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I Want to Be a Professional Actor. Why Would I Want to Act in a Student Film?

I Want to Be a Professional Actor. Why Would I Want to Act in a Student Film?

This Article I wrote was posted on the online publication known as Max It Magazine.

Often times, many actors arrive fresh off the boat to L.A. (why a boat, I’ll never know) full of excitement and with dreams of becoming a professional actor. However, they soon realize, they’re missing one hugely important business tool; their demo reel. A demo reel, if unfamiliar, gives filmmakers, agents, casting directors, and fans a sample of the work you’ve done. The better the level production quality, the more professional your reel will look, but ultimately the reel is about displaying your craft. “How do I get a demo reel?” you might ask. Well, one common answers is, get involved with student films.

Sure, maybe you have no footage, so it’s easy to see why you’d get involved in a student film, but what if you have some footage already? What if you’ve acted on big TV shows? What if you’re a movie star? Where’s the cut off point? You rarely see ‘A’ list actors in student films, so there’s got to be, but how do you know?

As an actor myself, I’ll share with you my advice based on my experiences with student films of doing student films.

Mutt from the set of Mattson Tomlin's "Horns".

Mutt from the set of Mattson Tomlin’s “Horns”.

First off, you always have to remember that many student filmmakers are at different levels. Some may be picking up a camera for the first time (which if this is your first on-camera experience, maybe this is a good person for you to work with), or some may be making their thesis project and preparing for life post-graduation. So its important to be realistic with your expectation of the filmmaker your working with. If you get involve with someone who is earlier on in the learning process, their story may have some issues, the filming itself may take a long time, or maybe they just don’t know how to work with actors. But if you’re just starting, these things might be good to experience at least once. Plus, these are the types of set you want to make your mistakes on and learn from. And if you have no footage, something is definitely better than nothing.

If you are beyond on-set virgin and your ready to dig in to the material, try to find a student who’s further along in school because it can definitely be a great way to garner more quality footage, as well as, exercise your acting muscles. Just know, that even if they’re a little more on the experienced side, most student films tend to move a little slower than professional shoots (it is safe to say, that the entertainment industry, in general, is not for the impatient).

After you have done a few student projects, you may decide its time to step up your game. In which case, you may consider eliminating doing student films altogether. Good idea? Maybe. Or maybe not. You might want to just be more picky with the types of student projects you get involved with. Certain schools have better programs than others. For instance, USC (University of Southern California), and AFI (American Film Institute) were rated the top two film schools in the world according to The Hollywood Reporter ( These schools are known for the high level of filmmaking they expect from their students.

Personally, I was fortunate to have some solid footage on my demo reel when I moved to Los Angeles, so I didn’t pursue student films as aggressively as some. However, after awhile, I realized how good some of these programs are. A number of these students are creating some really unique things, their professors (working industry professionals) are watching them, and many of these films can be taken to film festivals, which is a great way to get exposure. For example, a film I acted in called, “Adventure, Wisconsin” was written and directed by USC Graduating Senior, Aneesh Chaganty. This film received a “Best of” prize, as well as resulted in me being awarded the “Best Actor” award. Another great experience was recently, when I worked with the talented Writer/Director in the MFA program at AFI, Mattson Tomlin. On his film, ‘Horns’, I got to do something I had never done before as an artist; wear prosthetic make-up. In the film, I played Mutt. A boy who had been severely burned at a young age and grew up with severe scaring on his face. It was an incredible experience and the film turned out great. We had a large crew of anywhere from 15-25 or so on any given day and they were all very proficient at what they did.

In summation, student films can be hit or miss at times, but some can provide you with a number of great opportunities. Besides just footage, you have the potential for exposure & accolades, the ability to play unique characters, the opportunity to form new friendships (with individuals about to go forth into the working world — if they aren’t already, i.e. a professional casting director wants to learn more about directing). I’ve seen a number of actors who have been recurring characters on television do a student film if it was a great role.

So, all in all, yes, student films are great projects to get involved with at many different levels of your career. But just like all aspects of your career, it is wise to do as much research as possible and know why you’re doing it. Spending your valuable time on any one project has to have some benefit for you. It’s just important to know what that is before you say yes.

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