"This is particularly true if it's not a full scene, just a few lines," says David Bellantoni, a casting director with Beth Melsky Casting in New York. "In some cases, the director or casting director will say, 'Just give me three line readings.' You have to think quick, or you've got to be prepared before you come into the room." Even if there's very little dialogue to worry about, that doesn't absolve you from rehearsing, unless you happen to be a brilliant improviser who never rehearses. "A good actor will give me three choices on their own," says the longtime CD.
The real trick, Bellantoni adds, is to keep each read believable and interesting within the world of that commercial. This is your chance to show subtle variations in reaction and a different point of view each time, not to show off your Sir Ian McKellen imitation (however brilliant it may be).
Despite the careful scheduling at most casting offices, there's invariably a part of the day when they run low on actors to read for a particular role. Say they're auditioning married couples and suddenly there's an afternoon lull when they have all women and just one man left. Or perhaps they have a waiting room full of bosses but only one sassy secretary. This is when the casting director will ask if you can stay a few minutes longer and read with some other actors. Never turn down the chance, even if you're in a bit of a rush. When I've stayed to read again, I've gotten a callback nearly every time.
"You're going to get more screen time," Bellantoni says. "It's a golden opportunity for an actor to show all kinds of colors." And, he notes, it's your cue to change up your reading each time: "Just keep giving me something different. There's always dozens of ways to do it. The parameters of the commercial are the same, but within that framework there are lots of ways to look at it."
What happens if you simply give the same solid reading over and over? According to Bellantoni, the people on the other side of the table—the director and ad agency reps—will think: Why are we seeing the same thing three times in a row?
The concept of changing things up extends beyond auditioning. "When an actor goes to see their agent, they should subtly change their look when they drop in to say hello," says Los Angeles casting vet Ava Shevitt, who has been casting commercials and print for more than 25 years. "It's good to remind them that you're not just good for one character all the time."
In other words, if you always audition for businessman-in-a-suit roles, make sure your agents see you dressed casually. If they typically send you in for the harried-mom parts, wear something a little more sophisticated and put your hair up. If they ask why you're so dressed up, tell them you're on your way to a theatrical audition. Looking like you're in demand for other roles is never a bad idea when it comes to agents.
While it's true that your greatest strength as a commercial actor is knowing how you come across on camera and what type you're selling, there's no reason in the world—within that crazy, augmented reality of commercials—that you can't change it up a little now and then.