Having been a full-time writer-director/producer for the past 15 years and having taught my twice-monthly 'So You Want To Be An Actor' Workshops for the past seven, I'm often asked by young - and in some cases, older - actors how they can best achieve their dreams, but, sometimes, I think what they need to be asking is 'what pitfalls should I avoid'.
It's frustrating for me because I frequently see many actors making the very same mistakes in their career - often things that require little else than common sense to combat. Yet, these mistakes can truly hinder their progress and set them back.
So, without further adieu, here are the Top 10 Mistakes That Actors Commonly Make (in no particular order):
1. Not doing the bare minimum.
By this, I mean, have excellent headshots, an imdb page with credits and a subscription to imdb-pro, a good reel, business cards and be enrolled in an acting class.
These things are all prerequisites if you are serious about your acting career. You'd be surprised how many actors I meet who have terrible headshots - a chipped tooth, puffy cheeks that make them look 10 pounds heavier, awkward position, terribly photo-shopped - no reel, no imdb-pro subscription and subsequently an imdb page with no photos and no bio.
These things, along with having business cards to hand out at film festivals and networking events and being enrolled in an acting class, are all essentials, I believe in doing the bare minimum before you can even think about rising to the next level. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish with your career expenses, as there are too many actors who do these things correctly.
2. I don't really believe in acting class.
An out-of-work actor actually said this to me at a film festival last year and, worse, he was complaining about the industry and how hard it is. FYI - Meryl Streep still takes acting classes. Anne Hathaway was trained at the New York Barrow Group and still takes classes with coaches from time-to-time. Sylvester Stallone trained with one of the best acting coaches in all of L.A. in order to prepare for his dramatic reprising of Rocky Balboa in Creed and all he received for his trouble was his first Oscar Nomination in 39 years.
Not only can coaches help you with your craft - some are also Award-Winning directors and can show young actors what it's like to work with an experienced director on set. They can also help you network and meet people as you navigate your way through the industry. I also believe actors should study a technique to have that foundation to fall back on. Keep in mind not all acting classes teach techniques. I, personally, think it's up the actor to decide what technique works best for them.
3. A general poor attitude.
This is probably the number one thing that I've seen from inexperienced actors of all ages. So many things I can write here, but for the interest of saving time, here's a story from one of my best students and a very talented young actress, Kalene Speranza. She basically recommended an acquaintance for a small role in a low-budget web-series. Unfortunately, that day, the actress Kalene recommended showed up with a poor attitude and alienated some people. Then, when it was time to eat, she found out that a local Italian restaurant was providing the catering. She immediately found the director and asked in a playful, but quite serious manner, "Can I get Chinese food?" and, asked if the director would order it for her. So many things wrong with this picture, but let me just say, unless you have a food allergy or can't eat some type of food, I would highly recommend not criticizing the food on set or asking for your own special order from a different restaurant/place.
Showing up late to set or not at all, something that can frequently occur on low-budget/no-budget sets, is another no-no. Fighting with your director? or being rude to the producer/s? do I really need to explain any of these?
Yet, with all of my contacts in the industry over the years - ranging from Studio executives to Academy-Award Winning producers to micro-budget filmmakers - you'd be surprised how many times I've heard about all of these things occurring, usually with unsuccessful newcomers who don't seem to know any better.
4. Not being prepared or being unprofessional on set.
Similar to the category above, however, I once had an actor that I was working with for the second time, needed 19 takes to nail a monologue all the way through and 21 takes to do it to my satisfaction. The sad fact? He had those lines for three-to-four weeks to prepare and, this was for a short film we were making for Oscar consideration. It was more painful to watch than Jon Favreau calling back Nicky in Swingers, again, and again, and again. This actor, who had worked with me on a large-budget feature, Night Club, in a smaller acting role actually said to me, "You just don't know the pressure of being on a Sam Borowski set. You're so talented and to me, it's like working with Martin Scorsese." As if that compliment was supposed to make it alright.
Always know your lines on set and, if a director or producer approves wardrobe, don't ever switch it without alerting them. Be professional. Be courteous. Be friendly. Be respectful. Be on time. Know your lines and, chances are, you just might be asked back in a bigger capacity on the next production.
5. Experience is the best teacher, but only fools will learn there.
Veteran horror producer Sam Sherman first told me this, although it's a variation of the famous Ben Franklin quote, "Experience is the best teacher, but a fool will learn from no other." Most young actors I know would rather make their own mistakes than listen to others to avoid the same pratfalls, even if it sets them back a year or two on their path. Don't be a fool, no one needs to set themselves back. That's all I have to say about that.
6. Never blow off an audition.
Well, who would do this? Scores of foolish wannabe actors, that's who. When we auditioned for Maniac, there were several actresses on our list, who didn't bother to show up for their audition time, with no calls from them or their agents to explain. We simply save the names and put them in the do not cast file.
I have a friend, who had an actress call him and regretfully say they couldn't make the audition date, but really wanted to read for the part. So, he scheduled a special day. Yup -You guessed it. Said actress never showed, never called and it came back to bite her when he was hiring people for something she was very good at. He refused to consider her, because he remembered she flaked on him once before.
7. Never burn your bridges.
Again, this may seem like common sense to you, but you'd be surprised how many times common sense seems to leave the equation. Let's look at my workshop: I run it just like a set. Tell prospective students, each class is an audition; meaning that I not only perfect their craft, but watch how they behave in our day-long workshop. Do they get along with the other actors? Do they complain about the catered lunch I provide? Do they take direction well? Are they late to class, thereby not understanding the concept of a call-time and rudely making their fellow actors wait? and, this is just with the class.
Do you know how many actors burn bridges with all types of directors and producers on sets? How can you expect to expand your network if you burn bridges? Something that an actor should consider before catching attitude with a director, producer or even acting coach: you should stop short of burning that bridge, as you may need to cross it again one day.
8. You mean I need to network?
One thing I harp on in the workshop, is knowing the business-side of the business. Part of this is networking. "I know, I know I need to network." Yet, so many young actors, do not keep up with the festival circuit, which can be the lifeblood of a young actor. Everything from huge festivals such as Sundance and Tribeca to rising festivals such as the Northeast Film Festival, established mid-sized festivals such as the Newport Beach Film Festival and even the smallest of local festivals - Long Island has several of them and even Rahway, N.J. has a film festival now.
This is a great place for independent actors to meet independent filmmakers. Plenty of directors, writers and producers attend these ... often looking for talent for their next project. It's a chance to share some stories over a drink and some food at an after-party and you can hand them your card or your headshot, or a specialized packet that includes all of the above, plus a reel. If it's neat and concise they will accept it from you at the end of the night.
Remember, whether you are at a film festival, a movie premiere for a studio feature that a friend of yours was in, an acting class or eating in the local pizzeria, you are always networking. I believe it was the late, great Wes Craven who said, "You're always your best agent." Always be aware, wherever you are, that you never know who is sitting around you.
9. Brand yourself correctly
I recently pointed out to one of my newest actors in the workshop, who is turning out to have a lot of potential, that his name was spelled differently on imdb than it was on Facebook. Even though this was an oversight, it was a great example of branding yourself incorrectly.
We've talked about doing the bare minimum, which is a big part of your brand, but, certainly making sure your name is spelled correctly on all social media, especially on imdb and that you only have one imdb page is another part of it.
Do you know how many actors - and even some filmmakers - I know that don't bother to correct imdb when it has slated multiple pages for them with various spellings of their name.
Like it or not, imdb is a big part of how the industry judges you these days. You'd better make sure your page is accurate, up-to-date and impressive. With photos, a bio (not submitted by you) and hopefully awards and some publicity listings, but, imdb is just part of your brand. A professional - and personal - facebook page, business cards, web-site and most importantly your reputation.
What kind of work have you done? What does your brand represent? Will you do every little web-series out there for no money that looks like it was lit by your little brother in the high school AV squad? Or worse, not lit at all. Wait, that brings me to my next point ...
10. Be choosy with your work.
Yes, when you are just starting out and need experience on a set, and some footage for a reel, I do understand taking everything you can get, however, once you've done a few leads in short films and maybe even a meaty supporting role in an independent - or dare I say, studio - film, you can no longer do extra work. Not even just for the money.
Be careful of 'The web-series.' Everyone and their brother have a web-series these days, and a lot of them aren't very good. They don't have the same talent level as House of Cards, so chances are they aren't going to be picked up by Netflix. be wary of independent films - even shorts - that shoot in a single day with little prep time. I had one student, regretfully ask me if she could get one of these short 'films' removed from her imdb page. I know it's extremely fun to be on a set for all you serious and passionate actors out there, but what kind of a set do you wish to be on? I know plenty of micro-budget and low-budget filmmakers who run professional sets and even get some name talent and wonderful character actors.
They feed their cast and crew well and use professional studio-quality cameras. Awesome, but, do you really need to do a web-series, where you are dressed up like a sexy cos-play snake as some young kid films you with a DSLR? Don't laugh, all these examples come from real life. Or if you do a music video shoot that is terrible and you really can't show anybody or put it on your reel, what's the point? I understand newbies have to take what they can get, but if you are serious about your craft and the business, you will all reach a point where you have to be choosy. Remember, once Boris Karloff got some leads and supporting roles with studio movies, long before he was a star in Frankenstein, he decided no more extra work - even though he made a lot of money doing so. He didn't want to hurt his 'brand.' So what did he do for a full year? He drove a truck. A little bit down the road, he was cast as the monster in Frankenstein and became a bona fide movie star. He also was one of the first seven actors who helped found the Screen Actors Guild. Not bad for a man who couldn't find work in the industry and had to drive a truck for a year.
Achieving your dreams as an actor takes both perseverance and persistence, but, it also takes knowing what not to do. Knowing what pratfalls to avoid, so you can at least be taken seriously. Avoiding all of the above mistakes will only put you in better position to do what you need to do.
As we say in New York, "Break Legs!" :)
About Sam Borowski:
Sam is a New York-based director, writer, producer and the creator of the twice-monthly "So, You Want To Be An Actor," Workshop.
As a director and producer Sam has worked with many actors, including Oscar-Winners Ernest Borgnine and Benicio Del Toro, Oscar-Nominee Sally Kellerman, legendary performers Paul Sorvino and Mickey Rooney, 2-time Emmy-Winner Keith David and recent Emmy-Nominee, Natasha Lyonne.
Many of Sam's clients have gone on to career-defining roles in all kinds of entertainment, including supporting roles in some of his features opposite the aforementioned Borgnine and Sorvino, guest-starring roles on Law and Order: SVU and the touring company of The Sound of Music.
As a filmmaker, Sam is as eclectic as his favorite movies, as showcased in his Desert Island Movies on his Stage 32 page. He wrote and produced a documentary about the Creature From the Black Lagoon with Del Toro, Creature Feature: 60 Years of the Gill-Man, that has received wide distribution. He wrote, produced and directed a short that qualified for the Academy Awards several years back. His feature Night Club had an impressive cast featuring Borgnine, Lyonne, Sorvino, Kellerman, Zachary Abel and Daniel Roebuck of LOST. He's produced features all over the United States including Rex in Georgia and A Place for Heroes starring Sorvino, Kellerman and Norman Lloyd in Iowa. He's currently working on a large-budget feature that he will write, direct and produce.
Sam's resume of film festival achievements reads like a veritable who's who of festivals on the circuit. He can be followed on Twitter at @Sam_Borowski,or reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, of course, you can find him right here at Stage 32!
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