What does it mean to be a "Working Actor"?
The "Working Actor" Dream
For many actors, it is the dream to be consistently working as a performer, not needing a side-hustle or day-job to pay the bills, but instead to be seen on major networks, or alongside great stars, and to work with great directors. But all too often, young actors mistake this vision for stardom. This comes with a very real risk, that manager Brian Medavoy outlines beautifully here; it can change how actors build their careers.
The "Working Actor" Misconceptions
Generally, a working actor refers to anyone who is a full-time working actor who consistently books work in television, film, and theatre. They work long enough in the union to qualify for benefits and to vest retirement, maybe even win awards, etc. However, not all working actors will achieve a certain level of household familiarity we call "celebrity" or "stardom," though certainly most stars we admire are full-time working actors. Likewise, not all celebrities are guaranteed to be actors working consistently. Being a "working actor" and being a "star" are not mutually exclusive, but they don't guarantee each other either.
Since being a "working actor" is not a guarantee of fame, the term has gotten a bad rep. Many inexperienced actors fear that accepting smaller roles, or smaller projects, will somehow inhibit their pursuit of fame and fortune. At worst, they may even look down on the achievements of a working actor.
But this misconception can put actors into a trap. They begin to copy the attitudes and behaviors they think stars have, rather than the work ethic, abilities, and passion of working actors.
Here are some ways to earn your own way to the "Working Actor" category, and maybe even catch a "big break" from there.
Serve the Script
Not all roles are there to chew up the scenery. Some roles further plot points, some roles show off starring actors to their best advantage, some roles are there for comedic relief. Wayne Dvorak's role in The Mary Tyler Moore Hour was to provide a comedic instigator for Mary and Lucy getting drunk. His job was not to steal a scene from comedy greats Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore, but to equal them and feed them fuel for their comedy fire.
A professional puts their ego aside, and instead uses their talents to tell the story. When you show a team of writers, directors, casting directors, and producers that you understand the writing, you stand out against actors who only see their own lines. And when you prove you are willing and able to do what's best for the script, you put yourself on a short list of desirable people to work with.
Don't Worry About Your Next Break
After that clip above, Wayne was introduced to some powerful producers and network executives by the stars of the show and recommended to them. What a break! Except, it wasn't. Sometimes, the moment you just knew was your big break turns out not to be at all. A project is dropped, a producer is fired or quits, a star who promised to perform your play drops dead.
Hollywood is too full of unfair disappointments and rejections for you to waste any time worrying about it. Your job is to be an actor ready and able to work at a moment's notice. Your job is too audition often and well. Once that audition is over, don't think about how it could change your life or how sad you'd be if you don't get that call. Worrying is not your job.
If you are motivated by approval and successes, it will be hard to stay motivated. But if you are motivated by the opportunity to act every day - in classes, in audition rooms, in a variety of projects - you will outlast the hard times.
Take Projects that Build Relationships
That low budget film? It's being cast by an office that also casts episodes of a major series you're perfect for. By being open to audition and be seen for a variety of projects, you can build a better network. That's priceless in this industry. Obviously, don't take projects that make you feel truly uncomfortable. But you truly never know who you'll meet or what you'll learn working in the field.
Practice being open and professional with everyone. You don't know who'll actually be the right person at the right time for you. Maybe you and the sound engineer connect, and he helps you produce your own web series! Maybe the casting director you haven't met yet is standing behind you in line at the coffee shop you stopped in on your way to a big audition. Building relationships doesn't mean making someone like you so you can use them. It means connecting with others on a human-to-human level that you might work with again.
Most simply put, becoming a familiar face in Hollywood helps you get recognized. And the only way to become a familiar face, is by being in every room and every project as often as you can.
Always be Training
Many of your earliest jobs will not be ones that challenge you the most artistically. The co-star roles, the under-5s, the featured roles... These roles are crucial milestones towards being trusted with heavier work. But they won't be enough to grow your skillset your artistry.
Find classes that give you work that truly challenges you. Work leads in scenes that 10-pages long for a couple months. Or try roles that are outside your bread-and-butter type. Stay agile and able as an actor. The moment when someone does offer you a challenging role, you need to be ready. That chance may not come twice.
Don't Treat the Professional Scene like your Classes
So you've found a great studio that pushes you and develops your craft. Great. That's what acting classes are for. But do not mistake the nice casting associate on the other end of the audition table for your teacher. They are not here to challenge you or to build you up. They are here to get the best tape from you and find the best actor for certain roles. The agent interviewing you is not looking for an actor "discovering who they are," they want someone who knows how to go out and get cast tomorrow.
This is not the room to experiment in. Don't go into an audition room with material you're "still working the kinks out" on. Don't try to prove you can play outside type. Go in for parts that suit you, and present your honest best. The rest will come with time.
Recognize your own Milestones
At the beginning, you'll scoff at anyone who "looks down on" being a fully vested SAG-AFTRA actor with a substantial resume. So many don't even achieve that! Who wouldn't be thrilled to be a working actor? But often, as you approach achievements, those successes aren't enough anymore, you already want the next thing. You'll forget to be grateful for how far you've come and only see where you want to be.
"Milestones" reminds us this is a long journey. A marathon. These moments aren't just stepping-stones to the next thing. These are stories for your autobiography someday. Or your Late Night interview. Your first student film. Your first Hallmark Christmas movie. Your first Law & Order co-star. Your first residual paycheck. The list goes on and on. These are moments some people may never achieve. And once upon a time, they were your dreams.
Let each dream, each project, and each relationship take you to the next one. Let your dreams grow and change organically. If you build an entire career out of a few early assumptions and one exclusive end vision, you can restrict your ability to get there. You may find you have a better chance of becoming that "big star" if you follow the twists and turns of your career.