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How to Get a Lead Role in a Minor or Major Film?

Updated on August 9, 2023
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna wrote, and directed several plays, taught acting for kids. She is a former talent scout and directs and produces.

Supporting yourself as an actor is not an easy job. It takes learning your craft, courage, and determination.
Supporting yourself as an actor is not an easy job. It takes learning your craft, courage, and determination. | Source

"We ape, we mimic, we mock. We act."

— Laurence Olivier

Actor: Landing a Role

How to become a working actor?

Actors, of course, perform in front of the cameras rather than work behind the scenes. It's essential to know about the jobs that actors do, even if you plan on working behind the camera or if you want to work in front of the camera -- especially as some very famous ones have become writers, producers, and directors (and combinations thereof).

It is conventional for actors to take on multiple roles in film production behind and in front of the camera. Prime examples of these "Renaissance People" include stars such as the late Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, John Travolta, Woody Allen, Angelica Huston, Tim Robbins, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Mel Gibson. I am sure you can think of some "Renaissance People" too.

Actors entertain and communicate with the audience through their interpretation of dramatic roles. They learn how to develop characters, memorize lines, how to be in the light, learn how to act in front of the camera, and learn to follow directions.

Only a small number of actors achieve tremendous recognition in motion pictures. In the majority, most actors live very comfortably playing roles on television, film, or stage and are recognized here and there on occasion. Screen Actors Guild is a strong union that takes good care of its members, so even small parts or supporting roles keep an actor well-fed with health care and other benefits.

I've worked in front of the camera and behind the camera. Actors have it easy. Sorry folks, but you do.

What Do You Think?

Would you work as an extra to break into the film industry?

See results

Film Jobs: Feature Extra or Stunt Work

Some actors start as "extras" (the people in the background of the film) with no lines, while others are cast in supporting roles or walk-ons. Walk-ons usually have five lines and work one day. A "feature extra" may be used for the same film repeatedly, without dialogue but lots of camera time and many days of work – making good money.

What do stunt actors do?

Then there are stunt people who take on the more dangerous work, performing such stunts as driving cars in chase scenes, falling from buildings and other high places, or "fighting" for the principal actors.

I know a stuntwoman who also worked as an actor. Sometimes a film will require a stunt person to be an actor because of how the director shot a scene. This particular scene required a close-up in Denzel Washington's Training Day.

Most acting jobs are achieved through agents. If they are non-union, beginners and lesser-known actors usually will register themselves, for a small fee, with several casting directors, who invite them to auditions, which may lead to acting assignments.

Casting Director or Agent

What is the difference between a casting director and an agent?

Sometimes people relatively new to the film business mix up casting directors and agents. The casting director helps the director find the perfect cast for the movie, and an agent works with the actor and director to negotiate a role in the film.

It gets a bit confusing, but a union town keeps the two jobs separated. In non-union cities, the casting director often wears both hats as a casting director and as an agent, because that is how the movie production gets cast – it’s rare but does happen.

How long does it take to land a role in a movie?

Although a few actors find parts in feature films straight out of drama school, most spend many years supporting themselves by working inside or outside the industry. Some actors work behind the camera to learn the film business. Some actors have gotten jobs at talent agencies or casting companies. Here they understand the process of setting up auditions and casting for commercials, film, and television. Hence, they get the whole picture of how the audition process works, which could help the actor nail an audition and get a role in a film.

I met a casting director who used to be an actor so that careers can change around either way. The key is never to give up and keep working in the business.

Acting Professional Credits

The crucial point in landing a role in a film is to build up your credits as an actor. The credits include theatre, commercials, independent movies, improv, and stand-up comedy. The more you do as an actor, the more chances of landing a role.

You must take acting classes at a reputable school. In NYC and LA, there are tons of schools. You need to ask around and find one that fits your technique or comfort. Most acting schools allow newbies to audit a class to see if the school is right for them. These schools are not cheap. They are expensive, so choose wisely.

There is one school I can recommend in LA because I know the founders indirectly and heard nothing but good things. It is called The Acting Center. Professional actors like Nancy Cartwright, Marion Ross, and Juliette Lewis offer their help and personal insight into the business.

Study and Work Your Craft

Actors need to practice and study their craft. Laurence Olivier says it best, "The office of drama is to exercise, possibly to exhaust, human emotions. The purpose of comedy is to tickle those emotions into an expression of light relief, of tragedy, to wound them and bring the relief of tears. Disgust and terror are the other points of the compass."

To be successful, you need to work your craft and be darn good at what you do. Laurence Olivier author some books on his career. I read his book called On Acting, and it is a source of vital information on Acting. The most outstanding actor of our time wrote the book when he was 79 years old. After reading his book, I landed acting gigs. His advice is sound and easy to follow. It is an inspiration and insight into an actor's life.

I wish you the best and a successful career.

"I'd like people to remember me for a diligent expert workman. I think a poet is a workman. I think Shakespeare was a workman. And God's a workman. I don't think there's anything better than a workman."

— Laurence Olivier

© 2007 Kenna McHugh


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