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  • Nick Bohle

HOW TO: Become A Professional Television & Film Actor in Canada

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

INTRO
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There's a magic to our imaginations, isn't there? The ability to conjure and manifest has always been one of the great super powers for us humans. After all, where would we be without it? It's given us roads and schools and architecture; writings, music... everything really. Which is why acting, the crafting and the consumption of stories on screen and on stage is such a magical process. It is the truly an exploration and a celebration of humanity's unique ability to imagine, create and manifest something from nothing. I would argue this is humanity's most powerful and distinguishing trait as beings in this universe.

#SchittsCreek


If you're anything like me, at some point you picked up on the incredibly influential power of film, television and theatre. You've been changed indefinitely by a character or a story and forever lived your life a little differently. At the very least you've seen a Fast and the Furious film and, upon leaving the theatre, had the urge to push the gas a little harder or watched Keanu Reeves go all John Wick on some thugs that killed his dog and wanted to learn how to move and kick ass like he does. Stories and poignant performances leak into our hearts and minds and guide our subconscious in new directions. To those who say acting is frivolous and unimportant - I argue it is one of the most important things humans do and it is not to be taken lightly.

 
LET'S GET INTO IT

So how do you become an actor? Lots of people want to be famous and be on screens but acting and being famous are not necessarily connected and are, more often than not, quite mutually exclusive. A very small percentage of actors in the world are actually in films, television shows and on the biggest stages in the world. Even fewer are famous. We are talking decimal point percentages but don't be discouraged, that doesn't mean it's impossible.

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If you truly want to become an actor it takes hard work and a ton of commitment. It won't come easy unless you're exceedingly lucky. Natural talent is a huge asset but not a deal breaker. There will be people you'll need to know that you don't know now. There will be skills you need to acquire, stories you need to hear, books you need to read, profiles on websites you didn't know existed and experiences that will change you into a whole new you, 10 times over. So first lesson... be humble and open your eyes & heart wide to new experiences and possibilities then boldly go where... you get it! #PatrickStewart


Once your heart and mind are sufficiently open, here is a step by step roadmap that outlines at least one tried-and-tested means of entering the film and television industry along with some other stories and anecdotes to bring perspective and encouragement to your acting journey.

 
THE Roadmap

The Craft of Acting

What exactly is "a headshot" and which one should I use?

How to get an agent

What is actorsaccess.com? THE GATEWAY.

Short films & Commercials

Getting into the Union (ACTRA/SAG/etc.)

Producing your own work - the other side of the camera

Your Acting Demo(s)

Books and online resources to help move your career forward.

 
The Craft of Acting

Keeping your tool belt sharp as an actor is arguably the most important facet of acting. You could have the greatest headshot, understand the business, have all of your relationships built with the right people; you could even be Steven Spielberg's best friend but if you can't act, you're out. What's more is that the state of acting - the "status quo" is a fluid one. One where marquee performances are measured subjectively in relation to your audiences recent and most loved performances. Today's standards are high when it comes to authenticity, grounded performances and naturalism. What's more is that these blockbuster performances are more and more often being done in full or partial green, blue or LED screen environments where the actor's imagination is tested heavily while expecting rich and honest emotional performances.

An actors ability to sink into a scene and not only understand the story and emotional journey for the audience but also consistently nail eye lines, blocking, choreography, stunts and more, day in and day out, is a learned skill. Natural talent and ability is an asset but skill building and repeated nuanced experiences will be crucial in building strong acting bones. If you're relying on natural abilities alone you'll burn out, your creativity and camera presence will suffer and your screen time will inevitably drop.


So, how can you build those skills, even when you're not on set regularly? Here are a few resources and tools you can use to sharpen your skills and be ready for your next booking.

 

TRAINING, SCHOOLS & WORKSHOPS

You hear tales of walk-on talent and people being made for the screen or the stage but, in truth, it is nearly impossible to get on camera or a stage without some degree of refinement. In theatre, training is inevitable through the rehearsal process at the very least. In film and television, you'll want to take a "set etiquette class," usually hosted by union representatives. Then you're vetted through a pretty ruthless auditioning process. If you're fortunate enough to get cast you're guided and directed on a scene by scene basis and if your scene doesn't hit they'll recast and reshoot (if they have the budget) or "leave your scene on the cutting room floor" and you won't get any screen time. If you really want to be an actor, an actor that is ON camera, you need to make acting a part of your lifestyle. Much like getting healthier and working out you need to build new behaviours into your life - the behaviours of an actor.


The best place to learn these behaviours without doing it the hard way is from those who have already built and implemented them for themselves. Working professional actors, university professors and acting coaches are all on the list. Usually, you'll find them in one of these three places:


1) UNIVERSITY or COLLEGES

Universities and colleges are robust learning environments which bring a lot of breadth and knowledge to any dedicated student. This knowledge isn't just about acting but many other subjects that give rise to new perspectives and experiences. Personally, my time at the University of Lethbridge in the Dramatic Arts Program was foundational and life changing. Not only from the direct acting training and experience but also the networks, friends and mentors that I continue to collaborate with today.


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The cost of university can be a con for sure but the potential value to a dedicated person is well worth it. Some universities are better than others and prepare you for different facets of the industry. It is important to do some research and check if your school of choice has a pathway for emerging actors to access screen time. From my experience, here are 7 great schools to consider if your in the market for dramatic arts education.


  • Vancouver Film School

  • Lots of industry knowledge and practical application of your skills.

  • Direct connections to a Canadian Film and Television industry hub.

  • York University

  • Robust and specialized acting and dramatic arts training.

  • Direct connections to a Canadian Film and Television industry hub.

  • University of Lethbridge

  • Liberal learning which develops incredible breadth.

  • Consistent and experienced professors.

  • Exceptional Theatre program.

  • University of Alberta

  • Direct connections to a Canadian Theatre as well as Film and Television industries‘ hub.

  • Robust and thorough training in a major Canadian city.

  • National Theatre School

  • Robust and thorough training in a major Canadian city.

  • Some of the very best theatre training in Canada.

  • Wonderful alumni support and professional development.

  • Company of Rogues (Calgary)

  • A great workshop based learning environment

  • Thorough curriculum of classes.

  • Modular learning - you choose your curriculum.

  • Red Deer College

  • Dedicated and passionate dramatic arts program.

  • Thorough curriculum of classes.

  • Many development and showcase festivals that build networks and further careers.


2) ACTING WORKSHOPS

Whether you've attended a post-secondary acting program or not acting workshops are an important facet of your continued acting training. These workshops come in many shapes and sizes:

  • Audition Prep

  • Scene Study

  • Dialects

  • Fight choreography

  • Acting for green/blue-screens

  • Intimacy Workshops

  • Casting Director Workshops

  • and other specialized workshops

These workshops are great places to refine specific skills, build networks and even occasionally find representation. My current agent, Shawna Church, and I met during a great audition prep workshop with Craft Actors Studio run by Yvonne Chapman in Calgary, AB. Another great workshop to attend would be any run by or featuring respected casting directors - the talent gatekeepers. But act quickly because these ones fill up faster than most, I'm talking within minutes of being announced.


I highly recommend attending as many as you can afford. They'll usually run you between $100-$600 (some are super pricy like in the $1000+ range), with varying lengths and their own unique list of pros and cons but they almost always provide a boost to your career in some form or another.


3) PRIVATE COACHING

Post-secondary and workshops are a huge boost to your understanding, network and awareness as an actor. However, if you're interested in working at the highest level, you need to enlist every advantage. The best actors in the world use acting coaches. A private acting coach will give you a tailored approach to YOUR unique acting career and allow you to focus your craft and habits with added support and sharper focus.


You'll need to make some decisions before finding a private coach. What kind of actor do you want to be? Dramatic? Comedic? Action? Genre based? What are your hits? What roles have you settled into? You'll need to do some research and keep your eyes out for actors and coaches that you admire and want to emulate? This is why a good private coach will usually come later on in actors career but will always be a welcome addition to the acting engine.


Private coaching can be especially helpful for dialects, period or special skills development. Anything where common knowledge isn't accessible.

 

BOOKS

If you're not reading books I recommend you start. Not just acting and industry books but novels as well. As an actor, one of your skills needs to be reading comprehension. All of the work you will ever get starts as words on a page. Being able to ingest and understand your script well is the foundation of any great performance. So, read more books, improve your reading and experience more stories. This will give you more material and inspiration to draw on for your performances. You'll grow as an actor, a creator and a human. Here are a few great reads to add to your list:

ACTING BOOKS

  • "Sanford Meisner - On Acting" - Sanford Meisner

  • "Respect for Acting" - Uta Hagen

  • "An Actor Prepares" - Konstantin Stanislavski

  • "The Art of Acting" - Stella Adler

  • "The Intent to Live" - Larry Moss

NOVELS

  • "The Corrections" - Johnathan Franzen

  • "The Celestine Prophecy" - James Redfield

  • "1984" - George Orwell

  • "Brave New World" - Aldous Huxley

  • "The Catcher in the Rye" - J.D Salinger

 

Regardless of how you maintain your acting toolkit it is important that you make consistent and ongoing contributions to your learning if you want to succeed.

 
HEADSHOTS

Headshots are your calling card. They are often the first impression you'll have with a casting director, producer, director, or executive. Therefore, they need to stand out while checking all the right boxes. To give you a better sense of the stakes involved with a good headshot here's a story I was told by one of my acting teachers, Yvonne Chapman. It's been a few years and it's a little foggy so the exact details are a little... blurred.


Here's what's going to happen. A casting director is going to have a breakdown for a role. (A breakdown is a detailed explanation of roles that a production is seeking to fill.) Once they get a grasp of the roles they need to fill they are going to do a really quick browse over the catalogue of submissions they've received for the role. First off, they'll need to see your face so if the shot is poorly lit, grainy, blurry, poorly formatted or obscuring your face in any way don't expect a callback. Second, they'll weed out the submissions that physically or aesthetically don't match their aims. From there, they will have cut out 60 - 80% of the submissions. They will then look at the resumes, experience and/or demos that the actors provided and make their audition list (those they want to see) based on the best fits. So having a clean, well lit and professionally formatted 8"X10" headshot paired with a strong well formatted resume that highlights your best work and training will be your "access pass" to any role you may well suited to.


THE ELEMENTS OF A GOOD HEADSHOT

To summarize the elements of a good headshot here is a checklist to make sure you're getting your best results. A good headshot...

  • is an 8"10" photograph of your face (Head and maybe a little bit of shoulder)

  • is well lit with no deep shadows on the face. We should see your whole face.

  • should focus on the sensation the eyes give the viewer.

  • should hint at your personality.

  • should have a backlight, key light and fill light. - 3 point lighting at least.

  • should give a producer a sense of how you could fit the role.

  • TIP: Have multiple headshots and looks you can submit to specific roles.

  • Optional: Have a small title with your name and representation in a bottom corner.

A good headshot is a highly detailed and well lit photograph of your face. Not your upper body, not your head and shoulders... it's a headshot. I know it seems frustratingly simple sometimes but it should be a shot of your head. It should give a sense of personality and context for the role you hope to land. The producer should be able to imagine you in the role from your headshot alone.


Problematic Headshot Good Headshot







 










Problematic Headshot - Eyes are too dark, background is a little distracting, it's a little too dark and a bit too specific, hat prevents them from seeing hair colour, style and health. May be good for a few roles but mostly problematic despite looking pretty cool.


Good Headshot: - Eyes are visible, whole face is clearly lit, background is simple and not distracting, no hat with hair clearly visible. Looks a little less exciting but more professional and revealing to the production team.

 
How to get an agent

Locking in an agent is a vital part of your acting career. While it is possible to get roles without an agent, if you have an updated and robust actorsaccess.com profile, you will save a lot of time and energy having a professional in your corner finding the right roles for you. A good agent is a guide and a support on your journey as an actor but remember they work for you and not the other way around.


Another important thing to know is that the standard rate for a professional agent is 15%. If they charge you more, something is fishy. If they ask for money up front, turn around. I had an experience with my first agent, who will remain unnamed, where they required $150 upfront to build be a "profile page" on their website. Once it was up, the result was super underwhelming and the representation was weak at best. I stayed with that agency for 9 months before making the move to RJ Talent. My current agent, Shawna Church, is incredible, communicative and supportive. She was and continues to be exactly what I look for in an agent after my really unfortunate first agency experience.


One way to check if an agency you are looking into is worth your time and will be a healthy path to pursue is to check on the ACTRA Alberta, UBCP or other provincial ACTRA websites under the https://www.actraalberta.com/talent-agents/ page. In Alberta there are 10 agencies (8 in Calgary, 2 in Edmonton) that ACTRA identifies as respectable and that are practicing appropriate business practices and ethics. These are agencies with a proven track record in the industry who are known to treat the talent according to union standards. If your agency or rep is not on the list it may be worth investigating why. Often it is because they are not proven in the industry, untrustworthy or practicing outside the bounds of union regulations, so be careful and make sure the person or company representing you is legitimate. Once you've chosen your best agencies to pursue how do you get noticed and hopefully, signed to an agency.


There is no guaranteed way to get an agent but there are ways to improve your chances. It is important to understand that every agent has a "roster" of actors and that each actor is selected to fill a specific niche in the local market. Do a little research to see if the agency you're eyeing has room for your look, skills and style. If there's someone else with the same or similar profile try and find an agency that doesn't have anyone with your look or style. One thing to note: most agents need you to have professional headshots. It doesn't reflect well on them if they put forward talent with headshots shot on an iPhone 8. (See headshot section above for tips on getting your best headshot).


Don't cold-call or cold email an agency. You will most likely not get a response and may hurt your future chances. In my experience, it's warm leads that most agents are going to follow up with. These come in the form of recommendations from other actors on the roster, follow ups from audition showcases like "Emerge" here in Alberta, or from workshops that agents attend to scout for new talent. No matter your approach you will probably need to have a warm lead on the conversation with any prospective agent.


Always remember to maintain an open and transparent relationship with your agent. Some agents are more involved than others and if you want an agent to care about you, you need to care about them - as people. They are not just your agent, they are, your friend, mentors and your guides in a very turbulent and high stakes industry. Treat them authentically and with compassion. The more reputable agencies are working pretty hard most days for between 40-80 actors. Whatever you can do to make your work on and off set and your many interactions & nuanced business dealings more fluid, professional and valuable will be an asset to your actor - agent relationship.