The Acting Job
There are four basic types and each is different. 1. Live theater. 2. Motion Pictures. 3. Live Television. 4 Filmed Television.
Live theater is the most demanding and you really need to apprentice or go to college for at least two years to fully understand how live theater works. College is a very good place to learn live theater, but not television or movie work!
College theater teachers have generally worked in the field, because getting theater work is far easier than motion picture or television work!
You need to learn “stage left, stage right, upstage, down stage” and how to join or exit groups of people. Yes, there is a trick and proper stage move when one person joins two people in the background on stage and I failed this miserably in school! One of my acting professors, John Larson, asked if I was in the Army (I was). I couldn’t get the two step move down right no matter how I tried!
Professor Larson was a true professional. I saw him at every stage opening, even ballet exhibitions. I also saw him in small theater along the Cahuenga Pass between Hollywood and Studio City. We ran into each other all the time. This if very common for a good, professional in the industry. In this case he also taught the field at college.
College is an excellent place to learn all there is about live stage so at least you won’t be a total fool when you get your first job, no matter how small it is.
Your first job could be as simple as opening and closing the curtains on cue. It could also be turning house lights on and off. It could be serving coffee in the lobby! This is live theater and you work your way up to props, lighting, stage hand, background people, bit parts and eventually leading roles. Often for as little as no pay or only $125 a week for 60 hours of work.
Plays rehearse 5 to 7 days a week all day long. You must memorize the entire script and know your lines without cue cards.
You must know how to “take a beat” (a short pause). You must know how to hit marks, because if you don’t you will not be seen as the lighting is very directed to a specific location. Learning how not to get rattled by a live audience is another factor! You can hear them cough, talk and get out of their seats.
Live television is a lot like stage acting. You have to hit marks and take similar stage directions. You have to deal with a live audience or the crew. Blow a line and there is no retake. What you learned in college stage acting will translate very nicely to live television.
Film is another matter. Motion pictures and television shows are done out of sequence in small bits and pieces. Television shoots about 5 to 7 minutes of screen time each day. Motion pictures shoot between 1 and 3 minutes of screen time each day.
The primary difference here is that television is faster paced and they often use “normals” or regular people for background and stand-in work. This means some people get regular jobs.
Motion pictures will generally only use the same people for a few days and then their work is done forever until the next movie comes along.
Extras get their moves and cues from the second assistant director who has them walk back and forth in a given scene.
Everyone is on the set for lighting, however the major actors get replaced by “stand-ins” who are used during the set-ups. There are two teams. Team one is the real actors, team two are the stand-ins. The first assistant director will simply call for “team two” and these people know they must move into the shooting area, where they are then positioned for taped marks on the floor, lighting for shadows on the face and background, along with a focus check. They sometimes work the actual action so the director of photographer can teach the moves to the camera operator while the sound people learn what they need to do the follow the action. Then the assistant director calls for “team one” and it may be the job of their stand in to show them the basic marks and moves, then again this can be insulting to the actors or director.
The stand-in has to learn how to deal with the politics on a "set by set basis."
Your agent gives you a “call sheet” which shows where and when everyone is supposed to be for a given shoot. If you are speaking you will get “sides” which are the pages with your lines. It is the actors job not to second guess. On one shoot an bit actor saw their call time listed as 6 a.m., but the call sheet said Lloyd Bridges was to arrive at 6 p.m. The actor assumed this "a.m." was a mistake and didn’t show in the morning. They promptly got replaced with the first on-call actor or extra with a SAG card by 6:30 in the morning.
If studios makes a mistake you get paid for it. If that call sheet says 6 a.m. and it was supposed to be 6 p.m. you will get paid a bump or golden time due to that error. For an extra that means your $40 day could become closer to $200 because someone goofed.
If the shoot calls for a fitting you must show up at the studio wardrobe department, generally for no pay or a token $20 to be fitted into a costume that will be on the set the day you arrive.
If a set or make-up call is 6 a.m. you are expected to be there no later than 5:59 a.m. More than likely the “teamster” or truck driver, got there at 5 a.m. The gaffer or electrical people got there at 5:30 a.m. They expect to start getting real work done at 6 a.m. You get paid by the hour whether there is or is no work at 6 a.m.
On location they generally provide breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner if it is a long shoot, otherwise there is a union meal penalty or bump for the extras. At the studio you pay for your own meals in the commissary.
All SAG actors get a trailer, or at least a room in a large vehicle containing several trailers. This is your dressing room and resting room. All SAG actors get a chair to sit on at the set.
Make-up and hair for anyone other than the top leading players is minimal, hence one bit player I know got herself a hairweave so that her locks were always impeccable.
On the set is a large table with candy bars and other snacks. This is called the “craft services table” and everyone is allowed to snack up between takes.
Everyone is sent for lunch at the same time, often from a catering truck that generally serves great food. If the day goes longer than 10 hours dinner must be served. If they didn’t plan for dinner this could be take-out or Pizza which was fetched by a PA (Production Assistant) who goes in their own personal car to get the food. They are paid minimum wage as a general rule, however many a PA is the son or daughter of a big Hollywood production person and this is their apprenticeship in the industry before being promoted to Vice President.
Actors are extras may get doused with water, sit on a trash heap, be covered in stage blood, sprayed with chemical smoke or even face volatile special effects. Bridget Nielsen got a small injury on one of her sci-fi movie shoots due to the fireworks and sparks of the explosions. This happens even with expert placement, controlled detonations and test firings. In that shot Nielsen, not a stunt person, was in the shot.
On the other hand in doing what is called “second unit work” which are your general car chase sequences, it may be only stunt people doing the work. The director may never even be on set! On one shoot I was on for a television series called Probe a car was simply making a hairpin turn up the street near Griffith Park. The turn was done at about 30 miles an hour, it still required stunt players instead of the real actors. No actors were on set that day, but the episode director handled the second unit work.
In another shoot I’m familiar with, Melissa Gilbert’s stand-in was used in an outside shot playing a nurse who gets into a car and drives off. That was also a second unit shot done with no real actors on the set. In the case of that stand-in, she was working from 7 am until almost 9 p.m., doing that shot after everyone had left for home. The stand-in received golden time pay, plus a bump for the costume change and use of her own vehicle. That translates into a $250 - $300 day.
Actors work as extras, PA, stand-ins, sometimes stunt work if they hold a SAG stunt card. Remember that in motion pictures, "work" can be as little as a single day, which gets you $30 to $1,000 maximum. You may not see work again for months. You take what you can find to fill in the gaps. If you are in the union and have built up unemployment credits you can collect your $150 a week for 26 weeks.
One assistant film editor I know also works in research and with production managers doing pre-production budgets between her editing jobs in television, which end in March and don’t pick up again until September as TV often goes on “hiatus” or summer vacation. As an assistant editor she makes over $40 an hour doing a 50 hour week for 26 weeks. As a PA or researcher she makes $300 or $400 a week for two or three months.
This is how the business works for everyone in television and movies.
What you Need |
Life On The Set As An Actor |
Talent Scouts, Junkets, Model Schools