How to Get Cast in a Commercial in the UK

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Photo Source: Joelle Avelino/Backstage

Acting is famously one of the most oversaturated professions around, and the world of commercials is no exception. For every hero woman, or cool, quirky teenager, or everyday 30-something dad, there are hundreds if not thousands of actors ready to apply for the role.

Commercial castings are popular largely because they tend to pay a lot of money for one or two days’ work. This, plus the fact castings often state they want real, relatable people can give the impression that acting or modelling for adverts is an easy job. Don’t be fooled! Mastering the art of commercial acting is not as easy as many think.

For some, getting cast in an advert is a once-in-a-lifetime job that buys them a car, pays off a loan, or gets them that holiday. For others, landing multiple commercials a year supplements the time they spend pursuing other, often less-well-paid acting work. But a select few manage to make acting for commercials their entire career.

Whether you’re just starting out and want to bag that elusive first booking, or you have a couple under your belt and fancy bumping up the numbers, or you’re curious about how to turn this side of the business into a viable full-time career, here’s our guide to commercial castings in the UK.

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What is the key to acting for commercials?

Much of commercial casting comes down to two things: personality and how you look.

That’s not to say you have to look like a fashion model to get work—in fact, unless you’re selling perfume or a top-brand car, commercial breakdowns are moving away from that elite vibe. Nor do you have to enter every room like the Go Compare guy. But the truth is that “looking right” is a much bigger deal than in TV or theatre casting rooms, and the ability to show character and personality within 10 seconds of screen time is pretty much the main bit of the job.

It can be frustrating to read the influx of castings flowing through the business right now asking for “real” people instead of actors, but there’s a lesson there about what the industry currently wants—and that is authentic, relatable people the audience can see themselves in.

The first principle of acting for commercials is knowing what your casting is and what aspects of your personality shine when you get onscreen. If you can nail this level of self-awareness, you’re well on your way to booking jobs.

What casting materials do I need to land a commercial?

If you think you’ve nailed your casting bracket and the type of commercials that suit your on-camera style, then it’s time to get your casting arsenal together to get in the room, get the job, and make such a good impression they’ll hire you again and again. Here’s what you’ll need:

Headshots
The difference between a good standard acting headshot and a good commercial acting headshot is not always easy to spot, so don’t get too hung up on it. But, in general, you want to be fairly specific to the age and demographic you’re most likely to get cast in. You might be a 28-year-old office worker, but if you look like you’re 21, you’re not going to get cast as the CEO. Similarly, you might drive a Porsche, but that doesn’t mean you’re the right casting to sell one (although if you’re driving a Porsche at 28, congratulations).

Beyond that, good commercial headshots tend to be softer and more approachable than a standard acting one. We’d advise getting at least one where you’re smiling, because selling a brand and positivity go hand in hand. If you sometimes wear glasses, it’s worth getting some shots with them and some without. It’s amazing what a face prop can do for your casting bracket. And go easy on the hair and makeup. Your headshot needs to look like you. If they don’t, you’ll get called in for job after job you’re not right for and waste everybody’s time.

It’s also vital to keep your headshots up to date with what you currently look like—far more so than if you’re auditioning for a film or a play. The turnaround on adverts is so quick that if they think you have a three-inch beard and you turn up clean-shaven, the clients are going to be confused as to why you’re there.

For everything else about headshots, including how to take them and where to get them, read The UK Actor’s Headshots Guide. If you’re looking for the right person to shoot them, check out 10 London Headshot Photographers You Should Know.

Showreels
While not vital for a newbie starting out, a good showreel could be the thing that tips the scales in your favour, enabling a casting director (CD) to call you into the room already knowing how your personality shines on film.

If you don’t already have a slew of previous jobs, here are a few ways to get some footage for your first reel:

Student films: These are a great way of building up a body of work and footage while making connections with the film and commercial directors of the future.

Backstage is a great resource for getting cast in all kinds of productions, including student films. Read How to Get Cast on Backstage in the UK for all you need to know.

Skill swap: If you know any aspiring writers, directors, or camera operators, it can be both fun and useful to pool your expertise to create your own piece. This tactic puts a lot more power in your hands and enables you to vet the people coming on board, but it’s also a lot more work. For the more creative among us, it’s definitely worth considering.

Showreel companies: This is the expensive option, but less of a gamble. Showreel companies create bespoke packages around your specific needs, arrange professional equipment and camera operators, and often write scenes for you. A showreel package will put you back a few hundred pounds, but a good company will give you multiple scenes showcasing exactly what you want. Many will even edit a final showreel together for you, including extra scenes you send them for the edit. It’s an expensive option, and one many actors won’t do on principle. That said, if you have a friend also looking to put together new scenes, you could always go halves—showreel scenes are rarely monologues, after all.

CV: The classic dilemma for a newbie is what nonprofessional credits to include. If you went to a good acting school, it’s always worth putting them on so casting directors can see what you’ve spent the last few years doing. Then, as you start to get professional work, you can phase out the training credits as you go. Student films, fringe shows, and the occasional well-selected amateur production can also be a good place to start.

If you’re on Backstage’s casting platform and have some good credits under your belt, it’s worth considering a separate heading for commercials on your online CV so it’s easy to find your experience and to check if there are any obvious conflicts in the work. An example of a conflict would be that if you did a recent Pepsi ad, Coke is not going to hire you for its classic winter season campaign.

For CVs that you put together yourself, have a quick google for examples of templates and choose one that suits you. You’ll find the basic layout is pretty standard (name, headshot, agency, location, and defining characteristics up top, and credits/special skills underneath), but the finer stylistic points are down to taste. Our main tip is to be simple, clear, and to the point. We don’t want your autobiography here, we just want to see you can work!

Writing a commercial CV is the perfect time to flesh out that “Special Skills” section. Horse riding? Wonderful! Axe throwing? Great! All those weird and wonderful hobbies could be the thing that bags you that £10,000 ad. Put them in and let the casting director see that the plucky ginger woman from Dundee is the perfect person to play “medieval LARPing hero in woods.”

The important thing here, though, is not to lie. It’s better not to be cast in an advert you’re patently not right for than to blag your way through an audition process, get a part, panic, mess it up, embarrass yourself, the casting director, and the client, and put the whole filming session in jeopardy.

Social Media: Casting directors often post call-outs for more specific castings on Twitter, so being engaged on social media could mean picking up auditions that otherwise might have fallen through the cracks. It’s these more difficult-to-cast jobs that often open out to people with fewer credits, so it could be a great way to be seen by someone who would usually only call in bigger names.

As for exactly how important social media is to an actor’s career—this is a big question, and one which we’ve covered in detail in How to Build Your Digital Brand as an Actor in the UK.  

For example, if you’re going for an online campaign and the client can hire an “influencer” who has 15,000 followers and an active engagement rate, or someone with 132 followers who’s mainly there for cute dogs, that might play a factor in whether you’re seen for a job. Image-based social media platforms like Instagram are also a great way for casting directors to gain a glimpse of your personality beyond headshots and showreels.

Commercial and modelling agencies are starting to push their clients to be more engaged with their online persona as social media becomes a bigger part of the business, and thus has more castings centred around it.

Having a Twitter account might not be the be all and end all of getting jobs—but a strong, positive social media presence can only do good things for your chances of getting in a room and being booked. In a highly competitive market, every little bit helps!

Can acting workshops and classes help me get cast in a commercial?

Improv classes in particular can help.

It’s true that learning new skills can get you jobs, and flexing certain acting muscles keeps them ready for when auditions crop up. For the best on offer, read 10 of the Best Top-Up Acting Classes in London.

In addition, many casting directors offer one-on-one sessions or group workshops on anything from getting auditions to what to do once you’re in one. If you think it would be useful to get in a room with a top CD and can afford the expense, do a little research into workshops coming up and consider booking one. Think about exactly what that particular workshop is focusing on and how it will benefit you. What you absolutely shouldn’t do is expect to get a casting out of it.However, it’s hard to overstate how many commercial castings involve improv. Even if the job has a very specific script, it’s often so tied up with locations that what they ask of you in the room can be totally different to what the final thing will be. Take a look at our guide to improv comedy in the UK, see what’s near you, and consider a beginner’s course or a drop-in jam to get a sense of what improv is. A good foundation will give you the confidence to step into a room and not be phased by whatever they ask of you. Plus, it looks great on that “special skills” section on your CV.

How can acting agents help me get cast in a commercial?

Agents play an undeniable role in getting you through doors and into castings.

Backstage casting expert Hannah Williams explains the hard truth that for the bigger “hero” roles: “CDs will go to the top agents; then, following that, they will go to midlevel agents for people with a great look and strong CVs. For anything outside out of that—be it specific qualities or multiple roles they can't fill—they will put it out a bit wider.” That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be seen without a top agent, but it does reduce your chances of getting the bigger roles.

If you don’t have an agent, that doesn’t mean you can’t get seen for castings, it just means being more realistic. Many are posted on casting platforms like Backstage. A lot of actors apply for these, so it’s worth only applying for roles you are certain you’re right for, or which look for a very specific box you happen to tick. As before, read How to Get Cast on Backstage in the UK for all you need to know.

How can I prepare for my commercial audition?

The main thing is not to get stuck with your head in the script. You need to give yourself the freedom to take direction and play.

In many auditions, there aren’t any lines at all. For a primer on this, take a look at Backstage Expert Cathryn Hartt’s piece on How to Audition for Commercials Without Dialogue. The main points here are to remain positive, use your imagination, and keep changing it up.

You can do some research into the brand or the style of the director, but expect the unexpected. If you enter a room feeling comfortable in the fact that it’s likely not to go the way you thought, you open yourself up to having fun with it and allowing your personality to shine.

When it comes to wardrobe, it’s a balancing act between being yourself and suiting the style of the piece. Don’t try and become a carbon copy of whatever actor recently did a similar commercial. If they wanted that actor, they’d hire them! Be your version of the cool mum or the scruffy young man. Bring yourself to the part!

Before you get in the room, you’ll be asked to hang out in the waiting area where you’ll usually find yourself sitting with 15 other people who look just like you. Don’t freak out! It means you’re already right for the part and just goes to show how important your unique personality will be. If you feel like the odd one out, that might mean you’re the wildcard, and that’s equally exciting.

The most positive way to view this is that it’s all about opportunity. The opportunity to show everyone how you shine in a room full of people with a similar casting, or the opportunity to show the client the CD was right when they had a hunch to bring in a petite blond woman instead of a tall brunet man.

Also, use it as a reminder that if you don’t get it, it’s not personal. It could be as simple as being far taller than the actor who was meant to play your husband, or “that other guy’s teeth looked better next to the cheese…”

Not to mention, you’ll probably see the same people over and over again at different auditions. If one of your soon-to-be waiting roommates gets a job, be happy for them—it won’t be long before they’re congratulating you!

I’m acting in a commercial. What about contracts?

Understanding the contract can have a dramatic effect on the amount of money you eventually receive.

Some companies will try and use an actor’s lack of experience to avoid paying what they’re worth.

Say the rate is £350 per day for two days, but the buyout is £1,000 for all worldwide distribution and they own the ad in perpetuity. If they want to run the advert for the next five years, you won’t see a penny more. A £1,000 buyout is low to begin with, but if it’s forever, that’s an unfair deal. You should be given the option to extend (and get more money) if they want to run the ad cycle again. That extra money is also a further buyout that makes it worth your while when you can’t work for competitors for another period of time. For example, if you’ve done a McDonald’s ad and have an undertaking not to do any adverts for Burger King!

If you have an agent, this whole thing becomes much easier, as they can deal with it for you and it keeps it much less personal. If you’re doing it on your own, you need to be much more careful. As a minimum, read the whole thing thoroughly and look up any words you don’t understand. Think about your career as it is now, but also how it affects the future. Always play the long game.

But, really, contracts need to be looked at by a pro. If you’re a member of Equity, it has people whose job it is to help. If you’re not a member, perhaps now’s the time to become one. Otherwise, for a big contract, consider going private and investing in someone who knows not only contract law, but this specific area of the business.

Don’t let yourself get too bogged down, though. Don’t let it become personal. This is business, and if you’ve been offered a job, you’re doing well.

READ: What Is Equity + Why Should You Care?

What else do I need to know about acting in commercials?

Ready to take over the world of commercials?  Here are some pointers to help you along the way and to remind you not to get too hung up on the little things:

Don’t try to be perfect. Commercial castings are about being real and relatable. It’s not about being the fittest, the prettiest, or the one with the biggest brain. It’s about showing the best version of you.

The biggest agents get first dibs. It’s just the truth. There will be some rooms you can find your way into and some you can’t, but there will always be space to forge new connections and make your way up the pecking order.

Casting directors are people, too. If they like you, they’ll bring you in for more jobs. We’ve known people who have pretty much already been cast and were called in as a formality just to “check you’re not a dick” (real quote). This business is about talent and looks, but it’s also about what you’re like to work with. Being nice goes a long way.

Because they’re people, it means they are not monsters! If you’ve been invited into a room, it means there’s something about you that a CD deems castable. Trust us, they want to cast you! Finding people who make the client happy and the ad great is their main job, and a day of great auditions is a lot more bearable than a day of terrible ones. Enter the room knowing everyone is on your side and rooting for you to do great. There’s nothing to be scared of.

The client gets the final call. And the client often doesn’t know what they’re talking about. When someone not from the business gets the final call on something so linked to the business, it can get tricky. But that has literally nothing to do with you, so remember…

It’s not personal. It can come down to accent, beard length, size of teeth…anything is possible. You just don’t know. But it so rarely comes down to pure talent. Don’t sweat the small things, and know it most likely had nothing to do with you. It’s just as likely the CEO got annoyed that you wore blue because last week their team lost to Chelsea.

Don’t be late. One thing that might lose you a job and sour a working relationship is being late. If there is a genuine emergency, that’s different—refer back to CDs are not monsters—but tardiness is not acceptable. If you get a reputation for being late to auditions, why should someone trust you when you have the job? Plus, being early has its benefits. If one of the aforementioned late people isn’t on time and you’re early, you can often bag an earlier slot, immediately be in the CD’s good books, and get out quicker. Win!

Spot the trends. If you’re a tattooed rocker with heavy piercings and you start to see similar actors getting jobs, now is the time to pay particular close attention to castings. Commercial zeitgeist is real!

Have your measurements on a PDF. Every casting asks for them, and then they ask for them again at the recall, and then they ask again once the contract is signed. It’s much easier if you just have all your measurements ready to jot down when you get to the waiting room. Then you have more time to chill out, go to the loo, and check your eyeliner didn’t smudge while you were running for the train.

Don’t be intimidated by the size of the casting. Sometimes you’ll be one in 100, sometimes there’ll only be five people in the building. You can’t ever truly know what that means to your chances, so just smile, say hello to the person sitting next to you, then go for it.

Don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with. Sometimes, miscommunications or a lazy agent can mean you arrive at a casting and are greeted with something that makes you uncomfortable. If that’s the case, don’t do it. You didn’t know it was an underwear shoot? Don’t worry, you can keep your clothes on. You’re a fervent vegan and they want you to eat beef? Not even the £5,000 buyout is worth that amount of tears. CDs don’t want to force you into positions you don’t want to be in, and if your agent is pushing you to do something that doesn’t feel right, they don’t have your best interests at heart.

Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get it. You already know in your head it’s not about you—your heart just needs to catch up. Keep your chin up, go get a bagel, and prep for the next one because…

There are always more castings out there. This won’t be the last campaign for that brand, let alone the hundreds of others. It’s a numbers game, really. Your time will come.

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