“Hey Brian, any advice on being a working commercial actor in Boston?”
About once a year or so, somebody asks me for advice on how they can break into commercial acting in Boston. Or they have a nephew who just graduated. Or they’ve been doing improv for years and are looking to switch it up. So what started as an email forward turned into a Google Doc, and then turned into this blog post: advice for breaking into commercial acting in Boston, 2020 style.
It’s a side hustle
Firstly, my experience over the last seven years has been fun, but it’s definitely a side hustle. I wouldn’t consider this a career guide, more of a “have fun and make some money” guide. Hardly anyone I know works full time as an actor or model without a major supplement to their income. I myself am a web designer and video producer. Some people eventually move on to NY or LA where the bigger markets are and there’s a chance to do it full time – however slim. But if you’re here to stay (or just here for now), Boston is a great place to get your reps in and learn what it takes to be a professional actor.
It’s just a matter of having the right tools, getting seen, and staying humble.
And in any case, this is just my approach. You’ll make plenty of friends who are in it for different reasons and have different priorities. I’m a part-time actor and model myself who’s pursuing a career in comedy. Some people are mostly models, others are mostly actors, and some are mostly stand-up comedians. The cool thing about Boston is that it’s a small town, so you’ll meet almost all the regulars pretty quickly. And they all want to talk about the business and give you advice on how you can do it your way.
Types of gigs
So just one last thing before we get into it, below is a list of the kinds of acting and modeling I’m experienced with. It doesn’t include theater or fashion modeling. My advice only applies to the following:
- Acting for commercial and industrial videos
- Modeling for commercial and industrial print, A.K.A. “Lifestyle modeling”
- Feature film, TV, new media work
- Voice-over (rare)
- Feature film roles (the rarest)
Let’s hit it:
Part 1: Be Prepared
Know your type
Commercial acting and modeling is often more about “type casting.” I play a dad because, well… I look like a dad. Don’t get me wrong, I also rely on whatever acting skills I bring to the table, but I know what types of roles I’m suited for. Most of the time your job is to fill that type, just be natural, be yourself and fill that role all the way up with your uniqueness and energy.
Have the right tools — headshots and resume
Get photos done by a good photographer. Wanna save money on printed headshots? Don’t print them on the nice, glossy paper because they get thrown away by the truckload, just print them out at Staples on normal paper, one side is your photo, the other side is your resume. I’ve been doing this for years. And when they call you into the agencies, they have your video anyways, so if they want you, they’ll call you regardless of the print stock.
As for your resume, put all your stuff on there that makes sense. Take a look at mine if you need a reference.
Take acting classes
Despite what I said about type casting, you should still feel comfortable auditioning, learning lines, getting into a character, and working with a director and other actors. I recommend classes at CP Casting and Boston Casting for starters. I also suggest some level of improv training, even if you never intend to do an improv show in your life, it’ll still help you feel comfortable in your own skin when performing, and give you tools to think on your feet in character. And it’s fun!
Get a website
As I said, I work part time as a web designer and don’t do as much self-promotion as I should. In fact, it took me 6 years just to get a website up despite doing it for a living! Better late than never.
Here’s what your website needs:
- a headshot
- contact info
- video reels
- full-figure shots
- casual or “lifestyle” shots
You know, all the stuff I have on this one. :). I use my website mostly as a “calling card”, and I print it on my resume and business card (get one of those, too). Have I gotten any direct bookings through my website? Not that I know of. But it’s a useful networking tool, I’ve sent plenty of people here and it makes me look like a professional. I suggest a WIX.com or WordPress.com template to get you started.
Use social media
Did you book a gig? Take a selfie and share it with your friends and family online! Make sure you ask the production for permission first, but totally show the world what you’re working on. I use Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, but you do you. New networks pop up all the time, so keep up with it. Why? Because sharing on social media…
- Makes you feel good!
- Lets your friends and family share with your success
- Shows people that you are a working actor, and makes them think of you if another gig or audition opportunity pops up
Part 2: Audition
Go to auditions and show them that you’re talented and easy to work with. Here’s how you get auditions:
Introduce yourself to casting agencies and talent agencies
There are two types of agencies: casting agencies and talent agencies. Casting agencies are the ones that usually get the gigs and call you in to audition, and the Talent agencies are the ones that represent you and you pay to get gigs (through a percentage of your check, nothing up front).
Register yourself using your headshot and resume with all of the four major casting agencies:
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are the major one’s I book most of my gigs through. I recommend getting on everyone’s radar.
I also recommend signing on with one of the major acting/modeling/talent agencies as they get direct bookings sometimes that don’t come through casting agencies. When I first signed up with my agent, I went from 2 auditions or so a year to many, many more.
I hear that all the agencies are good, they just have different talent focuses. So I suggest meeting them all in person and seeing what they say and how they can line up with your goals. Here are the big ones I know of:
My agent is responsible for most of my biggest gigs. Agencies take 10%, but make it up in volume of work, by negotiating contracts, and generally having your back. They’re also nice folks who listen to my questions and help me out when I need to shoot a video submission in their offices or something. I definitely recommend.
Even more audition resources:
- CP Casting and BU University do student films. It’s an unpaid gig, but you get experience on sets with student filmmakers and on Carolyn Pickman’s radar (The “CP” in “CP Casting”). Sign up on their website.
- Casting Networks: A national casting list service, they send a newsletter that you can tailor to your interests and geo-location
- Backstage.com (Yearly subscription)
- Facebook groups: do a search!
Part 3: Be Patient and Humble
You won’t get every gig you audition for. You may not even get half of them. Some actors definitely work more than others just because of their type. And there’s an ebb and flow: some months are dead, some months you may have trouble juggling it all. And be patient with your day job. They might not understand your need to take 2 hours off in the middle of the day to do an audition. Or take one day off in the middle of the week on short notice. The core trick to acting in Boston is finding a flexible day job or other income. Like I said, most of the actors I know are part time. Like me, I work 30 hours a week doing web design in an office. Oh the fun conversations I’ve had with my bosses! All I can say is it gets better / less weird over time. If this is really what you want to do, find a way to make it work!
Be humble (A.K.A. professional)
When you do finally book a gig, remember that it’s a job. A fun job, but still a job: you have responsibilities and there’s money on the line. No matter how “good” you are, there’s somebody else with your type who was prolly a hair’s breadth away from replacing you. So be grateful for every gig. Be nice to all your co-workers (actors, crew, etc.). Be friendly and chat and have fun, but remember, the crew has been there since before you arrived and will be there after you’ve left. So you may be the center of attention, but if you’re a jerk… well just don’t be that person who’s hard to work with. Best advice I ever heard is “never be the person anyone is waiting on.” Be on-time, be prepared, and be kind.
And the easier you are to work with, the more likely you are to be asked back in the future. Yes, directors will remember you and ask for you specifically if you were professional.
Clothing — bring options
Sometimes you’re responsible for your own wardrobe, or wardrobe options. So invest in good clothes that are for acting gigs only. Seriously, don’t wear them out if you can avoid it, keep them looking new. And shoes, always bring shoes that are appropriate to your outfit, even if they don’t ask. One of my super powers is my big feet, so I bring my own size 15 shoes. And invest in a garment bag and/or rolling luggage. Oh, and iron your clothes! Do all these things and wardrobe will surely thank you for it.
Taxes — pay them
If you’re working in Boston, I’ll assume you’re living in the US. So make sure the IRS and your state know all about your side income. If you’ve never worked as an independent contractor before, then you’re probably not used to paying taxes that aren’t deducted automatically. With most acting gigs, they aren’t deducted automatically. Which means you have to save roughly 20% of every paycheck and set it aside for the IRS. Seriously. Don’t get bit in the butt when April comes around and you wind up owing a lot. Get a tax pro to help, if you need to.
Extras — keep a to-go bag
I keep a list of essential in a to-go bag in my car with my shoes, my headshot binder, and a stick of deodorant.
Whelp, that’s all the easy stuff I’ve learned over the last seven years. But this is just part 1 in a series, I’ll be doubling back in the coming months to give you more tips and tricks and go into detail on things like auditioning and learning improv. Meanwhile, feel free to reach out with any questions, or even if you want to grab a coffee and chat about the biz sometime.