What Does an Actor Do?

Everyone knows what actors do: they use their voices and bodies to tell stories. One of the world's oldest professions, acting is in many ways a unique vocation, the core of which stays the same whether an actor is performing onstage with a theater company, lending their voice to a video game or animation, or recording an advertisement. Actors embody, entertain, and, well, act. They get up on stage, before the camera, or behind the microphone and put on a performance that engages, entertains, incites, and affects their audience.

There is an exceptional range of experiences and opportunities available to professional actors.

That having been said, today's actor does much more than just perform. Reading and interpreting scripts, memorizing complex lines and movements, rehearsing for hours on end, perfecting warm-up and cool-down routines, and auditioning again and again are all part of an actor's work. Additionally, extra work is often required anytime an actor takes on a particularly difficult role; this could mean anything from developing a specific accent or movement style to undertaking intense physical, vocal, emotional, or holistic training. As any actor knows, the preparatory work and the performance are not separate—they are two parts of the same process.

People in the Field

Maurice Emanuel Parent

Name:

Maurice Emanuel
Parent
Position: 
Actor; Dancer; Singer; Educator

Actor at a Glance

Career Path

Actors come from a great variety of backgrounds, work in a number of distinct industries, and develop their craft in different ways—which is all to say that there's far more than a single career path for an actor. Many are self-taught, while others have certificates, BAs, BFAs, or master's degrees, the latter of which enables them to work as drama teachers at a university level. Still, most begin working professionally in their early 20s, at which point they're unlikely to support themselves on acting work alone. Beginning actors might supplement their acting income by working administrative or technical positions within their industry, or by teaching children.

Acting work tends to follow a fairly steady cycle—go out for auditions, land a part, prepare, perform, and repeat—and each successful gig contributes to a young actor's résumé, reputation, and professional network, enabling the actor to audition for better parts, work with higher profile directors, and negotiate higher pay. At a certain point in their careers, actors often partner with an agent in order to get access to high-profile gigs. Actors might go on to become directors, producers, playwrights, or drama therapists.

Finding Work

The word acting tends to conjure specific images in the mind of an outsider: usually, a star performer on stage or screen. In truth, there is an exceptional range of experiences and opportunities available to professional actors. Actors work on films, television shows, advertisements, plays, musicals, radio pieces, puppet shows, and video games. They might perform in comedy and improv shows, or participate in interdisciplinary artistic collaborations. In addition to entertainment work, they might also appear in informational or instructional videos, skits, and demonstrations. Although the film and stage industries are centered around New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, actors work in cities throughout the country.

When it comes to finding work as an actor, auditioning is the name of the game. Although it can be frustrating to continually prove one's ability to producers and casting directors, it is a fundamental aspect of the career for all but the top performers. Of course, networking can make the audition process easier, and actors who develop the skills and connections to produce their own projects may be able to avoid auditioning entirely.

Professional Skills
  • Memorization (text and movement)
  • Auditioning (monologues)
  • Research
  • Performance
  • Collaboration
  • Time management
  • Dance
  • Singing
  • Specific acting pedagogies or techniques (e.g. Stanislavsky, Meisner, American method, Alexander)
Interpersonal Skills

Although acting is often described as a fiercely competitive profession, it is also a deeply collaborative one. Actors should strive to be professional, respectful, and flexible throughout the rehearsal process; this includes being prompt and prepared for rehearsal. A reputation for inflexibility or unprofessional behavior can seriously affect an actor's career. Additionally, the best actors are as committed to their job offstage as they are onstage. They practice and research their role with dedication, and do whatever they can to support fellow actors in their processes. Additionally, this is a field in which professional networking is exceptionally beneficial; an outgoing or friendly personality and willingness to put oneself out there at parties and other events can be very helpful.

Work Life

Generally speaking, actors' work lives follow a cycle: audition, get a part, prepare, perform, and repeat. As they work on productions, all but the most successful actors tend to hold down one or more other jobs. In almost every major acting industry, the job means working long hours and late nights. Stage actors are generally called in the evening to avoid conflicts with day jobs, while film actors may be called for 12 hours or more. Working in the film industry often necessitates travel, whereas stage actors generally only travel if relocating to another city in order to participate in a specific production or touring.