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It’s never too late to pursue acting. What to consider as you pivot to Hollywood

Illustration shows a teacher leaving a classroom to pursue a Hollywood dream.
Use your life experience — say, as a teacher or lawyer — to help you land roles early on, an acting coach suggests.
(Juliette Toma / For The Times)

Angela White remembers being the type of kid who enthusiastically assembled her family in the living room so she could perform a skit or dance.

“I was always dancing,” White said. “You know, I thought I’d be Janet Jackson’s backup dancer. That was always the dream.”

But when she moved to West Covina from Compton in the seventh grade, she became the only Black girl in her class. By the time she got to high school, she didn’t feel welcome to perform in drama productions. She worked backstage instead and eventually majored in theater and communications in college, but she ended up being a kindergarten and first grade teacher until her early 40s.

“I would read [to the kids], and I had all kinds of voices for the characters,” she said.

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In 2018, she decided to give herself the chance to follow her passion. White has since landed two ads — for a diabetes medication and the massage tool Theragun — that you might have seen during a commercial break on Hulu.

Shannon Sturges — a teacher, coach and co-owner of Speiser/Sturges Acting Studio — said a 25-year-old once told her he was too old to begin his acting career.

That’s not true, she said.

People start their acting careers later in life for all sorts of reasons, she said. They may get distracted by life challenges. They may be afraid of putting themselves out there. They may be dissuaded to pursue acting by friends.

“It seems like such as pie-in-the-sky thing to want to be an actor,” Sturges said.

But there are always older characters in commercials, films and television shows — and a need for older people to play them.

If you want to switch careers and pursue acting, you’ll need to invest in the time to practice your craft and identify your brand. You’ll also need the tenacity to stick with constant auditioning and the rejection that comes with it. The Times spoke with Sturges and two of her students, White and actor Ross Bridgman, to get their advice on how to start.

Enroll in an acting or technique class

Bridgman, who is in his 70s, was a practicing lawyer in Ohio for more than 40 years, so he knows how to command the attention of a room.

He said that when he was a “younger guy, like a lot younger,” he did musical theater. But he didn’t pursue it as a career because he fell in love and wanted to have financial stability for his future family.

As a hobby, he continued performing in productions such as “Oliver!” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Camelot.” He also joined a symphony chorus.

Four years after retiring in 2014, Bridgman enrolled in the Speiser/Sturges Acting Studio. After three days of technique classes, he realized he had serious work to do.

“All sorts of things were going through my mind, but the one thing that was absolutely clear is: I needed to spend time on my acting chops,” he said.

Eventually, you’ll need to get headshots, go to casting calls or find a talent agent, but it was the practice, Bridgmen said, that has helped him land roles since.

Guidance is crucial to starting a career in entertainment, and at some point you’ll need an agent. How and where can you find one who gets you?

Understand your strengths

As in any industry, it’s easier to have an earlier start. But some actors who’ve been in the industry their whole lives can get in a bubble, Sturges said; having other life experiences can work in your favor.

She recommends capitalizing on those experiences to help brand yourself and set yourself apart. If you were a lawyer, in the medical field or in the military, make that known on your resume. Bridgman has landed roles playing lawyers.

Also, some actors who started earlier in life can become jaded after being in the industry for a while, Sturges said. Maybe they didn’t reach the level of fame they wanted or don’t feel they should have to audition like everyone else for certain roles. That leaves more opportunity for someone with more energy who is just starting out later in life, Sturges said.

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Don’t quit your day job, unless you can

One of the benefits of starting acting later in life may be that you have been able to achieve some financial stability in your previous career.

Bridgman still lives in Ohio. When necessary, he can fly to Los Angeles for an acting gig.

When he talks with younger peers, he said a lot of them change course from wanting to be an actor to becoming a camera operator, producer or writer because working for next to nothing and supplementing your income with a service job isn’t always sustainable.

“I am simply not in the same economic condition that I was in when I was graduating from college. Which was zippo money and zippo prospects, other than law school,” Bridgman said.

White also isn’t financially dependent on landing acting gigs. But if you’re not financially secure, don’t throw away your safety net, Sturges said.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I’m all in. I quit my job, and I’m going to live in my car,’” she said.

Instead of quitting your day job, talk with your employer about your new pursuit and see if there’s the possibility of a flexible schedule, she said.

“People are often so supportive,” she said. “The people who aren’t supportive are usually people who haven’t followed their dreams. A person following their dreams is a threat to those who haven’t.”

For many people who pursue entertainment as a career, it takes years to get yourself to where you are making money from your creative work. For making money in the meantime, there’s always waiting tables. But more and more people are turning to platforms like TikTok, Twitch and Patreon.

Understand the unpredictable nature of an acting career

Don’t expect to land roles right off the bat, Sturges said. There isn’t a set timeline or path to landing an acting job.

Like anyone in the industry, there’s a lot of auditioning and rejection before landing a role. And there are no guarantees.

If you can enjoy the auditions and the process, it’ll make rejection easier, Sturges said.

White loved the four days she spent in Canada (pre-COVID-19 pandemic) to film the prescription drug commercial. She got the star treatment — being driven around, staying in a hotel and getting fitted for filming day.

But she also loves the rush of auditioning for a role and getting a callback. It’s all part of the process.

“I just know it happened once, it’s going to happen again, and I’m just going to keep going. I’m not going to stop,” she said.

Rejection and uncertainty are part of working in Hollywood, but joy, creativity and fun can be too. Here’s how to manage your mental health.

Manage your expectations

What does it mean to “make it” as an actor? Depends on the person.

For White, it was landing a couple of commercial roles, because it validated her talent, reinvigorated her passion for acting and fueled her motivation to continue down this career path.

Bridgman said he’s content with landing as many acting roles as he can after many years of making his passion his hobby. He’s also happy to be doing this in his 70s, because it gets him outside of what his usual social circle would be.

Sturges said some of her older students are happy to just land one role, because it fulfills a desire that was buried for so long.

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More advice

Do it for the joy. If you’re expecting to make money or become famous, don’t do it. Bridgman and Sturges said it’s more about the process, the art and enjoying it all.

Market your talent. Identify what skills and experiences you have that are desirable, Sturges said.

Lean into a category. Typecasting is good in the beginning, Sturges said. You want a type, but then you want to be able to break out of that.

Build a community. Sturges, White, and Bridgman all recommend finding the right agent and building a support system of people who will rally behind you.

Don’t give up. White said however difficult it may be, don’t give up. The right opportunity will present itself if you just keep working toward it.

Send the L.A. Times your questions about breaking into and working in the entertainment industry.


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