Excite Careers


The working actor

While for many, thoughts of acting evoke images of the big screen and schmoozing with Hollywood stars or Broadway performances in front of packed audiences, for working actors the professional role is often much less glamorous. In addition to cultivating their acting techniques, aspiring actors must also hone their bartending, waiter/waitressing, or secretarial skills, because most actors' meager salaries will not keep the creditors at bay. In fact, fewer than 5 percent of all actors actually make a living at their trade alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The non-working actor

Far more common than the "working actor" is the actor who finds himself unemployed for long stretches of time and often working menial jobs. Throughout their careers, many actors subsist on part-time or night jobs so that they can have their days free to audition. They work as extras in films or on television shows or even nab small ("bit") speaking parts ("Would you like fries with that?"). Extras or bit part actors are usually paid between $50 and $100 a day, sometimes more if they belong to a trade union. If they are listed by a casting agency--such as Central Casting, a no-fee agency that supplies extras to all the major studios in Hollywood-- some actors can rely on regular work. Stage actors often work with small repertory companies and off-off-off Broadway theaters while they wait to be cast in larger, more high-profile productions. For the non-working actor, the "open audtition" becomes a way of life.

Agents and unions

The greatest opportunities for actors are in the nation's theater and film centers, New York City and Hollywood. Most agents are in these cities, and any actor who expects to get anywhere in the industry will eventually require an agent's representation.

Most working actors belong to union groups. The Actors' Equity Association represents stage actors, and the Screen Actors Guild and Screen Extras Guild cover actors in motion pictures, television, and commercials. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) represents television and radio performers. Many actors who work more than a set number of weeks per year are covered by one of these unions, which provide health, welfare, and pension funds, including hospitalization insurance. Under some employment agreements, Actors' Equity and AFTRA members have paid vacations and sick leave. Minimum salaries, work hours, and other conditions are contingent upon varying agreements between employers and the unions which represent the actor.

Career Path  

Aspiring actors should build a strong repertoire of different roles and productions throughout their high school and college careers. Formal dramatic training is not a prerequisite, although the techniques and background education offered in college drama programs and dramatic arts schools in New York and Los Angeles can add to an actor's versatility and credibility. The best way to start is in local and community theaters. Learning to sing and dance (or at least keep rhythm) is essential for stage actors. Sometimes modeling experience is helpful, as it teaches stage presence and movement and assures the potential actor is at least photogenic. Agents are essential in an actor's search for work and contract negotiations; since the agent earns a percentage of an actor's earnings, they have a vested interest in the actor's success. As actors' reputations grow, they work on larger productions or in more prestigious theaters. Assuming a certain amount of talent or luck, actors also advance to lead or key character roles. A few actors move into acting-related jobs as drama coaches or directors of stage, television, radio, or motion picture productions. An actor's career depends on training, skill, versatility, determination, and luck. Some actors continue acting throughout their lives, though many leave the business because they cannot make a living.


Potential fame;Flexible hours


Job instability;Unpredictable hours;Low pay for most

Personality Match  


Personality Miss  



Average about 45 per week


Average entry-level salary: $5,000;Full employment: $13,700;Top-level actor: $20 million per film


Drama degree is helpful

Our Survey Says  

One respondent stresses "serious training" as a must for anyone pursuing an acting career, since "reputable teachers can properly prepare you for what you're going to be getting into." Beware of strangers trying to persuade you to sign or work with them, "particularly if they have never seen you act." For every nine auditions, you may get one job. This leads to another issue, that of finding an agent. The process can be "disheartening," but agents lend actors street value and credibility. When you do land an agent, "remember you are hiring them, only it won't feel like it." Auditions are grueling: "Other auditionees will try to make you feel little and ugly and try to intimidate you." The best way to deal with such adversity? "Laugh it off," advises one respondent. According to another actor, landing a role is a Catch-22, since "you have to have had jobs to find jobs." Membership with SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, can cost upwards of $1,000, and to get in you must show "past professional work." A seasoned actor gives the following admonition to those pursuing an acting career: "You must: 1) be exceptionally good and know it deep down; 2) have played outstandingly in a very good play, under expert direction, and gotten very good press; 3) be able to afford a long wait while earning a living at other pursuits; and 4) stuff anyone's advice and forge ahead on your own."

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