Four "Need to Knows" When Breaking into Film - By Lisa Dempsey
Moving from stage to screen can be an equally exciting and scary transition, full of mystery, glamour and a lot of contradicting advice. How do I know? Two years ago I moved to Los Angeles from New York, taking the leap from a career in musical theater to one in Film and TV. In the first 9 months I signed with representation across the board, joined SAG, booked my first costar role on TNT, and started my own production company. But there were a lot of highs and lows throughout that process and plenty of moments where if it weren’t for an amazing network of people I trusted to help me, I would have ran back to New York with my tail between my legs. To save you from the same chaos and confusion, here are the four basic things I learned that every actor going into film needs to know to be successful.
1 - Your “Why”
Having the drive to get up every day and put yourself out there for auditions is incredibly difficult. The best way to foster that drive (and maintain it!) is to have a really strong “Why.” This is the reason you’re choosing to be an actor, day in and day out. This reason can’t be surface level if it’s going to survive the hardship of rejection. So how do you find a strong enough reason why?
For me, too many of my friends have fought with depression and it would break my heart to see them struggle. Then I’d watch them use shows like “Will and Grace” or “The Carol Burnett Show” or “The Phantom of the Opera” to help pull themselves out of the darkness. When I’ve personally felt low, I would watch clips of Bernadette Peters singing Sondheim and it would get me out of my own funk. Eventually, I realized we were all using entertainment as a tool to combat loneliness and cope with depression. I felt passionate about contributing to that tool and this inspired my why: “to make people feel less alone through storytelling.”
But that’s my reason. Of course you’re welcome to steal it, but only if it resonates with you. If it doesn’t, how can you find one for yourself?
Finding your “Why” Exercise: Sit down in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and close your eyes. Start meditating on what you love about acting. Then go deeper and think about why it matters to you as a person. Let your thoughts deepen still and broaden out to a world view. Focus on how your craft could make positive change for others. Listen to your gut and find something that you see people you care about struggling with- It can be financial issues, homelessness, loss, depression, happiness, love, anything that you feel drawn to or passionate about. Can your acting positively influence this in any way? Are there certain stories or ways that you can use your instrument as an actor to help to create change? Or be a greater service to others? How?
Once you receive the answers to these questions, open your eyes. That’s your why. Then, if the industry wears you down, or that girl who looks just like you got your dream role that your agent swore you had in the bag, or you’re stuck working with some tyrannical director on your latest indie film, the world will still need you, and you will keep going.
2 - How to Believe in Yourself
What good is knowing why you are doing something if you don’t believe in yourself or have confidence?! Knowing your worth is essential to being a successful actor. You will most likely hear “No” more than you hear “Yes”. Like my manager likes to say, “Acting is 90% auditioning, and only 10% performing. It’s a numbers game. If you have the talent and the right look, it’ll eventually hit, it’s just a matter of time.”
BOOM! The key here is that you have to know that you have the talent and the look. And luckily, strengthening these assets are in your control. You can research people that look like you and see how they branded their type and found success. You can also get into class and refine your craft until your talent is undeniable.
If you take steps like this, then when you hear no, it will just become a numbers game and it won’t slow you down. Eventually, a project will come along that needs someone of your type and when it does, they won’t be able to deny your talent.
Still a little overwhelmed by this? Here are some quick confidence building action steps to get you sprinting into your best self:
- Follow through on goals
- Be kind to yourself
- Focus on what you have in your control and let go of what is not in your control.
- Try to be the best actor you can be by training with the best teachers you can
- Stay in class, strive to be the best in class and give love those that inspire you and challenge you to be greater.
- Do emotional work - it’s truly a muscle! Try to have access to your deepest emotions on the drop of a dime.
- Try to understand the basics of acting: intention, cold reading, script analysis, etc.
- Read industry related books and magazines like Variety and Hollywood Reporter.
- Keep your image maintained, your body fit and take care of yourself.
- Network - go to events, film festivals and immerse yourself in the world
- Do something that makes you smile bigger and breathe deeper daily, because you deserve it!
3 - Know yourself
People in film and TV (and maybe even in life) are going to try to tell you who you are and what you should do. In fact, it is some of those people’s jobs to do just that. You need to know who you are, where your boundaries are, and what your values/passions are in order to consistently stand in your truth. That way, if your agent only wants to pitch you for horror films but you hate scary movies, you can help guide them toward projects you’d be happier doing (or maybe even find another agent). On the other hand, if you absolutely love horror films, you have the chance to prove to your agent that this is your perfect genre. Then they’ll pitch you for more of these projects until you find yourself on the next season of American Horror Story!
Either way, how can you say yes or no unless you know who you are and what you like?
But let’s take this one step further, because we all know that just because you like something, it doesn’t guarantee success. So how you can take your likes to star level?
Align your likes with your strengths and play to those strengths.
When you get to know your strengths and weaknesses, and then consciously play to your strengths, you will find success faster and easier.
For example, if you’re great at improv but not so good at Shakespeare, get into UCB classes, intern on a multi-cam sitcom, and network at sketch and standup shows. You will be quickly noticed for your talent, people will start to ask you to join their shows, you will gain momentum, exposure and eventually representation, which will lead to bigger and better jobs.
But if you focused on your weakness and tried to star in film adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies, even if you love this more, you will struggle. People will gravitate to the strongest Shakespearean actor in the room and you may work, but in smaller parts. It will take you a longer time to get noticed and with less work and less exposure, it will be harder to find representation, you most likely will experience more frustration and you will have less of a chance to be able to act in the projects your heart is set on. Not to mention, your confidence will suffer!
So set yourself up for success! When you’re being rewarded, you may find you naturally gravitate to liking your strengths more. But if not, how do you align your heart effectively?
Your “Why.” When you have a powerful why, you should be able to apply it to whatever genres you’re strongest at.
And by choosing to focus on your strengths, you will go further faster, get more recognition, more money and more opportunity. With all of those resources you can invest them into producing the content your heart desires. That way you can have your cake and eat it too! It will probably take the same amount of time to produce your passion project with the fruits of your success, than if you tried to get there by focusing on your weaker asset. And, it will be more fun and there will be more of a guarantee when you get there by using your strengths!
4 - Know the Industry
There might be some things in this article that may be foreign to you. This is the best place you can be when starting out in a new industry! Remember, you may have acted your whole life, and even have been on Broadway, but film is a very different business. So jump in and make research your #1 pastime!
I would start by printing this article and highlighting foreign terms that stick out to you. Maybe you’ve never heard of a multi-cam sitcom, or read The Hollywood Reporter. Look that stuff up! Then go beyond this. Maybe you don’t know the difference between a manager and an agent, or have no idea what “type” and “brand” even mean! Oh gosh there is so much. Here, Google is your best friend. And when Google is being difficult or overwhelming, ditch him and turn to industry books, industry podcasts and experts in your network. These are all fantastic resources too.
But let’s go one step further here and give you a focused reading list so you can start somewhere specific. These are my favorite 5 industry books right now, and they will give you a great overview of the craft, writing for screen, how TV and film work as a whole, and a view from both sides of the table.
October’s Industry Reading List:
- “The Eight Characters of Comedy” by Scott Sedita
- “Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need” by Blake Snyder
- “The Power of the Actor” by Ivana Chubbuck
- “The Practical Handbook for the Actor” by Bruder, Cohn, Olnek, Pollack, Previto and Zigler
- “On Film-making” by Alexander Mackendrick
If you’re hungry for more, get your hands on some shooting scripts of your favorite films, read Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety and then make sure you’ve covered your actor basics (Aristotle, Stanislavski, Meisner, Uta Hagen, Viewpoints, Stella Adler etc).
Good luck and break legs you stars you!