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I am amazed to report, that I have actually had, in this day and age, total strangers ask me, "How do I break into show business?". Now besides the fact that nobody ever says, "How do I break into accounting?", "How do I break into medicine?", or 'How do I break into retail store management?", I find it very weird that, as long as your talking to someone in the entertainment industry, it is socially acceptable to suggest to their face that you think their job requires absolutely no talent, training, aptitude, experience, work or effort of any kind. It is as if they fully expect to be told, "Oh yes, why it's the third stool from the left at Schwab's drugstore! Just sit there for 20 minutes until a talent scout comes in. That's how everyone does it." In response to this foolishness, and for the benefit of the not so foolish who ask somewhat more sensible, pertinent questions about agents, acting classes, union rules, and such, I have composed the following rant.

- Alison

"Breaking Into Show Business"

by Alison Arngrim
© 2004

One of the questions I get asked more than any other, (well, OK except for maybe "What was Michael Landon really like?"), is "How do I ‘break into’ show business?" I just got asked this the other day, and since it was like number 3,486 I decided it was time to just put my answer in writing so I could post it on the web or make some kind of "hand-out".

OK, number one: About this term "break into’. You are not going to "break into" anything. The phrase "Breaking into show business" needs to be put in the same verbal category as "get rich quick", "overnight success", "something for nothing" and "Free Lunch". In other words, the total hooey category.

What most people really mean is, "I want to be a movie star" or "I want to be on TV". Sometimes they have even thought it all the way through and say, "I want to become an actor" or, "I would like some kind of job in the entertainment industry."

The first two, "I want to be a movie star" or "I want to be on TV" are difficult, but do-able. The second two, "I want to become an actor" or, "I would like some kind of job in the entertainment industry", are waaay easier.

"I want to be a movie star"

Let’s start with the first: being a movie star. Go to any of the popular show business websites, like Internet Movie DataBase ( or read some of the magazine interviews with your favorite stars, and take a good look at the history of their careers. You will see one of two things. Either A: they worked for a long time on smaller, lesser known projects before they got famous, or B: They are related to someone famous. (What? You thought Gwynneth Paltrow was discovered at Schwab’s?? Puh-leeze.)

So if you do not happen to be related to, married to, sleeping with, or working for someone terribly powerful in Hollywood, you’re probably going to have to do it the old fashioned way. Which means jumping ahead to that just "becoming an actor" thing, and working your way up.

"I want to be on TV"

Now "I want to be on TV" may be a bit simpler. What exactly did you have in mind? If you mean you wish to be an actor on a TV show, well, it’s the same deal. In fact nowadays, there is less difference than ever before between film actors and TV actors. You can take the same road to both places.

Of course, there are people who are very serious when they say, "I want to be on TV". They mean just that. Just get me on the TV, I don’t care how. If you’re not real picky about how you get on, what you do there, or for how long, the industry has made things very simple for you.

There are dozens of different "reality TV shows" and "game shows" being made daily, on a plethora of themes and subjects. They are in constant need of new people in all kinds of categories. Check the papers, check the internet, read "the trades", (Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) and simply audition for everything they’ve got. You might have to eat a bug or marry someone who isn’t really a millionaire, they might make you look foolish, they may not pay you, but by God, you will BE ON TELEVISION!

And it’s not all bad either. I have a friend who’s being trying for years to get on television. He’s now in a TV show pitting him against others, all vying to see who can lose the most weight and look the best in a bathing suit at the end of the show. He’s not only found fame, but he’s lost like, 17 pounds and five pant sizes. Even if he loses, he’ll look fabulous, lower his cholesterol and probably live longer. I say, more power to him.

"I want to become an actor"

Of course, the real bottom line is, most people want to be actors. Even people who never say, "How do I break into show business?" want to be actors. If you randomly selected thousands of people in the street and told them you could hire them right now to be in a film or TV show as an actor, only a handful would say no. It has been reported, that Elizabeth Smart, the poor girl in Utah who was kidnapped, raped and held hostage for months, was actually disappointed that she was not asked to play herself in the TV movie abut her ordeal. All of the obvious drawbacks of even suggesting that anyone relive such a terrible experience, at such a young age, let alone so soon after having been rescued, (and never mind that she’s never acted a day in her life and they hired a seasoned professional to take the role), were all over ridden by the magic words, "I want to be an actress".

It’s really kind of frightening, when you think about it. What on earth did people do before this modern age of "show biz"? I suppose they married handsome princes, or discovered gold or got declared saints or led their country into great battles. Does anyone even dream about stuff like that anymore? Or is all about the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys? Sigh. Ah, but I digress.

As you might have guessed, "becoming a actor" and "becoming an actor anyone’s ever heard of", are two different things. But I find it’s good to start with the one and worry about the second later. (I mean, you might not even like it for heaven’s sake.) Here’s some of the best ways to get started:

1. Take a class:
What sort of actor do you want to be? There are thousands of classes, in different styles, acting methods and price ranges all over Los Angeles. (And, yes, the rest of the country, too.) Your local high school and college have drama departments. Some of them are even very good. (Check those resumes of famous actors again. Lots of them started like this.) There are many fine teachers in Hollywood. Such as:

Howard Fine Acting Studio -

Lee Strasberg Institute -

Herbert Berghof Studio (New York)

(home of the legendary Uta Hagen herself)

Generally with any of these, whether your high school drama club, community theatre or Howard Fine Studio, it’s pretty much a matter of you get out of it what you put into it. Read the books, take the notes, listen to the teacher, do your homework. (How boring!) The exception to this rule is THINGS THAT ARE A TOTAL RIP-OFF!!! Please check this list before signing up anywhere:


Faces International

John Robert Powers

Anyone who calls you and says you "won" or "were selected" to audition. They are lying.

2. Be in a play:
Hey, it’s not TV, it’s not the movies, it’s not even Broadway, but you will actually be acting, won’t you? With the exception of some of those "famous relative" people and a few "model-actress" types, (more about that racket, later), everybody starts by doing some plays. Many of them are very easy to get a part in, many are attended by agents and producers and yes, people actually do get "discovered" doing plays. They do NOT get discovered at malt shops. (Lana Turner was not at Schwab’s. The studio made that story up. It’s not true. Ok?)

Once again, community theatre, college, high school, church, are all perfectly good places to start. It’s either a good play or it isn’t, you can either act or you can’t. You can be just as brilliant in the barn and you can stink just as bad on Broadway. And with today’s access to video cameras, you will have no problem proving your brilliance to those who couldn’t get there to see you in person.

Once you’ve actually walked across a stage without falling off, you can check the magazines and web sites for casting notices for slightly higher profile shows. Once again look at Daily Variety and the Reporter, also "Backstage" and any of the magazines they sell at Samuel French. Samuel French, if you haven’t heard of this place, is where you go to buy plays and acting books. Find one near you and start hanging around. They have lots of flyers about shows and workshops you might want to know about. They also have pretty much every book you will ever need about show business. (If you can’t afford them, write down the title and go to your library and check it out.)

3. Try out for stuff:
In addition to trying out for plays, if you’re very bold, you can also start trying out for small independent and/or student films. They’re listed in the same kind of places, (but hey, watch out for porno!) and use the same kind of people, so you have a chance.

Since this is sort of the beginning of a "film career" you need to start thinking about the union. A lot of independent films are unfortunately non-union. OK, so are you at this point, but they won’t help you change that. In fact, too many non-union projects and you may have trouble joining the union later. What to do? The Screen Actors Guild has special agreements for low budget, independent, student and ‘experimental’ filmmakers, so that they can make films for very little money and still be in the union’s good graces. Ask if they have this kind of agreement. Go to the SAG Indie website and read up on it.

4. Get pictures done:
If you’re going to try out for more than a few parts, you will need to have a few 8" x 10" black and white pictures of yourself to give the casting directors. (And to autograph for your fans if you have any!)

A lot of people do this step first, which is kind of silly. You don’t even know what kind of parts you’ll be trying out for and what sort of "character" people think you look like, you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll probably pay to much and they probably won’t come out very good. So wait until you’ve had a lesson or two, played a small part in something and get a feel for what you’re "selling". Then take the pictures.

Rule number one on the photo thing: DON’T GO NUTS. Do not spend too much money. A really good photographer, doing a full shoot resulting in 2 or more useable "head shots" can cost upwards of $300 - $600 easily. However, spending more than $200 at this point is totally insane. You can probably get a friend or a new photographer who need shots for their "book" to do them for free or really cheap, like $50. Besides, then you have to take the negatives to the shop to get your prints, have them put your name at the bottom, make copies, etc. $$$$$$$ So take it easy here.

About the clothes. And the hair. And the make-up. Yes, you want to look fabulous. You also want to look like you. So don’t over do it. Bring a few different outfits. Do not buy new clothes, unless you really have nothing you want to be seen in. (Entirely possible. But look for a sale.) Remember that what looks good in person, does not necessarily look good in a photo. Ask the photographer for help with this. They will be glad to save both of you the time and trouble of taking a bunch of pictures you can’t use.

Once again, AVOID TOTAL RIP-OFFS! Anyone with these "combination" services — agent and acting school and photographer and casting house — NO! These should all be separate people. Some of these ridiculous combinations are even against the law!

Good Photogs:

Kathy Hutchins 818-567-1980

Guy Viau

Good photo copy places:

Duplicate Photo — 323-466-7544 or 818-760-4193

5. Bug people’s agents:
Obviously if you want those parts on TV and in film, you have to have an agent get you in to audition. Now this is where it gets hard. There are only so many agents and like, a zillion actors. Some agents are just tired of it all and aren’t taking new people. Some take new people, but like once a year. If you’ve been in a play or two, maybe have a film to show them, this helps. But you may not be what they’re looking for.

Some agents, (OK, most of them) like to sign people they can put to work right away. This is a pretty narrow group. Drop dead gorgeous, (and thin) men and women (OK, especially women), ages 18 to 24, that can pass for younger on film. So all of you teenage girls of 15 and 16, so happy that you look 21, are out of luck. See, because of the child labor laws, it‘s simpler to hire someone over 18, (who can legally work more than 8 hours), to play someone age 14 to 17. Why in heaven’s name would they spend the money to hire a 15 year old to play 22, when thy can get a 22 year old? Hell, they won’t even hire the 15 year old to play 15. Now of course, if the 15 year old can play 12, well, you can see how weird this gets.

The other weirdness is when a certain "type" is "in". Someone will have a hit show with say, a really cute, Latino 17 year old teenage guy. Now every show must have a guy like this. All the agents start asking, "Does anyone know any really cute, 18-or-older-to-play-17, Latino or "Latino-looking" guys?" (Really. They talk this way. Sorry.) This goes on for several months. Until a new hot show comes out, with say, a really funny, overweight, bald, 59 year old Asian guy. Then it’s "Hey, anybody know any fat bald, funny Asian old guys??!!" Several hundred really cute Latino guys sit alone at home. The phone no longer rings….

By now you’ve met some other actors, some of whom have agents and can at least tell you who’s taking new people this week. Once again, go to the SAG website and read up. You can get lists of people to invite to that play you’re in, or the screening of your very small film. You can send them your picture, with a nice letter. Most of the time, this will result in absolutely nothing. But it only takes one.

6. Take up modeling:
You may have noticed that some of your favorite stars used to be models. The modeling industry is indeed a place that agents and producers go looking for stars. It is also a big, scary horrible place where people die of drug overdoses and bulimia. Let’s just say, I would not recommend it as anyone’s first choice.

OK rule one — models are tall. This is from the old days of runway modeling, but they haven’t given it up. When you hear the term "petite size models", that means anyone who isn’t 5’ 11" in their stocking feet. In modeling 5’ 9" is petite. For girls. I don’t care how gorgeous you are. If you march into a modeling agency and you are less than 5’ 10", they will march you right back out the door.

Two — models are thin. (Why do you think all the drugs and barfing??) Yes, there are now, thank God, specialty models who are not thin. There are "plus size" models. It is a very new field, only a few people are doing it and they do not work as much or make as much money as the thin ones. But it’s a start.

Three — models are young. There are now agencies that will not sign a new model over the age of 12. It’s considered too old to start. Some of the "women" you see in make up ads in magazines are 11, 12, 13 years old. Yes, this is totally sick and technically a form of child abuse, but that’s another conversation (and I am currently working with several different organizations dedicated to stamping out this sort of thing.)

Four — models are gorgeous. Yes, there are also now "character models", models specifically selected for their "unusual" looks. But they are still working from a different standard than normal. The ugliest "character model" working today, was probably the prettiest girl in her home town.

The "modeling" fantasy is part of the "I’ll get into show business, because I’m so good looking" syndrome. Yes, there are people who have been hired in film and television for their looks. These are not normal good-looking people. These are ridiculously good looking people. There are absolutely gorgeous young women who have been sent home from auditions because they "weren’t pretty enough" for the role. There are perfectly handsome men and women who work only as comedians and "character actors" because they are considered "too ugly" to play the "romantic lead".

Are you good looking enough to get hired by these sort of people? Do people faint when you walk down the street? Are you constantly pestered with offers of sexual favors from total strangers? Does even the mailman say you are the prettiest thing he’s ever seen in his life, and you’re a man? If this is all true, then maybe. But only if you’re really tall.

"I would like some kind of job in the entertainment industry."

Many people make a fine living in show business and you’ve never heard of them. They’ve never been on camera, they have no 8"x10"s. They do however, have nice homes and cars, good health insurance and get to mingle with celebrities. If you are interested in this sort of life, but wish to skip the total insanity of the "actor" game, you may want to look into taking one of the many off screen jobs available in Hollywood. Agents, publicists, crew members, assistant directors, camera men, etc., etc.

And what’s great is, you really can start in the mailroom. Swear to God. Now at this point the mailroom at a large talent agency like William Morris, has a waiting list. But that’s because word got out that several very, very, wealthy famous agents had indeed started in the mailroom. Everybody went nuts. So you may have to pick a less famous agency to start at.

Even something as simple as calling your local temporary employment agency may get you into the studios. Hey, they’ve got a steno pool too. Do you type? Do you file? Are you good with computers? On the phones? The receptionist-secretarial jobs at film studios and talent agencies pay pretty well as these things go, and if you show an aptitude for say, numbers, you could wind up in finance. Which unlike the boring "finance" at a bank, can mean working on the budget for Brad Pitt’s next film and finding out how much they pay the guy that does his hair. Cool.

You could in theory, with a little time and effort wind up being the person who hires the guy who does Brad Pitt’s hair and in fact telling him how to do it. Even cooler. (Cause then you’d probably be meeting with Brad to discuss it. Over drinks. Really.)

I know a guy who started out as "a page". This is a not very high paying, kind of lame job, where you where a nice suit (NBC pages wear gray slacks with a blue blazer. Cute.), hang around with the limo driver, make sure celebrities go where they’re supposed to and get yelled at a lot. But by famous people, which makes it a bit more interesting than getting yelled at by your boss at the Wal-Mart. After putting up with this nonsense for a year, maybe year and a half at most, he became the "money guy". No not that kind of money guy. He went to film locations and sat at a folding table, with a bunch of envelopes full of money. We actors would go up to him at lunch and say, "Hi Gary. Do you have my per dium?" And he’d say, "yeah, sign here" and give us little envelopes with like, $34.00 in them. (This is the "allowance" they give you to buy meals with when they make you go on location and are obligated to feed you.) Not exactly a terrible job. He’s now a big producer and has a huge house in the Hollywood Hills. People send him envelopes of money now and it’s a hell of a lot more than $34.00.

But is he an actor? No. Is he famous? No. Do you think he cares? No.

If you think people like Gary have got it going on and would like to get in on this action, you might want to check the following websites and read up. (This is only a sample. Surf for any network or studio with the word "employment" and see what you find).

NBC Page Program

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees

IATSE Local 891

ABC — Disney Writer’s Fellowship

Paramount Studios Employment Department