Returning Actors: A Not So Welcome Back…

On occasion I’ve received queries from readers who, for whatever reason, left the business in their youth and now — decades later — desire to make a return. (That’s your cue Ms. Desmond.) They look to me for an answer. I don’t know who fears my honesty more. I or them? Do I tread lightly in deference and respect to the years the inquirer has journeyed? Or do I ignore the truths I know and offer a white-wash, “All will be swell and easy for you” reply? Falsehoods and cautious courtesy will not serve the inquirers well.

There is a harsh reality awaiting these actors hoping to return to the thespian fold. They will not be welcomed back with warm embraces and adulation by hirers and representatives of talent. And if you believe I write these words with malicious glee you’d be terribly mistaken.

What follows is a correspondence between a hopeful, returning, ‘mature’ actor and myself. With the author’s permission I share it with you:


I have your book and just finished [the chapter] Training for the Actor. Every topic in that chapter was a question in my mind that you answered very well for anyone who is thinking about turning to acting as a career. I will intend to pursue a career in acting for film/television for which my undergraduate work was geared toward. The only thing is that undergraduate work was completed 33 years ago. I will retire with 31 years in the US Navy in the spring of 2011. I have thought about applying for grad school, but I will be 55 years old.

I am wanting to jump into being a “working” actor fast. I have the skills, rusty… If I was 23 again I’d probably would have tried the grad school pursuit and the MFA, now, I’m not sure what I should do. All I can put on a resume are the theater works I did back in the 1970s and my life experiences of traveling the world on ships, and being involved in a few major conflicts i.e. Hunt for Red October and Hurt Locker type stuff. I’m figuring I could have at another 20 or 30 year career. Your thoughts??”

Dear *****,

Thank you for the note.

To be fair to you, I’ve got to be as blunt here as I am in my book. But first before dispensing the bitter lemon I offer some lemonade; you’re making a brave move by returning to your love this many years later. Many people would not have the courage as do you. Bravo.

I wish I could say that your return will not have many obstacles but sadly there are two challenges that will not be easy to overcome. Firstly; your age. Secondly; your time away from the business.

You will be competing against men of your years who have remained in the business, who are well established, and have accrued respectable credits on Broadway, regionally and/or on screen. Your resume will not fair well against these peers.

Agents will not be as welcoming to you as they are to your experienced competition.  Nor embrace you as they do younger actors who can be developed. The latter — a well-known given — is that youth sells better in our society. Relatively, in comparison with roles 18 – 34, there are not many roles written for mature actors 50s plus (even less so for mature actresses). The older the actor, the harder the sell is by agents to casting; and producers to audience. I wish this were not true. But sadly such is the nature of the beast that is our business which is reflecting societal desires. I’ll never understand the folly fully myself. Why do the fields of entertainment and advertising target an audience that has little to no disposable income among its demographic while the more mature counterpart often has cash and credit easily at hand? To me this business plan seems like a contradictory move towards earning profit. But the business model must be working well or there would have been a change long ago. Who looses? Older actors, especially the ‘returning mature actor’. Unless an uber-celeb or an industry name the returning mature actor has a difficult journey in making measurable strides within the industry. (And so too often does the household-name, returning mature actor.)

As to your resume: Putting your life experiences on your resume, while deeply personal and rightfully important to you, will be of little interest for most agents and casting. Agents have enough trouble in this economy selling their established clients with Broadway and screen credits. Your admirable service in the military away from the entertainment industry provides too great a challenge for most agents in trying to sell you to casting. Casting wants to know what you have done lately that is directly relevant to acting. Agents need to provide recent relative information. Your military career can be utilized as leverage for military-type roles. But entertainment professionals will place perceptual limits on your abilities as an actor.

A civilian world example: If a baker in his twenties left his passion for cakes to pursue construction but then thirty years later wanted to return to baking and applied for a baker’s position at an upscale bakery the employer would not care how many buildings the ex-baker constructed but would want to know what has the builder has done recently relevant to baking. And what are his present culinary skills (including knowledge of customer trends and advancements in baking technology)?

Now yes, this can all be terribly demoralizing. This doesn’t mean there is no hope. Just realize, and I think you do, that you’re in for a tough, tough challenge in returning. Hence why I said you were very brave.

First best step that you can do is to attend training at a respected acting conservatory. You’ll be back in the business — somewhat — and begin to network among other actors. Actors get actors jobs.

Attend paid auditions to meet agents and casting people. I know of many actors who have gotten representation and/or work via these seminars. An agent or casting director will give more attention to an actor’s live presence than they will to an inert picture and resume in a mailing.

But please bear in mind that your desire for a ‘fast’ way to being a working actor is rarely an obtainable reality for any artist of story-telling. Whether an actor is new, established, youthful or mature, this business has very few express lanes.

My Best,

Update: After my reply to the actor I received a response. The actor was grateful for the honesty and stated their awareness and acceptance of the challenge that lay before them on the return journey.

I never want to deter any artist from pursuit of their desires. I want every actor to charge forward; not with false hope but with resolve to exceed expectations.

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit

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