Agencies already have a full roster of clients from the moment they open their doors or soon thereafter. They aren’t “looking” for new young faces unless they’re short of a particular type, age range, nationality, or other unique quality. The other reason they may offer representation is if you are “highly marketable” having already booked paying work—network commercials or roles on primetime series. Otherwise you need to market yourself and get experience—showcases, Off-Off-Broadway plays or indie/student films. Self-submit online to Actor’s Access, Backstage, N.Y. or L.A. Casting. It’s not the highest level work, but it’ll teach you how to audition, compete, and book! When you have some credits under your belt, then contact agents.
Interning is a good idea if you want to learn casting or even producing, and to see how the casting process works. You might even get an audition or small role from a grateful CD, but generally it’s not how you build an acting career. Meeting and showing your work to the industry is. Stay in touch with postcards or email campaigns letting them know your development—jobs you book, new training or marketing tools, headshot, and demo reel. They may remember you for that perfect role and call you in later.
There are a slew of jobs that are non-union. It’s probably a good idea to go for those and get the experience first as most agents won’t be able to get you in the door without being union. Non-union commercials won’t pay you residuals or take out deductions for health, welfare, and pension funds but if you learn how to book and develop your own style – then, when you do join the union, you’ll be more successful competing with the already working union actors. Being an extra a few times on a film or prime time set will teach you how TV shows and major films actually work. Use the experience to observe as well as possibly being upgraded (a small speaking role) to become SAG-AFTRA eligible.
One of the biggest mistakes young actors (or those coming back to the business) make is getting a “generic” headshot—a blank smile, wearing your comfortable blue jeans or a hoody—instead of pointing out your most marketable roles. Since most casting is done online—CDs will look at dozens of thumbnails and select (quickly) the few actors who look the part—the lawyer, the criminal, the sexy mom, etc. If you have a generic headshot you may not be chosen. Be specific for the three main roles you’ll consistently play; dress the part as well as showing your personality.
The most professional format for résumés is three columns; easy to read in five seconds and tells an agent or CD your strongest training and credits. Avoid long, across the page lists of five teachers. Choose one line, one subject, one teacher. Include the size of the role for film and TV (not necessary for theater): starring, co-starring, supporting, featured, or recurring. Although some industry pros still use the phrase “lead” or “principal,” by saying the above five options, it is clearer what size role you actually had. Skills should include sports and activities, dialects and languages. These can actually help get you cast. Don’t include print work or commercials. (Use a separate card to list those.)
Obviously, when starting out you won’t have a lot of film clips from a-list movies or primetime series, but with a good editor you can take a few student or indie clips and present yourself professionally. Or better, pay a company to write and shoot a few sizzle scenes. Keep the final reel short—1–2 minutes with tiny 4–8 second “moments” edited together showing three things: how you appear on camera, what roles you can play, and the level of your talent.
It’s not really competitive to show a videotaped monologue or scene with an off-camera “reader,” but it’s acceptable as an emergency measure if a producer or CD needs to see your work within a few hours notice.
To most people in the entertainment world, "professional" performer means "union" performer. The minimum in wages and working conditions that union members today take for granted, are the results of hard-won battles fought by earlier generations of performers, bringing the profession from adoption of the first minimum wage in the 1930s to today's digital age. Because of the struggles and commitment of these pioneers, as well as the ongoing vigilance of today's performers' unions, professional union actors can expect fair and equitable treatment in auditions, wages, working conditions and benefits.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend any franchised agent over another. Some of the franchised agents that you may find on the Web also handle modeling and print work. You'll need to check those details for yourself.
There is no simple answer for how to break into the world of acting. Typically, performers take acting classes or study theater in school. Beginning actors often work in non-union background and principal roles in the early stages of their careers, as they get experience and build up a resume. Unions’ interaction with performers begins after they have achieved professional status and are ready to join the Union.
Commercials are a great career starter. They don’t require serious theater training; it’s more of a “look” or a specific type. You can learn on-camera technique at each audition as well as make money (residuals!) while waiting for that brilliant film or Broadway role. You just need a polished, camera-ready look; a good smile, neat hair, good skin. And wear vibrant colors and be very natural and “energized” in your audition.