“In the acting world, we talk about the specificity of our choices,” says Bill Marchant, the Head of the Acting for Film & Television program at Vancouver Film School. “So if you’re playing a character, you have to have a very clear idea of what that character’s intention is, what they need and what they want. I don’t think it’s any different for any actor entering the business.”
Anyone who has experienced the year-long Acting program at VFS can attest to the tremendous amount of emotion expressed within the campus walls every day. Instructors’ unyielding attention to creative exploration and technique draws out raw passion from students, which forms the foundation for their growth as artists.
But there’s a whole other side to the acting game that students experience before they graduate. They learn to hold their own in the entertainment business, and that becomes one of the key skills these actors will employ in finding success. According to Marchant, the first step to doing that is knowing who you are and what you’re capable of.
“One of the things we work on in this program is a marketing plan based around not only who you think you are, but also who they think you are,” Marchant explains.
Toward the end of their year, students research the image they’re presenting to the world. When they read sides or walk into a casting room, what impression are they making on people? This exercise helps students learn how casting directors and agents might perceive them.
“We all might want to be Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp,” says Acting Instructor Bart Anderson, “but maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re a Steve Buscemi or a Joan Cusack – more of a character actor.” In the final term, Anderson teaches a class on industry skills, which helps emerging actors assess how ready they are to jump into the business. “One of the key components to breaking in is to be informed: understand the market; understand who you are. and be realistic about it.”
Difficult but achievable goals help to keep actors on track in those crucial first years of seeking out work. “You probably won’t have your own series in six months,” Anderson says. “But in six months, you should have met every single casting director in town.”
In his classes, he emphasizes the benefits of making small steps within a well-thought-out strategy, which begins with learning to identify your own unique qualities and continues through reflecting those attributes in your promo reel, headshots, and resume. He urges young actors to concentrate hard on this process, as it will be the source of a lot of momentum for their start after graduation.
“I attended school every day. I didn’t miss a class,” says VFS Acting grad Will Vaughan, who co-stars in CBC’s comedy series Men with Brooms. “It was a long time coming when I went to school, so when I came [to VFS], I didn’t want to miss any opportunities. You realize that these are the guys who know what they’re talking about, and that’s what I did: I just listened to my teachers and followed what they told me to do.”
Vaughan remembers Anderson’s class, specifically his appeals for students to treat their acting careers like businesses. After spending so much time focusing on voice, movement, audition skills, and scene study, this kind of advice changes the game for a lot of students.
“I came out of the program with a very clear business sense of what I wanted to do to obtain an agent,” Vaughan says. “You’ve got to have an agent in this game.”
With a list of the top five boutique agencies he felt were aligned closely with his career ambitions, Vaughan submitted his package to each one – and all five turned him down. But two of the great benefits of the Acting program are the friendships and networking contacts that are made over the year. Looking for advice, Will turned to his former classmate Sara Canning (The Vampire Diaries) who suggested he submit his package to her agent. She could relate to his struggle.
“When I finished school,” she says, “I was working at a restaurant six to seven days a week, having to cover shifts in order to audition all the time, working hard in an acting class I continued to take, and spending my money on taped auditions I’d send to LA. I quickly developed a tough exterior, and got used to multi-tasking all the time. I was always exhausted, but always remembered that I was doing what I loved best.”
Vaughan quickly found traction with Canning’s agency and was officially signed. This led to many important auditions, which became roles on films and television series such as I Love You, Beth Cooper and CTV’s Defying Gravity.
Finding the right agency for you is directly tied to knowing exactly what you’re bringing to the market and the kind of career you want, Marchant explains. What does a big agency have to offer you compared to a smaller boutique agency? Are international contacts with markets in LA and New York important to you? Which agency is interested in working with emerging talent? It’s a long process, but the rewards of making a good match are worth the trouble.
After Vaughan fought this battle, he moved onto the next: auditions. To be considered for his current role as “Matt” on Men with Brooms, he had to submit a taped audition. He and his agent then spent months going back and forth with CBC and the series producers. Eventually they brought him to Toronto for a “chemistry read” alongside the series’ lead. “I was very excited,” Vaughan says. “It was the first time I was flown anywhere on someone else’s dime.”
A little over a week later, Vaughan heard that he landed the part. It was a huge coup, as the recurring role he had previously secured with Defying Gravity had disappeared when the series was canceled.
“The worst thing I did was that, once I got hired for Defying Gravity, and we shot it. I just got comfortable,” he says. “I thought, ‘here’s a job I’ll have for a couple of years.’” The experience was eye-opening. “It was a great lesson to prove that you just can’t get comfortable.” All he needs to do now to stay hungry, he says, is to “think of the alternative, which is being back at home doing what I was doing before.”
According to Anderson, as important as it is to find good roles, it’s just as important for actors to have a “life plan” in place.
That means getting a job that can accommodate zipping off to auditions and will allow them to make enough money for headshots, clothing, acting workshops, and regular haircuts – everything necessary to be able to balance your dreams with everyday responsibilities. “I think the days of the starving artist are gone,” he says. You have to feel confident in knowing that what you’re doing with your life is the right thing.
For some, the shift to post-graduation life from an immensely supportive environment like VFS can be jarring. However, the Acting program maintains strong relations with its alumni through special weekend workshops with Advisory Board Member Matthew Lillard (Scream, Scooby-Doo) and a large network of personal and professional contacts. Students also emerge from the program with a newfound sense of confidence that changes their perspective on the world.
“[The Acting program] has opened my eyes to the fact that my initiative to take forward action in life, and my understanding of myself and the human experience as a whole, is what’s going to keep me going on the path of acting,” says Britney Miller, a current student. She’ll soon be following in the footsteps of successful grads like Vaughan and Canning (among many others), having received intensive training as an actor, and also a grounded perspective on the realities of the industry.
“One of the advantages of coming to VFS is that you actually leave with a resume that has various film projects on it,” says Marchant. “I think VFS graduates have a decided advantage in the marketplace because the agents and producers and casting directors all know that our students will be able to go into an audition with ease and be able to nail it.”