From a recent Backstage article I did with my sister.
My sister, actress Becki Newton, and I have both lived and worked in Los Angeles and New York. We have had agents on both coasts, and worked extensively as actors in both cities, mostly in TV and film. Now Becki is settled in L.A., about to star on the Fox show “Weird Loners,” and I am acting and coaching in New York (currently the on-set coach for the CBS show “Blue Bloods.”) A lot of my students ask me which city they should move to, so I thought my sister and I would offer our perspectives on what it’s like to live in each place.
1. What’s the best and worst aspect of working in New York vs. L.A.?
Matt: I’m an East Coast guy, so I love New York. You can walk to all of your auditions. There aren’t nearly as many casting directors here, so if they all like you, they bring you in for everything. L.A. was beautiful and all, but I always felt like everyone out there was an actor, and it didn’t seem like they took training as seriously. Also, it can be a bit lonely, as it’s so spread out and you spend so much time in your car.
Becki: I started out a die-hard New Yorker, but really grew to love working in Los Angeles. Even though I originally wanted to do theater, TV presented more opportunities for me, which led me out west. Eventually I came to appreciate the car culture as well as it pertained to auditioning. I would rather sit in traffic listening to the radio en route to a meeting than freeze my butt off hailing a cab to Chelsea Piers. So what started as more opportunity led to greater comfort due to the climate.
2. Are there more opportunities for actors in New York or LA?
Matt: It’s hard so say. I moved to New York after graduating from Vassar, and six months later I moved to L.A., because at the time there was way more happening there in the film and TV market (and I had a bicoastal agent who suggested I test the waters out there). Now, New York has now become a very important TV market, with over 30 shows filming here and counting. It’s a great time to be an actor here, and actors can build up a bunch of credits (co-stars, guest stars, etc.). However, there aren’t a lot of sitcoms here, so if that’s your thing, go to L.A. If you are a theater actor, I think New York has more opportunities. A lot of film production is moving out of Los Angeles to cities like Austin and Atlanta.
Becki: There are tons of opportunities in both places. Commercially, I found equal opportunities on both coasts. The obvious difference is theater, which I believe one must be in NYC to train and pursue seriously.
3. What is pilot season like in L.A. vs. New York?
Matt: For the most part, actors go “on tape” in New York for the bigger series regular roles in pilots that are filming out of L.A., which means they upload the audition and the producers in L.A. can watch it the same day. You could have five auditions a day, walk around to the different studios, and that night hear that you are flying out to L.A. for a screen test. When I lived in L.A., you could go in for a producer’s session, and then screen test later that day. Everything is last minute and crazy. It can get a bit nutty out there.
Becki: I booked “Ugly Betty” while visiting L.A. for pilot season. I found more momentum in LA. There was also an element of no one knowing me in L.A. that I liked. In NYC, I auditioned for mostly "quirky friend" roles. Since casting directors in L.A. lacked a preconceived notion of me, I was able to reinvent my type a bit, which was essential in booking the role of Amanda on “Ugly Betty.” I don't believe I would have auditioned for that role in N.Y.
4. What advice would you give an actor new to the business?
Matt: Move to the city that makes you the most comfortable, where you have a good support system. Create your own work, self-produce, take classes, network, and work as hard as you can. There are so many actors trying to do this, so you have to zero in on what sets you apart, really hone your skills, figure out your type and your place in the market, and target your buyers—maybe that involves doing staged readings in New York, or producing your own YouTube videos in L.A.
Becki: I would say to an actor new to the business that it's best to go where you are most comfortable as a person, both in and outside of the business. My brother had already spent time in L.A. as a working actor, and my husband, actor Chris Diamantopoulos, would often travel with me, since he was ready to explore the West Coast as well. So I had a mini network built in, which helped me endure the ups and downs more easily. I would not have felt comfortable coming out to L.A. without Matt and Chris.
5. How did you find your agent?
Matt: I had sent out my headshots to over 50 agents in New York, and done lots of in person drop-offs, and several of them started freelancing with me. In New York all the agents are in the same seven buildings, so it’s easier to take a few hours and slide some pictures under the door. Then I booked a role on “Strangers with Candy,” which is when I decided to sign with one.
Becki: I found my agent in L.A.through my N.Y. agent. They had an office on both coasts and were very supportive of actors spending time in LA. I found my N.Y. agent after blindly mailing out about 500 headshots.
6. Do you think it’s smart to do extra work?
Matt: I did one day on “Guiding Light” after doing a Shakespeare monologue for the under five casting director. I hated it, and decided never to do it again. I think it’s good to do it once to see what it’s like on a set, learn the lingo, and understand the pacing of it, but don’t make a habit of it.
Becki: I think extra work is helpful to people who've never experienced working on a set. I had worked in commercials before television, which helped me immensely when I showed up on set for my first TV job (“Law and Order SVU”). On “Ugly Betty,” I saw many instances where extras were given opportunities to audition for bigger roles on the show.
7. How important is training?
Matt: I think training is important, as long as you don’t develop any bad habits. I think seeing yourself on camera, and learning how to act and how to audition is an essential part of the business. I also think “on the job training” can sometimes be better than any acting class (if you are lucky enough to book the job).
Becki: Training is hugely important wherever you decide to audition and work. I would love to pursue theater more seriously someday, and know that my technique would need a lot of work before I made that step. I have a degree in European history, which didn't necessarily have any direct impact on my career, but I'm grateful I studied something other than acting in college. Mostly I've had on-the-job training for on camera work. The commercials were so helpful in simply being comfortable on camera and on sets. And when I was lucky enough to get the “Ugly Betty” job, I had some of the best actors around to guide me. I learned so much by watching Vanessa Williams and Judith Light work. It was probably the greatest master class I could have asked for.