Trying to make it as an actor? Here’s a working actor’s guide to making your way

Actor-producer David Dean Bottrell wrote “Working Actor: Breaking In, Making a Living, and Making a Life in the Fabulous Trenches of Show Business.”
(Albert L. Ortega / Getty Images)

It’s been said that you should pursue acting only if there’s absolutely nothing else you’re as passionate about doing. That’s how famously tough a road to success the profession can be. But what kind of authentic, direct-from-the-battlefield guidance exists out there for those who choose to take the plunge? Or better yet, for someone who’s still in the consideration stage?

For the aspiring actor, there has been no shortage of “how-to” books on mastering the craft and process of acting. These include such time-honored tomes as “Audition” by casting director-playwright Michael Shurtleff; “Sanford Meisner on Acting” by the revered actor-teacher; and “An Actor Prepares” by Russian actor, director and Moscow Art Theater co-founder Konstantin Stanislavsky.

In shorter supply, however, are books that provide firsthand counsel on how to physically, emotionally and financially survive the acting life — no mean feat in an industry that can be as elusive and heartbreaking as it is exhilarating and rewarding. Three recent books by working actors fill that void with practical, hands-on advice on how to negotiate this often brutal terrain.


David Dean Bottrell, who’s been a professional actor and writer for more than 35 years, decided to weave a lifetime’s worth of experience navigating the slings and arrows of the acting game into a compilation of personal stories and pragmatic lessons to enlighten, encourage and forewarn both the novice and more advanced performer.

The result is the book “Working Actor: Breaking In, Making a Living, and Making a Life in the Fabulous Trenches of Show Business,” published this year by Ten Speed Press. It breaks down, in witty, candid and compact chapters, a kind of start to finish-line approach to handling everything from auditions, agents, classes and networking to self-promotion, self-preservation and self-esteem.

The Kentucky-born author, whose original, more puckish title for the book was “Overnight Sensation: How to be Moderately Successful in Show Business in Just 35 Short Years,” admits he leapt into the entertainment industry at a young age “without having any idea” what he was getting himself into.

“Looking back, I wish I’d had this particular sort of a guide so I’d have known what to realistically expect,” Bottrell said recently by phone from his west side Manhattan apartment.

Bottrell, who is perhaps best known to TV audiences for his recurring role as the creepy Lincoln Meyer on ABC’s “Boston Legal,” as well as for appearances on “Mad Men” “True Blood” and “Modern Family,” divided “Working Actor” into three essential parts. “I think of these as ‘finding the door, opening the door and keeping the door open,’” Bottrell said. “These phases mirror everybody’s career … and are always going to be a challenge.”

To that end, the actor-writer considers his book “largely about the long haul of being an artist. How you figure out who you are, how to sell that to the industry and how to keep interested and happy in your career as the years go by.”

Not only does Bottrell’s tome draw from his own varied, inventive, sometimes reinventive career — which has included acting and writing for stage and film, (he co-scripted the 2001 feature comedy “Kingdom Come” with Jessie Jones, based on their off-Broadway play “Dearly Departed”), performing in one-man shows and revues as well as teaching — but also offers input from a wide range of his most accomplished industry friends and colleagues.

These contributors, quoted anonymously “so they could speak freely about their experience,” pithily answer such vital questions as: What were some of the jobs you did to pay the bills? What are some of the ways that you’ve learned to take care of yourself? and What’s the best and worst thing about show business?

“It’s a very personal thing to be a performing artist, so everybody’s viewpoint on it is going to be very different,” Bottrell said. “I got very interesting responses: some were very blunt, some were very kind and encouraging, some were surprisingly bitter. But mostly, they were incredibly truthful, for which I’m very, very grateful.”

Actress Robin Riker, who also drew from her extensive career on stage and screen to write the 2013 book “A Survivor’s Guide to Hollywood: How to Play the Game Without Losing Your Soul,” concurs that it takes “tremendous fortitude” to stay afloat in show business but encourages her readers to never give up on their greatest hopes and ambitions. So much so that each of her amusing, insightful chapters addresses a different aspect of pursuing one’s dreams — whatever they may be — while, at the same time, offering plenty of takeaways “from the trenches” that are both practical and cautionary.

It’s the kind of advice Riker says she could have benefited from at the start and, in sharing it, hoped would help shorten the learning curve for others. “Hollywood is such a seductress,” she said. “There are dangers out there that can be avoided if you know about them and, at the same time, ways to multiply your good fortune and opportunities when they arise.”

Riker, who’s been a regular on such TV series as “Brothers,” “Get a Life” and “The Gregory Hines Show,” plus has recurred on “Boston Legal,” “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “General Hospital,” hopes that handbooks like hers give aspirants “a sense that they have power over their lives and the way they live them.”

“For example, comparisons to other people’s lives and careers are meaningless and can be a sort of spiritual poison that prevents you from being your best self,” Riker said. “We should be kind and on the lookout for examples of good luck and appreciate them when found. As I say in my book: ‘Your state of mind is the most important tool you have in this town.’”

Bottrell can’t disagree. “I truly believe that the greatest source of unhappiness in the entertainment industry is comparison,” he said. “Everyone’s path in this is completely unique. You can’t really measure it by anybody else’s achievements or checking account.”

Jenna Fischer wrote “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide."
(Amanda Edwards / Getty Images)

Another actor who wrote a nuts-and-bolts support manual to her profession is Emmy nominee Jenna Fischer, who, coincidentally, portrayed a budding artist on NBC’s long-running “The Office” and plays one of sorts again on the current ABC sitcom “Splitting Up Together.” Her book, “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide,” was published in 2017.

Like Bottrell and Riker, St. Louis native Fischer brings wry humor and everyperson warmth to her I-was-there tales that trace her ascent from obscure cast member in high school plays to bona fide TV star — and the many struggles and doubts in between.

Also echoing the other authors, Fischer wishes she’d had a book like hers when she began her acting journey. “I had been to theater school and studied acting technique. But nowhere in my schooling did they teach me about the business side of things or about business strategy,” Fischer said via email. “I wanted to bridge that gap with this book.”

One of Fischer’s key “strategic” points involves being patient and not getting out over one’s skis.

“I think actors start looking for an agent before they are ready,” she said. “I made this mistake. I lay out [in the book] the many accomplishments you should have under your belt before you look for representation. [That] means having some experience, being in the Screen Actors Guild union and having great head shots. Without those three things, an agent is useless.”

In the end, perhaps these survival guides’ most significant role is their capacity to make actors feel less alienated and more confident about what can often seem a Sisyphean endeavor.

“I hope they [readers] will feel a sense of community,” Fischer said. “I hope they will know that while they might feel confused or alone or frustrated or powerless, they aren’t doing anything wrong. We all feel that way. And it never really goes away. That is simply the life of an artist. But it is a great life worth living.”