Dude, You’re Getting a Dell and Other Success Stories

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an actor not in possession of a private fortune must be in want of a commercial. Lessons learned on how to win the audition.

My friend Linda got a call on her cell phone a few months ago while we were having lunch. ‘I have to take this,’ she said, looking tense. She scribbled on a napkin and mmm-hmmmed intently into the phone. From the familiar one-sided conversation, I could tell she was receiving an assignment from her agent—the kind that requires her to convince a large company that she’s the right person to hawk their product during primetime.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an actor not in possession of a private fortune must be in want of a commercial. ‘If I could just get a commercial,’ actors say before telling the story of their friend in L.A. who made six figures last year from a fast food ad. ‘If I got a commercial, I could do a lot more theatre.’ The conversation continues on-track to voiceovers, and how to break into them, and then, inevitably, to a reference to ‘that Dell guy making bank.’ It’s these stories of success, spread like gossip in the lobbies of casting offices, that make actors bear the routine humiliation of the commercial audition.

The audition process begins with the commercial agent’s call, in which the actor is dispatched to a casting office with a two-to-three word description of the ‘type’ she should embody. There’s a story in the success lore of an actor who books consistently by monitoring TV commercials and keeping a database of which colors are worn most often in different types of ads. My dressing system, while proving only slightly less successful, is similarly scientific and just as complicated.

The casting director might want young & hip, for example, which means jeans, plus a trendy item from the H&M Juniors section. The now-maligned shrug used to work wonders in this category. Or she may request young & casual, which means khakis (I don’t own a pair of khakis, which severely limits my ability to book a young & casual; then again, if I were to buy khakis, I could jeopardize my authentic young & hip-ness.) Then there’s young, hip, AND casual which can be perplexing, especially if those adjectives are used to describe, say, a ‘sandwich artist’ for Subway. Frequently, I’m told to be ‘quirky,’ which has something to do with having brown hair, I think. Then there are more detailed instructions like ‘hair: long, clean, gorgeous’ or ‘able to do yoga headstand.’

Recently I’ve graduated to the ‘young mom’ category, a fairly ambiguous type in clothing terms. I had a sinking feeling it meant khakis until recently I was asked to wear a halter top to a ‘young mom’ call. It turns out the director wanted to see what my arms looked like as I swabbed a plastic baby with tissue, which brings me to my next point: you can be an incredibly young, incredibly hip, and an incredibly casual mom, but you better be hot too.

After the dispatch, the actor takes to administrative tasks: finding the casting office, filling out a card detailing one’s measurements, special skills and hat size, and getting a Polaroid taken. (Note on Polaroid etiquette: if it’s a young & hip, don’t smile). When there’s commercial copy, the actor has the lucky chance to wrap her mouth around lines like ‘Every time you cross your legs, you put more than twenty pounds of pressure on your pad!’ There are also auditions that require the actor to ‘tell us a little about yourself’ or—my favorite—react to a person and/or product with a specified facial expression.

In this last category, I recently auditioned for an Italian cookie advertisement. I was ushered into a room and shown the cookie, which looked like a miniature hamantashen and had a name that sounded like ‘tufi tufi.’ The director instructed me to act bashful about taking the cookie, then to take the cookie with attitude, and, in a troubling final moment, to be ‘inspired’ by the cookie. Later we were separated into groups of three to dance to African drums with a plate of cookies in the foreground.

While the Italian cookie call was challenging, normally the react-to-product category requires little more than the actor fitting the right type for the commercial. One day last February I was blessed with a lucky audition: the casting director had requested young & hip, the category where I excel. After several callbacks, I was rewarded for months of strategic dressing with a contract for a national network commercial, the most lucrative kind according to the lore.

The shoot took place in Madison, New Jersey, on a bitterly cold night. My boyfriend in the commercial, who is actually a gay performance artist, had the majority of the screen time. While he was out shooting in the sleet, I spent my time in the stylist’s trailer, changing in and out of young & hip outfits and trying to avoid wearing an enormous ankh, which the stylist was determined to use. The makeup artist had worked for the ladies of The View, and made up my eyes heavily in the Star Jones vein, but the director derisively called them ‘Liza Eyes’ and nixed them. After a few more rounds of consulting between the director and makeup artist, it was decided I would look like ‘I wasn’t trying,’ makeup-code-speak for a thick mask of white powder.

Once I was dressed and blessed with the ankh, I was shuttled to our main location, a barbershop that had been transformed into a Friends Central Perk-type café. My job was to sit and stare at a computer, looking puzzled. Townspeople, lured by the lights and camera equipment, were huddling around the door, trying in vain to spot a celebrity. One elderly man asked me when the café would be open for business. The set was unheated, and I could see my breath as I settled into the appointed funky armchair. In between takes, an assistant ran over with a down jacket, but by the time we had tried every ‘puzzled’ my face could render, I was close to needing an amputation.

Once the ad hit the airwaves, the types of reactions I received were divided starkly between actors and lay people. Those in the business were interested in how much money I was making, while everyone else wanted to celebrate my impending stardom. My friend Sam, a semiotics major at Brown, was worried that I was selling out, but the email responses from a startling number of junior high acquaintances and ex-coworkers were more along the lines of ‘CONGRATS! I ALWAYS KNEW U WOULD MAKE IT!!!!!’ My students in a summer acting program shrieked ‘I love that commercial!’ when they met me. Friends in normal jobs were sure it would lead to film work. One very encouraging actor told me that Steven Spielberg cast a woman in Schindler’s List after seeing her in an ad for genital herpes.

As any actor knows, looking at a computer quizzically for a fraction of a second—even on television—does not an it-girl make. It doesn’t even lead to other commercials, because advertisers are wary of using an actor already associated with another product. The checks continue to trickle in, decimated by agent and manager fees, but my income is hardly success lore. So far, the best thing the commercial afforded was a brief period during which I took my student loans out of forebearance.

Linda’s audition turned out to be for McDonald’s, a company once merely young & casual, but now swiftly making a transition in image to young, casual, and hip. She split the difference and wore low-rise khakis. A few weeks later, while we were marching in a WTO protest alongside some puppeteers from upstate New York, she got a voicemail from her agent about a callback. Feeling vaguely that she was facing a conflict of interest, we took a break from chanting ‘Equalize, Don’t Globalize’ to duck into Starbucks and call him back.