If you came to New York to find work as an actor, you need to get a commercial agent. It doesn't matter what your focus is, whether you want to do film, TV or musical theatre. There's simply so much WORK in commercials. Commercial castings are held every day. Not at the start of summer stock season. Not when principal contracts are up. Not when they're sending out a second national tour. Every. Day. And the following week, they'll need even more people. You're young, fabulous and fierce. Get on it.
The first time you go to a commercial audition, you will come home and weep over the simplicity of it. There are no sides to prepare. You don't have to find a 32-bar cut of an obscure off-Broadway song. They don't even ask for a tombe pas de bourree, pirouette before making a cut. I once went to an audition where all I had to do was hold my fingers in the shape of an 0 and say, "Zero tolerance for plaque psoriasis." Did I book it? No, but who fucking cares? Literally anyone could have done that job. They probably closed their eyes and pointed. If they had pointed at me, I could have made $40,000.
I also once had to pretend to be grocery shopping while suffering from a mild case of IBS. It gets fun.
So what's a musical theatre actor to expect at an audition, if not for a movement call and a 16-bar cut? Here's everything it took me too long to figure out, as a conservatory-trained actor who found herself auditioning for commercials.
Step One: How to Prepare
First, figure out what the product is and who they're selling it to. It's easy when it's Jif Peanut Butter, but I just auditioned for a spot for a company called HomeServe. That could be anything! Google the company and see what you can find. Better yet, do a You Tube search and watch some of their past commercials. (Believe it or not, you will sometimes have to watch an advertisement before watching an advertisement. Cray.) Occasionally, you'll see celebrities before they were famous, which is fun. While the ad itself may change, the brand image and their demographic won't. Now, if you're going in for this audition, the demographic is probably you. People like to see themselves in the brands they buy. So know your type. If you're confused about your type, call up your most honest friend and ask, "Do I seem reliable? Edgy? Am I pulling off hipster cool? Or am I more elegant and sophisticated?" Commercials turn around so quickly that that the key to finding work is to really embrace whatever is obvious about you.
For example, I'm witty and fairly jaded with a low tolerance for bullshit. However, I also have a two-year-old daughter and a resting nice face. This means I'm sent in for moms a lot. I'm Midwestern mom at Walmart, I'm Concerned Mom, I'm Mom on Christmas Morning, I'm Mom with a Mild Case of IBS. I'm not the girl wearing headphones dancing around in shadow in the iPod commercials even though I would rock that shit.
"We'll get 1,000 commercial submissions within 20 minutes of releasing a breakdown," said Angela Mickey of Liz Lewis Casting at this year's Actors Pro Expo. "We are casting you to rep the product, not some character. We need you to be, like, the person."
That means if they call you in, you need to look like your headshot. So many people don't look like their headshots that some casting offices still take honest-to-God Polaroids as if it were Christmas dinner at your grandma's in the '80s. Do your best to beat this trend. Most actors have a commercial headshot and a "legit" or "theatrical" shot. They're using their resting nice face in the first one, and the serious/sexy side in the second. "We need to see your teeth," Mickey reveals. "And engaged eyes!"
Step Two: Decide What to Wear
A huge part of commercial casting is based off of your look. I mean, if the qualifying attribute is the ability to say "plaque psoriasis," how would you make a choice? So what you wear is hella important. Go through all of your favorite audition outfits, particularly the tops, and eliminate all of the black, purple, and blue.
It took me entirely too long to figure this out, but the background for all on-screen auditions is this very specific shade of blue that is almost teal. Now, I love blue and purple-- I'm an Aquarius-- but I soon discovered I was blending in or clashing with the background. Once you see what this exact color is, some blues and purples will work. But at first, steer clear. I've also heard not to wear white because it's supposed to cast a greenish pallor that makes your skin look like crap, but I have booked in white. I also have used white in my headshots. Whatever you brought to wear to your headshot session is usually a safe bet, unless it's blue, black or purple.
If you wear black, I've been told that the creatives assume you're trying to look thinner than you actually are... which isn't necessarily untrue... I've also heard it sucks energy from the room. And I've never booked a commercial in black. Save it for a Fosse audition OR for a business person audition, in which case all bets are off.
Be careful with prints. I wouldn't say not to wear them, it depends on the pattern, but be sure to take a picture of yourself before hand. In fact, taking a picture of yourself before hand is always a good idea so you see what you look like on film.
I like to look to the costume design on Modern Family for inspiration. From Alex's ironic tees to Gloria's bold prints, they always look like they're ready to walk into a commercial audition for their various types. If they wear black, it's for a certain look: i.e, Dylan as a rocker, Phil's professional side, Alex going Goth.
Generally speaking, stay away from logos (duh) and bold jewelry. If they want quirky, wear glasses. Invest in a chic pair of frames if that's your type.
Step 3 The Audition
I promise to write a whole other blog post about what to do in the room. (In short, just be yourself and have fun.) But the last thing you must know before you start auditioning is that commercial casting offices run on no one's schedule but their own. Part of this is due to the crazy nature of advertising. Partly it's because they got 1,000 submissions in 20 minutes, and they're trying to see as many people as they can. The last thing a casting office wants to hear after holding an entire day of auditions consisting of the words "plaque psoriasis" is that the repressed and unimaginative collection of suits otherwise known as "the client" wants to see "more choices."
What this means to you is that sometimes it will take three minutes to audition and sometimes it will take an hour. This week I showed up to a callback on time and waited 45 minutes before I was seen. Twenty minutes into my wait, they changed the copy and the premise. I HAD been wrestling a yeti, now it was a sea monster that I had to hit with a shovel. I am not making this up. The poor man ahead of me-- I think he was auditioning for the yeti-- was running late for a class HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE TEACHING. So don't plan your day too tightly or it will bite you in the ass. As someone who has to catch trains in and out of New Jersey to juggle child care, this is my biggest beef with the commercial industry. If you have nothing else planned, you will be in and out in two minutes. Just communicate what your needs are when you sign in. And, like everything else in entertainment, it never hurts to be early.