February 13, 2011
My advice for current and aspiring actors
I get a lot of emails from current and aspiring actors asking for advice. Iím going to put the Qs here, so in the future, if anyone has a question, they can read the answer without even asking me. Obviously, the below answers are just my opinions. Iím sure intelligent people will disagree with some of them. But this is what I have gleaned from my 10 years in the business.
Q: Amir, should I be an actor? Iím not sure if I have what it takes. Iím not sure I can deal with the ups and downs, and the rejection, and all the time and effort it takes.
A: No. You shouldnít. You should only be an actor if you donít give a crap about ups, downs, rejection, and working your butt off for sometimes very little reward. You should only be an actor if you canít imagine doing anything else. If you think you will be happy doing something else, do it. Because this life is hard, and *very* few people make it. That said, if you know you will have regrets if you donít give it a try, then you have to try. Live with no regrets.
Q: How do I get over nervousness in an audition?
A: Donít treat every audition as if it might be your last. People can smell desperation. Treat every audition as if it is #134 of the 380 you have this year. If you have decided that youíre going to do this for the next 5 or 10 years at least, then you surely must have faith that another audition is going to be coming soon. Donít walk in like you donít give a shit, but donít freak out. Spend a good amount of time preparing, but know that if you donít get it, itís not the end of the world. The best advice I ever got was to think of yourself as a plumber giving the casting director an estimate. Plumbers dont get nervous. They just walk in, explain what they are able to do, and then wait to be hired or not.
Q: I am not as far in my career as some other people, even though they're less talented and less intelligent. Is is wrong for me to be jealous of how unfair that is?
A: Life is not a race. Don't chase anyone else's career. Stop looking around. You're not behind anyone, you're not ahead. You're on your own path. Just focus on it. You should definitely learn from the experiences of others, but jealousy and envy don't get you anywhere. What good is it for me to be angry I dont have Miley Cyrus' career? We're different people. Even Kal Penn, who is of a similar age and ethnic category. Some people say I'm "better" than he, some think not. One of those may be true, but whether it's true or not does not help me get work. I need to pound the pavement either way. Some people get bitter and start complaining about things that are out of their control: "It's so political" "It's about who you know" etc. Even IF that's relevant (which I think it rarely is), there's nothing you can do about it. Whether it's what's going on in your comedy troupe, or LA, or life in general, focus on improving yourself, and being the best that you can be. You'll feel so much better.
Q: Amir, Iím ___ years old. Is it too late for me?
A: No. Look at Jane Lynch from Glee and Michael Badalucco from The Practice. Neither one of them got their Big Break until they were 40. Joy Behar and Kathryn Joosten didn't even start in show business until they were 40, and Joosten didn't move to LA til she was 55. She won her first Emmy in her 60s. Is it too late for you to be the next big thing in Tiger Beat magazine or Teen People? Probably. But if what you want to do is act, then as long as you can talk, itís not too late.
Q: Amir, what city should I live in?
A: If you want to be a working actor in film and TV, you should live in LA. If you want to be a working actor in theater, you should live in NYC. There is some overlap, but each city has its focus, and thereís no argument about which is which. If you really donít want to live in either of those cities, you can find occasional work in other cities, but if you want to make your living solely as an actor, it is nearly impossible to do so anywhere but LA and NYC. Actually, even in LA and NYC, it's nearly impossible.
Q: If I move to LA, what neighborhood should I live in at first?
A: Hollywood and West Hollywood are the most central, so if you hate traffic, those are the best. The valley (Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood, Studio City) offers cheaper rent and more space. The Santa Monica area offers generally nicer places and the proximity to the ocean is wonderful. Burbank and Silverlake can be nice, and you will get more space for your money, but having once lived over there, I dont think the commute is worth it if you audition a lot.
Q: Amir, Iím a minority. Will making it as an actor be difficult for me?
A: Making it is nearly impossible for everyone. Being ethnic can help, and in some ways it hurts. There are fewer roles for minorities, but there are fewer minorities competing for those roles. I think it pretty much evens out. My advice is not to let your appearance -- whether it's the color of your skin or the size of your nose -- dissuade you from pursuing the life you want to lead, no matter what it is you want to do.
Q: Amir, I have a name which pegs me as a certain minority. Should I change it?
A: Thatís a really personal thing, and it really depends how you see yourself and how you expect the world to see you. I didnít change my name, and I think things have worked out pretty well. Other ethnic friends of mine have changed their names, and theyíre happy they did it. The only time Iíd actually recommend changing is if you are more likely to play one ethnicity but are named another- ie, if you look Caucasian but your name is Mohammad, go ahead and change it to Mo if you want. Or, y'know, donít. Names are becoming less and less of a factor.
Q: Amir, what acting classes in LA do you recommend?
A: I have been studying with Richard Seyd (http://www.seydways.com) for over 10 years. His classes have changed me dramatically, making me a better actor and a better person. Richard does scene study, audition technique, and ďstretchĒ work, which helps you expand your range as an actor. I recommend his classes highly.
Q: Amir, what comedy classes do you recommend?
A: As far as improv and sketch comedy, I really enjoyed my time at The Groundlings. They and Upright Citizenís Brigade are without a doubt the 2 big names in LA. Casting people recognize that, and you also get to work with a lot of funny people too. As far as sitcoms, Iíve only studied with one person, Shari Shaw, but I really liked her a lot.
Q: Amir, youíve done a lot of commercials, how can I do a lot of commercials?
A: First, watch commercials. When I walk into a commercial audition, I know exactly what type of commercial it is, ie one of those quiet ďThe OfficeĒ-type spots, really broad spots, really straight spots, etc. Yes, the casting person explains to you what they want, but there is a difference between that and instinctively knowing the style. Secondly, take a class. I really learned a lot from Fawnda McMahan (818-807-6939), and Iíve also heard very good things about Killian McHugh (http://www.killiansworkshop.com).
Q: Amir, should I major in drama in college?
A: As a way to get work, NO. If you are interested in the history and varied aspects of our business, maybe, I guess. As a drama major, in addition to performance classes, you are required to take a huge amount of book learnin' classes that are just not applicable to your *work* as an actor. Worst of all, college teaches you next to nothing about being a working actor (like you can learn at The Actors Network). No one in LA cares about a degree in theater or film. Even in NYC, talent by far trumps a degree. You should major in something else, so that if you decide to pursue another career, youíll be prepared. BUT, you should still take *lots and lots* of acting/drama/etc classes outside of your major. That's what I did.
Q: Amir, should I get an MFA?
A: No. Of the people Iíve known whoíve done that, most found it to be extremely fulfilling artistically, but it didnít help their careers any more than being on the outside would have. I am so grateful I was never accepted into a grad program. During the 3 years I would have been in grad school, I worked. I was in plays, TV shows, movies, and commercials. I made tons of contacts, and on top of that I made MONEY. My grad school counterparts also performed a ton, also made contacts, but they ended up tens of thousands of dollars in debt. An *actor* tens of thousands in debt? Say what? A doctor I can see, but an actor? I just donít see how itís worth it.
Q: Amir, is it important to have a referral when submitting to an agent?
A: Itís not required, but it does make it *much* more likely your submission will get attention.
Q: Amir, should I tell people my real age?
A: Not to anyone making decisions, and donít put it on your IMDB either. Once youíve signed with you agent, you can tell them, but you can keep that private from any other decision makers.
Q: Amir, Iím non-union. When should I become union?
A: You should become union when casting people and agents tell you that your career will no longer move forward as a non-union actor. If you are not coming in contact with agents and CDs very much, then you are not at that stage yes, and you have no reason to be union yet.
Q: Amir, do I need a website?
A: No. I've never had an employer locate me on the web. As long as your reel and your resume is online at one or more of the major casting websites, I dont see a reason for a personal website, other than vanity, or if you already are a major star with a fan base, or if you create a *great deal* of content, ie a blog, a regular stream of videos, etc. You may want to read my Jan 1 2010 journal entry for more of my thoughts on an actor's web presence.
Q: Any tips for making my IMDB profile work better for me?
A: 1) Dont put your age or your height on there. I made that mistake and it cost me. The only thing age and height can do is disqualify you from a role. Even though I look young for my age, having it on my IMDB is like a scarlet letter that sometimes makes CDs refuse to see me for those younger roles. 2) Make sure there is a picture on there. You dont need a ton, just one or 2 is sufficient. 3) Try to avoid having vague credits like "Man #1", "Guy in bar", "Construction Worker", etc. That makes it look like you've only played small roles. That may be true, and that's fine, but that doesn't mean it has to *look* that way. So, when you do a job, be it your friend's short film, or even a major studio picture, try to get credited as a name. When you book the role, or at least before you sign your contract, have your agent give the casting dept or the producers a few simple ideas: "Joe", "Sanchez", "Vernon Jones", even "Officer Spinelli" is better than "Officer". Just suggest whatever you think will fit the role and wont be terribly remarkable or obtrusive. Your agent can feel free to tell them why, even saying that since you're getting paid relatively little compared to others in the cast, the least they can do is help your IMDB look better. The majority of the time, the producers'll be very accommodating. Sometimes they won't.
Q: I have a meeting with an agent, and I'm told you're supposed to not just answer their Qs, but have some Qs of your own. What should I ask?
A: How many clients do you have, and how many agents rep each of them? How many actors of my type do you represent, and if it's more than one, why do you believe that I'll be able to get the attention I need if you already rep people similar to me? How often do you pick up the phone to pitch clients, and how effective is that? What Casting Directors do you have a solid working relationship with, ie which ones are you most comfortable calling and pitching to?
Q: How can I get commercial auditions if I dont have a commercial agent or if I have one that rarely sends me out?
A: It's actually really simple. Maybe not super easy, but incredibly simple. I still do this from time to time. And in all of my years giving this piece of advice, NO ONE has EVER done it. Because they're fucking lame-o pussies. Sorry but it's true. Here's what you do: stop in at the major commercial casting houses (200 S La Brea, 8899 Beverly, 2329 Purdue, etc) and look around. If you see them auditioning people who are in your category (which happens about 1/4 of the time), walk up to the casting asst and say "Hi, I noticed you're casting people in my category. Do you think you could squeeze in one more?" About 1/3 of the time, they will say yes. You just got yourself a commercial audition! Now dont blow it. Of course, 2/3 of the time, they'll say no. Well, that's not the end. Hold out your postcard (or if you must, headshot) and say "do you mind if I leave you this in case you decide to have another day of casting?" Most of the time, they will say sure. Hand it to them. Say "thank you so much". Walk out.
You can either make a special trip of this, or you can do it whenever you happen to be driving by one of those casting houses. Whatever works best for you.
A special note: NEVER just put yourself on the list without asking first. They will almost always find out, and they will be SUPER pissed. But do it my way, and they'll often end up thanking you, even if they dont have time to give you an audition.
Q: If in a film or TV audition, the main decision maker (casting director, producer, etc) is all the way on my left, the reader is directly in front of me, and the camera is all the way on my right, which way should I angle my body?
A: Angle halfway btwn the reader and the main decision maker. Dont worry about the camera when the decision maker is in the room. It is there mainly to keep a record of what you did. But it's the decision maker that you really need to impress. The camera is basically like your resume - important for them to have, but not what goes into the decision. OTOH, if you are being put on tape by an assistant and the decision maker will be watching later (like in commercials or film/TV pre-reads), then make sure the camera has a great view.
Q: I have a "general" meeting with a casting director or casting executive or producer or something. What do I do?
A: In these meetings, they're just trying to get an idea of you as a person, so next time they bring you up to a colleague, if the colleague says "Amir, the funny brown guy?" they can respond "Yeah he's a funny brown guy, but he's got a lot more going on than that. And I think you'd enjoy working with him." Your goal in this situation is simple- have a good conversation. How? Just like when you meet someone at a cocktail party, by being interesting but normal. If someone at a cocktail party said "what's up?" would you rattle off your resume? No! That would be so weird and actory! Besides, the casting person already has your resume. Can you talk about work? Of course. But here's my trick: answer work questions like the other person is not in the business, and ask work questions like you're not in the business. If they ask about one of your credits, dont just name drop or tell them how many rungs up the career ladder it got you, tell them about WHY it was an interesting project and WHY you enjoyed or didn't enjoy it. Or tell them an interesting anecdote about it. If you're curious about their job, dont ask questions *as they pertain to you* like "Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are seeking actors of my type?" Instead, ask things like "So how involved do you get to be in ____?" "What do you find more rewarding, part A of your job or part B?" Ultimately, this general meeting is intended to be the beginning of a working relationship between you two. It's not a gold-mining expedition, where you are supposed to extract something of value, and it's not a scene from Inception, in which you are supposed to implant some opinion or action point into their head and then get out. It is the Beginning. Of a Relationship.
Q: Amir, can we can sit down and talk? I'd be happy to treat you to lunch or coffee or something.
A: Funny you should ask. Kristine Oller, a colleague and friend from The Actors Network, often recommends asking insightful people out to coffee. But, realizing that there are a lot of people and a lot of lattes out there, she *recorded* "Coffee Dates" with people, and posted them for download, free. My Date is here: http://www.theactorslibrary.com/coffee-dates#amir Check it out!
Q: What do you think of paid Casting Director Workshops?
A: I dont like 'em and I've never been to one. First, they cynically abuse actor desperation. But worse than that? They are just not cost effective. I think there are better ways to learn, better ways to get seen, and better ways to spend money. Have I had friends who've had success and done workshops? Yes. But I've had success without ever doing workshops. If they work for you, I'm not gonna judge. But I wouldn't recommend it.
Q: Now that you've shared your opinions, I'd like to email you some videos and invite you to some shows and tell you when I'm gonna be on TV! Would you be interested in that?
A: I think a good rule of thumb is to not invade people's email boxes unless they've asked to be invited. So I'll pass, but I'll let you know if I change my mind. Best of luck!
This list will grow as more Qs are asked of me.