Intimate Acting

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Just like fashion and car design, commercial styles have changed over the decades. And since 1953, the year of the first Screen Actors Guild commercials contract, actors have been adapting.

Today's smart actor is talking to only one person. We don't have to connect with all of America, or even the Mall of America. Instead we need to connect with the woman who wants to lose those last 10 pounds, or the car nut who can't relax until he brings back the luster in his Mazda's paint job. The story of nearly every commercial is "My life is better now that I have [fill in the blank]." It's not "now that we have." How is this different from commercials of the previous century?

If you look back at the commercials of the 1950s and '60s, they usually centered on the family, every family was white and happy, and the acting style was, well, exuberant. By the 1980s, commercials had become as big as our hair and as loud as our pop music. People were proclaiming their need for Cool Whip or singing about their love of Pepsi. (Remember Michael Jackson's hair mishap?) At least by then we got to see black people and other ethnicities. In the 1990s, we laughed at cranky curmudgeons and sorry sad sacks straight out of a sitcom. Then 9/11 changed all that. Suddenly no one was mean, no one was unhappy.

Now, as we near the end of the aughts, commercials are getting real. The people in them look like the people next door. There are chubby joggers and skinny slackers, people whose gums show when they smile, people with moles, even some with tattoos. We have people with arthritis who love to dance, and people with high cholesterol and low testosterone who go antiquing. We see people smart enough to build their own computers and people too dumb to operate a microwave. Black people, Asian people, Latin people, American Indians, East Indians, Middle Easterners, even white people. And people of all religions (though you may have to look hard for an atheist).

Finally, we have come to an intimate style in advertising -- one on one, mano a mano, just you talkin' to me. Look at Dennis Haysbert: Before Barack Obama, he was the first black president, so it's comforting to have him walk into your living room and chat about your insurance. Or to see a 20-something in extreme close-up whispering to you about Excedrin Sinus. How about the black-and-white ads for Sprint and Advair? What's intimate about black-and-white? It's old-fashioned, so much so that it's cutting-edge, cleverly designed to make you feel like you're the only one cool enough to get it. It's quiet, so you really have to listen -- a concept that OxiClean's Billy Mays and the ShamWow guy haven't quite figured out.

So when you're acting in or auditioning for a commercial these days, the general feeling should be that of an intimate conversation. You're talking only to the one person who needs to hear this message at this moment. No "acting" required. Keep it simple -- just thinking and talking. Who do you know who needs advice on where to shop or could use a really pure soap? Put the face of a real friend in that black hole of the lens. Or the face of your mom, your dog, your first love -- you get the idea. It's so much easier. Just share your secret. This current commercial style is interesting, sexy, funny, and intense, but most of all it's real and intimate.