How to Become an Actor: Starting Your Career

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So you want to become an actor? Congratulations! It’s an exciting and rewarding profession with the potential to take you to new places, meet countless new people, and maybe even become a respected household name.

The good news is that there are almost as many routes to becoming an actor as there are actors, with each individual finding their own particular way to a career on the stage, screen, airwaves, or a combination of all three.

The route you choose into the industry will depend on where your ambitions lie. Those hoping to become classical actors will most likely need specialist Shakespeare training, for example. It will also depend on your financial circumstances – training options come with varying price tags depending on what they entail and where they’re based.

Becoming an actor isn’t something that happens overnight. For most people, it takes years of hard work, usually juggling training and auditions alongside another job until they’re earning enough from acting to support themselves. On that note, it’s important to be realistic about the earnings potential of an acting career. A survey of performing arts professionals conducted by Mandy in 2018 found that a whopping 85% of actors earn less than £10,000 per year through acting, and 72% have a second job outside of entertainment. For some aspiring actors, those sums just won’t add up. But for many, the juggle is worth it to pursue one of the most creative, satisfying, and (occasionally) glamorous careers in the world.

So read on for the skinny on the different types of acting training available, how to find an acting agent, how to find auditions and prepare for them, and what sorts of second jobs complement a career as an actor. Incidentally, this is mainly aimed at aspiring actors based in the UK, but much of the advice is (hopefully) universal.


How to learn acting skills

acting class

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We sometimes hear amazing stories of actors whose careers began when a director decided to take a chance on someone new to acting. For example, the TV and radio presenter Jameela Jamil was cast in the sitcom The Good Place after moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a screenwriter. But for the vast majority of people, some sort of acting training is a must if you’re hoping to earn a living as an actor.  

Youth theatre 

If you’ve caught the acting bug while still at school, youth theatre can be a great option. In the UK, organisations like the National Youth Theatre or the Scottish Youth Theatre, as well as groups at local theatres across the country, offer the chance to work with professionals to hone your craft while having fun with like-minded people. 


Many youth theatre groups have an upper age limit (which varies depending on the organisation), but amateur dramatic companies are welcoming to all ages and levels of acting experience. They offer the opportunity to work towards full-scale theatre productions presented in front of paying audiences. 

Drama school or university drama degree?

For something more formal, drama school offers practical training in the core skills that actors will require over the course of their careers: how to use your voice effectively; how to move; how to stage fight. If you want to be an actor and your aim with training is to learn the craft, then your best bet is a Federation of Drama Schools partner institution. As West End producer and casting director Danielle Tarento puts it, “I don’t understand why anyone would actively choose not to go to drama school if they wanted to train”.

But vocational training isn’t the only way into the profession. These days, plenty of actors come out of university drama courses and either go straight into the industry following graduation or earn a post-graduate certificate at a drama school after obtaining an academic bachelor’s degree. School leavers interested in an acting career but wishing to keep their options open (to pursue other careers in theatre, for example) might opt for this route. Something to bear in mind, however, is that though a handful of university drama departments now arrange industry showcases, the majority do not, potentially putting university students at a disadvantage when it comes to getting an agent following graduation. 

Short courses

In addition to degrees and diplomas, most drama schools also run evening classes and intensive summer courses, where small groups of students work with tutors and professional directors on topics such as Shakespeare, acting for the camera, or musical theatre acting. These don’t always come cheap but can be an excellent way to boost your skills.

How to compile a CV and acting reel

You’ll need a curriculum vitae (a CV, sometimes called a résumé) for auditions and when approaching agents (see below). This one-page document is usually all that casting directors have to go on, so you want to make sure it’s a good, up-to-date representation of your skills and experience. 

Be sure to include:

  • Name, contact details, and headshot, as well as your agent’s name and contact details if you have one
  • Statistics, including age range (not your actual age as this might distract from your playing age), height, hair, and eye colour
  • Training, but only include academic training if it’s from a university drama course
  • Credits, listed under headings for theatre, film, TV, adverts, voiceovers, video games, etc.; list the production title, role, venue or company, and director
  • Skills such as particular singing styles, musical instruments, accents (put an asterisk next to your native accent), languages, stage combat, etc.; if you have a driving licence, state whether it’s clean of penalty points

Additionally, if you have any screen credits, then gather together your best clips of up to 30 seconds to make a reel. Edit them together (see ‘Self-tape auditions’ below) into a film of no more than three minutes in total, and host this online using a service such as YouTube or Vimeo to share with casting directors and agents.

How to sign with an acting agent

Acting class


There are a lot of agents out there, so the first step is to work out which agency or individual might be a good fit for you. Think about your specialisms and theirs; there’s no point in approaching someone who only represents musical theatre performers if your ambitions lie in new writing or film. Look at agents’ websites and talk to other actors. 

For Nicki van Gelder, a director at Conway van Gelder Grant, the personal side is important. “Actors should look for an agent they can trust,” she says. You don’t have to be best buddies – this is a professional relationship, after all – but it’s hard to hand control over your career to someone you dislike. 

When approaching agents, be professional. Remember that applying to an agency is the same as applying to any job. Agencies want to see that you are committed, passionate, and professional. Give the agent the material they need to consider you. Most will post details on their website, but usually a CV, headshot, and one-page cover letter is enough. Competition for representation is fierce, and the reality is that you’re going to receive a fair few rejections before you eventually find an agent. The trick is to not take it personally – just because one agent doesn’t want to take you on doesn’t mean the next person you write to won’t. 

See Also: Musical Theatre Agencies UK Actors Should Know

How to find auditions without an agent

If you don’t have an agent yet, then online casting websites like StarNow are a great place to find auditions and casting calls. Directors and casting directors post details of the roles they’re hoping to fill, and you can filter by category (such as production type, location, pay, age range, and gender) to find parts you might be suitable for. 

You can apply for an audition by submitting your profile, which will include your credits, skills, photos, and reels.

Another route is getting in touch with casting directors via email to enquire about upcoming projects. Find who to contact by researching the theatre productions, TV shows, or games you admire, then drop the relevant casting director a line with your CV and headshot. As when approaching agents, make sure to be professional at all times. It’s OK to follow up by email after a few months, but don’t bombard them. 

See Also: How StarNow Can Help You Get an Acting Agent

What you need for an acting audition

Actor audition

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What you need for an acting audition depends on whether it’s taking place in person or, as is more likely these days, recorded. In particular, first-round auditions are more likely to be recorded. This is known as a self-tape. 

Many drama schools run short courses on audition training, which can be quite helpful, especially for those at the start of their acting careers, but also for anyone who needs to brush up on audition skills.

In-person auditions

For in-person auditions, you’ll want to arrive a few minutes before your appointment time to ensure you’ve had a chance to collect yourself before you meet the casting director, director, and other members of the creative team who might be in the room. 

You should bring with you: 

  • Hard copy of your headshot and CV just in case they ask for it
  • Any material you’ve been sent to prepare ahead of time; you don’t need to have learnt it but it’s a good idea to be very familiar with it
  • Pen for making notes on any scripts you’ve been given to read
  • Personal items such as tissues, makeup, and a hairbrush

Those auditioning for musical theatre roles should also bring:

  • Sheet music for the piano parts of the songs you’ve prepared – these should be presented in a ring binder that can lay open on the piano for the ease of the accompanist

Self-tape auditions

Self-tape auditions are done remotely, usually in your home. You film yourself reading or performing a scene, plus an ident – where you introduce yourself and your experience – then send it to the casting director, either directly or via your agent. 

For the filming, you’ll need:

  • Smartphone
  • Tripod
  • Ring light and stand
  • Neutral backdrop against which to film; an ironed white sheet hung behind you will do if you don’t have a suitable blank wall
  • A reader, preferably another actor; consider setting up a reader circle with a group of fellow actors to support each other with auditions

For the editing, you’ll need:

  • Editing software; free programmes such as Apple iMovie for Mac or ACDSee Luxea Video Editor (Windows) are usually sufficient for your needs

Should I join a trade union?

You don’t need to be a member of Equity, the actors’ union, to work as an actor (as was once the case), but joining means lending your voice to the fight for better pay and conditions across the entertainment industry. Being a member also offers benefits such as public liability insurance, free legal advice, discounts on theatre tickets, and more, plus access to the Equity pension scheme. 

See Also: What Is Equity and Why Should You Care?

How can I support myself between roles?

Actor audition

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Even the most successful actors have periods when they’re not landing roles and therefore need to supplement their income with other work. Any job that allows you the flexibility to take time off for auditions can work well – the hospitality industry is a favourite – but many actors like to stay within the entertainment world. Front-of-house roles at a theatre or cinema, for example, mean you can watch actors at work while you work. Other potential sectors to consider are those whose perks or discounts could be helpful for your acting career: working in a gym or at a department store makeup counter, say. 

Many actors have quiet periods during the course of their careers, but stick at it and that game-changing gig could be just around the corner. Good luck!

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