agent for an actor?

An agent assists actors in finding work by presenting them to directors, producers, and casting directors. Agents also negotiate contracts on behalf of their clients. While not all actors have agents, having one can provide more opportunities for auditions and roles.

How important is physical fitness for an actor?

Physical fitness can be necessary for actors, as the job often requires long hours, and physical demands can be high, especially for roles that involve action or dancing. However, the degree to which physical fitness is essential can vary greatly depending on the role.

Can an actor have a stable income?

Income stability can be a challenge for actors. Many have periods of unemployment between roles, and not all roles pay high salaries. Some supplement their income by working in related fields, such as teaching acting classes when not working on a production.

What’s the difference between stage acting and film acting?

Stage acting and film acting require different skills. Stage acting often involves more exaggerated expressions and gestures so that audience members in the back of the theater can see the performance. In contrast, film acting is usually more subtle, as cameras can pick up smaller gestures and facial expressions.

How should an actor handle rejection?

Rejection is a standard part of an actor’s career. Not getting a role doesn’t necessarily mean they lack talent—it could be that they simply weren’t the right fit for the part. Successful actors learn to cope with rejection, often viewing it as an opportunity to learn and improve. Resilience and persistence are vital traits for anyone pursuing a career in acting.