How to Become a Commercial Actor

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Photo Source: Jasmin Garcia-Verdin

Are you a person who feels familiar, even to strangers? Someone who constantly gets asked if you went to so-and-so college or grew up in so-and-so town? If you have one of those faces or personalities people feel like they already know, a career in commercial acting might be for you.

What’s more, many A-list film, theater, and television actors got their start in commercials. Everyone from Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, and Courteney Cox, to Bernadette Peters, Steve Carell, and Bryan Cranston were doing food, cell phone, soap, and tampon commercials to name a few. No matter how you look at it, commercials are great places to cut your teeth in front of the camera.

In this guide, we’ll break down how to develop a commercial persona and nail your next commercial audition. From headshots to commercial résumés, here’s everything you need to know to be cast in a commercial.

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How is commercial acting different from other mediums?

Actors in any medium are expected to build a believable character. But for commercial acting—far more than in theater, film, or TV acting—casting directors don’t just cast actors for commercials. They cast personalities. With commercials, the “audience” is prospective consumers that a brand or company wants to reach. So, casting directors are looking for a specific type of performer who will best be able to sell the product, someone who is perceived as “real” enough to relate to the consumer. 

And “real” doesn’t necessarily mean “generic.” Some commercial “characters”—or acting personas—are incredibly memorable. Take Progressive Insurance’s Flo, played by Groundlings actor-comedian Stephanie Courtney, as an example. With her classic vintage hairstyle, blue headband and fire engine red lipstick, she’s definitely got a look. But it’s Flo’s perky personality that made Courtney, who’s worked with Progressive since 2008, one of today’s most famous commercial actors.

Other examples include the former Verizon-turned-Sprint “Can you hear me now?” guy, Paul Marcarelli, whose trademark black-rimmed glasses and signature smirk became synonymous with the cell phone company after almost 10 years and hundreds of commercials. You’d probably also recognize Jonathan Goldsmith, the Most Interesting Man in the World, as made famous by the beer brand Dos Equis.

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What training do I need to become a commercial actor?

Becoming a commercial actor doesn’t necessarily require any formal training. But acting classes can certainly be helpful in jumpstarting your career—particularly improv, commercial, or on-camera acting classes. 

Acting classes can be expensive, so be sure to do your research on the studio or acting coach to ensure you find the right fit both financially and personally. Ideally, you’ll be able to learn audition techniques specific to the commercial industry, including proper slating, skilled product placement, and—perhaps most importantly—basic improv skills. According to casting director and acting coach Carolyne Barry, improv has the potential to work wonders in the audition room when a casting director or commercial agent asks you to describe a product on the fly or when no dialogue is provided.

“Improvisation is a commercial necessity for quite a few reasons,” insists Barry. “Many auditions today have no dialogue and require improv skills, therefore most commercial agents are more interested in actors (especially new actors) who have professionally studied improvisation… Additionally, those who have done improv training will usually do so much better at those commercials auditions.” 

Another avenue for commercial work is through voiceover. The initial upfront costs of voiceover work can be steep, as many voiceover artists build their own at-home studios with quality recording devices and noise-cancellation materials. This way, they can record their own voiceover commercial demos and audition tapes from home. In our in-depth guide to getting into voiceover, we break down everything you need to know about voice acting. 

What are some tips for good commercial headshots?

To start submitting to commercial auditions, you’ll need three things: headshots, a résumé, and a demo reel. We’ll get to résumés and demo reels in a minute, but here are some tips to keep in mind when taking commercial headshots:

  1. Smile warmly. First and foremost, advertisers want someone with a friendly face to sell their product. A winning grin could be just what Downy, for example, is looking for in their next commercial. 
  2. Clearly convey your type. A good commercial headshot reflects the demographic you’re aiming for, your ability to sell a product with your physicality, and a keen awareness for the general look you portray. Think about the types of roles you want to play and tailor your headshots to that look. This includes your outfit choice. “Clothes just add range for a suggested character type,” says headshot photographer Mike Sansone. “If you’re wearing a T-shirt, you’re most likely not going to get called in for a business type.” 
  3. Wear bright colors and avoid harsh shadows. Bright, energizing (but not distracting) clothing colors and softer lighting that doesn’t create many shadows on your face are ideal for commercial headshots. 
  4. Make sure your headshot looks like you. As with any and all headshots, make sure the ones you’re sending to casting directors are up-to-date. If you’ve recently changed your look—anything from dying your hair bright purple to growing a beard—ensure that CDs know who’s walking through their audition-room door. There are few things worse than calling an actor in to read for a part based on their headshot only to find that person’s current look is the complete opposite of what’s needed for the role.

“You want the headshots to represent YOU,” says L.A. actor William Harper. “Not what your mom thinks of you, or your boyfriend. Capture the best version of yourself in your headshots. When a casting director calls you in, you’d better look like your photo, and the best way to do that is to embrace who you are and how you look.”

What’s the difference between a commercial vs. theatrical headshot?

There are some key differences between commercial and theatrical headshots, according to headshot photographer Marc Cartwright. “Commercial headshots are designed to appeal to the advertising industry,” Cartwright explains. When casting a commercial, casting directors are looking for a particular personality type that will resonate with a specific demographic. It’s important to make your personality type easily identifiable since there are only a few moments to connect with the viewer. “Are you the upscale luxury car driver or the college student compact car driver? What is your authentic age range? Are you the stylish hipster phone commercial type or the nerdy, quirky office type?”

Theatrical headshots, on the other hand, are intended to help you get cast in plays, films, and TV shows, so they should show a little more nuance and emotional depth than commercial headshots. In general, most theatrical headshots feature the actor looking confident but unsmiling. Clothing in darker colors or earth tones can also set a more serious tone for theatrical headshots. 

What should I include on a commercial acting résumé?

As you build your commercial acting career and land more gigs, you’re going to have to regularly update your résumé to reflect your growing experience. So, here are some tips for crafting a professional commercial acting résumé.

First, always include your name, a working phone number, and either your or your agent’s email address. Any union affiliations (SAG-AFTRA, AEA, EMA, SAG-eligible) should be included below your name. Don’t include a personal address or your age or birthday. “If casting personnel see exactly how old you are, we may unknowingly box you in and find it a little harder to see you as a character’s age (if we’re reading you for a specific role),” says Backstage Expert Clifton Guterman. “Unfair, but true. Let your headshot and your appearance in the room—and of course your acting ability—signal what age range you fit best.” 

Then, list out whatever credits you’ve acquired so far. No matter the time or size of the part, if you’re starting out, list what you’ve got for now. As your advance in your career, you can cut some of these earlier credits. List the director and producer where applicable. Lack of information can raise suspicions. “Merely saying that you played Jean Valjean in ‘Les Misérables’ tells us frustratingly too little,” Guterman points out. “Where? Your grandma’s living room?”

Also include your training—especially commercial classes. “If someone is at least taking a commercial acting class, that should clearly be noted under training,” Paradigm commercial agent Stacye Mayer says. “Everyone has to start somewhere.

If you’re just starting out and don’t have any credits yet, check out our audition listings, and see if anything jumps out at you in your area. Go for nonunion work. And if you can get paid, great! But if a project really speaks to you, and you can afford to donate your time, any type of acting work is a good place to start. (Once you’re more established, working for free won’t be the go-to!)

Finally, don’t neglect your special skills section—especially when it comes to applying for commercial gigs. “Your skills (other than your acting ability) can get you more auditions and get you cast in jobs—especially when first starting your career,” says Barry. “Skills and hobbies can be almost anything from: racing cars to horseback riding, drawing to computer abilities, singing to dialects, languages to playing a musical instrument, collecting salt and pepper shakers to being the president of a celebrity’s fan club, performing all kinds of dances as well as participating in various sports activities. Just about anything in which you excel, do well, or have some experience doing are considered your skills and should be listed on your résumé.”

For more seasoned performers, here are some tips to fine-tune your commercial résumé:

  • Keep it short. More experienced players may be tempted to showcase all the work they’ve done, but short, sweet, and to the point is the most effective route for casting directors and commercial agents who have precious little time to determine who does and doesn’t fit their bill this time around.
  • Mention your commercial reel, if applicable. “Make sure to take the time to create a professional commercial reel and post it on Vimeo or a similar online platform,” Backstage Expert Bill Coelius says. “Then, state ‘Commercial Reel Available Upon Request’ or ‘Commercial Reel at (your website)’ under the Commercials heading on your résumé.”
  • Don’t include dates for commercial work. You can list out the commercials you’ve booked, but don’t include dates next to them on your résumé because it will date the work. “You may have booked a lot but if you haven’t booked anything in the last two years, that’s going to be glaringly apparent if you list the date of your last shoot,” says Coelius. “Why do that to yourself?”
  • Consider including a simple line about commercial conflicts. If you’ve booked commercial gigs already, it may actually prove detrimental to list them all out because casting directors can scan the list and dismiss you if they see any potential conflicts (if they’re casting for a Ford commercial and they see a commercial credit for Toyota, they might think that it means you currently have a conflict). Rather than detailing all of your commercial credits, you can simply write, “Commercial Conflicts Available Upon Request” under your Commercials heading. “Instead of listing individual conflicts right on your résumé, make yourself as hireable as possible and don’t,” says Coelius.

How do I create a commercial demo reel?

These days, your demo reel is almost as important as your headshot. When you’ve created a commercial demo reel properly, it will showcase what you’re capable of in two minutes or less by highlighting some of your best work right off the bat. Follow these tips to creating a commercial demo reel that gets you noticed:

  1. Gather your material. You need to get ahold of your clips in order to compile your demo reel. “With the invention of iSpot.tv, YouTube, and Vimeo, access to the work is easier than ever,” says actor and acting teacher Bill Coelius. “You can find your clip, download it, and get it ready to edit.” You also may have gotten a copy of the commercials you’ve done from people involved in the shoots. 
  2. Begin and end the reel with a slate card. Kick off—and finish—your reel with a slate card that displays your name, headshot, contact info, and website (or social media handles if you don’t yet have a website). 
  3. Choose your clips and sequencing carefully. The purpose of having a demo reel is to highlight your best work—not all your work—so you must be ruthless with the clips you choose for your reel. Make sure all the scenes focus on you (i.e., don’t include another actor’s 45-second lead up to your big moment). “If you have a sequence with a well-known star, make sure to include this near the beginning (when the viewer is most attentive) to aid the impression that you have high-profile projects and are bookable,” says reel editor Ryan Thompson. “Also, if [actors] have any clips of themselves without dialogue,” he adds, “they are best left till the end.”
  4. Make it fun to watch. “Play with the order of the spots,” says Coelius. “Add music if it helps. Find the flow and write it like a small movie.”
  5. Solicit feedback from people you trust. Before you release the reel into the world, send it off to friends and your reps and see if they have any helpful notes. 
  6. Post it everywhere. Of course, you should include your demo reel on your website, but also consider posting it on all of your social media channels to let people know you’re working. “Your reel lets future bosses know you’re bookable and ready for more work,” writes Coelius.

How can I find auditions for commercials?

If you want to find auditions for commercials, there are several key ways to be proactive in your search. 

  • Start with Backstage. In addition to accessing a bunch of casting calls across the U.S., U.K., and Canada, you can also create your own profile, upload your headshot and résumé, and include URLs to any of your social media platforms as well as your website. Then, you can sort Backstage’s commercial casting notices by location, age, gender, ethnicity, type of commercial, and compensation, so you can filter out any notices that don’t match up with what you’re looking for—and easily submit to the ones that look interesting. 
  • Follow brands on social media. When you’re not scouring the internet for casting opportunities, following brands you care about on social media and seeing if they have any upcoming auditions is another great way to get started. 
  • Use your agent, if you have one. Commercial agents can be great resources.

Keep in mind that fruitful commercial markets often align with those offering actors work in general. These include major hubs like Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta; Texas cities like Austin, Fort Worth, and Dallas; plus Albuquerque, New Mexico; Chicago, Illinois; and Orlando, Florida.

How do I prepare for a commercial audition?

When preparing for a commercial audition—especially If it’s your first audition—you can probably expect to be nervous. The trick here is to make sure your nerves don’t get the best of you. And the best way to do that is preparation, preparation, preparation.

  1. Commit the material to memory. Once you get the copy for your scene, memorize your lines, if there are any, and make a creative choice about your approach. Remember, being off-book will free you up in the room to play with the material. (Tip: Once in the room, even actors who know their lines backward and forwards sometimes like to hold their sides both to catch them should they fumble and to remind CDs the material is still a work in progress.)
  2. Use your imagination. If the scene has no dialogue—you’re enthusiastically petting your dog after using a new pet shampoo, for example—be sure to follow Backstage Expert Cathryn Hartt’s suggestion to watch other commercials and imagine where your part might come into play in the commercial you’re auditioning for. “Start watching commercials and notice all of the scenarios of people just walking or looking or smiling or holding a product or eating—think of all those vignettes of people looking at products on shelves or walking in the woods while the off-camera voice talks about a pill,” Hartt says.
  3. Make a little noise. Even if you don’t have any lines in the commercial, it’s helpful to make some sounds during the audition, as silence often reads as stiff and “phony” on-camera. Practice making “ooh” and “aah” sounds that will naturally light up your face.
  4. Be prepared to shake things up! Practice giving a few different versions of what you’re bringing to the table. “Doing the same thing with your head tilted two different ways may look very different to the camera. Change up your body postures and facial expressions,” Hartt says. “Maybe point at the [product] in one version. Cross your arms in another…Make some versions livelier and some very simple. Slightly change the type of character for different versions. Maybe one character is very perky and one is very sincere and natural. You don’t know exactly what they want, so give them a smorgasbord of goodies from which to choose.”

The same goes with memorized copy. It’s crucial to remain flexible in your approach so you can pivot when a director gives you notes or asks for an adjustment. As mentioned earlier, these situations are where your improv training can come in handy!

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What should I wear to a commercial audition?

Consider the role you’re trying to land when deciding what to wear to a commercial audition. You should wear an outfit that reflects where you want to take this character. “You need to fight the urge to imitate the guy that you’ve seen on these commercials, and focus on bringing yourself to the part,” advises acting coach Joseph Pearlman. “You can only be you. Work on commercial copy with the support of a class that helps you bring yourself to the role—while being a busy mom, an espresso-drinker, a frustrated credit card user, a laundry-doer chasing whiter whites. It must always be your version of it.”

That said, there are some general things to keep in mind when choosing your audition outfit. As with your headshot, wearing bright, jewel tone-colored clothes to an audition can often work well in the commercial industry, but avoid heavily patterned clothing or neon colors, which may not translate well on-camera. “You should never wear black or white in front of the camera. It’s not great for your face,” says Miami-based casting director Ellen Jacoby. “No geometric prints. Come dressed according to what you’re going out for. If you’re coming out to be an upscale dinner guest at an upscale restaurant, I don’t expect you to come in in jeans.” If the commercial role you’re auditioning for is a suburban dad or a high-powered businesswoman, choose an appropriate outfit to convey these personalities.

What should I expect at a commercial audition?

Any audition process is likely to be nerve-wracking, but going into a commercial audition without knowing what to expect can add to the anxiety. Here are some tips for navigating a commercial audition with grace and confidence:

  1. Plan to arrive early. Allot plenty of time to get to the audition location for your scheduled appointment. Even if you don’t land this gig, showing up late won’t do you any favors. 
  2. Make sure you have all your necessary materials. Remember to bring your headshot and résumé (firmly attached to each other or printed on the back), and a form of ID. And don’t forget to sign in when you arrive!
  3. Be prepared for a packed waiting room. The waiting room at a commercial audition will likely be filled with actors who may look just like you—but don’t let this psych you out. You can make friends later down the line—because you’ll likely see them again—but keep in mind that a lot of people just want to get ready for their audition. So don’t take it personally if no one wants to get chatty. 
  4. Use relaxation techniques while waiting. While you’re sitting in the waiting room, it can be helpful to listen to calming music and take deep breaths so you’re not overwhelmed by audition nerves. 
  5. Politeness matters in the audition room. The number of people in the audition room will vary. Sometimes, it’s just the casting director or commercial agent and a camera operator. Other times, there are executives and other decision-makers present. No matter who is there, make sure you introduce yourself, deliver what you’ve practiced, make any suggested adjustments, and say “thank you” before you leave.
  6. Ask questions! Neve Campbell likes to ask casting directors what they’ve already seen so she has the chance to give them something they haven’t. “You know that they’ve seen 30 people before you and they’re sick of the process, so what’s the point in giving them exactly what they’ve gotten from everybody else?” she says.
  7. Keep in mind that the product is the star. With commercial auditions, remember that you’re trying to make the product look good. “The product is No. 1,” says Jacoby. “We have to believe you like the product.” The product—and the experience of using it—should be the focus of your audition. “If you have to take a drink, for example, try not to focus on what you look like drinking the product but rather the wonderful experience you have in engaging with it,” writes Natalie Roy, a commercial actor who starred in the 2020 Ryan Reynolds commercial for Match.com. “The camera, and audience, want to see how that drink is experienced through you. This will make us want one too!”
  8. Don’t be afraid to play! Because commercials are so often about the enjoyment of a product or service, don’t hesitate to get into the playfulness of your experience with the product while auditioning. “If you’re truly enjoying your experience, we’ll enjoy watching you!” writes Roy. This is where improv training can help tremendously in auditions—improv is all about finding playfulness in the moment.    

Always remember: An audition is an opportunity to do what you love for an audience as much as it is a shot to build a relationship with a casting director. Even if he or she doesn’t cast you this time, if you’re a stand-out, they will remember you and may bring you in again for another role that’s a better fit.

Ready? Check out Backstage’s commercial audition listings!

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Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Editor-in-Chief at Backstage. She oversees editorial operations and covers all things film and television. She's interested in stories about the creative process as experienced by women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. You can find her on Twitter @brirodriguez and on Instagram @thebrianarodriguez
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