I Moved To Toronto To Be An Actor & Made 6 Big Mistakes That Cost Me A Lot
Don't do what I did.
This Opinion article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.
In 2014, I was 19 years old, lean as a tent pole, and determined to become a professional actor. Flash forward to 2022, and I'm sitting in front of a Macbook Air that I pawned off my girlfriend, trying to come to terms with the last eight years of my life.
I've spent nearly a decade chasing the impossible dream, and so far, I've landed an H&R Block commercial. A stunning 15-seconds of screen time that my friends and family will never let me live down. And I can't even be bitter about any of it because it's my fault.
H&R Block Canada - NeighbourYoutube
To be a working actor is to play a very long game. Your day-to-day life has to function well, and you have to be organized. So, naturally, I chose to work three-hour shifts for minimum wage in Toronto, rack up a bunch of credit card debt, and embark on hundreds of pointless endeavors all in the name of "exposure."
If you love acting, don't worry. I'm not here to discourage you. I'm here to tell you how to avoid making embarrassing mistakes and save you a boatload of money.
Don't sign with the first agent who shows interest in you
Patrick John Gilson
There are a lot of scam talent agencies in Toronto. While most are blatantly obvious and easily avoided, the more subtle ones snatch up tons of young or inexperienced actors every year.
Here's something everyone told me that I never bothered to practice: your agent is your business partner. If you were a rapper, your agent would be your hype man. You need to vibe with an agent. You need to know that they understand and believe in you. Those types of connections are extremely rare finds.
If you're a young and hungry actor with a halfway decent demo reel and headshots, you might be taking the approach I did. Submitting to every possible agency you can find in the hopes of getting a reply, and guess what? It'll work.
I guarantee that a few seemingly excited agents will get back to you, luring you in with flattery and false promises. Don't take the bait. These folks are collectors. They build up big rosters and send their clients out to non-union gigs that literally anyone could get—Seriously, a friend of mine spent a whole day having a director throw Doritos at his face—then they take a big chunk of your pay. You are just a free investment for them.
Go to ACTRA's (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) website and click on the agent directory page. You'll see a list of reputable agencies. It's not the end all be all, there are great agents not listed, but I highly recommend starting here and seeing what happens.
Avoid joining a cult or an acting class disguised as one
Patrick John Gilson
In my nearly ten years of experience, I've found that finding a suitable acting class is less about avoiding scams and more about avoiding ending up in a cult-like situation.
One of the first acting classes I took upon arriving in Toronto from Welland, Ontario, was hosted in an eerie midtown mansion that looked like Hannibal Lecter decorated it.
We spent the first half of it pretending to be trees. After that pointless endeavour was done, our acting coach, let's call him "Ed," took out a small black box and told us that he keeps all his darkest desires in there. Why? Who knows?
After breaking for lunch, we pretended to be five-year-olds and read monologues. Ed broke into a full-on sob during mine, which I promise you is not a brag, I have the footage of my performance, and it's laughably bad.
Green as I was, I walked away from the whole experience questioning whether or not I had taken it seriously enough. After all, everyone else there seemed to immerse in "the process." But, upon taking other reputable acting classes in the city, I realized all that was missing from the mansion experience was the Kool-Aid.
Don't do every student film you can apply to
Patrick John Gilson acting in a short.
Toronto has many film schools, which often require their students to make a short film. Student films can be a great way to gain on-set experience, so long as you're willing to work long hours for free. However, when I first got to the city, I was straight out of Niagara College's acting program and eager to commit myself to as many projects as could that were not only terrible but also a complete waste of time.
Websites like Mandy or eBoss allow smaller creators to put up casting notices, I don't use them anymore, because my agent takes care of my submissions, but when I did, everyone was slinging "exposure."
You do the film pro bono and get something to give to potential agents. Sounds great, right? It is if you pick the right creators. Remember, they aren't paying you. You are equals. If you don't believe in their "vision," don't do it under the guise of "oh, well, it's experience." I mean, it is. It's a bad experience, usually one that lasts several days.
I once spent an entire week in Brampton working on a short film that was trying to rip off Goodfellas with a director whose only direction was for me to be more like Joe Pesci. By the end of the experience, I was broke, appalled by the footage and feeling all kinds of dumb.
My advice? Treat working on student films like a relationship. If you click with the director, commit, and if you don't, walk away. Trust me. You'll learn more from a good acting class than you will working on a terrible script in someone's mom's house.
Make sure to balance your life
Patrick John Gilson and Bambi.
To a certain extent, being obsessed with your craft is crucial to doing great work. However, if you're behind on rent and blowing off friends and family, all in pursuit of landing a part on Degrassi, you are in for a bad ride, man.
If I could go back and tell my 19-year-old self anything, it would be to build healthy habits and establish a good day-to-day routine outside of acting. That's your foundation. The film industry is a highly judgemental grind that you venture into to do what you love. Don't live there.
Treat your craft and your personal life as equals. Otherwise, you'll end up like I did, sleeping on couches for months, working for no pay and hating all of it. Acting is supposed to be fun or, at the very least, rewarding. If it's painful for you, take a step back and see what's getting in the way.
Don't live in a basement bachelor with a roommate
The actual apartment
I actually did this. I signed a one-year lease to live in a glamourized prison cell with another human being. We were both wannabe actors who couldn't afford Toronto and were willing to subject ourselves to anything to pay $400 a month each.
It was almost poetic at first. We never lived in a big city, we were auditioning, and it felt like we were working towards something. Flash forward to a few months later, it's winter, my roommate and I work on completely different schedules, neither of us can sleep, and there are fourth months left to pay on this waking nightmare.
Again this goes back to the point above. You need a solid home base to survive the gauntlet that is Toronto's film industry. Please don't agree to live in hell under the impression you'll be an overnight success like me. You'll end up sleep-deprived, irritated and ready to sell your grandmother to have your own room again.
We did throw some great parties, though, despite always being in a perpetual state of cramped sweatiness.
Find a day job you like or at least don't hate
On the job.
Everyone has different skills and predispositions. Some people thrive in the service industry, others in less customer-oriented fields of work. It's vital to find out which sort of part-time or full-time gig suits you because let's face it, that's mostly what you're going to be doing until your "big break," if it even comes at all.
I worked at Starbucks for the first three years I lived in Toronto, and to say I sucked at it would be an understatement. I didn't want to be there, and my co-workers had to pick up my slack. It's not that I actively sabotaged myself or them. I just despise small talk and making custom coffee orders for snooty bankers. The result? Bad vibes for everyone.
If you're anything like I was, you probably think you aren't qualified for any other type of gig, but you are. This city is always hiring, and lots of jobs don't require any experience. I helped sell boating licenses during the summer of 2017, I've never driven a boat in my life, but I made it work.
It might take you a few tries to lock down something that suits you, but I wouldn't settle for anything less. If you're in it for the long haul, you'll need to find something you can do daily without being utterly miserable.
I hope these tips have resonated with you, don't give up on your dreams, folks. Just don't go about achieving them as foolishly as I did.
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