BEFORE YOU MOVE TO THE “BIG CITY,” HERE’S A REALITY CHECK:
Prepare for a slog:
Many aspiring actors who move to L.A. or New York aren’t ready for it. They waste years and a ton of 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 “cut your teeth.” You’re in for a slog one way or the other, but how about shortening it by arriving ready to go?
Be realistic: Building your (voice) acting career will take a lot of time and money and may not ever pay off:
Show business is equal parts “show” and “business.” Setting up shop among established professionals may 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, and you’d better know what you’re doing. It requires a good business mind in addition to creative and marketing smarts and the right temperament. I compare moving to L.A. to be an actor to moving to New York to start a pizza restaraunt. Actually, that would probably be easier. You must have a grasp of the business reality of your chosen craft if you want to make it.
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.
Without the earned armor of experience, you and your talent may well not survive the slings and arrows of the rocky climb to success.
Get as much paid performing experience as you can before you move to L.A. (or a big city):
I’d recommend at least a few years working in a smaller market. This could be stage, radio, music, standup, or a combination. Good improv training is particularly helpful. Above all, you must become a good actor– a good listener with good control of your powers, directable, with good ideas and fun to have in on “the party.” The dynamic of how you get along with others in the booth is probably more important that you think.
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. 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” until your career gets traction. Expect at least a few years before you earn a living acting. Success isn’t permanent. Your career may well run in fits and starts.
Be prepared for your reputation and career to “start back at zero” when you move to the big city:
You may be an established pro in your home town, but you start over when you move to a bigger market because those that create and cast don’t yet know or trust you. No matter your talent or experience, you must still earn your connections, your reputation and your career. This takes time.
Be realistic about the business side of your craft in a larger market and you’ll have an advantage over most:
Moving to Los Angeles to start a career in (voice) acting is like moving to Las Vegas to become a professional gambler. You have a ton of competition, but fortunately, most lack a grasp of the game and they really just play for the dumb thrill–not for a sustainable winning streak. This makes the odds a good bit better for the smart performer. Your real competition isn’t the raw numbers of competitors, but the smart players– those that understand the business as well as the art of professional acting.
Attract representation to and work to you by doing the amazing things you do:
I’m not a fan of relying solely on “cold calling” or endless “cold send outs” of your promotional materials trying to get an agent or manager or casting director interested in you. That mostly goes in the trash, though it can get some action. I find it’s more effective to put your work out there and use that as the bait to catch the fish. Get in a play or showcase, a student film, an improv troupe, make your own web series or movie, etc. Put your incredible creative abilities out there and you will get a response– eventually. You become what you do. Also, you might ask a fellow performer you are studying with in a voice class to recommend you to their agent, if it feels right. If you knock them out with your ability, their recommendation could get you an audience with their agent.
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.
Build bridges and don’t squander trust:
Have the good sense not to ask a well-placed friend or pro to recommend you or “walk in” your mediocre promotional materials. Asking someone to squander their trust and time makes you look like an amateur and will quickly burn bridges for you. Ask when you are confidently ready.
Be careful driving in LA:
Driving can be dangerous in Los Angeles: Don’t get mad at someone else while driving in L.A. Don’t text and drive. Also, check the parking signs carefully or you’ll be towed.
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.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with asking for a minute or two. 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. What’s the worse that could happen if you ask for help? They say “no?”
Work with your agent:
Your agent is like a dispatcher who can recommend you to casting agents, negotiate your contract terms (when possible), and sometimes help track down what is owed (both of) you. Agents aren’t your “star maker” or manager (who exercise a lot more control over you and will take a larger percentage of your pay). Remember, since your agent gets 10%, that means you do 90% of the leg work in looking for opportunity and work! It is a business relationship that must work for both parties, otherwise it’s time to part ways when your contract is up. An agent may initially “hip pocket you” (informally send you out and see if you get any callbacks/bookings), before signing you to a longer “exclusive” contract. Be above board with concerns and questions for your agent– you are a team!
When you are ready- join a union and stay committed to it.
I am a big believer in the benefits of joining an actors unions– when you are ready. Not only will you accrue pension benefits, but you can qualify for health coverage for you and your family and you will enjoy the protection of negotiated contracts that can provide residuals that can help when times are lean. Non-union work typically pays less, pays no residuals or pension and offers no contract protection or arbitration if disputes or abuse arises. Once you join a union, show some class and self respect and don’t undermine your fellow performers (or yourself) by doing non-union work. The strength of a union is the solidarity of its members. Those union members that do non-union work undermine everyone’s ability to earn a living and qualify for health benefits. Ultimately, they are shooting themselves in the foot as well.
For television, movies, interactive games as well as some web-based content, we have SAG-AFTRA. For stage work, Actor’s Equity. You should make sure you are ready before you join, otherwise you can lock yourself into a competitive environment that is out of your league.
Special thanks to actor Paul Pape who gave a terrific speech I heard once upon a time about the business of acting at a SAG seminar. It helped me a lot.