So the performance bug has finally bitten you, eh? Well that's inspiring, but before you head into the realm of underemployed and constantly criticized performers I would like to carve up a quick little list of things to help you along the way.
1. Crack More Than Just Your Script
No, this does not simply mean to be literate. Actors, like musicians, should be able to have source material to pull from. Some reservoir of knowledge that allows them to adapt to the text, and perhaps even inspire them. There is nothing in the world more painful than watching a performer of little to no depth attempt to work their way through a piece that is far more advanced than they. Pick up a book every so often. Comprehension is huge. Sensitivity to language is vital.
And yes, as Kevin Sorbo proved, basic literacy is a necessity.
2. Know Your Role
Look, there is a certain allure to being a performing artist. There is always, deep in the recesses of the psyche a desire to be wanted or to receive recognition. Perhaps not from the hordes of mindless masses, but from somebody. Every craftsman in every field through all of human existence has felt this compulsion. This is perfectly fine. Just be aware that for every Ryan Gosling there is a Dan Hedaya. Not everyone is a leading man or lady. Find a niche and own it. It's okay to be the "buddy," the "nottie," or the"freakishly-large-but-incredibly-gifted-character-actor-who-only-got-leading-roles-by-writing-them-for-himself-and-is-probably-most-famous-for-portraying-freakishly-large-serial-killers-or-a-freakishly-large-but-incredibly-gifted-character-actor-in-a-Charlie-Kaufman-film." Do it well, and the respect follows.
Quick Tip: Stage is where you can "show your range." Film is all about who you are.
3. Be Willing to Pay Your Dues
Jack Nicholson failed as an actor. After years of bit roles in B-Movies his career had completely petered out. He had quit and resigned himself to producing, directing, and writing a career killing Monkees movie. In fact, it was only due to Rip Torn dropping out of the iconic Easy Rider that Nicholson was forced to step into the role of George Nelson out of necessity and become an overnight sensation. Of course, this is only if the main qualification for the term "overnight" means 14 years of struggle for Jack Freakin' Nicholson! He's not alone. Every Academy Award quality performer has to start somewhere.
The point being: Jack Nicholson was only in that position to begin with because he was good, he always worked hard, and when the moment came he was ready to seize it. Which brings me to my next point...
4. Be Prepared to Seize the Moment
Whether it's your first audition for the local community theatre or a shot at reading for the next great blockbuster be sure that you honed the necessary skills that will be required of you for the part. Having sat through many auditions as a director I can tell you from personal experience that there is no more difficult position than watching an audition from someone who desperately seeks a part that they are woefully unprepared to tackle. Do your research. Find out all you can about the script in advance. If it's a well known play, read the thing and have an idea of what you may be cast as and gear your audition piece towards that. If you are reading for a film or television show then study the previous work of the writer and director. The prepared performer feels like an inevitability, while the unprepared actor wastes time and tests the cordiality of all those involved.
5. The Process is the Prize
Look, life is difficult enough. Great thinkers throughout history have grappled with thoughts that have explored the depths of existence and led us to understand that we have no more control over life than we did thousands of years ago. If you can't control the things outside of you, such as auditions, casting, and response, then do the right thing and discipline the passion that made you start in the first place. Yes, you will face disappointment and perhaps some breaks don't go your way, but the process of improving is its own reward. Don't cheat yourself. Fame, acclaim, and material success are not indicative of effort, but it will all be worth it if you keep the faith. The subway thief from Heartburn tells us so.