Directors "want to see that you can express how delicious the food is with a very small, satisfied reaction," says Mary Ruth Egender, co-owner of Petite, A Casting Company. "We want to see enjoyment, but nothing too over-the-top—small bites, not a lot of head-bobbing," adds the Los Angeles–based CD, who, with casting partner Sara Stanton, has cast more than 50 commercials in the last year.
At a recent callback for a national pizza-chain commercial, actor Brian Palatucci was asked to take a bite of pizza as part of his slate, along with three other auditioners. After he'd taken a couple of small bites, the camera turned to the next actor, who, according to Palatucci, took a huge bite and reacted as if the pizza were "made of heavenly cheese from the first cow ever."
The second actor's eyes bugged out, he did a double take, then he shoveled the rest of the piece in his mouth, Palatucci says. This elicited a stony silence, as everyone in the room waited for the fellow to finish chewing the entire slice, followed by the session director asking the actor to take another piece and just eat it, sans the over-the-top reaction.
In other words, no Mentos reactions, says David Bellantoni, a casting director with Beth Melsky's office in New York, referencing the campy mint-candy commercials. Bellantoni, who teaches commercial workshops (davidbellantoni.wordpress.com), actually devotes a section of his classes to eating and drinking.
"Eye-line up, so we can see your expression," he explains. "Three-quarter face to camera, so we can see the product and how you're reacting to it, but without the product blocking your face." And unless the spot is intended to be ironic, says the CD, keep the reactions small and real.
Bellantoni recounts being on the set with a director working with a young, pretty print model who was supposed to be drinking a cup of coffee. She was evidently unschooled in the finer points of eating and drinking for the camera, and finally the exasperated director shouted out in frustration, "You're not f---ing the coffee cup; just drink it!"
Different commercials, though, have different demands. Don't be afraid to ask the casting director what they're looking for in terms of a specific reaction.
The Need for Real Food
But why use real food at an audition? We're actors; can't we just mime it? "It's hard to watch someone pretend to eat; it's difficult," says Egender. "They want to see your jaw line, how your face looks while you really eat."
"This is a huge point for us, dealing with products," says Killian McHugh, a session director with Hollywood's Alyson Horn Casting. "You have to eat and look pleasant at the same time, yet not put so much food in your mouth that your face looks awkward."
This necessitates understanding what your face looks like when you're eating. But how many of us really know what we look like with food in our mouths? It might not be as pretty as you imagine. Determining it could mean recording yourself while eating or taking a commercial class that covers this. Much to my chagrin, it took me years to realize that the expression on my face when I was supposed to be enjoying food looked more pained than pleasant.
McHugh, who teaches commercial auditioning (www.killiansworkshop.com), says it's often what's behind the eating that's most important for actors to understand. Many food-related commercials, such as the spots for Olive Garden, are really "selling" friendship, by showing people hanging with their buddies or their family. These commercials may seem to be about how much the customers enjoy the food, but according to McHugh, the underlying message is about what the restaurant brings to our lives—stronger friendships, bonding with family, bringing us closer together.
This is when your actor training might be particularly useful, substituting the strange actors around you with people you really enjoy. "Use your theatrical training as to who these people are to you," says McHugh.
As for Palatucci, his low-key eating acumen didn't lead to his booking the pizza spot, but he did get a call from the director the following week casting him in another commercial, proving perhaps—in the jargon of advertising—that bite-size is the right size.