Keep It Simple, Stupid

Starting with the slate, keep it straightforward and simple. That's the advice of Kevin Smith of Backyard Productions in Venice, Calif., about commercial callbacks. The multiple-award-winning director, whose work includes spots for Budweiser, Wal-Mart, Ford, Nintendo, Home Depot, and many other clients, recently spoke with us about his likes and dislikes about auditions.

If you must add a salutation to your slate, Smith suggests changing it up, so you don't get labeled the "Hey, what's up?" lady. Because actors talk about themselves—all the time—he says, "If I have to ask an actor a personality question, I really want an answer that has nothing to do with the actor. Even if the question is 'Give me a fun fact that I don't know,' I don't want to hear, 'One day I ate three pounds of M&M's.' I'd rather learn that it takes five cowhides to upholster a car."

It's common sense that you don't divulge what commercials you've shot: It sounds like bragging, and suddenly you look overexposed. "Never come in and announce that you use Listerine," he adds. Your film and TV work doesn't matter to the commercial process, so Smith never looks at actors' reels to determine whom to cast. And like most people working in commercials, he prefers not to shake hands: "Too many actors, too many germs."

Surprisingly, Smith says he's considerably more exhausted at the end of a day of callbacks than after the actual shoot. One hundred-plus people is a lot to watch and pay attention to. Then add the fact that the director and the ad agency probably haven't met before that day and the relationship may or may not be going well.

"Callback sessions become like little laboratories to see what will make that commercial work," he explains. "There are people who are just so right that I don't even want to talk to them; I just want to keep them in a bubble. Other times I need people who must be able to act. But I'll tell you, desperation is palpable. If you come in desperate to book this one job, you won't." The people who act like they book enough and don't need this particular job will probably book it, he says. But don't be rude; nobody wants to cast a jerk.

On the subject of wardrobe, Smith suggests wearing something that's "not exactly the costume," but, for example, "do think about what a mechanic would wear and come close. I've found that the wardrobe the actor wore who booked the job is often referenced at the fitting."

He also advises actors to avoid being overly inquisitive and to be flexible: "At some point, stop asking questions, and don't ask about framing. I want to see your interpretation of my direction. I'm very open to what the actor can show me, and I need an actor who can change direction with me. I'm interested in serendipity as opposed to a predetermined picture, on my part or the actor's. If you were asked to make it big and funny but you think it works quiet and introspective, please show me."

The initial audition is often somewhat general, because they're still developing the spot. So you really have to listen to the director at the callback. If at the first call you were a crazy man in a bumper car banging into the walls, Smith says, but at the callback they just want to see your face expressing joy in the bumper car, you have to change gears and keep the movement to a minimum. And if you have a very different idea, ask for a second take. That helps you look like you are there on your own terms and are willing and able to be a collaborator, he says.

Smith's last piece of advice: "Don't take this process too seriously."