Emmy Award Winner David Tom’s Advice for Actors
I’ve been asked many times over the years, “How can I break into the entertainment industry?” Oftentimes, that question is answered with one word: Don’t!
And yet, I’m writing now to say that if you’re passionate about acting – go for it! If this is truly the craft you wish to pursue as a life-long career, keep reading and I’ll tell you some insider’s acting tips on how to break into the acting industry.
Who Am I?
My name is David Tom and I’ve been acting for over 30 years.
I started when I was six years old doing commercial work and print ads, eventually moving into film and television. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to expand my resume to include 14 television pilots with four series regular roles, not to mention countless episodic and film credits that include Stay Tuned, Swing Kids, Roommates, and Pleasantville.
In 2000, I won an Emmy Award for Best Young Actor in a Drama series for the role of Billy Abbott on The Young and the Restless.
Acting has and always will remain my absolute passion in life. My experiences while working have been amazing (to say the least) as well as heartbreaking, but I wouldn’t choose any other profession. I will continue to ride the ups and downs of this rollercoaster we call the entertainment industry as long as I have breath in my lungs!
Something that my acting teachers always told me and instilled in my approach to acting is that luck is the product of preparation and opportunity. In order to be prepared for that opportunity, you must be committed to do the work. This brings me to the first and most important requirement for breaking into the business.
For someone who’s just starting out, learning how to become an actor, or even considering jumping on this ride, there are a few major questions you need to ask yourself:
- How passionate are you about acting?
- How much of yourself are you willing to commit?
- What are you willing to sacrifice to make your dreams come true?
Success in this industry, like any other, requires 110% dedication and commitment. If you’re looking to start a hobby or something to do on the weekends, then look no further than your local theater group. But if you want a career as a professional working actor, you must answer these questions with honesty.
You must be willing to give everything you have for your craft and dedicate yourself completely.
If you’re a parent, it’s important for you to answer these questions truthfully, as you will be assessing your own commitment AND that of your child’s. It will require just as much work for you as it will for them.
But let’s be clear: this must be something that your child wants to do. Their passion must guide them along, not parental influence. As a young actor myself, I was willing to give up after-school activities such as basketball or football practice. Instead, I would go to an audition. Sometimes my mother would have to drive me three or four times a week!
They must be willing to do the same. They must be willing to be away from school, their friends, and sometimes their families for months at a time while they shoot a TV show or a film. Schoolwork can even be done with an onset schoolteacher in a trailer instead of a classroom.
This is, at the end of the day, a business like any other; a film set is not a playground. Children are always expected to be just as professional as adult actors. Working long days, keeping attention, taking direction, and accepting criticism from the director are all normal parts of the gig.
These are just a few reasons why some parents make their children wait until they’re older to start them in the industry, because it can be difficult and stressful for them. It also tends to force kids to grow up much quicker than they would normally.
Headshots and Resumes
Ladies and gentleman, get yourselves a good day job like waiting tables or bartending, or anything for that matter, because you’re going to need the cash.
Good color headshots are extremely important to have right away. You want photos of yourself that are current and are a good representation of yourself. Don’t be afraid of showing your unique traits!
Headshots are the first thing casting directors, agents, and managers see from you. Believe me – the first impression means everything.
Your resume should include (at the top) your name, representation (if any), union affiliations, and contact information. Then list everything and anything you’ve done in regards to acting. If you’re just starting out, don’t hesitate to list school plays or community theater groups. Be sure to list any acting classes or training you’ve received as well.
If you’re in college, list what you’re majoring in and where you’re graduating from. Everything should be organized correctly with your most recent work at the top.
At the bottom, list your special skills such as singing, dancing, swimming, horseback riding, and any sports you enjoy.
Showcases and Workshops
Showcases and workshops, in my opinion, are the absolute best way to be seen by the right people. They’re also a great way to help you find representation quickly. The days of mailing your headshot and resume to agencies and management companies are long gone, and invariably, a waste of time.
This isn’t meant to be insulting, but oftentimes agents and managers don’t have the time to deal with cold calls or mailings. If you do this, your photo will likely end up in the recycling bin. Showcases are set up specifically for representatives to come and look for new talent. It’s a chance to have the undivided attention of multiple people to show them what you’ve got! This is done usually in the form of a prepared monologue or scene.
There are many different types of workshops that cover a wide range skills; everything from how to audition for television, commercials, and film, to learning how to break down scenes and acting tips to hone your craft. You’ll get to explore different acting styles.
Many workshops are taught by some of the industry’s most powerful and influential casting directors. And trust me – they do remember who was in there and how they performed. I’ve known actors that booked jobs because the casting directors remember they attended one of their workshops and loved what they did.
With all of that being said, be warned, because scams certainly exist. Do plenty of research on the showcases and workshops that you’re thinking of attending. You can even go so far as to call the contact numbers on their registration forms and speak to a representative that will answer all of your questions.
Some of these workshops can be extremely expensive to attend and you’ll want to make sure they’re worth your hard-earned cash. If they have a website, look them up and read what other people have said about them. Know who’s going to be there to see your work and decide if they can truly help you reach your goals.
And remember, agents and managers make anywhere from 10% to 15% commission from the work that you book while you are represented by them, so NEVER pay a theatrical agent or manager to represent you! Background agents may charge some kind of fee for service, but this is the only exception.
Joining The SAG/AFTRA Union
One of your goals when first starting should be to become a member of SAG/AFTRA, the entertainment actor’s union. It will help you gain credibility for your work, as well as allow you to connect with other actors and people in the industry. There are a few different ways to accomplish this, but I suggest two options.
The first and best way, in my view, is commercial work. You can find a commercial representative the same way you find a theatrical representative: through showcases. Your commercial agent doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as your theatrical agent. There are agencies that exclusively work on commercials. In most cases, working on a union commercial will make you eligible to join the union.
The second, and possibly the harder and longer way to become a member, is through background work – otherwise known as “extra” work. Again, there are agencies that specifically handle background work where you pay a monthly fee and they send you out to productions to be part of the shooting day. There are some pros and cons to this method.
On the plus side, you get the opportunity to be on a professional set where you can learn how a production works and what a filming day is like. The difficult part to this is that it takes three vouchers from any production to become union and a production crew gets a finite amount of vouchers a day to give out to the background actors.
So, if you’re one out of a hundred background actors working that day, there’s a possibility you may not receive a voucher. It can sometimes take a while to receive three union vouchers. I know actors that might have one or two vouchers and have been trying to get their third for two years.
What I suggest to increase your chances of getting in the union quickly is to do both options: get a commercial agent AND do some background work.
Once you are eligible for SAG/AFTRA, you must pay an entry fee and then an annual due based on the amount of money you’ve earned during that year. Your joining fee can be expensive, but trust me, it’s invaluable. You can certainly make a living as an actor if you get consistent work.
There are many theater and film productions you can do that are non-union and they may be useful to gain experience or to build your resume, but if you want to work professionally in television and film, you will have to join the union. In fact, if you’re not a member you can’t even audition for most television shows and film productions.
Long story short: Get this membership right away!
Training, Classes, and Coaches
Training and classes are absolutely essential for success in this business (regardless of age). I cannot stress this enough. After all, you won’t be ready to go to a showcase and perform in front of key people who can help you if you haven’t prepared material to show them. Always remember, acting is a craft that can never be fully mastered or perfected.
Even the best actors of our time study and train before they step foot in front of the camera.
Classes are places where you’re free to make mistakes without ruining an opportunity for your career. In classes, you can learn new techniques, learn how to breakdown scenes, and explore your imagination with others. No doubt, you’ll discover an infinite amount of acting tips, new ideas, and new ways to build yourself into a stronger actor. I also recommend researching things they don’t tell you in acting school – you’ll broaden your horizon.
I’ve taken classes my entire career on a weekly basis, and every week I discover something new to use on my own acting journey.
Finding the right class with a teacher you can easily understand and relate to is also of the utmost important. I suggest you audit (sit in) as many classes as you can in order to find the teacher and the class that you think fits you best. Classes are places where you have the freedom to try everything you can to grow into a more complete, real, and profound actor!
You may ask yourself, “Do I really need an acting coach?” The answer I recommend for that is… yes!
Coaching is done one on one with a teacher and it’s usually focused on a specific piece of material. Whether it’s for audition tips, a showcase, or even a role you’ve already booked, coaching is essential.
It’ll help you apply the acting tips you’ve learned in class to a specific piece of material that you’ll be performing for others, and in most cases, for an actual paying acting gig. The attention to detail given by your coach will help you improve parts of your acting that may not be readily apparent to you.
For many of you, all of this may be a lot to soak in, but it’s important to understand that starting out in the entertainment industry requires great patience, hard work, and dedication. Prepare yourself for a marathon and not a sprint, because for the 99% of us, this does take lots of time.
For the parents that are thinking of getting their children in to the business, I suggest taking it slowly and one step at a time. Start your child out in classes to see if they like it and if this is something they really want to pursue. If everything goes well, then take the other steps required to find them good representation.
For those of you who are over 18 years of age and have found acting to be your dream in life and your absolute passion, I say this to you: start now!
There’s a huge advantage in starting out as early as possible. From what I’ve seen, the older you get the harder it becomes to break into industry because you’re up against tougher competition; many competing actors would have more experience and credits to their resume.
But keep in mind that there are many other things you need besides talent to break into the industry.
Don’t give up, lose faith, or drop out! This industry can be extremely frustrating and unforgiving at times, but don’t let that stop you.
Keep working at your craft by studying and taking classes. Be sure to keep your dedication and commitment at its highest levels at all times.
On average, it can take an actor up to 10 years to fully break into the industry. But if you stay committed, work hard, and study hard, I promise you it WILL pay off.
Every actor gets a shot at their dreams coming true, but not every actor is ready and prepared for it. You’ll be the one that’s ready! If you put the work in and remain dedicated, I’m quite sure we’ll all see you on the big screen eventually!
David Tom teaches film acting, theater acting, improv acting, and voice acting in North Hollywood, CA. He has appeared in many films and TV shows and works with students at all levels. David is also available to teach online lessons. Learn more about David here!