I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I wanted to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. Now that I look back, I don’t think there was ever any doubt in my mind that it would happen. I’m not saying it was easy, or even straightforward; but I always had a plan in my back pocket – convincing me that it was only a matter of when (and not if).
Making that dream happen took me much longer than I anticipated (I was in my mid thirties when I finally moved to Los Angeles). I worked at it, and I was lucky enough for it to work out in a way I could sustain myself for a long time without worrying about how long it would take for me to “make it.”
Since I was always writing and performing monologues for my family from a young age, my mother had convinced me I would be an actress. I always imagined I would be doing that same thing in Los Angeles, the capital of acting.
If, like me, you are a professional actor from Canada, England, Australia or elsewhere with big dreams, a strong drive and an appetite for new experiences, you may catch yourself wondering about acting in Los Angeles (or New York) from time to time. Or perhaps acting in the U.S. is something you always knew you would pursue.
If you’d like to know more about working as an actor in Los Angeles, I’ve created a four part e-book series that outlines some things to consider about the business of acting in Los Angeles, about American Work Visas for Canadian actors, about the ins and outs of working in two countries from a financial perspective, and I’ve also written a book to help you with the actually relocating to Los Angeles (importing cars, deciding on a neighborhood to live, exchanging currencies, etc.).
These e-books will give you a sense of what it takes to make the transition, things to keep in mind in order to survive in Los Angeles, and a few tools to help you get by. To give you a taste, here is a glimpse of the topics discussed in the e-books. In this article we will discuss:
- Your career;
- The entertainment industry in Los Angeles;
- Moving, and staying.
Your Career: How’s Business?
To eventually move to Los Angeles, you must be in the right position. First, take stock of your achievements so far, as objectively as possible. If you have many recognizable film, television, or video game credits to your name, you may be in a good position.
In addition to this, if you have won awards, been an expert on an industry panel or a jury for an award organization, you have potential. If your face is on billboards, or there’s been significant press about you, you’re in a great position.
Before making a move to Los Angeles, you have to be clear about where you stand in your own career, in your home country. I’m not saying you have to be ultra famous, but there should be some buzz about you, in some way. That’s the stuff that can cross borders. Although taste can be a regional thing, if you have local success at home, there is greater potential for you to succeed elsewhere.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. You’ll only find out about the power of your own desirability in your new market once you make the move. At this point, what you’re looking for is some evidence that you have traction in your field, at least on a national level (international is even better of course).
For instance, you may be an unknown video game actor, or a working actor whose been in many television shows and movies. If your professional peers always call you in, and you book jobs often, you may have what it takes to get a visa (whether or not you’ve been the lead in any project).
If you don’t meet this criteria, it’s not impossible to get a visa, but the probabilities are much higher that the visa will be very difficult to work with on the ground, making this a bad investment.
In this case, don’t despair. You probably need to strategize a little. Here are some questions to consider which could lead you towards the right visa for your situation.
- Can you create content that will give you an edge in your current market, or that can give you exposure to a large audience?
- Do you have hidden gifts you’ve always tossed to the side, but that deserve your attention?
- Where is your genius? Are you an amazing producer? Dancer? Singer?
Dig deep, and invest in what you find. Don’t worry about how long this takes. Your journey to becoming the artist or person you want to be is timeless.
This brings me to your finances.
How’s your bank account?
The next set of questions to answer are:
- Has acting (whether in video games, voice overs, television, film or theater) been lucrative for you?
- Do you have significant savings?
- Do you have a stream of revenue that is available to you, like a business or property income?
If you’re struggling to make ends meet in your home country, it will be difficult for you to support yourself in the United States long enough to make a dent in the industry. Paying for a petition (application) will also be challenging. Filing fees alone can cost a couple of thousand (American) dollars. This doesn’t include attorney fees which are between $5,000 and $10,000. If the attorney you hire is in the U.S. their fees will also be in American dollars.
And make no mistake about it, living in Los Angeles is expensive:
- One bedroom apartment in Los Angeles: $2500 USD (end of 2019)
- Cocktail in West Hollywood: $15 USD
- Beer in Hollywood: $8 USD
- One month of car insurance: $200+ USD
- One month of classes: $300+ USD
(As a side note, things may be cheaper Post Coronavirus!)
Then there’s the issue of working in two countries…
It turns out that many Canadians who move to Los Angeles need to go back to Canada often to keep money coming in (I certainly did in the early years). For others, getting a few decent gigs in Los Angeles can suddenly make them more appealing in their home country. One actress I met who was working on both sides of the border (as I was) said it best: “I have to live in Los Angeles to get good jobs in Canada.”
Regardless of the reasons you work in two countries, you’ll eventually have to deal with the concept of dual taxation. If you want to learn more about finances, read Acting In Los Angeles Part III: Cross-Border Taxes. Working in two countries is tricky. Also, having a visa has financial implications.
What’s Acting In Los Angeles Like?
If you’ve ever competed in a sport professionally, you’ll intuitively understand the following analogy. If you’ve ever watched the Olympics and rooted for an athlete, you’ll also get it:
Imagine you’re Canadian figure-skating team Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. You’re talented, disciplined, experienced and confident. But you haven’t won gold in a while and now there is a younger, more original, equally talented couple around the block: Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. You’ve practiced your choreography for an entire year. You can beat the competition in nationals in your sleep. But on the Olympic stage it’s a different story. A single hesitation, mis-step or scratch in the ice can make or break you. You don’t get to perform again if you flub a step, you can’t improvise if you lose your balance, and you certainly can’t save face after a wardrobe malfunction. And even though you’ve been at this since you were a child, you still have to go out, every Olympics and get the gold (not silver or bronze). This is the only way for you to stay relevant and bring home the bacon.
You do win gold (this time). But not because you’re necessarily the best (is there even such a thing?), but because someone else lost (they had a wardrobe malfunction).
This is life in Los Angeles, every, single, day. In one word, it’s Olympian. You’re either fighting Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir or Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron. In other words, your competition has either been around for a long time and can do no wrong, or they’re the most talented new darling that can whisk it all away in a heartbeat because you’re having a bad day.
For more about local industry practices, read Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting. To stay in top shape, you may want to take your acting training further.
Finding an Agent: Who do you Know?
Finding good representation in Hollywood is one of the most important aspects of transitioning. This is why knowing industry peers on the ground in Los Angeles before moving here can be so valuable. It’s like having your own personal success accelerator. If you’re young (or are a parent of a child actor who is ready for professional representation), search for theatrical representation agencies that have professional networks in the U.S in your own country.
In Canada, some Toronto and Vancouver agencies have relationships with peers in New York and Los Angeles. This is less likely in Montreal (though some connected managers do exist). Cities like London, Paris and Sidney will also have agencies with contacts or branches in Los Angeles.
The bottom line is this: If and when the time comes to make a jump, an agency with tentacles in the United States will make it much easier to succeed here. It will also feel less disorienting to work with people who are in the family, so to speak.
Moving to Los Angeles, and Staying.
Once you’ve got your visa and your ducks in a row, it’s time to find a new home. Importing belongings, building credit, exchanging currency, and knowing where to live are just some of the physical hurdles you’ll have to overcome. To relieve some of the stress associated with moving, read Acting In Los Angeles Part IV: Establishing A New Home. It will certainly give you a head start.
An even bigger aspect of moving is the emotional toll it can take, especially in the first year. Life beyond the initial excitement of re-locating can be taxing. Los Angeles can feel like a continuous test of “am I good enough, unique enough, funny enough, good looking enough, skinny enough, confident enough…?” I certainly suffered all of the above. There’s an important adjustment period, but once you figure out what you need to do to feel good in your new home, you’ll be happy you moved.
To top it all off, working in Los Angeles is incredibly demanding. There is no phoning it in, ever. As Gary Oldman said, “The phone call is often the best part of it. Your agent says, “They want you to play Hamlet at the Old Vic.” And you go, “Holy shit! Hamlet at the Old Vic! Wow! God! Fantastic!” Then you hang up and it’s “Fuck, I’m playing Hamlet.”
Some things that help to stay the course are:
- Some sort of emotional support network in the form of meaningful friendships, life partners and family members;
- Meditation practice (or some breathing techniques, I am a fan of Heart Coherence breathing techniques);
- Staying physically healthy;
- Taking part in activities that have nothing to do with acting;
- Having a creative outlet (other than acting).
Whatever you decide to do, you can prepare by reading about acting in Los Angeles. It’s a small investment into your big dream, and since that dream can quickly turn into a large investment, it’s a small price to pay to make the most of it.