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Careers Clinic: How can middle-aged actors get work?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I’m not quite in the ‘grandparent’ casting bracket although my 18-year-old daughter delights in reminding me that I started my acting career “in the days before smartphones and the internet”.

I can’t deny that, as a middle-aged actor, there seem to be fewer parts around than there used to be. Certainly there have been fewer coming my way in the past year or two. Looking back at my drama-school days in the late 1980s, I think we were a fairly typical bunch. One or two of us have done very well and are now ‘names’. Several of us have left the business altogether and the rest are like me: working actors with the inevitable gaps in between.

I have always been an optimist so I haven’t given up all hope of that ‘late blossoming’ role still turning up. At the very least I want to stay in the working actor category for as long as I can.

That’s why I’m asking for help: in addition to being an optimist, I am also a pragmatist. I know there are a lot of actors of my age out there competing for a diminishing pool of roles so if there is anything I can do to increase my chances, please let me know.

JOHN BYRNE'S ADVICE There are essentially three ways actors can get work. The first and most common is to apply for all the suitable castings advertised. The second occurs when somebody with a role to cast seeks you or your agent out because they want to cast you in it. The third is to make your own work.

I’m going to assume that, for you – as for most actors – direct approaches are exceptions rather than the rule. The ‘creating your own work’ option is something I heartily encourage actors of every age and casting bracket to try, but that deserves its own column.

This leaves us with the more pressing current problem: given that there is a limited choice of roles for middle-aged actors, how do you maximise your chances of getting cast in the ones that are out there?

Step one is to accept that while smartphones and the internet may not have been around when you started out, they are here to stay, at least until the next technical innovation rolls around.

For this reason, the way casting directors, producers or other potential employers will first encounter you is less likely to be in person or in performance than on a computer or phone screen.

It is important to vet all of your visual marketing materials scrupulously. If you haven’t had new headshots for a while, consider getting some new ones done, and make sure the photographer’s brief is to capture the ‘now’, not recreate the ‘then’ via lighting or Photoshop.

Do an equally strict audit of the roles you are being submitted for, in consultation with your agent if you have one.

For every role the passing of time may have made harder to get, there should be at least some roles that your character lines will have opened up for you that wouldn’t have been possible before. Make sure you have the right photos and preferably at least one video clip to give you a chance of going for those roles.

And if you have used the same audition speeches for more than a few years, consider whether they need updating.

Most importantly, just because you are middle-aged doesn’t mean all of the people you network with need to be. Younger actors are usually very proactive in creating web series and other projects that require older characters, if only to rebel against. Long before you become their ‘go-to grandparent’, there is no reason why a role in one of their current projects couldn’t be a good showcase for you.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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