Actor Career Guide

What is an actor?

An actor is someone who plays characters in media like plays, films, TV shows, and radio. They use their talent to make these characters seem real, showing a variety of emotions and behaviors as the story requires. Actors are important in telling stories and keeping audiences engaged.

Actors use their voices, movements, and feelings to bring all kinds of characters to life, from ordinary people to imaginative figures. They need to really understand people and emotions to make their audience feel something. They’re more than just entertainers; through their work, they help shape our culture and can inspire discussions and new ideas.

Duties and responsibilities

An actor’s main job is to bring a character to life in a story by memorizing lines, understanding the character, and using body language and expressions to make the character believable. They work closely with directors and other actors to practice scenes and improve their performance. Often, they need to research to get a better grasp of their character’s background, like their job, the time period they’re from, or their way of life.

Work environment

Actors work in different places depending on their roles. They might be on stage for theater, on movie or TV sets, or in studios for radio or voiceover jobs. Some act in unique settings like outdoors or at live events. The work can be physically tough and sometimes in challenging conditions. Actors often travel, especially when touring theater shows or filming in different locations.

Typical work hours

Actors don’t have a standard work schedule. They often work long and odd hours, like early mornings or late nights, including weekends. When in a production, they have busy periods with lots of rehearsals or filming. Actors might also have time without work. During these breaks, they usually audition for new roles, go to script readings, or improve their skills with training and workshops.

How to become an actor

To become an actor, follow these steps:

Step 1: Start acting classes locally

Before aiming for big cities, improve your talent locally. Join acting workshops and classes to work on areas you find challenging. Common classes include:

  • Acting technique classes: Learn basic acting methods like the Meisner Technique and Method Acting.
  • Audition technique classes: Get comfortable with auditioning for roles.
  • Scene study classes: Analyze, rehearse, and act out various scenes.
  • Cold reading classes: Practice delivering scripts with minimal preparation.
  • Improvisation classes: Develop quick thinking and performance skills.

Online courses are also a good start, like Udemy’s Directing the Actor, Natalie Portman’s Masterclass, or Acting 101 for camera acting.

Step 2: Develop your acting skills

Participate in school plays or community theater. Classes and workshops can offer feedback and improvement opportunities. Some actors also pursue a bachelor’s degree in theater or acting, but it’s not a must.

Step 3: Gain performance experience

Perform as much as possible in different settings and roles. This will build your skills, exposure, and portfolio.

Step 4: Consider formal training

Drama schools or university programs can deepen your understanding of acting and offer networking opportunities, though it’s not essential.

Step 5: Create a professional headshot and resume

Your headshot should be high-quality and recent. Include your physical attributes, training, and experience in your resume, updating it as you gain more roles.

Step 6: Find an agent

Agents can open doors to auditions and opportunities. Research to find a reputable one that aligns with your career goals.

Step 7: Audition regularly

Auditioning is key, even though it’s competitive and rejections are common. Each one is a chance to perform and grow.

Step 8: Network in the industry

Build connections to learn about opportunities and get advice. Join acting guilds, attend events, and participate in online and offline communities.

Step 9: Keep learning and improving

The acting field always has room for improvement. Learn from classes, mentors, and observing others. Stay current with industry trends.

Remember, every actor’s path is different, and success in this field requires persistence, passion, and resilience.

How much do actors make?

Actors’ earnings vary greatly depending on factors like the type of project (TV, film, theater), the size of their role, the production budget, their fame or skill level, and where they work. Many work part-time and may have times without work. Their income can also include bonuses and profit-sharing, particularly for well-known actors in successful projects.

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 and Sports: $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

Theater actor

These actors perform live on stage. They might work in professional, community, or dinner theaters. Skills like voice projection, physical expressiveness, and improvisation are essential. They may focus on specific theater types, such as musical, experimental, or classical.

Film actor

Film actors appear in movies across various genres, from drama to science fiction. They must adapt to filming techniques, like working with cameras and shooting scenes out of sequence. Their performances are shown in cinemas and on streaming platforms worldwide.

Television actor

Television actors work in TV shows, including dramas, comedies, and soap operas. They might play a character over many episodes or in TV movies. The fast pace of TV production demands adaptability.

Voice actor

Voice actors provide voices for characters in animated films, TV shows, video games, radio, and commercials. They need excellent vocal control and the ability to create characters using just their voice.

Commercial actor

These actors perform in ads for TV, radio, and online. They must engage viewers and convincingly promote products or services. Skills like comedic timing and the ability to convey sincerity are crucial.

Extra or background actor

Extras fill non-speaking roles in films, TV shows, and commercials, adding realism to scenes. They portray everyday people and don’t typically have lines, but their presence enhances the scene’s authenticity.

Top skills for actors

  • Creative interpretation: Actors must analyze scripts, understand characters, and creatively bring them to life. Their deep creativity and willingness to try different approaches impact how believable and relatable their performances are.
  • Emotional expressiveness: Conveying a range of emotions convincingly and authentically makes their characters compelling and relatable.
  • Physical stamina: Actors work long hours, sometimes under demanding conditions, and may perform stunts or dance. Stamina helps them maintain energy and consistency in their performances.
  • Effective communication abilities: Good communication is vital to expressing thoughts and feelings on stage or screen and working with directors, fellow actors, and crew. It helps in understanding roles, interpreting feedback, and collaborating effectively.
  • Adaptability: Actors must quickly adapt to changes in scripts or direction and switch between different acting styles. Being adaptable helps them meet various role demands and contribute to diverse productions.

Actor career path

The actor career path typically follows these stages:

  • Early interest and experience: Many start with a love for performing arts and get involved in school or community theater to build skills and experience.
  • Education and training: While not always necessary, a bachelor’s degree in theater, drama, or performing arts can be helpful. Actors often continue improving through workshops, acting classes, and training programs.
  • Starting small: Early career actors usually begin with minor roles in local productions, commercials, or student films. Working as an extra in larger productions is also common. This period is crucial for building a portfolio.
  • Joining guilds or unions: In the U.S., joining organizations like SAG-AFTRA can offer more opportunities and support.
  • Advancing to larger roles: With experience, they can land more significant roles in prominent productions. An agent can be beneficial for finding auditions and handling contracts.
  • Long-term career and versatility: Successful actors often have diverse careers, appearing in theater, TV, and film over many years.
  • Supplementing income: Due to the sporadic nature of acting jobs, many supplement their income with related work, like teaching acting or other roles in production.

It’s a career marked by passion and resilience, often requiring flexibility and a commitment to continual learning and adaptation.

The acting profession is evolving due to cultural shifts, technological advancements, and consumer behavior changes. Key trends include:

  • Rise of streaming platforms: The growth of platforms like Netflix and Hulu has led to more content creation, offering actors opportunities beyond traditional film and TV.
  • Virtual and augmented reality: New technologies are opening up innovative spaces for performance, impacting the nature and variety of acting roles.
  • Gig nature of work: Actors often work on multiple projects simultaneously, a trend that’s been reinforced by the industry’s current dynamics.
  • Diverse representation: There’s a growing demand for diverse talents in media, broadening the industry’s inclusivity.

Employment projections for actors

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 8% growth in actor employment through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. The demand for new content and the increasing popularity of international film and TV markets drive this growth.

Actor career tips

Deeply understand your character

Dive into your character’s motivations, background, and emotions. Analyze the script thoroughly to develop a detailed understanding.

Build a professional network

Networking helps with finding auditions, getting advice, and landing roles. Join groups like SAG-AFTRA, AEA, British Actors’ Equity Association, and the International Federation of Actors. 

Create a diverse portfolio

Show your versatility to casting directors and agents. Include various types of work like stage, commercials, film, TV, and voiceover in your portfolio.

Stay fit physically and vocally

Acting can be demanding physically and vocally. Regular exercise and vocal training prepare you for different roles.

Pursue continuous learning

Acting skills always have room for improvement. Engage in classes, workshops, and training for various aspects, such as improvisation, voice and speech, physical theatre, scene study, and camera acting.

Understand the business side

Learn about marketing yourself, working with agents, understanding contracts, and the overall business aspects of acting.

Develop resilience and perseverance

Rejection is common in acting. Build resilience and keep persisting in pursuing roles despite setbacks.

Cultivate patience

Acting success often takes time. Be patient and stay dedicated to your craft, even when progress seems 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 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 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 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, they need to know how to interpret scripts, express emotion, and convey 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, as there are often many more actors than there are available roles. Persistence, networking, and continuous improvement of acting skills are often key to success.

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. They 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, as the job often requires long hours, and physical demands can be high, especially for roles that involve action or dancing. This can vary greatly depending on the role.

Can an actor have a stable income?

Income stability can be a challenge. 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 the 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 an acting career.