Advert auditions

January 27, 2014 | Filed Under Acting, Dubious pearls of wisdom, General News 

“Commercial castings are a law unto themselves – leave your ego at the door and just go for it.” – Andy Nyman, The Golden Rules Of Acting.

I heard a story once about a guy up for a year-long ad campaign for an extremely big product. Global, you know? And he passed the audition – along with one other guy. They got called to set, turned up in their cabs and were told to just sit on a sofa and wait. After ten minutes, someone came out, looked at both of them critically for a minute, said “That one,” and pointed to the other guy. Guy #1 got driven home, paid his daily shoot fee. Guy #2 got £55k and a year’s exposure worldwide.

As an actor in the trenches, yet to establish a career of going from one prestigious TV job to the next, the majority of auditions I get through my agent are for advertisements. They’ve got me a couple of beauties in the past – The National Theatre, a feature film, a drama-documentary, etc – but mostly, I’m up for advert jobs. They may be big campaigns (I once got a recall for a two-hander campaign that would have paid £65k in buyouts, only to be pipped at the post by someone really rather well-known), or they may be one-offs running for two weeks, but they make up the majority of sensibly paid work that I get called in for.

This is not, as far as I can tell, a failing of my agent, as they’ve got me auditions for more interesting things than my previous agent did (see above); it’s just the nature of the beast for most jobbing actors. Wages are generally coming down for actors across the board, as there are more and more of us scrabbling for work and undercutting each other – it’s a buyer’s marketplace, and they know it – but a decently paid campaign running for, say, 600 repeats can pay the equivalent of 6-12 months’ service industry salary, which is why we’re always happy to get a call for one.

So how do you approach an ad audition? It’s a tricky proposition. Half the time, you won’t get sides; you’ll be told to turn up looking suave/scruffy/posh/whatever, and be handed a basic script on the spot – or nothing at all, just do what you’re told when you go into the room. Generally, advert auditions require you to commit, completely and wholeheartedly, to something humiliating. Some examples:

  • Mime riding a horse while trying not to sneeze (done that).
  • Dance like Michael Jackson (done that, too).
  • Play a piece of baguette like it’s a harmonica (I dread to think how many people had slobbered on it before I went in).
  • Be a camp drill sergeant whipping a bunch of dancers into shape (got a recall for that).
  • Ride a bike around the room. We don’t want any stunts, just wide circles, figures of eight (I got pencilled for that one, despite barely being able to ride).

After a while, it can all start to feel a bit like this (by the splendid Cardinal Burns, for whom I played a few very minor bits and pieces in their first TV series).

And here is my shameful secret: in 3.5 years of acting professionally, I have never been in an ad campaign that screened. I landed my second ever ad audition, they filmed it, but it never screened (and no transmission means no buyout fee). I’ve been pencilled for about eight, and cancelled a few days before for a few others. It gets hard, after a while, to go into an ad audition believing you can get the job with a track record like that. That’s when you need to remember one cardinal rule: whether you get an ad or not has nothing to do with your abilities as an actor.

The Michael Jackson-dancing ad? Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre) was directing that. Apparently, he fought with the company execs to be able to see me again. A Hollywood director, hired specifically to deliver a kooky, off-the-wall product, wanted to meet me for this job, but I still did not get it, because the company didn’t like my face. Honestly, I think the main reason he liked my face was because I was beardy and bespectacled, just like he was at the time (he was a very nice man, btw).

I know it may sound it, but I’m not bitter. No, seriously, I’m not. Guy #1, above, has the right to be bitter. Other than an extreme example like that, there’s no point in being bitter, because (a) it changes nothing except your own state of mind (which gets worse), and (b) it’s got nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the brand. If you fit, you fit. If you don’t fit, you don’t fit. You choose your outfit (I believe in dressing for the part, as long as the part’s not, you know, Batman), you go in, you make your choices and you stand by them (but not to the point of ignoring direction), you do your job, you go home and you forget about it.

I had an ad audition this morning, my first of the year. Felt pretty good going in (despite the best efforts of the Northern Line to make me hot, sweaty and late). Liked my chances, looking at the other guys auditioning. Still puzzled by how I even got in the room, given that the breakdown references were Kevin Spacey(!) and George Clooney(!!). But when it was done, I did a couple of chores in town, I came home, and I forgot about it. I looked for another role to apply for. Had a cup of tea. Fussed the cat. Read a bit of Wolf Hall. Wrote this post. And put it behind me, clearing the decks for the next opportunity to come in.

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