TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Being a Freelance Actor (for Australian actors)

Article #7 in “The Business of Acting” series.

Firstly, what is a “Freelance Actor”?

Basically, this means an actor without representation – i.e. an actor who does not have an agent.

Before I really start, let’s quash three of the myths around freelancers:

Myth No. 1
“Being a freelancer as an actor means you’re not good enough to have an agent”

FALSE

Many actors I know have in the past or are currently freelancing. I can think of three right now who are currently working full time in Australian television as lead characters in major series who don’t have an agent. I can think of another two who landed lead roles in film while they were freelancers. And several other actors, who work consistently in the industry, putting in strong and creative performances every time, who are all freelancers. And I was also a freelancer for a couple of years, and still managed to get paid work as an actor. In fact, I landed my first major UK credit in a BBC mini-series as a freelancer.

So, really, whether you have an agent or not – it has nothing to do with whether you can do the job.

Myth No. 2
“Actors who freelance are just part-timers and don’t take their career seriously”

FALSE

Being a freelancer means that you have to work twice as hard on your career as an actor who has an agent. As a freelancer, you’re totally on your own. You don’t have an agent accepting briefs from casting directors and then submitting you for the roles – you have to find out what’s casting and who’s casting and submit yourself. You don’t have an agent to look over your headshots and help you make a decision, or guiding you on what credits to include on your CV and what to discard – you have to use your own judgement. You don’t have an agent supporting you in your career ambitions and behaving like a sounding board – you need to find someone else who has the industry experience to help out, or rely on your own resources … see what I mean?

That’s not to say that you won’t be able to find experienced people to turn to when making decisions about your career, but you will not have a built-in, one-stop-shop (i.e. an agent) to help you achieve your acting goals. You have to learn to be self-sufficient, innovative, self-reliant, organised, do lots of research about the industry and, above all, be completely committed to your career.

Really, you should be organised, innovative, do lots of research about the industry and be committed to your career, even if you have an agent (as discussed in this article), but you have to be doubly so as a freelancer if you want to succeed in gaining work.

Myth No. 3
“Casting Directors won’t see freelance actors for auditions”

FALSE

After a quick phone around to the Melbourne Casting Directors working in film and television (and a couple of Sydney ones), the general consensus is that freelance actors are welcome to send in their CV’s and headshots – just like any represented actor does. There is no distinction between whether you are freelancing or not.

To quote one Casting Director “We need to know who’s out there for work and there are many actors working in the industry who don’t have agents. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t accept submissions from freelance actors”.

I also put in a call to a couple of the professional theatre companies to ask the same question. They cast slightly differently (usually through general audition rounds at a certain time of year), but again, do not differentiate between freelance and represented. ALL actors, no matter whether they have an agent or not, are welcome to submit for the general audition rounds. Most professional theatre companies have their own websites, so to find out how to submit to them, Google the company’s name, visit their sites and then follow their submission instructions.

So, now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to tin tacks.

The following advice can be utilised by represented actors as well as those who do not have agents.

YOU ARE A BUSINESS

Yes, it’s true – as an actor, you are not just a creative, you are a business. Ergo, you are a business person – whether you are a freelancer or a represented actor. Be professional, be organised and be committed to your business.

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Start building an industry library. If I look up to my shelves here in the office I can see a copy of the Encore Directory, my file containing my research on independent producers and directors, several books to do with the craft of acting including Stella Adler, Cicely Berry, Peter Brook and Dean Carey, a whole shelf of plays by various known and lesser known playwrights, the current editions of IF Magazine, Encore Magazine and Empire magazine, a copy of the current Contacts (UK entertainment directory), several DVD’s that I’m yet to watch that feature actors or directors I want to know more about (I tend to watch about four DVD’s a week on average) and several autobiographies of actors I admire (David Niven’s “The Moon is a Balloon” is a particular favourite!).

Now, that’s just one bookcase – I have four in my office, plus two filing cabinets. And that’s not counting the amount of information and material I have on my computer to do with my business as an actor (several e-books and my own research on production companies, directors and my contact lists of casting directors, etc).

If you intend to be successful in this business, educate yourself about this business. Find out who’s producing what, who’s directing what, read as much as you can about the business and watch as many films (including the “making of” featurettes) as you can. Watch as much Australian television as you can as well – it helps to know the names of current directors and producers. Keep up to date contact lists and keep a tab on the rumour sites about the biz, such as darkhorizons.com and aintitcool.com. While both those sites are very US based, with the amount of US productions coming out to Australia, it doesn’t hurt to keep up with what’s rumoured to be going into production over there.

You’ll also find lists of Casting Directors online. A good place to start is rehearsalroom.com – just go to “The Working Actor” link. To find contact info for directors and producers, I’d recommend getting one of the Australian Entertainment industry directories – Encore (http://www.encoremagazine.com.au/) or The Production Book (http://www.productionbook.com.au/) – both are subscriber online services, or you can buy the books.

Ultimately – a well-informed business person is a successful business person.

KEEP YOUR SKILLS SHARP

Do workshops and courses to do with the acting craft as regularly as you can afford. It’s a great way to keep your skills sharp and learn new ones, as well as network with fellow actors. Pick your courses carefully, speak to other actors to find out which teachers they recommend, go to any information nights teacher’s offer about their classes and if they offer a free class, then do it to see if it’s the sort of thing you’d like to attend. Some teachers offer prospective students the chance to observe a class before signing up – ask if that’s possible.

HAVE YOUR PROMOTIONAL MATERIALS UP-TO-DATE

Every business needs business cards, as should you, and every actor should have their headshot not only as a 10×8, but also as a postcard. You should also have a website (For suggestions on building a website, see previous article: TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Your Website).

Business cards should have your name, contact phone number and postal address (get a post office box, if you don’t have one already). Also include your email address and website. Some actors also include a small photo, which helps people remember what you look like as well.

Always have your business cards on you – in your handbag or filofax or whatever – ready to hand out if you meet someone in the biz that wants to know how to contact you. Have postcards (which also include your contact info under your photo) in your acting asenal to keep Casting Directors informed of what you’re up to (more on that later). And have a website – not only is it a good way to showcase yourself generally (you can put up a photo gallery, showreel, full CV, biography, etc), you can point casting directors, producers and directors to it when submitting for work to give them more information about you and your previous work.

DO SHORT FILMS, STUDENT FILMS AND PROFIT-SHARE THEATRE

Apart from adding credits to your CV, it’s a great way to network and meet other actors and emerging directors and producers. You may not get paid for this work, but it is also a good arena to build your screen experience. The Tropfest Film Festival generates a lot of short films in the lead up, so sign up to their website, where auditions begin to be posted by filmmakers around July/August (or when the Tropfest signature item is announced) – http://www.tropinc.com/. Other free sites that list short/student film auditions year ’round are filmnet.org.au and rehearsalroom.com, which also lists theatre auditions – http://www.rehearsalroom.com/auditions/audbase.htm.

Paid audition services are many and varied, but I always recommend ArtsHub.com.au, as it also lists “day” jobs for actors, as well as some auditions.

KEEP CASTING DIRECTORS INFORMED

ALWAYS TYPE YOUR CV AND COVER LETTER when sending them to Casting Directors. Sounds simple, but the amount of illegible hand-written material that still crosses Casting Director’s desks and usually ends up in the bin, is just astounding. (For suggestions on CV writing for actors, see previous article TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Your CV). Also – do not write to them on scraps of lined notepaper, fill the envelope with heart-shaped glitter or write with a silver pen, amongst other things. Think I’m joking? These methods have actually been employed by some actors and only serve to annoy the Casting Director receiving them.

Both theatre and film and television Casting Directors said the same thing during my quick calls to them – send them your CV and headshot, by all means, but please do not send in your headshot and CV to them unsolicited more than once very six months (once a year for theatre companies). The exceptions to this rule are when you have a new headshot or a substantial (i.e. five or more) amount of new credits on your CV.

However, all Casting Directors I spoke to (both stage and screen) said that they liked to know what actors were doing, so when you have a theatre production you’re appearing in, let them know by sending them a flyer for the show or a postcard with the details of the production. Put a note on the back of the flyer, letting them know that a complimentary ticket is available to see the show, but do not expect a reply or even that they will be able to attend.

This may sound a bit harsh, but when you take into consideration the amount of plays actors do in a co-op or profit share capacity a year (I once did six of them in twelve months), then multiply that by the amount of actors working in the business, you’ll see how many shows Casting Directors are asked to see and how it would be physically impossible for them to see every show they were asked to. Be content with the knowledge that by just sending them a flyer, you’re putting your name back in front of them and they know that you’re working. If they come to see the show, that’s a big bonus.

Also, let Casting Directors know when you’ve landed a role in television or in a professional feature film – just a simple note with the date and time the episode will be airing or when the film will be released. Let them know if a short film you’ve done has won an award or will be screening to the public. Don’t get verbose, just a couple of lines, including the details of the film/play/TV show on the back of a postcard will do.

I did have a few Casting Directors say that they prefer actors email them with updates. It’s a little hard to tell who prefers email to notes or postcards – I’d suggest looking up the various Casting Agents via Google to find out if they have a website and then have a look at their actor submission guidelines.

The one thing that all Casting Directors said was PLEASE keep them informed about any change in your contact information if you’re freelancing. If you change your contact phone number, just drop them a line to let them know. Same with your email address. You’d be surprised, but this is the one issue Casting Directors have with freelancers – out of date contact information. The amount of actors who’ve lost out on auditions because they didn’t let the Casting people know that they’d changed their phone number is truly heartbreaking.

BE PROFESSIONAL IN ALL YOUR DEALINGS

You are a business. Have I made that clear enough? And as a business you are only as good as your product – you. You are also judged by your product and customer service – again, you. Always be professional in all your dealings with everyone. From the assistant to the Executive Producer – treat everyone with respect and as one professional to another. Always present yourself as a professional – from the way you package your CV and headshot to your meeting with Casting Directors and actually working on set. If you are not professional, you won’t be seen as such and you won’t get work.

CONCLUSION

Sadly, I’ve realised that there’s too much about freelancing to include in one article. That said, I’ve tried to cover as much as I can about this aspect of being an actor in this short forum.

A lot of it is common business sense. Some of it is specific to this industry. All of it is doable. Being a freelance actor isn’t an easy road, but it can be a successful one – if you remember to treat yourself as a business and are prepared to put in the extra time, effort and work.

Article Copyright © S. McLean 2007

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8 thoughts on “TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Being a Freelance Actor (for Australian actors)

  1. Thank you so much for an in depth and and work ethics of freelance acting and tools of the trade. Much appreiced and most helpful
    Kind regards
    Rod

  2. This was really helpful! But I’m still a little bit overwhelmed and confused about where to go from here. I would love to get some more info on this from you and get some guidance. I’m only young and have just started Freelancing. Would I be able to contact you somehow I would very much appreciate it! My website is http://www.georgie-delaine.wix.com/actress Please have a look and contact me I would be very much appreciative!

    1. Hey Georgie! I know you posted this before we made contact elsewhere, but just wanted to say that I hope things are going great for you now and that my advice was helpful. Thanks for making contact!

      Cheers and all good things,

      Sally

  3. Hi Sally:-)
    I am a Freelance Actor-very new at this. Thank you sincerely for your guidance much appreciated. Working on my first Actor’s Business Cards just had my professional Head Shots done. I’m stuck on what to put on the back of my business card as I’ve only done 2 short Australian films (1 Tropfest and 1 Australian Featured Film) and 2 TV Commercials. I don’t have a website there’s not much too add to it yet.
    Can some one please advise me on what to put on the back of my business card much appreciated.

    Eve Yvette-Louise

    1. Hi Eve, sorry for the delay in responding! So glad you found the article useful. As far as your business cards go, you could simply put a photo, or a favourite quote (attributed to the person who said it) or just leave it blank. After all, sometimes the best way to pass your card onto someone is to write on the back of it a good book you recommend or a movie you think they should see – so leaving the back blank can serve you as well. I’m sure you’ve probably already got your cards done by now, but if you do a second lot and still don’t have your website, then this is what I’d suggest. I hope that helps and thanks for your comment!

      Cheers and all good things,

      Sally

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