Commercial Myths Busted

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I went on an audition the other day for a cereal commercial. It was one of those straight-into-camera spokesman roles with wall-to-wall copy. Before I went in, they told me to be very familiar with the material. Like all good commercial actors, I memorized the first couple of lines and the last line, and—most crucial to this tale—I figured I'd just cheat a peek at the cue card for everything else. I was sure I could do that, because all Screen Actors Guild commercial auditions are required to have the copy up on a cue card.

My face dropped when I walked in and discovered that the copy was not up on a card. So I clumsily improvised my way through the audition, since I hadn't memorized all the lines. My embarrassment was exacerbated by the presence of the director, who chose to sit in on the auditions and observed me with what I can only describe as a pitying look. Afterward, feeling blindsided by the casting director, I silently muttered a few choice words that would never be heard in a cereal commercial, even on cable.

That afternoon, I called SAG to complain and discovered I had bought into a myth. Even after two decades of auditioning, I hadn't known that SAG does not in fact require that the copy be on a board or cue card. It only requires that the copy be made available to the actors at the audition. Many casting directors will post their copy online the night before (or as soon as they can) so their actors can be prepared. But cue cards in the room? Not required, said my SAG representative. From now on, before I walk into an audition room, I'll always ask if the copy is on a cue card.

Moreover, I later realized that the casting assistant who'd told me to be familiar with the copy had intentionally left the word "memorize" out of her instructions. That's because, I discovered, SAG requires a producer who asks an actor to memorize material for a commercial audition to pay that actor a half-session fee. The current session fee is $592.20, so half of that would be $296.10. The sticky point is in the terminology: They must use the word "memorize." Simply asking actors to be familiar with copy isn't enough to warrant the payment, even if there are no boards or cue cards in the room.

This got me wondering what other things there are that many of us assume to be true but in fact aren't. I called Killian McHugh, who teaches commercial workshops in Hollywood, for his take.

"I find most actors don't put the time and effort into training," says McHugh, who also runs commercial auditions for casting director Alyson Horne. "We think of commercials as 'less than' a theatrical audition. But a good commercial booking can subsidize your career. An actor could earn $30,000 from a one-day job…. Yet many actors would consider auditioning without any training. The audition is not where you come to learn. I'm constantly shocked at the amount of underpreparedness I see."

McHugh notes that when he first came to Hollywood, he trained for a year before he would even consider auditioning for anything. Years later, his training has paid off and he books commercials regularly.

One myth that McHugh was happy to expose is the idea that a casting director will never call you in again if you have a poor audition. "Don't kill yourself over one bad audition," he says. "If you do your work and things go badly, it doesn't mean you won't get in again. But if you don't deliver the third time in a row, you're probably not going to continue to get called in."

On that score, McHugh advises that if you feel you're not doing well at an audition, don't apologize. "It makes you look weak," he says. "We then think: How will they act on the set if they're doing that here?"

Another reason not to worry about a bad audition is that sometimes the director doesn't decide whom to call back based on the audition. When I ran commercial audition sessions years ago, I often sat in with directors who reviewed the audition tapes by looking only at the slates—when actors state their name and agency—not the auditions themselves. It was from the slates that they decided which actors to call back. This isn't true for all directors, of course, but it is true that nearly all directors have a specific look in mind when they're casting. This means they may never see your wonderful—or awful—performance. So do slates really count? Indeed they do, and that's no myth.