Life as a Commercial Actor – Part One: It’s all about Experience
Vancouver-based actor, Brendan Taylor, explores the benefits of commercial work in this 3 part series.
“Follow your dreams. Do what you love.” The modern mantra. But for an actor, or any artist, let’s be honest: Making a living doing what you love can be a struggle.
Whether you have daydreams of seeing your name in lights or doing great theatre on or off Broadway, “living the dream” is adequate compensation (by your own definition) so you can live your life comfortably as an artist, and do only that. What it isn’t is working your side-job and as an actor … sometimes. I know all too well the discomfort of begging your boss if you can leave early or skip a shift.
Unless you’re Daisy Ridley or John Boyega from Star Wars VII, chances are you won’t land your dream role with little experience. Yes, training is vital; name almost any Oscar nominee and you’ll find their extensive list of training credentials. But take a look at early screen credits. Here you’ll find another diverse list: roles in short films, music videos, indie films and … commercials.
In my experience, some actors turn their nose up at the idea of doing commercials. “I’m trained in theatre, how are they supposed to fulfil my craft as an actor?” “How is doing a commercial for ___________ supposed to get me more roles?” “I don’t want to sell out!” Et cetera.
Coming from someone who has experienced some success from the commercial world, I invite you to read on, and reconsider what going out for and booking more commercials can provide you.
Guess what? A commercial set is still a set! Generally, a commercial set is just a downsized version of a film or TV set. If you’re not familiar with how a day goes on set, this is a great way to learn. All the people that make it happen are usually in the immediate vicinity (as opposed to separate workshops, studios, offices etc required for TV and Film).
Usually, there are far fewer crew members, who just wear many hats. In my experience, these guys and gals are some of the most skilled crew members out there. Since they’re required to do the diverse jobs of many people but are often just 2-4 in a department. You’re in close quarters, with skilled, experienced people. So, observe and ask questions when you’re there!
Companies spend so much money on these 30 second or even 15-second commercials. They want to make sure every frame, moment, and movement is perfect. With complex dolly moves, close-up hero shots of products, actors’ reactions to invisible, post-greenscreen effects, the commercial actor can really improve his or her technical experience. From hitting your mark to following off-camera eye lines. All of these one set skills are useful for bigger projects.
Technical aspects aside, believe it or not, you do get acting experience. I’ve shot many commercials that are just little scenes with another actor or two. This is a common style of commercial. Instead of breaking down the “fourth wall” to try to sell to the viewer, we are voyeurs into the lives of the characters where they happen to reference the product in their world.
Commercials can also afford you some great travel experiences. I traveled three times in 2015 for acting work, twice for commercials. One time was to Toronto for a FedEx spot, which was great because I got to see my Grandma and my East Coast friends on my down time. Another time, I found myself in the Caribbean for 9 days for Carnival Cruise Lines. It was one of the wildest experiences I’ve ever had.
Commercials come in a variety of types: contrary to the early era of advertising in the 50’s or 60’s, these days you’re rarely smiling at the camera in a bikini holding a Coke, or delivering a dry monologue of the benefits of Preparation H down the lens. No doubt those ads still exist, but the public has come to expect variety. Not only can you get paid to act in little scenes or vignettes, but, and for me this is a huge reason why I enjoy commercials: YOU GET PAID TO DO COMEDY. I hear from actor friends all the time about one day wanting to be in a comedy series or comedy feature, but they often aren’t as common as dramas and are harder to break into. Commercials are often upbeat and often use comedy in some way to send their message. So you get to explore your comedic side and are financially rewarded for do so. Personally, I love comedic acting, so it’s always gratifying to book a commercial with some funny parts, and I get to play. I always try to get at least one line or an action I came up with into the final cut of the commercial. It’s pretty cool to feel like a part of the creative process!
And guess what: You’re working! You put in the time, you worked hard, all your experience and skills and attitude brought you to this point. It paid off. They want YOU to be the face of their product. Book a couple commercials back to back and feel your confidence soar and your pride swell. A booking’s a booking! There are no small parts!
Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for Part 2 of our “Life as a Commercial Actor” series!
Until next time, may the Audition Fairy bless your inbox!