This is written from a Seattle perspective. While I have spent a bit of time in LA, I know much more about the scene in the pacific northwest. Out of town readers are HIGHLY ENCOURAGED to participate in the discussion.
First, you do not need an agent to be a WORKING actor in the THEATER in Seattle. For more info about finding work in Seattle, read our post Acting in Seattle.
Second, you do not need an agent in Seattle to get cast in films, webisodes, student films, etc. However, having representation will get you access to “higher priority” auditions, some of which will not be accessible if you are not represented.
I don’t know if there are decent MANAGERS in Seattle and if they would be helpful in building your career. To my knowledge, none of my working actor friends in Seattle are using a talent manager.
Now, in LA, not only do I think an agent is necessary to thrive, many people advise that if you are NOT CURRENTLY living in LA, you should do your best to earn your SAG card before moving.
So, “How do I get an agent?” Well, in Seattle, the FIRST thing you can do is send in your headshot and resume along with a cover letter and follow up with a phone call two days after sending to check in. It is also highly advantageous if you know someone represented by said agent who will give you something akin to a referral. If you need help locating an agent in your area, try an internet search. In the Seattle area, reputable agencies include TCM Models and Talent (my agency), Topo Swope Talent, The Actors Group, and Big Fish.
Now, LA is a completely different monster all together. And while I have put out messages to a few friends currently working and acting in LA for their wisdom, I have not yet heard from them and can only offer my limited experience. During my short stint in LA, I studied under Tom Todoroff and was a member of The Actors’ Network. I did have commercial representation with Brand, and did one gig before returning to Seattle which was completely humiliating (this will be explored in a separate blog post). I also had an interview and offer from Zanuck, Passon, and Pace, which I know now was infamous for SCAMMING, and where I never signed.
I also interviewed with a manager while in LA. The interview took place in her “home office.” There were other strange casting calls I experienced in LA, and have heard many horror stories, so please proceed with caution as you navigate the stormy waters of your acting career.