Film and Television – getting started

Okay friends, I’ve heard you. I seem to get asked once a week now about how to break into the film/modeling business by those of you who don’t know anything about it but believe it to glamorous, mysterious or well paying. Some of you want to make a career out of it, others think it would be a good second job. Let me get real with you.

I am beyond happy to give you advice – but understand that I do not have all the answers. After all, I am not making millions or starring in my own shows. Yet. šŸ™‚

You WILL NOT make money as an actor until you join the unions. Period. The standard non-union job for tv or film pays $85.00 a day – BEFORE taxes. So if you are non-union and were thinking background work would be a good second job, stop here. If you are trying to make a career out of film/tv, you HAVE to be union, which means you need to work non-union jobs until you join the union. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. I personally was non-union for 18 months before joining. I have dear friends that have been non-union for TEN YEARS and still can’t join. Think about that.

Everyone wants to know how to join the unions. Well pretty much anyone can join AFTRA, as long as you have the money to join. I believe its $1500 to join – check for details. In the NYC area, all Soaps, and a half dozen other shows are AFTRA. On average, I work one AFTRA job per week.

SAG (Screen Actors Guild) is the creme de la creme of unions, as far as most actors are concerned. Mostly because its so hard (and EXPENSIVE) to join. In order to join SAG, you must either be offered a SAG contract (which is as likely for a non-union actor as being struck by lightning) or receiving three SAG waivers. A background (bg) actor can receive a waiver on set only when there are not the correct amount of union actors on set, and therefor a non-union most fill a union spot. NEVER ask the PA or AD for a waiver. They are asked EVERYDAY, hate it, and consider it unprofessional. Once you have all three waivers, you can join SAG. The current joining fee is $2500. Check out for more details. All major motion pictures, commercials, and most tv shows are SAG.

Starting out, register with the background casting companies in your city. NYC has five important ones that hire actors daily. Be smart and use the internet and websites out there. You have to be assertive, listen carefully and follow direction in order to survive in this business.

So you’ve never been on set and you want to know what to expect. Here are some tips, terms, and other helpful info:

The casting company that booked you will give you the address for holding, wardrobe, a check in number, and time.
-Google the address, and ALWAYS arrive early. If you are late, the PA might send you home. Make sure you have the correct address and means of transportation the night before your call.

– If you have an emergency or are running late, call the casting company ASAP.

– “Holding” is not the set, but is often within a couple blocks of the set (or elsewhere in the studio). Its the location where the bg actors will hang out when not on set, eat, and change.

– Bring extra wardrobe options. Make sure clothes are clean. 95% of the time they will NOT want red, white, or busy patterns in your wardrobe.

– ALWAYS bring your passport or drivers license/ss card on set. You cannot work or be paid without it. Copies don’t count.

– Bring a book, lap top, or anything you want to occupy your time. Most of the time you will have hours of down time on set – especially if you are non-union (they have to use union bg first).
– NEVER leave holding without talking to a PA, even to go to the bathroom. You never know when you will be quickly called to set.

– Arrive hair and make-up ready. You can bring stuff to touch up, and sometime the MUAs will check your hair and make-up, but never count on it. Be smart and plan according to what you are playing.
FOR EXAMPLE: If I am playing a lawyer, I will wear subtle day-wear make-up (this isn’t theatre, ladies!), with a clean hair style that’s professional and conservative. If I were playing a model in a club scene, I’d wear night-time make-up, with false lashes and a more sexy pallet of colors. The hair choice would be more upscale, sexy, and edgy.

– ALWAYS wear whatever the wardrobe people pick out for you. They are getting their direction from the director, so never assume you know best. These are people who make their living dressing bg. If you don’t like their choice, too bad. No one will care. Suck it up and do your job. If you could see the things I have worn on set, you would pee yourself laughing or shutter in horror.

– NEVER, I REPEAT NEVER approach a lead/celebrity/director. No matter what. This is not the time to introduce yourself, ask for an autograph, or shmooze. They are people doing their jobs who are under extreme pressure. If you approach or harass the lead, you will most likely be kicked off set and never asked back. I’ve seen it happen. That said, NEVER talk back or bitch to a PA, AD, or anyone from production. As far as you or they are concerned, you are a movable prop. You don’t have a name, and your comfort means diddly. HOWEVER, there are professional ways to address issues, problems and people. Always go to the bg PA first, and be polite and courteous. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. If you can’t handle such a degrading situation, don’t be an actor. There are plenty of other jobs out there.

– If a lead addresses you, you may respond! Be polite, professional, and respectful. Telling them you had your wall covered in posters of them in high school does not count.

– Remember, the PA’s and AD’s of today may very well be the directors and producers of tomorrow, so always make a good impression. This is a VERY small industry and everybody knows everyone else. Think of every day as an audition.


– Don’t ask when the day will wrap. The PA’s have no idea, so asking only pisses them off. Generally a day can range from 8-16 hours, so go figure.
– Be quiet on set and respectful in holding. Everyone is working long hours, stress levels are high, and time wasted usually equals thousands of dollars spent. Not good.
– Acting on film is natural and subtle. It’s not theatre. If you are walking down the block, do it naturally, if you are eating in a restaurant, be quite and natural about it. Over actors on set stick out like a sore thumb.
– Once you have checked with the PA in holding, filled out your paperwork, and gone through wardrobe, get dressed and camera ready ASAP. Trust me, this will pay off.

More help to come!


~ by Elizabeth on September 3, 2009.

One Response to “Film and Television – getting started”

  1. […] a Westminster Seminar A couple of months ago I wrote a blog with advice and inside tips for people interested in becoming an actor or model. I was prompted to write the blog due to month […]

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