Things I Wish I’d Learned in Drama School – LA edition

Callum Radya wrote a great list of things he wishes he’d been told in drama school about acting in the real world, you can read his rather sincere list here.  “Annoying Actor Friend” wrote a riff on it specific to NYC that you can read here.  You should read theirs first if you have time. (Definitely read mine though.) I’ve taken their template and made it a little more specific to LA, and a lot more ridiculous (though unfortunately true in some places.)  Enjoy.  Or a cry a little.  I might have done both.

1. “Stealing the show” is a compliment.  It means everyone is waiting for your character to come back onscreen.  The more of the show you steal, the more the show will be edited in your favor.  Who cares if your co-stars grow to hate you? Your contract will be renewed.

2. You’d be surprised how few of your friends and family, or people with a personal connection are willing to show up to see you do theatre in Los Angeles, free tickets or not.  They’ll show up at a red carpet at the drop of a hat though. And you’re not a real actor anyway until you’ve been on a TV show that Aunt Buela’s friends actually watch at the retirement center.

3. You can totally play high school in your 20s, but tick-tock because if you don’t start on ABC Family or the CW, good luck on getting reps after your current ones drop you.

4. By the same token, there are tons of roles for 20-year-olds, but only really attractive ones.  Like really attractive.  Almost alien-like attractive.  Like if you were the hottest person in your town, high school or college drama program you might have a shot at playing the “ugly/quirky/nerdy” friend.

5. The first AD works harder than you.  Be nice to them.  Even if you have to bite your tongue completely off.  This goes double for the line producer.  In fact, most of the time, everyone else is working harder than you.  Be nice.  To everyone.  And always know your lines.  You thought high school was gossipy?  Be inappropriately or unnecessarily rude to one crewperson or PA and wait six months.

6. Most people get drunk at red carpet events…and there will always be someone around to take photos of it.  So be a little bit less drunk than everyone you’re with.  The cutest person in the photo of the drunks is still the cutest person.

7. Being attractive and under twenty-five is the most important thing you can be in Los Angeles.  Really under twenty-one is better and eighteen-looking is the best.  No matter how long you’ve been here, if you can pull it off, lie and say “three to six months” – it makes you seem shiny and new.  Someone will think they are getting to discover you. They like that.

8. Background work does shit for your career.  Do not ever say you “worked” on something if it was background.  Do it for the money, do it to learn about being on set – but lie and don’t tell anyone you did it.  Vouchers may get you into the union, but you still have to pay $3000 to join (thanks merger!), and if you have no other work to back it up, being in the union doesn’t do anything for you but keep you out of non-union films.  Your theatre resume isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

9. Unions are awesome when you’re on TV or in big budget film.  If you aren’t, they’ll just keep you from doing low-budget work with good scripts to build an actual reel.  Yes, you need to be union for the most part to book union jobs.  Yes, you need jobs to get reps.  Yes, you need a reel to get reps.  No reel/no reps. No reps/no work.  No work/no reel.  Yes Yossarian, it’s a Catch-22.  Unless you’re super hot. 

10. When people said you would be poor thanks to your brilliant career choice, it’s because you don’t have a trust fund.  No one in LA works.  Pretend you don’t either.

11. Getting auditions is one level.  Getting good auditions is another level.  If you aren’t getting callbacks, you suck, no matter how good the auditions you’re getting are.  If you audition for 21 pilots – congratulations, you have good reps, and are probably pretty.  If you get no callbacks, you’re probably terrible.  But at least you’re pretty.

12. Casting directors care that you look the part.  Directors might care about your talent.  Producers care about your Q score.  If you don’t know what that is, move back to NYC and do real theatre.  Or move back to Iowa and be a star.

13. Remember how you used to have five weeks to get off book? You have two hours before the biggest audition of your life.  They’ll probably hand you an entirely different scene in the room and give you five minutes.   Acting is not actually reacting.  You’re reader will probably be terrible.  So ignore every bit of your drama school training and learn to fake the hell out of it.  And fast.  When they give you direction, regardless of what you’re “magic if” tells you, give them what they want.  You can be right, or you can book the job.  In the rarest of instances you have both.

14. Save up a certifiable shit-ton of money if you’re going to move to Los Angeles. That is, if you want to actually be able to live off unemployment, spend the requisite hours at the right high-end gym, day drink, night drink, lunch, brunch, dinner, coffee, pay for parking tickets and be seen at all of the right places on all of the right nights and any of those other career-building networking essentials.  Don’t ever actually call it networking.  If you’re not a good enough actor to use people without them knowing it, you’re not a good actor.

15. Don’t do everything. Seriously. Know when to turn something down. And believe me, you’ll know. (i.e. student films, short films, your friend’s webseries, no-pay non-union horror films, bad 99-seat theatre, mediocre 99-seat theatre, really any 99-seat theatre that doesn’t have the best script you’ve ever read or a recognizable TV/film name attached as star, writer or director.)

16. It’s not unreasonable to expect to be paid for your work. But you won’t always be. So when you do film, new media or theatre work, make sure your trust fund, savings or day job will still be in existence to support you when you finish this really great “quality” free work.

17. Most of the time, when you don’t get the part, it’s not because you suck, it’s because no one behind the table knows you.  Or anyone who’s worked with you.  Or your name.  Or you aren’t attractive enough.  (Usually the last one.)

18. Nothing is more important than appearance.

19. Nothing is more important than appearance.

20. Nothing is more important than appearance.  Seriously.  It isn’t.  No matter what drama school you graduated from, or how amazing you are, Los Angeles work starts and ends with your appearance.  There is a brief moment in the middle where your talent matters, so rock the hell out of it, then remember your appearance.  Remember, in LA casting, “attractive” means a 14 on a scale of 1-10, “average” means at least a six-pack, “quirky” still means hot, but offbeat.  Unless you can regularly be seen for types that could be described as “forgettable” or “heinous” – hit the gym, remember to sleep (nothing important happens before 10 a.m. anyway) and that alcohol makes you fat and puffy.

21. Take your “me” time. Just make sure that what you do with it is awesome enough to tweet and have great Instagram photos to share about it.

22. Don’t embrace your “physical flaws.” If you have any, you should probably be in NYC working to be a “real” actor.

23. Don’t punch someone in the face just because they have daddy’s money paying for their car, their apartment and their life and they moved to LA and got some headshots taken by the most expensive photographer in town and are now calling themselves an actor and you feel that is an insult to the lifetime you have spent perfecting your craft.  Make friends with them and let them pay for stuff.

24. The camera really does add ten pounds. You should be starting from about twenty under anyway.  If you’re unsure, ask your reps, they’ll definitely tell you.  For the record (and the stupid, but probably pretty) three cameras do not add thirty pounds.  Just the regular ten.  You’re welcome.

25. No matter how big of a star you were in school, out here, act like a bigger star.  Name drop in front of stupid people, they’ll be impressed.  Talk about how you want to find great material to expand your range in front of smart people.  They won’t be impressed though.  If all else fails complain about your reps. And your headshots. Do not, under any circumstances talk about your commercial auditions.

26. Acting is actually easier than you want to believe it is. And more people can do it naturally than you want to believe. And the ratio of hot-to-talent skews in favor of hot 100% of the time.

27. You are replaceable. With someone younger and hotter than you.

28. Stage and screen are completely different worlds.  All those brilliant specific choices you perfected last night and in the car before you walked in will always lose out to the person who has the exact look and just says the words without thinking and comes off like the role.  Accept this.

29. You thought there was “technique” to acting on stage? Remember that most LA casting directors are seeing a gajillion people and will know when the perfect fit walks in the door.  Start your audition before you enter the room.  The less they have to think to see you in the role, the better your shot.  (Assuming you are hot enough.)

30. Rehearsals are hard. That’s why film and TV don’t do that much of it.

31. It is not okay to be drunk, stoned, high, or any other kind of intoxicated while you work. But this is LA, so the high thing is sometimes negotiable.  And if it’s nighttime the drunk thing might be too.  If you’re going to get arrested, make it spectacular and gossip-site worthy.  Press is press, and it’ll up your Q score.  And maybe get you Twitter followers.  And you can post the photo on Instagram.

32. Try not to get discouraged/cynical/jaded/resentful right after graduation. Wait until your first pilot season for that.

33. And finally, don’t go down this path just because you’re “good enough” to be a professional actor. For the love of God, do it because you are pretty enough to be one.

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19 Responses to Things I Wish I’d Learned in Drama School – LA edition

  1. Anonymous says:

    Think 32 pretty much sums up the sentiments here…


  2. So true…. Also, being in Sag you get health insurance and maybe if you pay your dues on time a few screeners that your family will hog up during the holidays.

    If you get an offer to do a non-union hosting gig or a indie film and you feel that it will show case your talent… DO IT. If the indie film makes some sort of notoriety and Sag finds out… pay the 1,500 dollar fine. It’s worth it if you ended up working with the next Wes Anderson.

    Also, in order to be a successful actor in LA, you have to be a child. It is illegal to have sex with a minor. So, if you have the opportunity to get work as a child/teenager DO IT. Once you’re 18 and you’ve built up your resume by doing acting parts instead of working in a yogurt shop and you’ll actually be able to get a decent agent. Everyone else will be 30 by the time and moving back to Nebraska.

    Now days if you have the chance to do a reality show please just say yes. Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton actually have Sag cards. I’m not sure if Snooky or Jwow does, but you can bet that theres some producer out there is trying to get them in their horror movie.

    If you’ve played in a super bowl or NBA championship you can be an actor. It’s about who brings in the audience.

    If you have billions of dollars you can be an actor…. ie: Mark Cuban. He played a part on Entourage. Producers are just trying to befriend them so they might be able to get funding from them later on….

    Oh and please whatever you do…. if you’re doing film DON’T PROJECT to the little old lady in the back row. That just makes you look like a high school drama dork. Also, when you’re supposed to cry and for some reason you can’t…… pretend that you don’t want the person to see you crack and start crying like a big fat snotty nosed kid. Trust me…. your lips will quiver and it will be much more effective.

    Lastly, write your own stuff and film it, cause God knows there is no Theatre conservatory that will help you get a reel.


  3. Reblogged this on Bluxome Street Post and commented:
    Awesome list of: “Things I Wish I’d Learned in Drama School.”


  4. I have to share this with my actors, Emerson! So true and L.A. hasn’t changed a bit since I lived there for 13 years back in the 70’s and early 80’s!


  5. Allan says:

    This seems pretty pretentious and condescending. I mean, who are you to be doling out advice like this? Have you achieved the sort of success that warrants this holier-than-thou blog post?


    • Dear Allan, I’m sorry you seem to have missed the point that this was not a serious post. If you read the other two posts and then read mine, you would see it is born out of the frustration that many trained LA actors often feel that this town is all about looks over talent, so I am poking fun at that perception out of frustration – not with intent of it being serious advice that anyone should follow. There are elements of truth in some of it, but skewed to the ridiculous to be tongue-in-cheek. I’m sorry you missed that. You’re welcome to not find it funny, but I’m not sure how you got “holier-than-thou” from it as though I stated I’ better or more successful than anyone in it?


  6. Paul says:

    #33 If you are a hot straight guy, get comfortable flirting with men. ASAP.


  7. Franci says:

    Hysterical! I had read the NY version and was hoping someone would do an LA version!
    Awesome job


  8. Anonymous says:

    it’s not funny. it’s TRUE!!!!! hahahaha!


  9. #23 – I wish I would have gotten that golden piece of advice years ago! LOL


  10. blight1 says:

    This blog makes me proud to have survived. Nothing like being an old guy in LA ( in Chicago, I’m just middle aged ). —- Why does everyone ALWAYS ask you your age, when they know they wont tell you?! That should be on your list:)


  11. #35 The Casting Couch: If someone famous or powerful in the industry tells you they want to sleep with you, assuming that you’re pretty enough, go ahead and do it. Your upstanding morals and “Why I would never!” attitude will eventually fade (after years and years of being here and not “making it”) and someday, a decade or so later, you’ll find yourself saying out loud, “You know what? Why didn’t I just sleep with [insert casting/EP/director/agent name(s) here]? Hell, I would do it now if they offered!” But they won’t offer now, or ever again, because there is someone prettier and younger that they’ve just “discovered” and that person is presently sleeping with them.


    • That is certainly an interesting perspective and path to choose. Me personally, I tend to lean toward the “well, if I would sleep with them anyway, sure I’ll do it to get something out of it.” I guess we all see it the way we see it depending on where we are in life, relationships and career. But hey, if it’s not hurting anybody… 🙂


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