HOW TO: Become A Professional Television & Film Actor in Canada
Updated: Feb 13
There's a magic to our imaginations, isn't there? The ability to conjure and manifest has always been one of the great super powers for us humans. After all, where would we be without it? It's given us roads and schools and architecture; writings, music... everything really. Which is why acting, the crafting and the consumption of stories on screen and on stage is such a magical process. It is the truly an exploration and a celebration of humanity's unique ability to imagine, create and manifest something from nothing. I would argue this is humanity's most powerful and distinguishing trait as beings in this universe.
If you're anything like me, at some point you picked up on the incredibly influential power of film, television and theatre. You've been changed indefinitely by a character or a story and forever lived your life a little differently. At the very least you've seen a Fast and the Furious film and, upon leaving the theatre, had the urge to push the gas a little harder or watched Keanu Reeves go all John Wick on some thugs that killed his dog and wanted to learn how to move and kick ass like he does. Stories and poignant performances leak into our hearts and minds and guide our subconscious in new directions. To those who say acting is frivolous and unimportant - I argue it is one of the most important things humans do and it is not to be taken lightly.
LET'S GET INTO IT
So how do you become an actor? Lots of people want to be famous and be on screens but acting and being famous are not necessarily connected and are, more often than not, quite mutually exclusive. A very small percentage of actors in the world are actually in films, television shows and on the biggest stages in the world. Even fewer are famous. We are talking decimal point percentages but don't be discouraged, that doesn't mean it's impossible.
If you truly want to become an actor it takes hard work and a ton of commitment. It won't come easy unless you're exceedingly lucky. Natural talent is a huge asset but not a deal breaker. There will be people you'll need to know that you don't know now. There will be skills you need to acquire, stories you need to hear, books you need to read, profiles on websites you didn't know existed and experiences that will change you into a whole new you, 10 times over. So first lesson... be humble and open your eyes & heart wide to new experiences and possibilities then boldly go where... you get it! #PatrickStewart
Once your heart and mind are sufficiently open, here is a step by step roadmap that outlines at least one tried-and-tested means of entering the film and television industry along with some other stories and anecdotes to bring perspective and encouragement to your acting journey.
The Craft of Acting
What exactly is "a headshot" and which one should I use?
How to get an agent
What is actorsaccess.com? THE GATEWAY.
Short films & Commercials
Getting into the Union (ACTRA/SAG/etc.)
Producing your own work - the other side of the camera
Your Acting Demo(s)
Books and online resources to help move your career forward.
The Craft of Acting
Keeping your tool belt sharp as an actor is arguably the most important facet of acting. You could have the greatest headshot, understand the business, have all of your relationships built with the right people; you could even be Steven Spielberg's best friend but if you can't act, you're out. What's more is that the state of acting - the "status quo" is a fluid one. One where marquee performances are measured subjectively in relation to your audiences recent and most loved performances. Today's standards are high when it comes to authenticity, grounded performances and naturalism. What's more is that these blockbuster performances are more and more often being done in full or partial green, blue or LED screen environments where the actor's imagination is tested heavily while expecting rich and honest emotional performances.
An actors ability to sink into a scene and not only understand the story and emotional journey for the audience but also consistently nail eye lines, blocking, choreography, stunts and more, day in and day out, is a learned skill. Natural talent and ability is an asset but skill building and repeated nuanced experiences will be crucial in building strong acting bones. If you're relying on natural abilities alone you'll burn out, your creativity and camera presence will suffer and your screen time will inevitably drop.
So, how can you build those skills, even when you're not on set regularly? Here are a few resources and tools you can use to sharpen your skills and be ready for your next booking.
TRAINING, SCHOOLS & WORKSHOPS
You hear tales of walk-on talent and people being made for the screen or the stage but, in truth, it is nearly impossible to get on camera or a stage without some degree of refinement. In theatre, training is inevitable through the rehearsal process at the very least. In film and television, you'll want to take a "set etiquette class," usually hosted by union representatives. Then you're vetted through a pretty ruthless auditioning process. If you're fortunate enough to get cast you're guided and directed on a scene by scene basis and if your scene doesn't hit they'll recast and reshoot (if they have the budget) or "leave your scene on the cutting room floor" and you won't get any screen time. If you really want to be an actor, an actor that is ON camera, you need to make acting a part of your lifestyle. Much like getting healthier and working out you need to build new behaviours into your life - the behaviours of an actor.
The best place to learn these behaviours without doing it the hard way is from those who have already built and implemented them for themselves. Working professional actors, university professors and acting coaches are all on the list. Usually, you'll find them in one of these three places:
1) UNIVERSITY or COLLEGES
Universities and colleges are robust learning environments which bring a lot of breadth and knowledge to any dedicated student. This knowledge isn't just about acting but many other subjects that give rise to new perspectives and experiences. Personally, my time at the University of Lethbridge in the Dramatic Arts Program was foundational and life changing. Not only from the direct acting training and experience but also the networks, friends and mentors that I continue to collaborate with today.
The cost of university can be a con for sure but the potential value to a dedicated person is well worth it. Some universities are better than others and prepare you for different facets of the industry. It is important to do some research and check if your school of choice has a pathway for emerging actors to access screen time. From my experience, here are 7 great schools to consider if your in the market for dramatic arts education.
Vancouver Film School
Lots of industry knowledge and practical application of your skills.
Direct connections to a Canadian Film and Television industry hub.
Robust and specialized acting and dramatic arts training.
Direct connections to a Canadian Film and Television industry hub.
University of Lethbridge
Liberal learning which develops incredible breadth.
Consistent and experienced professors.
Exceptional Theatre program.
University of Alberta
Direct connections to a Canadian Theatre as well as Film and Television industries‘ hub.
Robust and thorough training in a major Canadian city.
National Theatre School
Robust and thorough training in a major Canadian city.
Some of the very best theatre training in Canada.
Wonderful alumni support and professional development.
Company of Rogues (Calgary)
A great workshop based learning environment
Thorough curriculum of classes.
Modular learning - you choose your curriculum.
Red Deer College
Dedicated and passionate dramatic arts program.
Thorough curriculum of classes.
Many development and showcase festivals that build networks and further careers.
2) ACTING WORKSHOPS
Whether you've attended a post-secondary acting program or not acting workshops are an important facet of your continued acting training. These workshops come in many shapes and sizes:
Acting for green/blue-screens
Casting Director Workshops
and other specialized workshops
These workshops are great places to refine specific skills, build networks and even occasionally find representation. My current agent, Shawna Church, and I met during a great audition prep workshop with Craft Actors Studio run by Yvonne Chapman (Kung Fu, CW) in Calgary, AB. Another great workshop to attend would be any run by or featuring respected casting directors - the talent gatekeepers. However, you must act quickly because these ones fill up faster than most, I'm talking within minutes of being announced.
I highly recommend attending as many as you can afford. They'll usually run you between $100-$600 (some are super pricy like in the $1000+ range), with varying lengths and their own unique list of pros and cons but they almost always provide a boost to your career in some form or another.
3) PRIVATE COACHING
Post-secondary and workshops are a huge boost to your understanding, network and awareness as an actor. However, if you're interested in working at the highest level, you need to enlist every advantage. The best actors in the world use acting coaches. A private acting coach will give you a tailored approach to YOUR unique acting career and allow you to focus your craft and habits with added support and sharper focus.
You'll need to make some decisions before finding a private coach. What kind of actor do you want to be? Dramatic? Comedic? Action? Genre based? What are your hits? What roles have you settled into? You'll need to do some research and keep your eyes out for actors and coaches that you admire and want to emulate? This is why a good private coach will usually come later on in actors career but will always be a welcome addition to the acting engine.
Private coaching can be especially helpful for dialects, period or special skills development. Anything where common knowledge isn't accessible.
If you're not reading books I recommend you start. Not just acting and industry books but novels as well. As an actor, one of your skills needs to be reading comprehension. All of the work you will ever get starts as words on a page. Being able to ingest and understand your script well is the foundation of any great performance. So, read more books, improve your reading and experience more stories. This will give you more material and inspiration to draw on for your performances. You'll grow as an actor, a creator and a human. Here are a few great reads to add to your list:
"Sanford Meisner - On Acting" - Sanford Meisner
"Respect for Acting" - Uta Hagen
"An Actor Prepares" - Konstantin Stanislavski
"The Art of Acting" - Stella Adler
"The Intent to Live" - Larry Moss
"The Corrections" - Johnathan Franzen
"The Celestine Prophecy" - James Redfield
"1984" - George Orwell
"Brave New World" - Aldous Huxley
"The Catcher in the Rye" - J.D Salinger
Regardless of how you maintain your acting toolkit it is important that you make consistent and ongoing contributions to your learning if you want to succeed.
Headshots are your calling card. They are often the first impression you'll have with a casting director, producer, director, or executive. Therefore, they need to stand out while checking all the right boxes. To give you a better sense of the stakes involved with a good headshot here's a story I was told by one of my acting teachers, Yvonne Chapman. It's been a few years and it's a little foggy so the exact details are a little... blurred.
Here's what's going to happen. A casting director is going to have a breakdown for a role. (A breakdown is a detailed explanation of roles that a production is seeking to fill.) Once they get a grasp of the roles they need to fill they are going to do a really quick browse over the catalogue of submissions they've received for the role. First off, they'll need to see your face so if the shot is poorly lit, grainy, blurry, poorly formatted or obscuring your face in any way don't expect a callback. Second, they'll weed out the submissions that physically or aesthetically don't match their aims. From there, they will have cut out 60 - 80% of the submissions. They will then look at the resumes, experience and/or demos that the actors provided and make their audition list (those they want to see) based on the best fits. So having a clean, well lit and professionally formatted 8"X10" headshot paired with a strong well formatted resume that highlights your best work and training will be your "access pass" to any role you may well suited to.
THE ELEMENTS OF A GOOD HEADSHOT
To summarize the elements of a good headshot here is a checklist to make sure you're getting your best results. A good headshot...
is an 8"10" photograph of your face (Head and maybe a little bit of shoulder)
is well lit with no deep shadows on the face. We should see your whole face.
should focus on the sensation the eyes give the viewer.
should hint at your personality.
should have a backlight, key light and fill light. - 3 point lighting at least.
should give a producer a sense of how you could fit the role.
TIP: Have multiple headshots and looks you can submit to specific roles.
Optional: Have a small title with your name and representation in a bottom corner.
A good headshot is a highly detailed and well lit photograph of your face. Not your upper body, not your head and shoulders... it's a headshot. I know it seems frustratingly simple sometimes but it should be a shot of your head. It should give a sense of personality and context for the role you hope to land. The producer should be able to imagine you in the role from your headshot alone.
Problematic Headshot Good Headshot
Problematic Headshot - Eyes are too dark, background is a little distracting, it's a little too dark and a bit too specific, hat prevents them from seeing hair colour, style and health. May be good for a few roles but mostly problematic despite looking pretty cool.
Good Headshot: - Eyes are visible, whole face is clearly lit, background is simple and not distracting, no hat with hair clearly visible. Looks a little less exciting but more professional and revealing to the production team.
How to get an agent
Locking in an agent is a vital part of your acting career. While it is possible to get roles without an agent, if you have an updated and robust actorsaccess.com profile, you will save a lot of time and energy having a professional in your corner finding the right roles for you. A good agent is a guide and a support on your journey as an actor but remember they work for you and not the other way around.
Another important thing to know is that the standard rate for a professional agent is 15%. If they charge you more, something is fishy. If they ask for money up front, turn around. I had an experience with my first agent, who will remain unnamed, where they required $150 upfront to build be a "profile page" on their website. Once it was up, the result was super underwhelming and the representation was weak at best. I stayed with that agency for 9 months before making the move to RJ Talent. My current agent, Shawna Church, is incredible, communicative and supportive. She was and continues to be exactly what I look for in an agent after my really unfortunate first agency experience.
One way to check if an agency you are looking into is worth your time and will be a healthy path to pursue is to check on the ACTRA Alberta, UBCP or other provincial ACTRA websites under the https://www.actraalberta.com/talent-agents/ page. In Alberta there are 10 agencies (8 in Calgary, 2 in Edmonton) that ACTRA identifies as respectable and that are practicing appropriate business practices and ethics. These are agencies with a proven track record in the industry who are known to treat the talent according to union standards. If your agency or rep is not on the list it may be worth investigating why. Often it is because they are not proven in the industry, untrustworthy or practicing outside the bounds of union regulations, so be careful and make sure the person or company representing you is legitimate. Once you've chosen your best agencies to pursue how do you get noticed and hopefully, signed to an agency.
There is no guaranteed way to get an agent but there are ways to improve your chances. It is important to understand that every agent has a "roster" of actors and that each actor is selected to fill a specific niche in the local market. Do a little research to see if the agency you're eyeing has room for your look, skills and style. If there's someone else with the same or similar profile try and find an agency that doesn't have anyone with your look or style. One thing to note: most agents need you to have professional headshots. It doesn't reflect well on them if they put forward talent with headshots shot on an iPhone 8. (See headshot section above for tips on getting your best headshot).
Don't cold-call or cold email an agency. You will most likely not get a response and may hurt your future chances. In my experience, it's warm leads that most agents are going to follow up with. These come in the form of recommendations from other actors on the roster, follow ups from audition showcases like "Emerge" here in Alberta, or from workshops that agents attend to scout for new talent. No matter your approach you will probably need to have a warm lead on the conversation with any prospective agent.
Always remember to maintain an open and transparent relationship with your agent. Some agents are more involved than others and if you want an agent to care about you, you need to care about them - as people. They are not just your agent, they are, your friend, mentors and your guides in a very turbulent and high stakes industry. Treat them authentically and with compassion. The more reputable agencies are working pretty hard most days for between 40-80 actors. Whatever you can do to make your work on and off set and your many interactions & nuanced business dealings more fluid, professional and valuable will be an asset to your actor - agent relationship.
- PAY VERY SPECIAL ATTENTION to this -
Actorsaccess.com - The gateway to the industry
If you've taken in nothing else I've written, heed this next section.
The website, www.actorsaccess.com is the portal for any actor (in Canada/North America) into the acting industry. Actorsaccess is home to breakdown services. "But, what is breakdown services, Nick?" Well, as mentioned above, a "breakdown" is a list of characters and descriptions for roles that are needing to be filled by a particular production in a region. These are sent to actorsaccess.com and YOUR AGENTS, who pay a yearly fee to receive the breakdowns from breakdown services. I've heard a yearly subscription runs an agent around $600 (part of where your 15% fee goes). Some breakdowns are more thorough than others but they all include basic information about the characters like: age range, look, place within the story (principle, lead, actor, etc.), relationships to other characters, production team information and general motivations within the story. As I said, some are more detailed and some are quite sparse.
You can and ABSOLUTELY MUST create a FREE profile on the site at any time which allows you to upload 2 headshots (additional photos available for a fee) and build a very detailed profile of your abilities, hits (looks), experience and training as an actor. You will also include your size card (measurements) and you can add a demo (for a fee). Another feature available is Slate shots. Slate shots - are 8 second headshot-video hybrids where you say "Hi, my name is _______." between two bookended headshots (see site for example). These aren't required but can be a nice little hint for producers, directors and casting directors to get an idea of your feel and voice.
Once you build a profile and select a location/region to monitor you will see all of the breakdowns in your territory that are seeking roles to fill. If your skills, age range or general characteristics match the call you'll get an email notification and can submit for the role to request an audition/self-tape. Regardless of whether you are represented or not you (or your agent) can/will submit you through actorsaccess.com and it will share your headshots with producers. It is your job to upload your audition, fulfill the audition and submission requirements, and to get your submission in before the posted deadline, so read carefully.
A COUPLE OF TIPS: Be thorough with your profile build. Take a solid afternoon to make sure it's all there and be sure to update your resume and size card with any major changes as soon as they happen. You never know when the next opportunity will arrive and you want to be ready.
Another big thing is to be honest! You don't want to be the person who says they can ride a horse and then lies their way into the saddle only to get bucked off and break their neck. I've heard this story on set FOR REAL so be honest. Also, remember skills are learned and sometimes you can learn a role's skill before an audition or production; at least well enough to cheat it for an audition and learn it thoroughly afterwards (only in some cases). Acting is a beautiful craft because you are forced to continuously learn new stories, perspectives and abilities - don't take this wonderful trait of acting for granted. You will grow immeasurably as a human in the process. Another thing - Choose well lit and professionally shot headshots. You want nothing from a cheap phone or low end camera. Pay some money and stand out in the submission line.
Final note on actorsaccess - if you don't have this you're not in the loop. If you do have this set up and set up well you have a chance to get auditions for TV, films, commercials and more. An agent will improve your chances but there are many unrepresented actors who submit for themselves and are diligent in looking for roles that do quite well. If you're dedicated you have a shot so be committed and check for new breakdowns often. Even if you have an agent, look over breakdowns regularly and if you're an ACTRA/SAG member or apprentice check the ACTRA/SAG newsletters often. Sometimes your agent doesn't see everything and there are great roles hiding in the ruff that can be very fruitful. I've personally found two that I can think of.
Bottom line, get on www.actorsaccess.com, build your profile and start your professional acting journey right now. You can purchase a yearly membership for around $70 USD so it's not too expensive even for a full access profile.
OTHER CASTING PLATFORMS
To increase your chances of landing an audition, or even multiple auditions, you may want to create a profile on more than one casting website. Casting Networks @ castingnetworks.com is another option, which has been around for many years now. Like Actors Access, you'll need to pay for a premium membership if you want to access all the features which includes unlimited photo, video and audio uploads (up to 5GB total), as well as unlimited casting submissions.
In comparison to Actors Access, Casting Networks is on the pricier end. It's currently $259.99 for an annual membership if you're based in Canada or North America. However, the website adds new casting calls almost daily and you can filter down to view casting calls in both Vancouver and Toronto (currently the only two Canadian locations listed on the website).
There are a few others listed below such as Backstage.com and CastIt.com but actorsaccess.com continues to be king in the Alberta region until the world wakes up to the amazing industry bubbling to the surface in Alberta. In fact, Calgary was named the #8 place to live in and work as a filmmaker in the world this year. With shows like The Last of Us, Billy the Kid, Joe Pickett, Fargo and more all setting up shop in southern Alberta a prudent actor will be taking every advantage possible to get involved with these heavy hitters.
Short films, Music videos & commercials
Along your journey as an actor you're more likely than not going to land on a few short film, music video and commercial sets on your way to bigger roles in TV and feature films. These shorter form productions are great because they often give you a little more freedom to play, a wealth of varied experiences from set to set and crew to crew, they help you develop your understanding of basic story structure, they give you practical experience to improve your eye lines, vocal performances, movements and more and they build your networks on route to bigger productions.
I highly recommend you get on small productions like these and learn from as many directors, producers, crews and actors as you can. It will only improve your foundation. However, it is important at this early stage to develop strong habits and to not take the opportunity for granted. After all, in today's digital world a film is essentially eternal and will last long after you do, so make it count and be sure to say what you really want/need to say. These productions will often be sent to film festivals, launched on YouTube or sent for modest distribution on Amazon, Telus Optik VOD, or some other digital library. The better the film the better the chances of strong placement, views and a stronger ROI. Either way and no matter the outcome, these are excellent learning opportunities and are a necessary part of the journey to bigger screens.
I've done well over a dozen short films, a couple music videos, a few commercials in Canada and the states and now I've graduated to episodic television and feature films but it took time. The journey has been long but well worth it and I've gained some great friends and experiences along the way that have been crucial stepping stones to get to where I am now.
There are a few sources to get roles aside from actorsacess.com. Keep you eyes peeled in actor and filmmaking groups on facebook, Instagram, Clubhouse and any other social platform. Join groups with inspired and active members who are acting and making films regularly. Start AND MAINTAIN authentic conversations with them, be transparent, work hard and be humble. Remember acting is a lifestyle not something that is turned on and off.
You can also look on Backstage.com, Castit.com even IMDb sometimes. Furthermore, try and subscribe to the union newsletters (ACTRA/SAG), local film societies and community groups and online forums' mailing lists to get updates on additional roles seeking to be filled.
If you're looking to build experience and portfolio material consider student films made by reputable universities and colleges. Some award winners come out of these places. In Alberta, SAIT is a great example a strong schools making decent student films.
Getting into the union - When to join
In order to get into the any union you need to have worked on at least one union approved set and have spoke a minimum number of words. I believe it's 3 but could be a single word. As long as you are hired in a speaking role you have an opportunity to claim your "Apprentice" membership. This provides the same protections and pay that full membership provides but won't give you voting rights or the ability to be on the union's board of directors.
Once you collect 3 speaking credits on union approved productions you can claim your "full membership" and pay your initiation fee of $1,600 minus any permits you've paid to
ACTRA before being a full member. "Permits" are fees charged to apprentice members to cover the administrative costs of partial union member activities. On a big set these are usually around $200 per credit but on indie's it's usually less to account for lower pay.
Another means of getting your first credit and becoming an apprentice is to claim the credit upon graduating a respected post-secondary acting program like a B.F.A or equivalent program. From the date of convocation you have 60 days to claim this credit. Simply contact the union rep, send them your proof of graduation and you're in - but be careful. If you only have limited experience, basic training and no portfolio it may be best to stay non-union until you have a strong catalogue, more experience and a basic demo of independent work that will support your approaches to bigger projects.
This issue is that once you join the union you are only allowed to work on union sets which means you will not be able to audition or work on a lot of independent sets that don't have union status. Usually, these smaller, independent sets are the best places to build quality portfolios that catch the attention of producers and casting directors but you can't work on those sets if you're a union or apprentice member.
My recommendation is to either work as an actor while you're in school so you can be ready to take advantage of your first credit upon graduation or to work hard at developing your independent network after graduating so you can keep working, stay sharp and build a strong portfolio to bring to an agent, the union and the industry at large when you are ready to make some bigger moves.
Producing your own work - the other side of the camera
Just a quick section on producing your own work. If you haven't yet, I highly recommend producing your own work - at least one time. Here's why... going through the process of writing, producing, casting, organizing, renting, purchasing, directing, etc. will give you the perspective of the producer. It should teach you many things, including: how expensive things are, it will reveal to you how quickly decisions are made in casting and teach you to not be so hard on yourself. As long as you, as an actor, are accustomed to a solid prep for your auditions and opportunities, you will really learn how decisions are not personal and are often not based on if you had the "best audition." You'll learn that you getting a role is actually based on countless other factors that an actor has very little control over. It will strengthen your storytelling abilities and give you a perspective that is only attainable as producer or director, which will make you more compassionate and relatable to the big fish in the industry.
In some cases, I've learned more about acting from directing or producing then I have from actually acting myself. Again, I highly recommend getting behind the camera, if not as a producer/director then as a crew member with an active part in production.
Your Acting Demo(s)
Your acting demo is a short 1-2 minute burst of your BEST acting clips and moments. This should not be long. Always go for quality over quantity. I only have two pieces on my acting demo right now. Even though I have many pieces available for use I choose to only use my best work and to select the work that best matches my goals as an actor. If your goal is to be a dramatic actor don't put that mediocre comedy piece in there. It should be the best of the best. If you have done multiple pieces across many genres consider using multiple demos that highlight your best moments in each genre or medium. Seriously, avoid the 7 minute demo because it "gives context to your scenes". Your acting should usually be able to stand alone in 15-30 second bursts. Remember, only the best of the best. You'll have better results than adding your rough indie and student pieces unless they are stand out examples.
In this post we've covered everything you need to get started as a professional actor. While the journey towards the big screens is a long, arduous and dedicated craft it is by no means an impossible task. Many deserving actors have made their way from obscurity to the top of the A-list. Not all were the same but all were similar in their belief of their abilities and their incredible understanding of the storytelling process.
We are all actors on a grand stage but those who choose to undertake it as a profession choose to follow a path of constant growth, endless education and intense discipline. Acting professionally is a tough gig, to get into and to sustain. I hope that this entry has provided you with some action items and a path forward towards your most wonderful goals and dreams.
If you enjoyed the blog or found value in it share it with your actor friends, agents, producers and more. Help those young actors out there be a little more prepared for their big break and make our industry function with a little more fluidity. After all, time is money and that is certainly true on each set I've ever been on.
Final words, stay humble. The greatest actors in history never stop growing and learning. You're not done, you're never ready and you're always going to experience something unexpected. That's what I love about this crazy job and that's where I'll leave it for now.
Have any questions about this, other or future blog posts? Send me a message in the comments or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd be happy to chat and help you along your journey.