Interview with a ...
Character actor

| February 2017

BLS Fast Facts: Actors. 2014 employment: 69,400. 2014–24 projected growth: 10% (faster than average). Typical entry-level education and training: Some college, no degree; long-term on-the-job training. 2014 employment distribution: Motion picture and video industries (43.5%); self-employed (18.3); performing arts companies (13.2); theater companies and dinner theaters (12.9); other (12.1). May 2015 median hourly wage: $18.80 (higher than the $17.40 median hourly wage for all workers)

Learn more about this occupation in the Occupational Outlook Handbook.  

Jeronimo Spinx            Atlanta, Georgia

What do you do?

I’m a character actor, someone who’s usually not the main focus of the story. I work mostly in TV and film now, but theater is where I started. In any of my roles, my job is about storytelling.

In my first couple of gigs, I played a homeless man. Whatever your first character is, you often end up playing that type of character until you find a way to break out of it—or not. Some actors end up playing the same type of character their whole career. Most recently, I played a detective in a movie. So now I audition for a lot of police, EMT [emergency medical technician], and detective characters. It beats always playing the homeless guy!

How do you get acting jobs?

It starts with an audition for a role. During casting, you come in to read a line or lines, but the casting people also want to see what kind of person you are. Are you someone who gets along with others? Are you open to direction? Are you reliable? You’ve got to be able to work well with other actors and with the crew.

Your audition is usually taped, and the casting folks give their impression of you to the production team. Then you hope for the call that you got the part.

What happens after you’re hired for a role?

You get the full script to read. Even if you just have one line, they want you to read the whole thing to get the flow and the background so that your line makes sense. Then they’ll send you and your agents the contracts, schedule you for a wardrobe fitting, and email you a roster of the days and locations you’re due on set.

Describe a typical day on the set.

It varies, depending on whether your scene or scenes need daylight. For example, your day may start at the crack of dawn and last until 6 p.m. or later, because the production team wants to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. When that's the case, I’m usually up by 5:30 a.m., even though I may not be in front of the camera until around 3 hours later. But I also have shot scenes that required me to work from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., especially if a location can only be used at night or after hours, such as a train station or office building.  

When I arrive at work on set or at the studio, I check in and go to my trailer, where I change into my wardrobe. Then I go to hair and makeup. After that, I’ll walk onto the set and meet with the director. The cinematographer might talk to me about the scene: “This is what we’re aiming for; this is how the scene is set up.” There are tons of people getting everything lined up. About 75 percent of the time spent on the set is waiting for them to arrange things. Only 25 percent involves actually acting.

Finally, all the actors get to our starting marks, and we’ll shoot the same scene in several different sequences to cover everything. For example, we’ll do the scene with the camera facing me, then maybe flip it around so you see the other actor’s reaction, then do a wide shot. In editing, they decide which shots to use.

How did you get into acting?

I'd always had a love for movies and TV shows as a kid, but I’d never thought of it as a career option because my hometown had no substantial TV filming community. I started out as a corpsman in the Navy, and then I worked as a physical therapy tech for many years while I pursued acting on the side.

As a corpsman, I went on runs with the EMTs. On my very first run, a woman was having difficulty breathing. We got her to the hospital, but she had a pulmonary embolism and didn’t make it. She was only 30. It hit me that day that life is short, and I should do what I like because none of us knows how much time we have.

After getting out of the Navy, I started acting in theater in the bay area of California. I loved it! But I’d only had that one gig, so I worked in physical therapy as my day job, then ran to play rehearsals in the evenings and performed on weekends. Once I felt like I knew what I was doing, I moved to L.A. to continue stage acting and eventually got into student films, which led to my first TV role.

What kind of preparation is useful for actors?

Working with an acting coach, taking an acting class, or even working on scenes with other actors. In a play, you have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have time to build up to a particular moment. But in film, they shoot scenes out of sequence. You have to learn to be in that moment, learn how to emote on cue. Acting classes help you learn how to connect with a character and how to memorize lines. 

You might need other skills, depending on what you specialize in. If you’re going to be in a Western where you’ll be riding horses, you don’t want to wait until you get the job to get on a horse—that'll get you fired! For a character I shot recently, one who did lots of physical activity, I made sure to stay fairly physically fit. I stretched and did exercises in my room because I figured that’s what my character does. He doesn’t just get out of bed and go; first, he gets his mind and body right.

What do you like most about being an actor?

I get to be creative. I’m not stuck in a cubicle. I get to show up for work in different locations that vary with the job. And I like the fact that it’s different from the “normal” worklife.

What do you like the least?

The uncertainty of the finances is a constant struggle. Only a handful of actors have steady work that lasts 20 years. Every job is temporary; you’re basically a temp for your entire acting career. Even when I’m on set, I’m always thinking about the next gig because I have to keep looking for my next paycheck.

Having said that, though, being an actor is not about the money. For me, it’s more about getting to be creative.

Any surprises along the way?

For my very first TV appearance, when I auditioned for a role as an EMT, I said one word and repeated it. That was the audition. But after they looked at my demo reel and liked what they saw, I got bumped up to a bigger role without auditioning for it. I ended up working 4 days instead of just the half day in the role I’d auditioned for.

And just recently, after my second day shooting an episode, they asked me to come back to shoot another episode. Usually, I have to wait a year. Booking two episodes back to back is a first for me.

What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

Study, study, study! Do your research. Take notes. Learn and know the craft. If this is something you decide you’re going to do, you have to know that it's for life. You have to take the time to really understand the industry.

Always give 100 percent, and don’t bother acting until you’re ready to give it everything you’ve got. There are people who will have memorized the whole script. There will be people who come in with all their game. Nobody has time for someone who’s only going to bring a percentage, who's only in it for fame. This is not an industry for the faint hearted.

Domingo Angeles is an economist in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS. He can be reached at (202) 691-5475 or angeles.domingo@bls.gov.

Suggested citation:

Domingo Angeles, "Character actor," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 2017.

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            Jeronimo Spinx