How to Get Started as an Actor if You Live in a Small Market

Dija Henry

A lot of people have asked me how to get started acting over the  A LOT! It's always interesting to answer this question because I don't really consider myself in an expert and a lot of your approach depends on the market you live in. I happen to live in a tiny, but passionate and growing, market in Indiana. We don't have a tax incentive here (yet) like our neighbors and so we don't really attract big films like the other states. However our local commercial and industrial markets are pretty busy. We have a close knit independent film community that is also growing. What I'm trying to say that each market like Chicago, Atlanta, New York or Los Angeles each have their own nuances when it comes to moving forward in the acting industry. But I do believe that there are basics that any beginning actor can take a hold of. Before we dive in I want to let you know that I am NOT an expert and I'm not a full-time working actor. I have an acting degree and have done professional theater, commercials, films, voice work and print work but even after all these years I still feel like I have SO MUCH to learn!

Okay grab your swim cap and let's dive in!

1. Get into class now

I CANNOT stress this enough! If you want to become an actor you must learn the craft of acting. Start training your instrument (which is YOU) right away.  For example, if you don't learn how to properly use your voice on stage you could injure yourself after hours and weeks of poor vocal technique. There are basics and vocabulary needed for each medium so that you can function on a job. Going to class will help you understand the logistics of blocking and movement as well as the technique needed to build strong characters. Some people have raw talent but that is not enough to get through the rigors of being on set for hours or on stage for weeks. Learning a toolbox of techniques will help you create richer, multi dimensional and believable performances. 

2. Understand Story

Much of our work as actors is dealing with the written words of a story. It's very important that you understand the structure of a story so you can understand the role of your character within the bigger picture of the play or film. Learn how to dive into the text and discover clues about your character by what others are saying about your character. Understand the themes and messages that the writer is conveying through this piece of work. Speaking of story, it's also important to just read as much as you can. Read the classics, read current magazines and articles, read non fiction and fiction. When you read you create more of a context for what you create. It's not a cut and dry formula. It's a knowing that will seep into your work as you grow as an actor and as a person.

3. Work on Yourself

I've really come to believe that working on self-love, spirituality, personal development and mental health are extremely important for any artist. Especially an actor! Our jobs are to go where other people don't go emotionally. We have the strange job of being vulnerable in fake circumstances. It's not a normal thing. We hear many times about actors who couldn't shake their characters and it really affected their personal lives or sadly, caused them to end their lives. We even hear of actors who can't handle the fame and success and it breaks them personally and financially. My professor in college was just as adamant about us learning to get into character as much as learning to get out of character. This business is so layered with rejection, ups and downs, and pressure that if you don't cultivate a life that you love full of wonderful relationships and experiences, you might find yourself quitting before you know it. Creating a rich life full of experiences will help you draw on more things from real life to help you act than you realize. There is so much to say on this tip but most of all when you can become secure in yourself you can be generous to others. Generous acting yields beautiful work.

4. Understand the whole process.

It's early in the morning and your'e still not quite awake, You get on set, someone hurriedly greets you and shuffles you off to sit in a make up chair. You get dressed and finally after hours find yourself on set where you watch people fiddle with lights and point at you while you wait nervously to hear "action". After a while you might become upset and wonder what is going on? Why are they wasting your time? Your attitude starts getting negative and before you know it - it has seeped into your performance.


It's not all about you! AND it is about you. When you study the process of production you will see that you actually are one of the last pieces put in place for the play or film you are doing. The rest of the production team has been working for months or maybe years to get this project funded, off the ground and into production. On the set the director, lighting guy, DP (Cinematographer) and sound are all working as fast as they can to get set up for the shot. Maybe they are having technical difficulties but whatever it is it isn't about you. When I started to produce my own plays and films I learned so much about the process. I learned that Casting Directors really want you to do a great job. I learned what types of things can hold up a shot as well as developed patience and grace for those on the other side of the camera. I learned what I could do as an actor to make things go smoother for everyone else - like coming to set prepared! You'd be surprised at how many actors come to set without even memorizing their lines. I would suggest taking some time out of your schedule to volunteer as a Production Assistant, watch behind the scenes of films and maybe create your own short film to learn how things work.

5. Know your casting (brand)

Acting is a business and you are an entrepreneur. You are selling a product and that product is YOU! In order for a business to do well they have to understand what is unique about what they are offering the market. They have to know who they are serving so they can reach and connect with their ideal client. If you think that you are going to appeal to everyone than you will appeal to no one. It's the same for acting - granted you are a human being and you are innately valuable and you will eventually find your tribe but in the beginning it's important to understand as best you can where you fit in the market. Ask yourself what is unique to you? Is your strength in comedy or drama? What is your onscreen age range? What socioeconomic level does the character you play best have? Are you the sexy soccer mom or the disheveled soccer mom? Are you the sweet girl next door or the crazy funny girl next door? If you can understand this then it will help you when creating your marketing materials.

6. Get your marketing materials together

As an actor your most powerful tools for marketing yourself is your headshot and when your ready, your demo reel. An actor's headshot is not a corporate headshot and it's not something that you get at the mall. It's  specific photo that shows you for who you can play best. Actor headshot photographers have a unique gift to help show your personality in your head shots. The more specific you are in step number five the easier it will be to prep for your photo session. I think this is an area where many actors struggle (myself included) so don't feel bad if it takes you a few tries to get head shots that really work. When you are looking for a photographer make sure to ask if they do head shots for actors. The only exception I've heard is for children. They change so quickly that when a child is starting out agents (in my area) don't expect super expensive head  shots. Also the style of head shots can change depending on market. LA, Atlanta and Midwest head shots will differ as well as the "types" that are more casted. In Chicago right now the real person is casted more on TV. In LA they cast more traditionally beautiful types. I am told over and over again I should go to Atlanta because I would do well there - maybe they are short on Jamindian women of a certain age? 

7. Your work ethic

As a former gymnast and woman who held down three jobs and two majors in college I thought I had a good work ethic. I had to realize early on that you don't become and actor by just hoping that someone will discover your cute self in the mall. No, honey. It takes work, from your classes, to your personal development, your health, cultivating healthy relationships, and understanding the business side - it's a lot. Recently I've committed to putting myself on tape with mock auditions and watching myself at least once a week so I can see what works and what doesn't. My goal right now is make sure what I'm doing on camera is believable. We have to get over the idea of judging how we look on camera. It's just how you look. That's it. Accept it...or spend money to change it. Either way no one else cares about the flaws you see. They want to be captivated into the world that you are making come alive with your acting. I mean thank God Barbara Streisand didn't let something like her nose stop her. In fact, we LOVE her for it! So whatever you've got, own it and WERK IT!

8. Getting an Agent

This is probably the first thing that most people talk to me about. They want to know if I have an agent and who they are. I don't really advise trying to get an agent until you have actually worked on your craft and found ways to learn about the process of theater and film by participating in student films and community or college theater. 

Once again the subject of agents is very particular to your market. In my market there are only a few agents and they generally take most people because most of us are doing it part time here. You really can be as involved as you want or just go on auditions once in a while. I tend to get a lot of auditions but I do think it's because my casting is not as common here in my market.

If you were to go to a larger market like New York or LA the competition is WAAAY more and it's harder to get an agent who actually has connections and can get you some solid auditions. I'm not an expert in these larger markets by any means - they play on a way higher level. Another way to network and meet other actors who have agents they love, is to once again get into classes and cultivate a network and then work that network. That is a skill that can be used in any market.

You can also self submit to agents by going to the SAG-AFTRA website and going to the agency's website and sending in your marketing materials and whatever else they ask for.

Casting Director Bonnie Gillespie talks about ways you can manage your own career and strategically target certain agents that will be the best match for you and for the projects they cast. Her book Self Management for Actors is a fantastic resource for actors going into larger markets especially Los Angeles.

9. Keep learning

It's important to keep learning about the business in general and the particular market that you are in. Stay up to date with what shows, films and plays are casting as well as entertainment news. Stay in acting classes as much as you can. Also take time to cultivate your hobbies and interests outside of acting to keep your life well rounded and full.

10. Have Patience

With anything in life it takes time. Even when it seems like someone is passing you by, or is an overnight success, they've probably spent a decade working on their acting career. Even if they won an Academy Award at 22 like Jennifer Lawrence you must remember that she started acting when she was a child. It takes time to not only build your craft, but also build a reputation of being a prepared professional that can be trusted on set. You also need to be able to build out your network as well. It really is about who knows you more than who you know. There are so many layers to this business that the best thing you can do is enjoy the journey and trust the process. I think I had an idea of what "success" would look like without really defining it for myself. It has caused me a lot of stress.

Recently I was feeling really stuck when it came to my acting career and finally came to a break through that really helped me reframe my thought process. I wish that someone had told me up front that just like any other business a person pursue's it just takes time. Of course there are exceptions to everything but if you really dig into the stories of successful people you'll see that a solid career takes time to build.

One last interesting thing is that you might have to grow into your best casting. For example, in my market there is not a lot of commercial work for kids. There is a lot more work for young moms. Once I reached a certain age it seemed like I started getting cast a lot in this particular role for commercials. For a long time I really didn't look like I would have any children (even though I have three) and as I got older things started to open up. Some people hit their casting in their early 20's and some do better when they are older. There are so many factors such as what look is in style, to what types of TV shows, movies, and plays are making it into production. Right now diversity is something that is very desirable when it comes to casting.

11. Create your own work

Creating your own work is a great way to get your feet wet with acting alongside the above steps. In the beginning it can be hard to get anyone to cast you because you don't have any examples of your work - and it's hard to get examples of your work if you don't get cast. Luckily we live in a day and age where you can create your own demo reels, sketches and movies.

It takes a lot of work to put together a project but if you can build a team of people who know what they are doing you can create something to get you started. Creating your own work also helps you understand the process of making a film or producing a play like mentioned earlier. It also helps you to make connections with other filmmakers and directors in your community. As I've created my own work and entered them into film festivals it's allowed me to not only show off my acting abilities but also converse with others as a fellow filmmaker rather than a desperate actor. It really was the tipping point for giving me more confidence as an artist.

If you'd like to watch one of my short films you can head over to Amazon Prime and look for Moving Still.

12. Have Fun

Lastly, I want to stress the importance of having fun. You are a creative soul and it's important that what you do remains fun and enjoyable or else, why pursue this crazy business anyway? A lot of our paid work in my market is commercials, industrials, internal training videos, print work and corporate videos. It's wonderful to be paid for my work but until I can move to a bigger market doing independent films, theater and narrative won't pay as well. However, narrative pieces are really what feed my love for what I do. 

Just like any job you do it's important to pay attention to burn out and boredom. Especially when your job is to be vulnerable. We are so connected to our work that if your heart isn't in it, your performances will surely suffer. Remember why you love acting and always follow that.

I hope that these tips helped you in figuring out how you can get started in acting.

Be Brave,