Dean Winters Keeps His Allstate Commercials Fresh—All 116 of Them

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Although his face is arguably one of the most recognizable in the country thanks to over a decade of Allstate commercials (playing the devious character Mayhem), Dean Winters has only ever been in one other commercial, in the mid-1990s. Winters’ career has taken him from drama with “Oz” and “Rescue Me” to comedy with “30 Rock” and now, “Girls5Eva.” Here, Winters discusses how commercial work changed his career and how he almost bailed on his audition for Tina Fey.

“If it was just me as myself talking to the camera like every other commercial actor, I wouldn’t have taken the job. But because there was a character behind it, I knew there were ways I could play with this.”

Many actors book some commercial work while auditioning for film, TV, and stage. What came first for you: commercials or TV?
I was cast in a Colt 45 commercial back in 1995, and I got my SAG card doing that. That was the only [other] commercial I ever did in my whole career. Cut to 2010: Allstate was doing a nationwide search for this Mayhem character, and unbeknownst to me, a guy named Matt Miller, who created the campaign in Chicago, he had written the character of Mayhem for me because his three favorite shows were “30 Rock,” “Rescue Me,” and “Oz.” He took my characters from those three shows and created Mayhem. When they were looking for Mayhem, I think they went out to guys like Jason Statham and Matt Damon—big names. And then they did a search for unknown actors, but this guy Matt Miller, he really pressed Allstate hard and said, “Dean Winters is the guy. Dean is not famous enough where people know him as a household name.” They offered me the campaign, and I actually passed on it. I passed on it two times. I was working. Actors weren’t doing TV commercials before I was—very few. They pressed me and they showed me the first spot, which was the teenage girl texting while driving, and I was like, “This is kind of funny; I can do something with this.” I took a chance, and Mayhem became one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had. 

How is playing a recurring commercial character different from playing a recurring TV character? 
There’s really not much of a difference, if you think about it, it’s a character. If it was just me as myself talking to the camera like every other commercial actor, I wouldn’t have taken the job. But because there was a character behind it, I knew there were ways I could play with this. We’ve done 116 commercials; I’ve done probably close to 900 radio spots and countless social media spots. I try to make every spot a little bit different than the other one. That’s the challenge: If you’re a regular on a show, you want to try to bring something different to the table every time. It’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s been a good one. 

How has booking Mayhem changed the trajectory of your career?
It definitely put my face on the map more than it was. A lot of people in the industry knew who I was, but outside of the industry, it was like, “There’s that guy from that show.” As far as helping my career, I think it has. I feel very comfortable going back and forth between comedy and drama, which has been a gift in that, when Tina Fey cast me on “30 Rock,” I didn’t see that coming. I really had been known as a drama guy before that. Getting the job on “30 Rock” opened up a whole new world for me. 

Speaking of Tina Fey, what was it like working on another project of hers with “Girls5Eva”?
Tina’s in my top two favorite people in Hollywood. She’s always been in my corner. She gave me that shot on “30 Rock,” which really helped my career out immensely. I tried to repay the favor: I brought her into the Mayhem world. Then when “Girls5Eva” came around, it was a no-brainer. I’ll do anything for Tina. It was a different time, because everyone’s wearing a mask; it was a very different environment for working. Just to be part of a Tina Fey production—she knows the quality is going to be good, the actors are going to be good, everything is going to be good. I remember going to set and seeing her as Dolly Parton, and I was like, “What the F is going on here?” It was amazing. She nailed it. 

What advice would you give your younger self?
When I was a struggling actor back in the ’90s, my brother and I would get Backstage Magazine. We would go to the newspaper stand and grab it and see what the open auditions were. It’s such a different world now, with social media and computers and cellphones. I was calling for auditions on the corner at a pay phone with a quarter. It was a real grind. My brother and I would come home from our bartending shifts, we would get home at 5 o’clock in the morning, and then we would spend from six in the morning until noon licking stamps and putting headshots into envelopes and flooding the market with our headshots. It’s an entirely different world right now. 

READ: What Actors Need to Know About
Booking Commercials

If I were going to tell my younger self anything, it would be the same advice I was given: You’ve got to keep your eye on the prize. You’ve got to stay focused, because you are going to get knocked down so many times that it’s almost laughable. You just can’t sit around and rest on your laurels. You’ve got to attack it. It’s really survival of the fittest. If you’re not doing your best, there’s somebody right next to you that’s going to lap you. 

What’s your worst audition horror story?
I had an audition very early on in my career that I worked on for a couple of days. I was in there with the producer, casting director, and director. I remember the director, while I’m reading and I’m being taped—I was off-book on five pages of lines, doing my best—and this guy is in the back on his phone, texting [and] eating a sandwich. I remember taking my script and throwing it at him, hitting him in the face. I walked out of the room. I didn’t get that one. I have a lot of integrity and I have a lot of loyalty, but if you’re going to treat me like that, it’s coming right back to you in the form of a script at your head. 

“I was like, ‘This is kind of funny; I can do something with this.’ I took a chance, and [Allstate] became one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had.”

Everyone has auditions where you drop all the words. It’s going to happen to everybody. Auditioning is such a hard thing because it’s a necessary process, but it has nothing to do with acting. It’s so inorganic, and I’ve seen people thriving in auditions; and when they get to the set, they have no idea what they’re doing. I had probably one of the most famous movie stars in the world tell me that if he had to audition, he would’ve never had a career, because the process for him was just horrid. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast. Hopefully, you get a good casting director. Most of them are fantastic, and they want to work with you and get you through it. There are good stories where I had an audition or two and I got up and I was like, “You know what? I don’t think I’m good for this. I’m sorry for wasting your time.” I’d leave, and the casting director would come out and say, “Take 20 minutes; you can do this,” and I’ve gone back in and gotten the job. It’s a very, very strange process, which is necessary. If you would’ve asked me 26 years ago when I started if I’d still be auditioning, I’d be like, “Hell, no.” But of course I am. 

What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?
I will tell you my “30 Rock” story. The audition is kind of infamous. I get a call from my agent that “30 Rock” is looking to cast this guy for a couple episodes—Liz Lemon’s ex-boyfriend. I go to Rockefeller Center for the audition, and when I go into the room, I see 20 guys. I recognized all of them; they were all comics. They were famous guys. I was a drama guy. I’m like, What am I doing here? I signed the list, I sat down, looked around the room, and I’m like, I don’t have a shot in hell. I got up and I left. I walked to Central Park, and there was a guy selling beer, so I ordered two Buds and sat down, enjoying my day. My phone rings. My agent was in Europe, but his assistant was covering the audition, and he goes, “Hey, how did ‘30 Rock’ go?” I said, “It went great!” and he said, “That’s funny, because they’re still waiting for you. You need to go back there right now.” I said, “I’m not going to go, because I’m not going to get the job.” The assistant goes, “If you don’t go back there, we’re going to drop you.” I said, “You can’t drop me!” So I’m one beer in, and I get up and walk down Sixth Avenue with my tail between my legs, and I go back up there. The room is empty; everybody’s already gone. The director, Adam Bernstein, who I knew from “Oz,” was in there with the casting director. On the walk there from the park, I figured out how to do the audition. The way that I played it apparently was different from the other 20 guys that had gone in. The way I played it was exactly how they wanted it, which was: This guy believed in everything that he said, no matter how audacious it was, and [he said it] with a straight face. So that’s how I got the job, and three episodes became seven years. That was a little gift. 

What performance should every actor see and why?
It’s really the obvious answer, but I don’t think it gets much better than Al Pacino in “Scarface.” If you watch that performance, I dare you to show me that Al Pacino is Tony Montana. There’s nothing about Al Pacino that’s in that character.

This story originally appeared in the June 24 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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