When I applied for my own visa, I had some decisions to make. Which visa was I going for? Which one could I go for?
You have a dream to move from Canada, England, Australia, or France (or elsewhere) and work as an actor in Los Angeles as well. But do you have what it takes to get the visa you want? Which visa do you want?
Before moving on, I think we can all agree that it takes lemons to make lemonade. We’ll get back to that in a bit.
In the meantime, I’d like to say that unless an actual acting job or talent agency is bringing you into the United States by becoming your sponsor, it is crucial to think critically about immigrating to Los Angeles before plunging ahead.
As actors, we are using our imaginations on a daily basis. We imagine working on shows we love, in places we dream of…and often we wonder what would happen if we made the things we imagine real…
However, to make dreams real, we must start with what we have. If it takes lemons to make lemonade, then it takes certain kinds of achievements, and certain kinds of job offers to acquire certain visas.
If you fight this concept, you can make yourself vulnerable to predatory practices and unnecessary (but costly) hardship.
Start by Taking Stock
Start by assessing your financial situation and taking stock of your career achievements. Notice here that I am not referring to your talent. I know many extremely talented and hard working actors who don’t have notable career achievements on their resumes. The same is true of some musicians I know. It’s important to keep things straight here: talent and recognition aren’t mutually exclusive.
Watch Out for Vultures
In the case of moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting, know that actors’ passions for “making it big” has created a lucrative market for immigration practitioners who capitalize on actors’ eagerness to overlook hard data.
Regardless of whether immigration attorneys always have actors’ best interests at heart (I know quite a few who do and some others who clearly don’t), actors must be responsible for the actions they’ll take to make their dreams happen. Today’s dream can turn into tomorrow’s investment, and not all $5,000 or $10,000 investments are worthwhile (and some can end up costing way, way more).
I take no pleasure in writing that actors are often willing to skim over important aspects of reality in their excitement to pursue their lifelong passion.
I have been guilty of this too, especially early on in my career. In my voice over career I remember reaching out to studios and producers way before I really knew what I was doing. I burned some bridges because I exposed the fact that I wasn’t really ready to hit the market yet. Throwing the cart before the horse always backfires either financially, psychologically, or both, especially if the cart is massive and the horse just isn’t ready.
With experience, and having watched more than a few Canadian actors struggle financially because they had a visa that wasn’t suited to their circumstances, I have found that however unappealing it may seem, actually taking responsibility for our investments puts more chances on our side.
Look at it this way: lawyers, consultants, and online immigration services will all gladly take your money without presenting a realistic picture of what life will actually be like with the visa you seek.
To find out what life will be like with the visa you seek, I invite you to read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part II: American Work Visas.
Some Shady Practices to Avoid
If you don’t actually have legitimate employment offers (acting jobs) in the U.S, and you don’t have what it takes to get a green card, tread carefully.
If you hire an immigration lawyer who is charging you for providing a “fake” sponsor so that you can apply for an O-1B visa, there is a very (very) high probability that you will have a difficult time making headway in your career in the United States.
First of all, be aware that lawyers who take money in order to provide sponsors could easily be disbarred for such practices. Furthermore, most actors who participate in such practices are typically so fueled by their dreams that they willfully ignore the fact that they simply don’t have what it takes to get the visa they actually need. Again, I am not referring to your talent. I am referring to your resume. Those are two very different topics.
I would also like to point out that, so far, I haven’t met anyone who acquired their O-1 visa by paying for a sponsor that was able to support themselves with American acting work upon arrival. The ones I know who have survived an O-1 financially had a steady source of revenue back in their home country (from real estate, or other businesses), and to avoid having to re-apply for an O visa after it expired, some eventually married an American (with mixed results).
Theatrical Representation in Los Angeles
The biggest challenge you will run into if you acquire an O visa through paid sponsorship is finding reputable theatrical representation (film and television work). In Los Angeles, this is everything.
Agents typically stay away from actors with O-1’s, unless it is a blanket O-1 visa, or the O-1 comes with employment contracts from which they can immediately profit.
To learn more about blanket O-1 visa’s read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part II: American Work Visas.
While you may find your own auditions in Los Angeles, reputable networks and studios do not make their breakdowns available to the general public. This will make career advancement difficult since having certain types of television and film credits is often the only way for decision makers in the industry to determine whether an actor is capable or not.
To learn more about the business of Acting in Los Angeles, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting.
These circumstances will make it challenging to find well-paying acting jobs, and you are likely to struggle financially, unless you have some sort of a financial net to support you.
Your Support Network
On the bright side, if you do have the means to live in Los Angeles independently, you will be able to stay in the United States and pursue acting in different ways.
For instance, you could work on student productions (there are promising writers and directors here) try stand-up comedy, and/or produce your own content (which is a brilliant idea. In fact, all actors, visa or not, who don’t work as much as they want should be creating content). And yes, it is absolutely possible to end up working that way, but it takes a special kind of someone. It takes moving mountains and loads of patience. Is that you? Pursuing traditional acting is already very challenging and this road is an even more difficult one to travel on.
Whatever you do, also keep in mind that your O-1B visa will expire and unless you are marrying an American, you will have to come up with new career achievements to put forward in your application. This process is incredibly taxing psychologically, no matter how solvent you are financially.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: if your career achievements do not warrant the right visa for your situation, making headway in the United States is not impossible, but you will be working counter current. In this case, you must be willing to tackle your dream like you would Mount Everest: with truck loads of focus and discipline, monumental determination, the right gear (psychological and otherwise) and ample resources (money).
So, ask yourself the following: just because you can get a visa, should you get one? Is it the right one for you? Here I urge you to make sure your lawyer isn’t the only one invested in you. In other words, their bottom line is not the only thing that should be going up in this equation…
While being challenged by a market as colossal as Los Angeles is inevitable, I believe there is a way to make the landing smoother and to pave the way for a sustainable experience.
Part of that is having a visa that will enable you to acquire great representation upon arrival.
My advice: do it right the first time. If you can’t get the right visa, it doesn’t mean you never will. It just means you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and get to work creating better circumstances for a stronger visa petition in the future.
To learn more about the various American work visas actors use to work in the United States, including broad O-1 visas and EB-1 visas read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part II: American Work Visas.