Becoming an Actor or Actress Careers & Salary Outlook

What Is an Actor/Actress?


Actors are professional entertainers who play a role in a play, movie, or television show. While many aspiring actors have visions of becoming a star, the day to day grind isn’t quite as glamorous. Actors read at auditions, competing with hundreds or thousands of performers, and many find work behind the scenes as extras or in one-line guest roles.

While earning a degree may help you develop your craft and prepare you for a career as a working actor, there is more than one way to become successful in this role, and that’s part of what makes it so difficult. It’s a competitive field, where people face a lot of rejection, low paying work, and irregular scheduling. Education—in any form—pays off here, as even beginner actors are expected to know the industry basics, from auditioning to being in front of a camera.

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Humanities & Art Career Paths


Steps to Take


The steps toward becoming an actor or actress aren’t quite so clearly defined as becoming a nurse or a dentist. There’s no minimum education requirement. However, those who pursue formal training may have more options available after completing their education. In some cases, aspiring actors might take classes at an improv theater or take acting lessons.

Others pursue acting as a college major or study filmmaking or theater. In any case, here is an example of how you might systematically approach gaining the skills needed to become a working actor.

  • Step 1: Take Acting Classes

  • Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

  • Step 3: Audition and Develop Skills

  • Step 4: Consider a Master’s Program

  • Step 5: Find an Agent

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Step 1: Take Acting Classes

Vague, yes. But, the path toward many acting careers starts in high school performing in plays or musicals. So, if you’re still in high school, it might be worth it to seek out drama club, audition for a play, or take part in stage and costume design. In the beginning, the aim is to get used to being on stage, memorizing lines, and performing for an audience.

For those past high school age, consider enrolling in a few classes at a local university or auditioning for community theater. It doesn’t matter so much where you get this experience, but if you’re considering a more formal education path, you’ll want to hone some basic skills like blocking and memorizing lines. Most college theater programs will require an entrance audition, so you’ll need to be prepared.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A college education is not required to become an actor, but many performers benefit from more formal training. Classes might include production, dance, history, and acting, which all serve as a strong foundation for work you might encounter down the line. Additionally, a bachelor’s degree will function as a fail-safe of sorts, allowing you to not only hone the skills required as a professional actor but work in other professions as well. Consider studying film or writing as well, if your ultimate goal is a lucrative career in entertainment.

Step 3: Audition and Develop Skills

After graduating, it’s time to hit the pavement and start going to auditions. Beyond trying to book jobs, though, it might be smart to take improv classes to develop your skills and network with other actors. Attend workshops, events, and keep honing your craft. The point is to act as much as possible, both to stay in top form and build up a resume.

Actors need to get as much experience as possible to improve their range and land more roles. Unlike other trades, where specialization often outweighs versatility, an actor can benefit a great deal by being able to move from comedy to drama, disappearing into different kinds of characters.

Step 4: Consider a Master’s Program

As with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s is not a requirement for actors. However, if you can get into a respected program, it may open some doors. Graduate degree programs seek out candidates who demonstrate a talent for acting and a commitment to the craft. To gain admittance into a reputable program, you’ll need to have some acting experience and an understanding of acting theories. Coursework will focus on developing dialects, improvisation skills, character studies, and production work, and students will learn to develop their performances, as well as take a deeper dive into the critical theories behind different methods and styles. A master’s in acting is somewhat of a gamble, as there’s no guarantee of high earnings after graduating.

Step 5: Find an Agent

It’s not mandatory to have an agent, but it can make your career a lot easier. Agents handle a lot of the business tasks an actor might not be so keen on dealing with themselves. They’ll schedule auditions, seek out opportunities, and negotiate contracts on your behalf. Many agents also have connections in the industry, meaning you’ll have someone on your side that can help get you “in” with the right people.

What Does an Actor/Actress Do?


Actors and actresses are people who portray a character in plays, television shows, or movies. They often read at auditions to find work, competing with hundreds or thousands of people for any given role. Some actors primarily work as extras, in the background of movies, TV shows, or commercials, while more successful actors land roles with lines. While some of these actors/actresses never become stars, they can earn a good living as “character actors”, becoming well-known without ever being the star of a piece.

Acting is a challenging skill set to master, as is breaking into the industry. Actors must memorize lines, practice frequently, and be able to work with all kinds of people. In the beginning, much of an actor’s job is auditioning and, as such, they’ll need to develop a thick skin and a lot of patience.

Skills to Acquire


Actors don’t typically become a success overnight, and rarely does someone ever become a star after being discovered in one smaller production. As such, you’ll want to make sure that you develop a wide range of skills. Your acting range is essential, but so is understanding how the business works. It might also be smart to pursue behind the scenes work, too.

Here's a quick rundown of the skills you’ll need to be successful as an actor or actress:

  • Ability to memorize lines
  • Creativity—actors need to interpret character motivations and feelings in an authentic and interesting manner
  • An understanding of a range of acting techniques
  • Ability to follow directions and work with others
  • Research character’s personality traits and situation to bring the role to life
  • In some cases, actors must learn how to play an instrument (or seem like they are) or perform stage fighting sequences for a part
  • Actors need to be able to put together a scene for auditions quickly
  • They’ll need a thick skin and the resilience to keep auditioning despite frequent rejections
  • Physical stamina—actors must speak clearly and stay in character for hours on end. Stage actors need to be in good shape so that they can maintain their energy for the duration of a production. TV and film actors often work long hours beginning early in the morning and going well into the late-night hours.

Alternative Paths


Becoming an actor or actress does not mean that you have to follow a specific path. There’s no formula for success, which makes this a challenging career to break into. There are no minimum educational requirements to consider, so one could seek out auditions and potentially book gigs. However, to be successful, you will need to have some basic acting skills like the ability to memorize lines, follow blocking instructions, and understand how to behave on camera.

If you don’t go to school to become an actor, you can sign up for classes at a college or university, or an independent acting school.

Actor and Actress Careers & Salary


Where Might You Work?


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According to the BLS, 26% of actors are self-employed and 13% work for a theater company. In most cases, you’ll work on projects of varying lengths in a range of environments. Work assignments are typically pretty short, and actors must continuously be looking for their next job. One assignment could last for a day, while the next might last a few months. Consistent gigs might take the form of a long-term contract with a touring company or a starring role in a television series.

As you might imagine, work hours are irregular. Few actors work full-time, year-round, but when they do book work, they often work 12 or more hours at a time, on weekends, holidays, early mornings, or late at night. Film and television stars may be required to travel to work on location, while stage actors often travel with a tour.

In addition to time spent on paid work, actors must consider the time investment of auditioning, networking, and developing their skills. As they get started in this industry, actors often have a day job that pays the bills, on top of learning lines, taking classes, and trying to land their next role. Those considering this career path must weigh all of the hidden work that happens before making it big.

Actor/Actress Salaries


OccupationEntry-LevelMid-CareerLate-Career
Actor/Actress$48,600$53,600$55,500
Voice-Over Talent$51,500$50,200$206,500
Film Director$50,600$59,200$93,900
Film/Video Editor$40,600$49,300$65,300
Video Producer$40,600$49,300$65,300
Audio/Video Equipment Technician$40,400$49,800$59,200

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Potential Career Paths


If you want to become an actor, you’re probably dreaming of a starring role on the silver screen or in a Broadway play. But often, real life isn’t quite so glamorous. New actors might work on cruise lines or in theme parks, regional commercials, or as a historical re-enactor. A few potential options are:

Voice Actor:
Voice actors can lend their voice to commercials, video games, animated series, or feature films. Like live-action actors, there’s no educational requirement toward becoming a voice actor, but many people who get into this profession have acting training and have done some form of vocal coaching. Most of the work is done in a recording studio and, like any acting job, can be either a one-off recording session or a long-term arrangement. Most voice actors are self-employed and must regularly audition to secure work.

Extra:
Extras are non-speaking members of a film, television, or stage production. They often stand or walk in the background of a scene. Extras don’t make a ton of money—it comes out to about $64 a day, but many actors work as extras to gain experience or earn some extra cash between gigs.

Director:
Directors are responsible for bringing a written script to life and serve as a creative force that translates everything, from sound to the style and structure of the film, into a cohesive piece of work. Their primary duties involve casting, script editing, script editing, and composition, but they also need to work within the confines of a budget.

Directors advise actors on how to portray a character, including whether they use dialects or accents, adopt different body language, or react to a particular situation. Someone with a background in acting may be able to bring unique insights into the director’s chair. However, the most critical skills are a strong creative vision, technical knowledge, and the ability to make quick decisions and be a strong leader with excellent interpersonal skills.

Producer:
Producers manage and oversee the creative process in movies, television shows, commercials, and stage production. Often producers work for a network or production company, but many work on a freelance or contract basis, too. Producer duties span a diverse set of tasks. They may be responsible for setting budgets, selecting projects, scheduling, and hiring director and crew.

Career Outlook


Again, there’s no educational requirement for becoming an actor, but pay and opportunities are often dependent on skill and connections. According to BLS statistics, those who earn their living as actors have received some level of formal training. It’s not so clear cut, though. That training doesn’t necessarily correspond with pay — for example, earning a master’s degree doesn’t ensure a higher pay grade.

The BLS also reports that actors earn a median hourly wage of $18.80 and wages range from under $10 an hour to $48. So, it’s possible to make a healthy living, but that means continually putting in the legwork to secure gigs. The agency also found that actors who joined unions received more prominent roles and paychecks compared to those who did not. It’s worth pointing out that many casting directors will only work with actors from SAG/AFTRA. However, members are required to pay annual dues, which could be a significant burden for newer actors who might not get paid much.

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Advancing from Here


Advancing as an actor or actress is more about landing leading roles and earning more money for their craft. It’s not like starting an entry-level job and working your way up to manager. To start landing gigs, you’ll need to know how to audition, which is one area where your education can serve you well. It might be worth it to invest in workshops that teach this skill or further develop the skills you learned in school.

Sure, you might start at the bottom, working as an extra, then maybe you’ll book commercials. From there, you might land a small recurring role on a television show, eventually landing more significant roles. Often that big paycheck comes after years of taking work with a wide range of pay rates. Success, from a realistic standpoint, means finding steady work and continuing to hone your craft.

Actors often “advance” by improving their reputation by completing roles successfully. As they gain experience, they’ll move on to more challenging parts and better-paying jobs. You can boost your profile by performing well and by demonstrating that you are professional, easy to work with, and reliable.

In other cases, actors might work in the industry for a time before deciding they’d like to become a producer, a writer, or a director. While moving from in front of the camera to behind the scenes is a shift, many actors end up moving into these roles and finding success.

As with any field, networking is essential, too. Join casting agencies and make sure you speak with other people in your industry. While there’s no one way to break into the acting game, or advance your career, making connections is one of the best things you can do for your job.