If you’re like me, you love acting and you couldn’t imagine doing any other job, but you aren’t where you feel you could be. In other words, we aren’t getting hired enough.
Let’s break down the main aspects that have an impact on our bottom line.
For some of us, not being where we could be revolves around the talent department. Speaking for myself, there are some actors I look up to, and I’m not quite at their level yet. I know I will get there, but I do need more time in class.
For others (again like me), we just can’t seem to hack the business aspect. Its mushy, annoying, and we’d rather focus on our craft because we feel we have more control there. Unfortunately, getting good at business is crucial in Los Angeles, especially for those of us who moved here beyond the age of sixteen because there is so much competition here.
It is so daunting here that I wrote an e-book titled: Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business Of Acting in which I go over every aspect of the business and how to handle them the L.A. way.
Interestingly, this business part took care of itself in the small city I am from (Montreal, Quebec, Canada). I started acting young, was professional, and people knew me (and what I could do), so maintaining relationships sort of happened on its own there. In Los Angeles, it’s a whole other ballgame.
For others yet (hello again), we have a tendency to quit too early. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quit acting….
Since I have ample experience in all three of these sectors, let’s take a deeper dive into what I call the Acting Triangle. The essential ingredients are at the angled tips and connect to one another.
ACTING CAREER TRIANGLE
Many people in the industry have similar thoughts by the way, so this is nothing new, but it is all about the way information hits you. My goal is always to convey information in a way that will propel you (and me) to take action.
In the voice over sector, getting hired is usually the culmination of training, marketing and patience. But I much prefer Talent, Relationships and Perseverance for tackling acting.
Let’s address each element on the triangle.
What is Acting Talent Anyway?
The dictionary defines talent as: Natural aptitude or skill.
We haven’t even started yet and there’s already a trap waiting for us!
Strictly abiding by this definition is problematic because, taken literally, talent can seem static and innate. This definition is even more problematic because, as humans, we love sensational stories. Such tales inspire and amaze us, and we are drawn to them. For instance, when we refer to talent, we usually think of those who seem to have an extraordinary amount of natural aptitude (say, Michael Jackson). We often ignore the years of training required to develop talent and the skills we need to ride that talent. For more about our skewed tendency towards artists, athletes and geniuses with natural abilities, read Freakonomics.
The point I am trying to make here, is that talent is by no means static or limited. Like intelligence (and any ability really), we can stretch it, grow it, and develop more of it (read Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking book Mindset for more about this important topic). Her book explains that to develop any ability, hard work and persistence are required. Luckily for aspiring actors, acting training is hard work but it can be a lot of fun.
For actors, the equation to grow talent looks like this:
Serious theater training (preferably continuous).
Exposure to auditions (or audition training) on a regular basis.
Performing in front of a live audience on a regular basis.
Here, I would add that having a Growth Mindset is important as well (again, Carol Dweck’s book will help you). If, instead, you strongly believe you have a limited amount of talent (you have a Fixed Mindset), the road ahead will be tough. I should know because I had this mindset until a few years ago, and it really did prevent me from doing the kind of acting I can do so seamlessly today.
With a Fixed Mindset, we are focused on proving our “limited” abilities (to ourselves and others) instead of stretching our talent and acquiring new skills. We are looking for approval. We essentially stop any growth from happening because we aren’t taking any real risks. Why? For the same reason prodigies don’t become masters: taking risks could reveal we don’t have as much talent as we thought. Result? We often quit before we even start getting our hands dirty.
When we work on the equation to grow talent (and combine it to a Growth Mindset) for a many, many years on end, we inevitably come out stronger and more talented at the other end. It is simply inevitable.
Pick a Great School
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I quickly made phone calls to some working actors I knew to find out what schools and teachers they recommended. While I was lucky the referrals I received were good, an even better way to go about it is to audit several classes before making a choice. Read my blog post about finding a good teacher in Los Angeles.
Whatever you do, take your training seriously. You can’t do acting alone and you have to say on top of it. Your competition is staying on top of it. Why give them an edge over you?
Get That Audition Practice
If you need more exposure to auditions, you can:
- Take audition classes;
- Practice with your friends (make it a weekly exercise for better results);
- Participate in casting director workshops;
- Audition for jobs that are open to the general public on:
I personally had to work on this because I can get debilitatingly nervous at auditions. My legs can shake uncontrollably and it’s just no fun knowing I’m not relaxed enough to give as good a performance I know I can give. As a by-product of seeing a therapist, I eventually came to understand that I had developed generalized anxiety(common for actors) and a that I have a tendency for social anxiety. This type of anxiety specifically manifests when performing in front of others. Many people who fear public speaking have social anxiety.
The only cure for this ailment? Exposure. In other words, you’ll need to get yourself in front of an audience, over and over again to get rid of it. The tricky part is that you can’t stop; if you stop exposing yourself the anxiety will likely creep up again.
Here are ways to expose yourself:
- Joining a theater group or class;
- Joining an improv group (train in improv);
- If you like doing stand-up comedy you could go to open mics (or study it);
- Join a Toastmasters group (this is almost free and it’s what I did for a long time).
Whether you pay for these activities or not is irrelevant, so long as you can do them regularly.
Do You Know Who I Am? -Relationships
“If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, take a friend.” African proverb.
Your Contacts Have The Goods
Before thinking you don’t have any, I’d like to point out that whether we realize it or not, when we are out in the world working on shows, auditioning, filming material, and taking classes, we are developing professional relationships with teachers, directors, classmates, peers, casting directors, writers, directors, agents and managers. Many people in this network have the potential to help us get hired.
From now on, keep a list of those people and watch it grow. The next step is to find reasons to reach out to them from time to time.
When To Reach Out To Your Network
Here are a few things you can reach out to your peers about:
- After you book a job through a casting director;
- After you audition for a casting director;
- A show you are in that’s airing or hitting the stage somewhere;
- New footage or project you are working on;
- An industry event you will be attending (if you are attending a premiere, perhaps you’d like to invite someone from your list?);
- An event or video or audio materials relating to a special skill of yours that is complementary to acting (say you do martial arts, are a dancer or a musician);
- An update about your career training (say you are working on a unique skill);
If you manage to reach out regularly, you will stay fresh in the minds of those who can open doors for you (directly or indirectly) for all the right reasons.
Time is a Great Friend
If you start acting professionally in your youth, you will likely find that in a few years’ time, the same people who supported you then, will support you later. This is because we tend to build significant relationships early on in life. This is not exclusive to acting. Some of my biggest clients in the voice over sector have known me since my early twenties and still hire me today. I myself still hire other voice actors I’ve known since then.
If, like me, you get to Los Angeles beyond your teens, you will have to work a little harder to create and maintain a new network. You will have to expose yourself consistently and for long periods. Why? Because in the end, we always go back to what we know, and if you are a part of someone’s circle, you will be what they know. It’s really as simple as that.
Staying Busy Gives You a Reason To Stay Connected
Beyond this, your agent, manager and the few casting directors you meet when you first arrive should always be under the impression that you are perfecting your craft. This doesn’t mean that you need to continually book professional TV or film work, especially if you don’t get that many auditions. You should however be busy performing consistently and let them know you are doing so. When you perform in shows that are open to the public, invite them. When you film new material, send it to them. If you are not doing these things, get busy doing them. This is the best excuse for staying in touch with those who can support you.
Your contacts may not always turn up to your shows and look at your links, but if they see that you are continually active, they will be much more inclined to invest in you long-term. This is especially true if they can witness a growth in you over time.
A Passion for Acting
Keep in mind that casting directors, agents and managers are not that different from you; they’re passionate about acting. They love actors and working with artists who continually push themselves. This not only reassures them that you will be worth calling in for auditions (and that you can do the job if you get it), it makes you worth fighting for. This is why they want to be surrounded with actors who are as excited about acting as they are about finding them and supporting them. They thrive off actors’ successes. Believe it or not, this what gives them a sense of purpose and makes them excited about their jobs.
An Actor Perseveres
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quit acting and swore I was over it. Not only was I lying to myself, I slowed my own growth to a snail’s pace!
Let’s go back to the dictionary for the definition of perseverance: Persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Canadian comedian Mike Myers once confided to James Lipton (during an Actors Studio episode) that if he based career decisions on the number of rejections he’d gotten, he would have quit a long time ago.
To make sure you give the Los Angeles market a fair shot, having a five-year plan is what I would call fair. If you are continually focused on the Talent aspect and on the Relationships aspect but don’t stick it out long enough, you will not have persevered, and the triangle will crumble.
If you are hitting a wall, get back to that Mindset book I spoke of earlier and read this blog entry about getting back to Acting basics. Are you sure you are really giving yourself a chance? Or are you just giving up developing an important skill?
Take a Chill Pill
When the going gets tough (if you are human, it will) and you need a break from it all, remember that one of the most effective ways out of mental or emotional slumber is to take action (the root of which is the word act).
For me, that has meant creating a workout routine I can sustain (check), trying to do a handstand without leaning on a wall (I have to get back on that), swinging in the park from time to time (check), beating my husband at Chess (not working out, but I’m not done trying), snowboarding (check), writing (check), directing (check) and producing my own content (check).
To recap, here are some things you can do:
- Start a new hobby;
- Create content;
- Re-connect with loved ones;
- Spend more time outdoors;
- Take a different type of training;
- Go to SAG events and classes;
- Join a support group;
- Get a therapist.
Damn, This Isn’t Working Out
Yes, there is always the possibility that making a living with acting doesn’t work out. Sometimes, even if we do all the right things, things don’t work out. This is not just true of acting. This is true of any field. Name me one profession that guarantees reward. It doesn’t exist. You can be an unemployed electrician just as much as you can be an unemployed actor. Just because we can play music, doesn’t mean we will be a rock star. Why some people appeal to an entire era or culture can’t be entirely dissected and understood. It’s part of the mystery of life.
Just remember that when one door closes, another one opens. But please, don’t close it before at least five years. I would even encourage you to give it ten. That’s what I’m doing.
My name is Lili Wexu, I am a Canadian-American actress. I moved to Los Angeles some years ago and I’ve written a few e-books about acting in Los Angeles to help other actors who are considering re-locating here (or have recently re-located). Feel free to check them out on my website.
What’s not to love about laughing, being funny or about learning how to be funnier? I always say that one of my favorite sports is laughing, which is why I’ve taken many Improv classes (more about that later) and gone out to see loads of stand-up comedy. It takes the edge off and it’s one of the best remedies for the soul. And while Los Angeles is tough on actors, and on comedians for that matter, it sure has plenty of laughs to offer.
If you are a newly landed Canadian, British or Australian actor with a knack for comedy, or if you are curious about tapping into your own comedic talents, you’ll be happy to know that your new home (Los Angeles) is one of the best markets in which to explore comedy.
Los Angeles comedy clubs are bursting with activity and it’s surprisingly affordable to see a great show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to a comedy club and laughed my butt off for $20 for an entire night! You’ll have to buy water instead of drinks to stick to a budget, but I promise you’ll be plenty entertained.
What’s also pretty cool is that well-known comedians will stop by random venues to practice new material on a regular basis: I’ve seen Ali Wong, Dave Chapelle, Arsenio Hall, John Mulvaney, and many more pop up and perform an impromptu set in the tiniest of venues and on any random night. How cool is that?
Check Out Improv Shows & Training
All Improv schools in Los Angeles (see examples below) offer excellent and affordable comedy shows that can be seen on any night of the week.
As far as training goes, most schools have classes that are open to the public, as well as classes that can only be attended by auditioning (what schools refer to as their “core” programs). Most core programs consist of four or five levels, and their terms (levels) consist of eight classes spread over four or eight weeks. Most schools offer multi-day intensives as well. Since core programs involve auditioning to get in, as well as “passing” levels before moving up to other levels, Improv can be a pretty competitive sport. Also, the core programs in all schools lead to a sketch writing program. Here are the most renowned improv schools:
The Groundlings is considered the “Harvard” of Improv comedy. I’ve enrolled there myself and even Level I was a serious challenge. They are heavily focused on character creation and it did feel competitive from the get-go since you can only make it to the next level (Level II) if you show proficiency with their curriculum in Level I. I didn’t make it to Level II, but it sure was a hoot watching people in class. There are some incredibly talented individuals trying Improv at the Groundlings.
Unfortunately, there are only a couple classes you can attend without auditioning. They are fun but they provide very limited exposure to Improv and to their school. If you are serious about taking classes there, you’ll have to audition.
Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) has more of a “street-kid” vibe but offers a well structured program nonetheless. I did notice that, overall, the students were slightly younger than at Groundlings (though there were still a couple oldies like me). No auditions are required to take the first level of classes, but students must be invited to move on to two more advanced levels. This school grew out of an Improv group in which Amy Poehler was a member.
I really enjoyed Level I there, probably because it felt more relaxed than Groundlings since we all knew we were moving on to Level II regardless of our individual proficiency levels. I also like that they trust their students enough to throw them in the ring right away; we had to do a live show at the end of our first term. Sure, it was nerve racking (I didn’t think I had the skills to pull it off) but it was a healthy kind of scary, and our group did well. I personally got a lot of confidence out of the experience.
Second City is my personal favorite. The school has a small branch in Los Angeles and students tend to be of all ages. What I love about this school is that they have many, many classes available to the public. In other words, there are many classes you can attend without auditioning and without needing to “pass” the levels before moving up (you still have to do classes in a certain order). I’m a slow learner, so I even took one of their levels twice without even worrying about it, so that was a big bonus for me (and I still got to participate in shows). That said, those public classes seem a little less structured than Groundlings and UCB classes. Having taken a few classes at SC, I would say that the quality of classes really depend on the teacher.
Still, there are many excellent classes including Musical Improv, which is a riot if you are musically inclined (and you don’t even need to play an instrument).
One musical show produced by Second City alumni that is worthy of note for Canadians is Canuck as Fuck. Just brilliant. Aside from being thoroughly entertained, Canadians will feel more at home knowing plenty of other Candians roam the streets of Los Angeles and produce great shows.
Beyond these schools, there are many smaller schools that run comedy sports and that are open to the public.
If you are new to Los Angeles, Improv classes are great places to make new friends. I found it common for students of classes that really gelled together to stay in touch after the terms were over. Some groups even manage to get together to practice their skills. So, if you are serious, you can certainly find a comedy gang to practice with. And if you are into creating comedic content, Improv is a pretty great way to find inspiration.
As far as how much acting work you can get once you have solid Improv training, I am of the opinion that to be a working actor in Los Angeles, you should study acting pretty seriously (theater training is ideal). Improv is great, but you may be limited in your overall skills if that’s all you can do.
That said, it is common practice these days to call upon Improv school alumni to attend commercial auditions, and it’s hard to deny the benefit of strong comedic skills in that kind of environment. If you are trained in Improv, and once you are doing more advanced Improv shows, you can certainly invite commercial agents to see your shows. Why not?
To learn more about Acting in Los Angeles, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting.
Enjoy Great Stand Up Comedy
The Improv, The Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory are the stand-up comedy staples, but you can see excellent shows at all the Improv schools theaters as well.
Note that The Laugh Factory is quite a bit more expensive than other venues and given that the same comedians perform at all the venues, this jump in price rarely feels warranted.
If you don’t mind driving a few extra miles, the Comedy & Magic Club, Virgil, Dynasty Typewriter, Flappers, Ice House, Comedy Union, Tao Comedy Studio, and West Side Comedy Theater all have excellent lineups as well, and most have been a comedy home to celebrities at some point, and may even still be.
While many venues enforce a two drink minimum (beyond the entrance fee), bottled water counts for a drink, so you don’t have to spend a ton of money to familiarize yourself with the scene, have a good laugh, and find inspiration for your own material.
Try Stand Up Comedy
If you want to perform stand-up in a club, get ready to fill some seats (unless you are very well known). Unfortunately, for beginners, the scene is less about the quality of your act than it is about the number of people you can bring to your show, every single time you perform. If you bring many people, you will also get a better time slot on the nights you perform. If you don’t fill many seats during your shows, you’ll have difficulty getting on a bill anywhere.
Note that most comedy shows are produced by other comedians who are trying to expose their own material to your audience (and vice versa), this can make it extremely competitive. I’ve followed a few of my friend’s careers and stand-up in Los Angeles is a very tough business. It takes a steely determination and an army of friends to continually support you.
Test Your Skills at Open Mics (If You Dare!)
If you wanted to test your stand-up skills and materials, there is an Open Mic somewhere in Los Angeles every night of the week for you. To find them, take a look at this map.
Keep in mind that on Open Mic night, rooms are usually populated with other comics. While you won’t be building an audience there (not directly anyway), you could meet other comics who run their own comedy nights elsewhere. As we’ve discussed, most comedians who run their own nights are primarily interested in recruiting comedians who can bring in a crowd. In the end, comedy hosts and producers need to fill the seats of the venues they host their shows at. This is the only way these venues will allow them to return and host more comedy nights.
You can certainly go to Open Mics by yourself, but having friends support you on the nights you are performing may help you get on good comedy shows.
Find a Comedy Coach
As far as stand up comedy training, there are many coaches in Los Angeles who can help you home in on your material and style. Here are a few names to get your started:
As with any acting school, ask if you can audit. If you can’t, make sure you feel a connection to the coach you are working with. Comedy is subjective, so you’ll want someone who gets you and supports you.
Regardless of whether you are mildly interested or fully determined to make comedy part of your career, you won’t regret trying any or all of these suggestions. You can:
- See Improv shows produced by Improv schools;
- Enjoy affordable and excellent stand up comedy;
- Find an open mic that appeals to you; and if you’re game,
- Find a comedy coach
My name is Lili Wexu, I am a Canadian-American actress. I moved to Los Angeles some years ago and I’ve written a few e-books about acting in Los Angeles to help other actors who are considering relocating here (or have recently relocated).
I think all of us can agree that one of the small pleasures of going through the grind of auditioning is hearing back from casting. I love going to an audition and getting a phone call from my agent telling me I’ve been pinned. It always makes me feel like I did something right, even when I might not have been so sure when I was in the room.
So perhaps you went to the audition, rocked it and now your agent has let you know you are pinned. What does it mean, exactly, to be “pinned”? Can you go to other auditions? What if other productions end up wanting to book you?
The first thing to know is that you might get the part (cheers to that!) Someone in casting saw your potential. So give yourself a hug, it’s well deserved! After all, it’s these little moments that help keep our momentum.
As far as actually going from being pinned to booking the job, everyone is different. To date, around fifty percent of my own pins have turned into bookings. I’d still take a pin over not a pin, because pins mean we are top of mind with casting. They are also an opportunity to send a thank you note to casting for seeing you and trusting you.
For more about the business of Acting in Los Angeles, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part I: The Business of Acting.
Also, actors who deserve a pin are usually worth seeing again, so you may get to visit that office again soon. That’s another win.
That said, there is no contract (yet). You have not been booked – and hence, you must act accordingly. In fact, there is usually more than one actor pinned to a role (probably two, maybe three).
The bottom line is this: until they actually book you, you should not withhold business activities. Instead, you should remain available to other productions who might hire you.
To answer your questions in more depth, here is an excerpt of a SAG-AFTRA theatrical and television memorandum (page 26) that was sent out in 2017 and is currently in effect:
“During the 2017 negotiations, the parties discussed the casting practice commonly known as ‘pinning’ by which a Producer expresses interest in a performer for a certain date or dates, but does not actually engage the performer.
“This is a reminder that ‘pinning,’ or any other similar term that refers to an expression of interest without actually engaging the performer, does not create a binding commitment between the performer and the Producer. A performer who has been ‘pinned’ for certain dates is free to accept other employment for those dates.
“The Producer may request that the performer notify the Producer that he or she is no longer available in the event that performer accepts other employment for dates for which he or she is ‘pinned.’ The Producer may also contact a performer from time to time to discuss his or her availability for dates for which he or she is ‘pinned.’ Nothing herein shall give the Producer the ability to preempt other employment opportunities for a performer that has been ‘pinned,’ but not engaged.
“Retaliating or threatening to retaliate against a performer by refusing to consider the performer for future roles because he or she becomes unavailable for dates for which he or she was ‘pinned’ -but not engaged- is expressly prohibited.
“To comply with the parties’ agreement, please ensure that a copy of this bulletin is distributed to your company’s Casting Executives and Casting Directors as soon as practicable, and is included in any casting policies issued to Casting Directors.”
Obviously, there is no real way to find out if a casting office or producer will retaliate if you become unavailable while pinned, but reputable ones simply wouldn’t.
In summary: great – you’ve been pinned: live your life, and let the pieces fall where they may.
My name is Lili Wexu, I am a Canadian-American actress. I moved to Los Angeles some years ago and I’ve written a few e-books about acting in Los Angeles to help other actors who are considering relocating here (or have recently relocated).
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.
Dear Canadian Actor,
Working as an actor on two sides of the border is no cakewalk. I’ve gone through several accountants, spent countless hours online, have had many sleepless nights, and I’ve also had to make some pretty tough decisions about turning down work, and about how and when to exchange currencies.
You may also be working in Los Angeles, or you may be intending to do so. One topic you’ll find very few actors discussing is the impact an American work visa can have on Canadian finances, particularly if you work (or intend to) on both sides of the border.
This is a topic I go over in Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part III: Cross-Border Taxes.
In this short letter, I won’t discuss finances per say (though it’s a riveting topic), but rather how important your contribution to the American economy could be in your visa renewal process.
Working as an Actor in the U.S.
While there are various visas that performers can use to work legally in the United States, the most common ones actors use are the green card (EB-1) visa and the O-1B visa.
The EB-1 Visa
The employment-based green card, which is called an EB-1 visa, is an immigrant visa. This means that if you keep it long enough and don’t break the rules, you can eventually become an American citizen.
A green card isn’t simply a permit to work in the United States however. It is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. How so?
When you receive an EB-1 visa, you automatically become a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the United States. As such, you are expected to contribute to the American economy. How?
By getting hired in the United States, filing taxes there and creating economic ties with the United States. Note that this is not a written rule, but it is implied. In fact, if you leave the U.S. for more than six months, your LPR may be revoked. In other words, the green card isn’t just a get-in-free card, it has some strings attached.
One way to think about this is to reflect on the process of legal immigration as a whole: Why do countries do it? The single major benefit of bringing people in is to have them boost the country’s economy.
The O-1 Visa
The O-1B visa, commonly referred to as the O-1, does not provide a path to citizenship, nor does it grant permanent residency in the United States. Instead, it’s a non-immigrant visa which grants its beneficiary (the actor) the status of a temporary worker.
Even if this visa severely limits employment opportunities in the United States, the American Government is still looking for a return on their investment. Again, this is not a written rule, but like for legal residents, the government hopes you will do your part in contributing to the American economy.
So, when the time comes to apply for a new O-1B visa, the question of whether you’ve filed taxes in the United States could be taken into account. Note that since taxes and immigration are separate functions of government, numbers aren’t the priority. Have you filed, or have you not filed, is the question…
This isn’t necessarily the case for everyone with an O visa, you may be a visa holder to whom this doesn’t apply, but I have seen quite a few friends who lived in the U.S. full time on an O visa being advised to file taxes before applying for a new O-1.
This is definitely something you should discuss with your immigration lawyer and your accountant.
Whatever you do, always keep taxes in the back of your mind. And if you work on both sides of the border regularly, consult a cross-border certified public accountant (CPA) or a cross-border enrolled agent to get a clear understanding of your filing options every year, and especially as your visa gets closer to expiring.
For a more in-depth look at cross-border taxes, read Get Clever About Acting In Los Angeles Part III: Cross-Border Taxes.
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.