I Failed As An LA Actor & So Can You! (or you can learn from my mistakes)

I’m an okay looking guy with a decent skill set. I can memorize a line and follow directions. So why not Justin Leeper: successful LA actor? Well, I gave it the ol’ college try. For years, I dabbled in acting. For a solid year, it was my number-one focus.

Despite some cool stories and a decent resume, I’d say I failed. I’m not alone, of course; thousands of people file into LA to “make it,” and all but a fraction leave disappointed. It’s like a Las Vegas casino, but with bigger payouts, smaller success rates and the games are rigged.

Still, you want to give it a shot, right? Who am I to stop you? You have as good a chance as just about anyone. But before you quit your job at Target, pack your bags and book your ticket, learn as much as you can. Why not start reading the following guide I wrote with you in mind?

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Los Angeles
LA is a city like no other. After living there for 11 years (I recently moved up to the Bay Area), I still love it. There are masters in every craft. There’s always something to do. Every group or artist will be there on an annual basis, and some will do intimate shows to warm up for upcoming tours. I studied under martial-arts legends, ate some of the best food ever, and saw more celebrities than you can shake a selfie-stick at. It’s pretty damn cool.

LA is not like Tokyo or New York. Those places have skyscrapers all over and densely packed urban monoliths. LA is like the hip downtown area of your nearest mid-sized town, only sprawling out as far as the eye can see. The weather is as consistently beautiful as the traffic is consistently terrible. Attractive people are the majority and image is a priority.

You will pay out the ass for rent. Even if you get a roommate and live in a not-so-rocking part of the city, expect to kiss $1000 in rent good-bye per month. Before you make the move, I suggest having at least 6 months rent saved up plus expenses (so, around $10,000). You’ll need a car, too, even though mass transit is starting to catch up with San Francisco circa 1995. Smog checks are every other year in LA, which keeps clunkers off the road and (slightly) less smog in the air.

And you’ll need a job, at least until you’re raking in that A-list cash. Because so many LA residents are actors, the job market has schedule flexibility. Because so many LA residents are actors, many people are going for those flexible-schedule jobs. It’s a tough balance to have a job – which you need – but having both you and your manager know you’d drop it for a second for a recurring role on Days of Our Lives.

My mistake: I was once offered a job working at a website in LA, then had the offer reneged because I didn’t seem excited enough about it. It almost takes some acting to – for example – convince the Chipotle manager that you’re thrilled about folding burritos for 8 hours.

Pay Me to Free to Pay You
As I said, there are masters of every craft in LA. That, of course, includes actors. Highly-touted thespians hold classes to teach you the intricacies of every aspect of the business. You’ll gain valuable insight that could make all the difference, or may just boost your confidence enough to get you over the hump. But you’ll have to pay them. There is no shortage of people in LA who want to help you for a fee. You need to be smart with your money; it’ll be a while before you get more of it. I took audition classes and improv classes and so many stunt-fighting classes I ended up teaching them. They all had value, but again: Be smart with your money.

Then, there are people who want you to work for them. They have a great indie project that you’d be perfect for. Or they’re doing a Doritos spec commercial for a Super Bowl contest. Or a director is working on something for his reel. They say it’s great exposure, an awesome chance to network, a lot of fun, footage for your reel. What do all these phrases have in common? You won’t be paid. Doing things for free is not inherently bad, especially when you’re starting out. Who knows what one connection could lead to, or who could see this obscure piece of video? Even still, I would accept these projects sparingly. You’re doing these people a favor.

Acting is your vocation, your skill. The barber does not give out many freebies. The cabbie does not offer a lot of free rides. You have to worry about you. You’re making a brand. You’re establishing your value. You eventually want to make your living acting, and sooner than later if possible. Keep these things in mind.

Friends will have projects, and they’ll ask for your help. Some will end up great and some won’t. I stunt-coordinated a short at Joshua Tree that was a lot of fun and is something I’m proud of. The finished version looks amazing. Another friend wanted my help with his short, and he kicked me in the forehead on the first take which resulted in a bruise for the rest of the shoot. I still haven’t ever seen the finished version, much less received a copy. It’s a crapshoot. My philosophy mirrored Spider-Man on Family Guy…

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The Steps
You need headshots and a resume – both digitally and printed. The headshot and resume are supposed to help you get the audition. If you do well at the audition, you book the gig. The gig adds to your resume. Eventually, you may bring a manger or agent into the fold. Their job is to get you more and better gigs for better money. That’s the natural progression.

Headshots: You can spend $200 or $2000 on headshots. What I learned is they’re not about looking your best, but looking your most hirable. Your look should convey the type of role you’re most likely to book, because that’s probably what you’re trying to get an audition for. Are you the best friend or the bad guy, the mom or the sexpot? (Even if you’re the bad guy, don’t scowl in your headshot) Multiple looks give you diversity, but you don’t want to print out 5 different pictures – especially because you’re probably going to end up with a stack of outdated headshots regardless. Here’s an idea to consider: Get some business cards printed with your headshot and contact info. They’re pretty cheap and are easy to have on hand.

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Resume: This tells who you are and what you’ve done. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, it should be. Format it to look sharp, clean. One page is all, and don’t feel the need to fill it up if you can’t. Don’t list your age, but consider listing your social media (if you have a strong presence). I try to put my most impressive categories first, or at least tailor my resume to the project I’m submitting for. Also, I’m a fan of listing role type rather than name (i.e. “Supporting” rather than “Jim the Candy Store Clerk”). Almost always, my resumes end up scissored and stapled to the back of my headshots. That means margins are important, and I don’t post a picture on my resume.

Audition: In theory, anyone can get an audition. Craigslist, LA Casting, Actors Access are all places where hundreds of breakdowns are posted daily. You submit, cross your fingers and move on with your life. One note: I’m picky about what I submit for. If I can’t realistically see myself in the role, I won’t submit. I don’t want to waste my time or the casting director’s time. After all, auditions aren’t easy.

If you’re called, you’ll likely get some sides and a more detailed breakdown. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; you want to get it right. Then you study. This is the work. Until you’re booked, your job is professional auditioner. I always tried to be off-book if at all possible (know the lines without the script in front of you). There’s a difference between having them memorized and being able to play with them; that’s a key.

At the audition itself, I try to look the part without being gaudy (i.e. a blue button-down shirt, not a literal cop uniform). I bring a pen in case I need to fill things out, along with my printed sides and a few headshot/resume combos. I ignore the fact that there are 5 Justin Leeper body doubles waiting in the room with me.

Your name is called; you’re up. Now relax. You are acting the moment you step in the room. They are watching you. Are you someone they want to work with? Just do your best. I like to give the headshots first, so I don’t forget. Take your time; a good breath before you start will help. So many factors are out of your control, from the quality of the reader to the blocking to the number of takes they give you.

Then you leave. You probably won’t ever get feedback. You won’t know if they like you, and chances are you’ll never hear from them again. Maybe you offended someone, or maybe the role had already been decided and auditions were just a formality. But that’s the game. That’s why I find it important to assess my performance myself. Did I do my best? What was notable – good or bad – about how I did? I kept a good log, rating auditions on a 5-point scale.

Even if you’re not right for that role, they may keep you in mind for something else. The more auditions you do and the more people you are in front of, the easier it can become. They may call you to audition for the next project. That cuts out steps and stress.

If you get a callback, that’s basically another round of auditions. You’ll need to step your game up without reinventing the wheel. A callback means they like you, so you’ve got that going for you. Keep giving them reasons to like you. Continue to be your best, and hopefully the next call says you got it!

It’s worth bringing up self-tape auditions. This style has grown in popularity. I’m not a fan, in part because you spend about half your time setting up the “set” with lighting and camera placement, plus editing the video. That’s not what I’m there to do; I’m there to act. Still, you’ll likely do at least a few of these. My suggestion is make sure you have plenty of light, that the camera can hear you, and the file size/format works. Don’t forget to slate! One benefit is you get as many takes as you want. It’s also worth bringing up that I never got a callback on a self-tape audition.

My mistake: I changed my philosophy on auditions, but never got the chance to try the new one. I realize that learning the lines verbatim is not as important as making them my own – interpreting the lines and emotions and making strong character choices once you’re in front of the casting director. They’ve heard the lines the same way 200 times; it’s not a bad thing to give a different twist.

Agent/Manager: You may be asking, “How do I get a manager? How do I get an agent? Do I need them? What the hell do they even do?” I’m not going to answer those right now. I had an agent and a manger; I didn’t find them particularly helpful for me. One reason is that nobody cares as much about your career as you do – even if representation stands to make money when you make money. My suggestion: Wait until you’ve established yourself on your own before you worry about hiring someone to represent you.

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Rejection
I’m a confident guy, really truly in my marrow. But even I suffered depression from the abundance of rejection I received in the year I put into trying to book work. It hit me hard to think about all the work I was putting in, and the fact that it hadn’t paid off at all. Almost every audition is a new round of time spent running lines, commuting to auditions, and putting yourself out there for others to judge.

I don’t really know how to prevent the pain or treat it. I would say keep believing in yourself, love who you are, and try not to worry about things you can’t control. Surround yourself with positive people, but also get the majority of your confidence from within. I’m not a fan of self-medicating; I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I rely on myself for my energy and I don’t hide from my problems.

Connections
This is a very important and sometimes overlooked step. You need to know people. While you can make it as a total unknown, it’s like trying to chop down a tree with your bare hands. Connections are the axe – the edge you need. You must learn to do the dance without showing that you’re counting the steps. The majority of work you’ll get will come from people you know. While it may just get you a foot in the door, any advantage increases your chance of success. Being able to have a common friend with the producer or casting directing gives you an instant spark that can’t be understated. Make as many connections as possible; you never know what they’ll lead to.

My mistake: I am notoriously terrible at networking, schmoozing, whatever. I come off as intense and aloof, even when I’m not trying to. I would not say this cost me work; I would say it probably prohibited potential opportunities from being presented. It’s probably my biggest flaw in trying to be an actor.

The Union
You are currently nonunion. That is your name, rank and classification. You can only work nonunion jobs, which are often lower paying and lower profile. The union is called SAG-AFTRA, and it presides over 95% of major motion pictures and television shows. It used to be two different unions, SAG and AFTRA, but you don’t care. SAG-AFTRA makes sure pay rates are fair for its members and that they’re kept safe and comfortable. It even hosts workshops and lectures to help you learn and network and file your taxes. It does a lot of good things for its own.

So you obviously want to join the union, right? Well, here’s one of the great Hollywood paradoxes: To be able get work in major productions, you need to be a member of SAG-AFTRA. To become a member of SAG-AFTRA, you need to have worked in major productions. Say what?!

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How I joined SAG-AFTRA: A fellow stuntman who started one of the first web-series (The Hunted, a kind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tongue-in-cheek, open-sourced action series) was doing a movie version. And he wanted to do it relatively big. That meant being a Union project. I was one of many who had a role; I played a masked vampire security guard who ate it every scene.  There was no pay, but it magically qualified me to join SAG-AFTRA.

Now, to join the union, once you’ve qualified, you pretty much just hand them a check for $3000, start paying about $100 twice a year in dues, and voila! You’re in! So I paid as soon as I qualified, thinking it was my key to bigger roles and bigger paychecks on bigger projects. It wasn’t.

Union gigs are not any easier to score. For some reason, my manager continued sending me on nonunion auditions. While it’s not against the rules to audition for nonunion gigs, a SAG-AFTRA member is prohibited from working on nonunion productions. Truth told, I did not book one (non-extra) role once I joined SAG-AFTRA. It’s not their fault, it’s not really my manager’s fault. That’s just what happened. So basically, I paid $3000+ for a cool membership card I could show off on Facebook.

What I should have done: Let’s say you’re nonunion, but you score an audition for a union gig and nail it. They love you; they want you. They’re so into you, they pay to instantly make you a part of SAG-AFTRA so you can get to work earning them an academy award. How likely is that to happen? Not very, but it does happen. Conversely, I could have just held onto my union-eligible status – which holds more water than “nonunion” – and waited until I got some Union work before I dropped the $3000. That way, I’d know I would at least make some of it up.

AEA, Another Union
Theater is less a “thing” in LA because of its booming film industry, but there are people making a good living in one of LA’s handful of legit theaters. Of course, they have a union too, called Actors Equity Association (AEA). The dream scenario I mentioned for getting SAG-AFTRA status sort of happened to me with Actors Equity. I auditioned, blew them away, and my union dues were slowly siphoned from my weekly paycheck – which still had enough left over for me to pay my bills and buy some new socks.

Extra! Extra?
Background actors – commonly called extras – are a subset of acting in LA. Some people don’t even consider them actors, and I get that. Some people in the industry urge actors to stay as far away from extra work as possible. But some people need money, even if it’s just $72 for a day’s work.

Central Casting is the big extras casting agency. I joined in 2006, while working as a freelance journalist. You go in, wait in a long line to fill out forms, take a picture and pay them a pittance (~$25). To get work, you keep checking their (antiquated) phone system for stuff you think you’d qualify for. Then you call another number, hope the voicemail box isn’t full, and wait to hear back. Sometimes you get lucky and they’ll call you unsolicited, offering a gig. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll accept it graciously to hopefully lead to future calls. Because there are literally 100 other people who will jump at the chance to work. The competition has multiplied exponentially from when I first started to 2013 when I went back.

The lows of background acting: Remember how I said $72 for a day’s work? That’s the standard 8-hour nonunion rate. You’re low head on the totem and everyone knows it. Background actors are literally treated like children in detention. I’ve had holding in a dark warehouse for hours with no chair and no electricity. People often talk to you like you’re an idiot. It can feel demeaning. And some of the people you’ll be lumped with on set warrant that treatment.

The calls from Central Casting heralding opportunity may come at 11pm and require you to be on set and camera-ready wearing a 3-piece suit at 4:00am that morning. This work is often not easy, and it will leave you asking, “How much do I want this?” And you are not advised to list any extra work on your resume.

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The highs of background acting: You get to work on really cool shows. I did 3 days on Justified; 2 on Arrested Development; and a day each on Mad Men, CSI: NY and CSI: Miami. Want to impress your friends back home? Post a screenshot of you in a cop uniform next to Timothy Olyphant, or tell them about a conversation you had on set with Gary Sinise.

In my view, being an extra gives you valuable experience on set. You get to watch true professionals doing their thing both in front of and behind the camera, and you’re getting paid for it! You may meet talented people who will treat you like humans, or find a few fellow actor friends.

Speaking of pay – while $72 is minimum wage, productions often go into overtime. Add a late lunch, maybe a bump for bringing your own wardrobe ir smoke effects, and it’s not unusual to clear $160 once you’re heading home (exhausted). Union actors work background, too, and their base rate is $148 for 8 hours. When you’re Union, you’re guaranteed some better accommodations. It’s like flying business class instead of economy. I made $250 in one day as a union background extra, which is quite not bad.

Sometimes, as a nonunion extra, you’ll get bumped up to SAG rate. In addition to the better pay, you’ll receive a voucher. Earn 3 vouchers, and you’re SAG-AFTRA eligible. It’s one of the easier ways to join the union.

Wrapping Up
Hopefully, I’ve given you some good info and perspective. I do not want to dissuade anyone from following their dreams, but I want people to know what’s below before they leap. Remember that, as someone who didn’t “make it,” my perspective is skewed. Everyone’s is, to one side or the other. If you have further questions, I’ll do my best to answer. I wish you the best of luck!

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