When Kyle Mooney brought his Chris Fitzpatrick character to an episode of “Saturday Night Live” last season, the act may have seemed familiar for some.
Not because viewers remembered going to high school with someone like Fitzpatrick, a metal-head who hates jocks and is running for student class president because everyone else at his school is lame, but Mooney first debuted the character in a YouTube video in 2011.
Mooney and Beck Bennett, “SNL” cast members since 2013, were founders and members of the Los Angeles-based sketch comedy group Good Neighbor through Upright Citizens Brigade. While the group performed at UCB, they were mostly known for their digital presence — a YouTube channel with a variety of web series and digital shorts. The duo is now bringing their bizarre comedy style to “SNL,” filling the digital void Andy Samberg left when he departed in 2012.
But Mooney and Bennett aren’t the only actors whose digital work pushed them into a national spotlight. “Broad City,” the Amy Poehler-produced comedy is starting its second season in January on Comedy Central, but the show originated as web series in 2010 with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson as its writers and main actors.
In fact, it’s not the exception now, it’s the rule. With production and distribution simplified with tools such as YouTube, actors are no longer relying on traditional means of breaking into the entertainment industry, and pushing past their definitions as just actors.
“We’re being told constantly now that you have to create your own material,” said Tayler Robinson, a 22-year-old actress living in Los Angeles. “Create your own material or you don’t have a shot.”
Robinson has lived in L.A. since graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2013. She trained through the Stella Adler studio within Tisch studying acting and moved to the West Coast to pursue it, but since has moved into writing, producing and directing as well.
“I started writing with the idea that I could make something I could star in, and that was so I could get footage of myself,” Robinson said. “A huge thing is to have a really good reel for anyone to even have you in for an audition.”
With friends Francesca Smith and Lauren Patten from NYU, Robinson developed the web series “Still Not Famous,” a mockumentary-style series of shorts following two young actresses trying to “make it big” in L.A.
Unlike Robinson, her character Emily and sidekick Kelsey (played by Smith) are looking for quick ways to catch their breaks, rather than put in the work to do so. Throughout the eight-episode series they pull everything from hosting a ridiculous networking party to, the expected, sleeping with other actors and filmmakers to get ahead.
Creating the web series was the opposite of a quick scheme to make it big, rather serving as an important key step for Robinson in her career. “Still Not Famous” made Robinson and her co-stars SAG-AFTRA eligible, a necessity to becoming a professional on-screen actor. The acting union’s rules state that any “new media” production can be considered a SAG-AFTRA production if at least one cast member is already union member, which Patten was.
“Nepotism rules in this town, but if that’s not your path, if you’re not part of that insiders group, the path is self-made,” Robinson said. “There’s the internet sensation thing, and that’s another route you can take to make a name for yourself.”
Coya Paz Brownrigg, a theater studies professor in The Theatre School at DePaul, teaches a capstone class to seniors, preparing them to go into the world and create their art.
“Means of production are a lot more accessible now than they used to be,” Brownrigg said. “With a little bit of creativity you can reach new audiences and you can get the word out about your projects much more easily than you could even 10 years ago.”
While Brownrigg doesn’t teach actors, she sees the crossover between roles in the industry and the increasing chances for artists to make visible work.
“I think the opportunities to make new things, make what’s next, make what’s exciting and different are more accessible than they were before,” Brownrigg said. “I think if you have a quality product and you’re working hard to make it and working hard to market it you can cut through.”
Brownrigg also insists the “entrepreneurial arts economy” is not just giving more opportunities to young actors, but to minority actors.
“One of the things that self-producing can do is when people are not making representations about you or about your people or your communities that seem real, making your own work is one of the surest ways to makes sure a more honest story starts to circulate,” Brownrigg said.
Vanessa Bretas, 22, of New York, has been using the increasing amount of small, new media projects to find more fulfilling roles as a Brazilian-American.
“Instead of putting all of my energy in meeting more established industry professionals, I’ve found it very rewarding to do small projects because I can really work toward finding what kind of work is important for me to make and support,” Bretas said. “Especially for women and minorities, the work available through the audition breakdowns is very limited.”
Bretas supplements her acting training, a 2013 graduate of NYU, as a dancer in The Dance Cartel company and also works at an art gallery.
“I have been very surprised to see how all the arts mix and how inspiring and important it is to get to know people in all fields,” Bretas said.
Despite the new roles actors such as Bretas and Robinson are taking on, it’s a good time to not just be an actor, but an all-around artist.
“I think we are in a really exciting time,” Bretas said. “Things are changing and what will help that change is stepping away from the idea of ‘just acting.’ ”