Difference Between Lead Actor & Supporting Actor

Actors live for the applause whether they're the leads or just in support roles. This article compares what it takes to become an actor and what the major differences are between leads and supporting roles.

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Comparing Lead Actors to Supporting Actors

Many people are interested in acting. As of 2014 there were nearly 70,000 jobs in this field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the number of lead actors is very small. These actors make a living off of popularity on film or stage. They are able to negotiate their salaries with producers and studios. Supporting actors in large union markets work under contract minimums. Below is a comparison of the two types and some important information.

Job Title Education Requirements Median Salary (2016)* Job Growth (2014-2024)*
Lead Actor Bachelor's Degree Negotiated 10% (all actors)
Supporting Actor Bachelor's Degree $18.70 (hourly) 10% (all actors)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of Lead Actors vs. Supporting Actors

Lead actors carry a film, television show or stage production on the weight of their popularity. Supporting actors are those who play the lesser roles in a show. They may be playing minor parts or character roles. Most of the time, actors need to audition and complete a script reading for their desired part. All actors are expected to learn dialogue and blocking (movement). They may be asked to spend hours in make-up preparation and costuming. Stage and musical actors spend weeks in rehearsal. Movie and television actors may spend many hours working on action choreography or dance numbers.

Lead Actors

Lead actors are normally the stars of the show. These professionals usually get their start through school productions. Stage actors, for the most part, earn bachelor's degrees while studying their craft at a university. Here they learn stage craft, accents, dance and character building. Leads are able to use their star power to negotiate their salaries either weekly or per episodes or project.

Job responsibilities of a lead actor include:

  • Follow director's direction
  • Be on time for all meetings and rehearsals
  • Work well with other actors and departments
  • Know their lines and blocking
  • Do various publicity appearances

Supporting Actors

Supporting actors are acting troopers backing up the leads either in supporting roles in a play or film production or as part of the chorus line in a musical. Supporting actors are commonly lead actors in training. However, some specific types of supporting actors can make a living filling certain roles like minorities, dancers, or dialect specialists. Supporting actors get their training, like leads, at college or in formal theatrical training classes.

Job responsibilities of a supporting actor include:

  • Work under the supervision of the director or assistant directors
  • Research the traits of the character they're portraying
  • Perform on stage or film as rehearsed
  • Be able to fill in other roles during emergencies

Related Careers

Actors may become interested in entertainment work by becoming a choreographer creating dances for films or stage. Some actors prefer to be in total charge of a production by becoming directors. These professionals need to have knowledge in all aspects of the production.

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