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NY Acting Markets: Commercials

In years past, most actors new to New York and wanting to work in commercials would immediately start their quest for a SAG card—that little piece of plastic that indicates membership in the Screen Actors Guild, one of the unions that covers TV actors. Times have changed, however, and the news is good for nonunion performers.

One longtime commercial casting director (speaking anonymously) says she cast far more nonunion jobs—60 to 70 percent—than union jobs last year. This is a reversal of the situation a few years ago, she notes, when about one in five commercial jobs was nonunion. Household-name clients—whose commercials she long cast with SAG actors—this year turned to nonunion talent to save money. That news may be mighty disheartening for SAG actors, but for nonunion performers it means that agents who used to ignore your requests for representation may now be more willing to consider you, simply because you're not a SAG member.

Whether you're new to the city or just new to commercials, here are three suggestions:

1. Take an on-camera commercial workshop before you start auditioning. Acting on stage, acting in episodic television, and acting in commercials may be branches of the same acting tree, but each has its own requirements. The performance you give onstage in "Little Shop of Horrors" would look ridiculous on "Law & Order," let alone hawking a cholesterol-lowering drug. "A lot of commercial directors want a real, subdued read, particularly when we hit you in a close-up—it's a different technique," says David Bellantoni, a commercial casting director with Beth Melsky in New York. "When an actor is able to see himself on camera, he can really adjust in a better way." As a bonus, many workshops bring in industry pros like agents and CDs on the final day of class.

2. Work in a casting office or at a commercial production company. If you have to work a day job, why wouldn't you want one that puts you in a position to interact with people who might one day cast you? Although you're not in the office to find acting gigs, in the course of business, you will develop relationships with everyone there and with others who stop by—like directors and producers—in a low-pressure way. Some actors may feel that doing this kind of work means putting your acting career on hold, but it will pay off down the road, when you appear in front of those same people as an actor. You'll have an advantage over other actors they don't already know and like.

3. Don't spend a fortune on headshots right away. The moment you find a commercial or theatrical agent who's interested in representing you, he or she will likely suggest you get new headshots. "If you have a friend who's a decent photographer," says Bellantoni, "for your first round of pictures, that may be okay, especially now that digital photography has brought the cost of pictures way down. They still have to be good, but they don't necessarily have to cost a fortune." Then, when your new agent wants new photos, you won't feel so bad shelling out money for more-professional-looking shots.

As a final note, Bellantoni advises, "Be patient. Be professional." How? "Show up on time." It may seem like a small thing, but casting directors know exactly when your scheduled appointment is, and though they may not say anything, they do take note when you're late. And being late will not endear you to any CD with whom you hope to have a long professional relationship.

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