Cold Reads

"I'm not looking to be sucked up to or anything like that," says Kirsten Walther, a commercial casting director with Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and a 20-year casting veteran. "I think we're just looking for people who know what they're doing, and can kind of take it all with a grain of salt, too. It's TV commercials. It's not life and death."

Maybe not, but for many actors hoping to make a living at their craft, auditioning for a commercial can sometimes feel like just that. A casting director's opinion can mean the difference between breaking through and breaking down. Commercial actors today, unlike those of 20 years ago, can parlay national commercials into film and TV roles, or they can just use them to pay the bills.

But it takes stamina. Walther knows of an actor who got 80 callbacks before finally booking a commercial. "I kept telling him, there's nothing wrong with you. Just don't start doing things differently. Don't think you have to be somebody else," she says. "But sometimes it's hard to get that first job because you can start to lose a sense of who you are and confidence in what you can do."

The Naturals

During cold readings, being comfortable in your own skin is half the battle, according to Walther, who sees 60 to 70 performances a day when casting a commercial. But beyond that, actors must develop and hone the specific skills needed to excel at commercial auditioning: improvising within a rigid structure, reading seamlessly off cue cards, and making intelligent decisions about your character in the 10 to 15 minutes you have before being called in to audition. As an acting genre that routinely requires actors to read copy cold, commercials don't usually offer the luxury of reviewing sides the night before.

Armed with only a brief character description and perhaps a wardrobe preference provided by their agents, actors are generally handed sides when they arrive at the casting office and are not expected to memorize the material. Instead, they're called on to make committed choices about their character based on a short scenario—and, if they're lucky, a few lines of dialogue.

"Don't overanalyze," says Tod Engle, a New York–based commercial actor for over 20 years who has appeared in spots for Prego and McDonald's. "Usually, the casting director and your agent have given you enough information to get you where they want you. You don't have to stand there and ask the casting director, 'What did my character have for breakfast?' " Engle jokes that there's no room for Method acting in commercials.

Not that actors shouldn't develop a backstory for their characters. Walther, who also teaches commercial acting classes, argues that everybody has a backstory, even characters in commercials: "If I was actually the mother of three kids, and I had to get them clean every day, and Tide was really my way of making that happen, then I would care that Tide was in my life," she says.

Seasoned commercial actors use the same strategy for placing themselves in the scene. Gerald McCullouch, a bicoastal actor who leveraged roles in national commercials into a recurring part as ballistics expert Bobby Dawson on "CSI," approaches commercial cold readings the same way he tackles film and television auditions. "I've never tried to sell the product," he says. "I just put myself in the situation. It sounds so cheesy, but my job as an actor is to tell the truth. So whatever I'm given, whatever the situation is, it's my job to make that real."

He uses the example of playing a dad coming home to his brand-new television: "I'm excited because the TV is on and working after I paid for it. It's just my job to make that real." Though he's never taken a commercial acting class, McCullouch says this strategy has allowed him to book many roles. Lots of actors, he explains, make the mistake of really trying to sell the product with an over-the-top performance.

John Rogers, a retired trial lawyer who has appeared in spots for Comcast and CNN, says actors often mistake a commercial audition for a memorization, pronunciation, and style contest, but really it's a "conversation contest." He says an actor has to remember to act like a normal person and speak in an ordinary tone. That means if you're sitting at a dinner table and remarking on how good the chicken tastes, you shouldn't raise your voice and sing its praises to high heaven.

"I've been in auditions with people who really try and kind of sell themselves and sell the product, and I think maybe that was how commercials were done a long time ago, but now it's just very real and they just want very real people," says Michelle Paradise, a commercial actor who recently landed ads for Duracell, Kodak, and Flintstones vitamins.

Trying to land the job—as opposed to placing yourself realistically in the scene—robs the scene of the naturalism that most casting directors seek. Sandra Merrill, a former casting director who has taught commercial acting in Los Angeles for three years, says that casting directors first and foremost want actors to be real. "They don't want somebody being a ham," she says. "They always say, 'We don't want this to be too big. Don't go too broad. Keep it real.' "

That wasn't the case 20 years ago, according to Merrill, when commercial acting classes taught actors how to hold the product, like a can of Diet Pepsi, so that viewers could read the label. Actors aren't trained to "bite and smile" anymore because, she says, it would look phony. If an actor made the mistake of taking that approach today, the casting director would in all likelihood stop rolling and advise him to stop "selling the product," Merrill says.

Because of this trend toward realism, the perfect blond-haired, blue-eyed spokesperson role has virtually disappeared. "They want people in commercials today to really look like they live down the block from you, that they're part of your community," says Joan See, a New York acting coach and the author of "Acting in Commercials: A Guide to Auditioning and Performing on Camera."

On the Fly

But some casting directors are taking the "keeping it real" trend a little too far.

Engle experienced the absurdity of that mentality firsthand while auditioning for an ad for a Florida motorboat company. The commercial depicted rival companies literally kicking their male customers in the groin. Finally, the character for which Engle was auditioning wises up and goes to the "good" motorboat company—holding an ice pack between his legs. The casting director advised Engle not to make his performance "too big" and to keep it subtle. Engle laughs: "Come on. I'm holding an ice pack on my groin. What do you mean, 'Don't make it too big'? To me it was almost a quintessential example of no matter what they do in commercials nowadays, they still want it 'not too big.' "

Because he's been in the business for over 20 years, Engle has witnessed the trend in commercials shift from scripted, over-the-top comic ads like the Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" campaign to the virtually unscripted, often improvised ads of today. For example, at a recent audition for a Disney theme park, Engle was instructed to improvise giving his car keys to his teenage son, then being on a scary ride with his family. The ad ends when it snaps back to the reality of the teenage son driving and Engle saying his only line, "Give me the keys."

At commercial auditions, being asked to wing an entire scene like this—or even miming or improvising a scene without any dialogue—is becoming the norm, not the exception. "That was not the case 20 years ago. It was very scripted," says Engle, who has grown accustomed to walking into dialogue-free auditions and being told to improvise.

That doesn't mean that actors can take egregious liberties with the script and expect to be rewarded. Walther reminds actors that while ad-libbing a line in rehearsals for a new play might be rewarded with a script change, advertisers can't lengthen a 30-second spot to accommodate your joke: "You can only go so far off page, because [they] go, 'Well, okay, now we can't air it.' And nobody wants to spend $350,000 on something [they] can't air."

Rules of the Game

Television commercials must receive network clearance before they can air. The implication of this for actors is that they can't improvise certain adjectives, for example, since the word may imply that a product is making unsubstantiated claims in comparison to other products, which is a major no-no. Even adding the word "new" can be a problem because advertisers can claim that a product is new for only six months. Rules like these make commercials a pretty crummy venue for experimentation. So when improvising, actors need to remember to do so within a structure.

To casting directors, there's a fine line between improvisation and being too "out there." Donna DeSeta, of Donna DeSeta Casting in New York, always allows actors to present their interpretation of the scene first. "I don't direct immediately because sometimes it's more interesting than what I thought of," she says. "If it's way off the mark, I'll try to shape it a little."

In other words, actors should use improvisation to stand out, but without alienating themselves from the scene or the tone of the commercial. And they must do it while reading from cue cards and, in some cases, keeping their eyes fixed on the camera. To manage this, many actors employ a strategy taught in commercial acting classes: They memorize only the first and last lines of dialogue so they can start strong and end strong. Others memorize the whole thing, especially when—as is often the case—it's just a sentence.

Sometimes actors will be told to read their lines into the camera, which means they won't have the luxury of reacting to or playing off of another actor's performance. Engle considers this the biggest difference between auditioning for commercials and auditioning for theatrical projects. "A lot of times you're not reading with another actor; you're reading with [the camera]. So I think you have to create a relationship with the camera," he says. "[It] sounds silly, but it's sort of true."

Look the Part

Creating a good relationship with the camera requires that actors be conscious of just how much the camera picks up. Many actors, especially those accustomed to performing on stage, make the mistake of overcompensating with their bodies to express emotion. But on camera, something as simple as shooting someone a dirty look requires barely moving your head.

Acting coach Joan See feels that most actors unfamiliar with the commercial audition format have a hard time adjusting to a scene that requires just one line or a simple reaction to a situation. Because actors are trained to deliver lines, they often make the mistake of rushing to the dialogue without realizing that in commercials, words are always secondary to images. Many principals in commercials today have no dialogue at all and instead are required to act naturally in the scene while a voiceover handles the rest.

But even to land these nonspeaking roles, you've got to look the part.

Judy Elkins, a Los Angeles–based casting director for over 20 years, won't consider casting actors who don't fit the role. But Screen Actors Guild rules require that she allow these actors to read. "If they show up in shorts, I can't really say, 'I can't bring you in, this is a suit-and-tie [character],' " she says. "But what I do is say, 'You don't have a shot at this.' "

Actors eager to enter the commercial world must be mindful of their type and be willing to pigeonhole themselves. To land a role, a performer must create a character that meshes instantly with who he or she is. "Everybody has to be stereotyped," says commercial acting coach Sandra Merrill. "We have to recognize you as soon as you get on camera because we don't have time to discover something we didn't already think about you."

Model types, for example, shouldn't try to play the fat pool cleaner. Character types shouldn't try to play the pro athlete in a Nike commercial. Engle proudly admits that he has never been "that guy in the deodorant commercial standing in the locker room with perfect pecs" and he never will be. That's why he books lots of roles. Actors like Engle who accept their type and play to their strengths get more work than those who struggle against being typecast.

Sometimes getting into character happens naturally. When John Rogers auditioned in Atlanta for a Comcast spot, he went there to keep his agent happy, not because he wanted the job. When he arrived, he discovered the role called for a cranky, egomaniacal older man. Confident that he didn't want the part, he projected just the grumpy attitude the casting directors were seeking and got the job: Rogers looked the part, he was the right age, and he was in a bad mood.

Re-creation of Life

Michelle Paradise booked her first national commercial by matching her wardrobe to her type. The audition was for a principal role as a businesswoman in an ad for IBM. Paradise wore her most conservative suit, her silver wire-rim glasses, and acted as if she was in a very important business meeting. When she got the callback, she dressed the same. "You always want to make sure you wear the exact same outfit for the callback as you did for the initial audition," says Paradise. "The goal with any callback is to do the exact same thing that you did the first time."

Actors should be aware that after reviewing the initial audition tapes, casting directors will sometimes remember actors based on their clothing. So if you were the guy in the checkered coat at the first audition, you better be the guy in the checkered coat at the callback.

To help re-create their original audition at the callback, some actors will resort to underhanded strategies to give them an edge. Engle often tries to take the copy home with him. Though most casting directors and ad agencies will try to prevent this (they don't want their concept reaching their competitors), Engle says he's found it very useful in preparing for callbacks. "If you can't take the copy, at least write the copy down the minute you leave, so if you get a callback you can work on it," he says. On occasion, casting directors will post the copy online, making this strategy unnecessary, but that's a rare luxury for commercial auditions.

The Actor's Life

For many actors, commercials have become their bread and butter, enabling them to pay the bills while they feed themselves artistically through work in plays and small films. "Thank God I made the money I did," says Gerald McCullouch, who recently purchased a house from the money he has earned on "CSI." "I've been able to support myself as an actor. I've never had a part-time job, really, and I wouldn't have been able to do that without commercials."

And if that's not comforting enough, Paradise reminds actors that casting directors are on your side. "When you walk into the room to do the audition," she says, "they're praying that you're the one."