Breaking Into Acting
First, understand that according to the Screen Actors Guild an overwhelming percentage of their members never see more than a little work now and then. Some only get the one job that gets them their “SAG” card and never work again.
That union card can work for you or against you. Once you are in the union you can’t do non-union work. We know one girl who worked on a non-union production who was brought to trial by the Guild for taking non-union work. Fines and penalties can amount to more than you make on the job!
Speaking of money, SAG requires an up-front initiation fee for new members that is something over $1,000 in cash or certified check. No payments. Thereafter you pay about $30+ every four months in dues, plus a percentage if you make over a certain amount on a job. You don’t qualify for any benefits such as retirement or health unless you get a certain amount of union work within a given recent period of time. But this union is only for major studio work.
TV and film work, however, amounts to the smallest percentage of work for the bread and butter actor who lives from commercial to commercial or bit part to bit part by doing live stage and there’s not much money in live stage!
First, all the work is generally in touring companies (called “stock” companies) or smaller, “union wavier” theaters (those under 100 seats) where the pay can be as low as $200 a week for an awful lot of work.
These days a lot of production companies are shooting out of the union “territory” such as in Canada, Latin America, New Zealand and Russia. There they can use both union and non-union actors, but if you hold a union card you must get a union contract from these producers or face the wrath of the union!
Most people break into the business by starting out as "extras" or working in stage productions but at the same time they are also doing motion picture and television auditions.
One person we knew who worked in the front office at Sony-Columbia was once ask if she had a SAG card, because a one-time role was available and she would have been able to do this role if she had her card. She did not so she didn't get the role and the studio people searched their ranks for somone there who had a card.
Live theater is a lot easier to break into than movies or television. Most live theater is non-union or Equity wavier. The pay is horrible, $200 or less a week. The hours are long, but the training is invaluable. You start at the bottom and work your way up to the top.
Even in major theater work the salary difference between live stage and television is astronomical. Dianna Rigg was working with a major London theater company making about $400 a week in the 1960's, which was a very good salary. When she got cast as Mrs. Emma Peel in the Avengers her salary shot up to $2,000 a week. That is almost unheard of in theater work among bread and butter actors.
A lot of people also break into acting by working peripherial areas, such as doing stints at theme parks like Disneyland or any of the Six Flags parks. This is a place to start and build up your resume.
Some people go to Europe because it is much easier to get into film or television acting there than in the U.S. Richard Basehart (Admirnal Nelson from televisions "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea"), for example, had a secondary role in Felini's major hit "The Road" (La Strada) and character actor John Myhers (seen in Mel Brooks' "History of the World Part One" as a Roman Senator pleading to the Senate to help the poor, he also appeared in "Walking Tall," "Willard" and many other major motion pictures) got his early start in Italy trying to further his career. Myhers went on to write motion picture scripts with Tim Conway ("The Prize Fighter" and "The Private Eyes"). You have to generally speak or quickly learn to speak the language. Myhers was there in Italy the day Fellini got promoted from writer to director (circ 1950) due to a strike on the ferry boat that kept the actual director from crossing the seas.
There is also a big controversey over "acting methods" with many actors or want-to-be actors taking workshops. The concept of "method acting" basically comes from the Russian theater director Constantine Stanislavski, whose two classic works "An Actor Prepairs" and "Building a Character" are often used in school. Dustin Hoffman is a method type actor who works hard at his character, we saw a slice of real life in the movie "Toosie" of this process. Other people say "just act" which basically means pretend or fake it.
Another school of thought comes from American theater director Joseph Chaikin, which is improvisational theater. They play theater games such as "part of," where one person starts some silent bit, another person joins in to add to this image or take it down a totally different path. This method plays to the Freudian concept of free association, or the think tank concepts of "no wrong" where you just let whatever idea comes to mind be explored with no worries about what people say or think. You then take any good results from this process and develop that into something.
In college I learned both schools of thought. John Larson taught method acting using "An Actor Prepairs" while Peter Parkin taught free-form theater using the works of Chaikin and play writer Megan Terry.
Candace Bergen, daughter of act vaudeville veteran ventrioquist Edgar Bergen, started getting major roles in movies, television and theater with no formal training. She once remarked that she couldn't get into discussion on "methods" with other actors who were advocating their mentor's style, because she never learned any formal methods. This didn't stop her from starring in the major comedy series "Murphy Brown" which ran on television for years, often winning Emmy nominations.
It also does bring up a point that who you are is often more imporant than what you are or where you were trained. When Michael Douglas was up for his first major job in the show "The Streets of San Francisco" everyone, including lead actor Karl Malden who had worked with his father, Kirk Douglas. The music act Wilson-Philips are all daughters of Beach Boys or Mama's and Papa's. The industry is a somewhat fraternal order and one outsider I know who got in at Sony-Columbia was always asked by other workers "who her parents were" and they were shocked to find she was not an industry brat.
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