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Careers Clinic: How important is ‘who you know’ to get an acting job?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher

Although acting has always been my first love, life and family priorities took my career in a different direction and it is only in the past five years that I have been able to devote my full-time energy to acting work.

I spent the first two of those years back in training as I wanted to start off from the best foundation. I also have the advantage of being able to work flexibly in my day job so I still have income coming in. This has enabled me to invest in decent headshots and some good showreel scenes. Although I haven’t had any big castings yet, I have had good small parts in various shorts and profit-share shows.

I remain very enthusiastic about the future, although I have been quite surprised about how cynical some of my fellow actors are, even the younger ones. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is the kind of thing I hear all the time, often in a tone of voice that suggests I’m wasting my time hoping for better parts.

Be honest, John – do you think that really is the case?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE In this industry, it is absolutely and categorically all about who you know. Fortunately, if you are among the majority of us who don’t ‘know’ anybody, this rule doesn’t just work in the way many assume.

To deal with traditional interpretation first, I don’t think there is any industry where having family connections or being friends with the right people won’t open more doors than the rest of us have access to. Once you are through those doors, it is the quality of job you do that will normally decide whether you get to use them any further. If you don’t deliver consistently, people in power – whether they know you or not – will start to avoid rather than cast you, because ultimately recommendations that don’t work out tend to have as adverse an effect on the status of the recommender as the person who messes up.

Sometimes I have seen the ‘who you know’ card work in exactly the opposite way that the person playing it expects from the outset of a project. If a show is highly personal to the producer (or very important in terms of his or her career) they can often be quite adverse to inviting people they know personally to audition, even if they might suit a role, because if somebody else suits it better, it is doubly awkward to have to tell a mate they haven’t made the grade.

Are there ways the less well-connected actor can leverage the power of ‘who you know’ in their favour? Social media has given us the ability to get to know a lot of the movers and shakers in the industry a lot more easily than once was the case. It could be argued that actually all you get to know is the image a person wants to present of themselves, but even that can be useful when working out how to connect. It goes without saying (I hope) that stalking somebody online and flooding their timeline with sycophantic comments is just as counterproductive as it would be in real life, but keeping an eye on the social media of movers and shakers can yield useful information not only about what projects somebody is working on but what is important to them about those projects. This can help when a legitimate opportunity to pitch yourself occurs.

Which leads me to the most important ‘who you know’: knowing yourself. Before you fit into anyone else’s project, you need to be self aware as an actor, not just in terms of what you have to offer, but also which skills you might need to polish up so that the people you would like to know, would like to know more about you, too.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk [1] or @dearjohnbyrne [2]