Acting in TV Commercials: A BBC + ITV Actor Shares His Tips

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Photo Source: Pexels. Photo: Terje Sollie

Actor Finlay Robertson has worked on some of the best UK dramas out there from Silent Witness to Dr Who, alongside talents like Brian Cox and Indira Varma. His numerous recent international commercials include Renault and Qualcomm.

For performers who rely on other people to work, quarantine is a particularly challenging time. However, there’s plenty in Finlay Robertson’s recent seminar on commercial casting that you can practice from home. During a live Zoom Q&A for Backstage’s new digital video series The Slate, Robertson called on his 20 years’ experience acting in commercials to lay bare how the casting process works and how actors can put themselves in the best possible position to get the job.

Nobody becomes an actor purely to do commercials.
“However, commercials are out there and they require actors to tell stories in order to sell stuff. Why would you want to do them? What have they given me? Quite simply, they’ve given me money. We all have our side hustles, like working in a pub. Mine is running casting sessions and doing commercials. And doing that means I can have a career as a performer. I also believe doing commercials gives you great on-camera skills, teaches you to work with a crew, and how a set works. Whereas in TV you might shoot four to eight pages a day, in commercials it’s 30 seconds per day, so as a performer you get to work the camera without rushing.”

Why the industry is less snobby about commercials now.
“Fifteen years ago there were five terrestrial TV channels in the UK and people watching TV had to sit through all the ads. TV isn’t consumed like that anymore and people can now skip the ads. Talking to casting directors (CDs) in the past, they would sometimes say: ‘Oh, so and so did that commercial, are they a proper actor?’ Now, the mood has changed. And doing anything where you meet more people in the industry is good. Lots of drama CDs like Nina Gold, Sasha Robertson, and Des Hamilton still do commercial castings.” 

How a commercial casting works.
“Someone who makes a product – for instance, Coca Cola – hires an ad agency to make their commercial. Just like Madmen. And that agency picks a director, who works with a casting director and that’s where we come in. There is a casting brief (or ‘breakdown’), your agent sends you up for it and your audition is recorded and sent to a director who picks what they like. If you’re one of those people, you get what’s called a ‘pencil’ which means you’re on a shortlist. That list is given to the client, and they then have their say, then there’s a recall, and then you’re booked – or not. For more info, listen to the episode of The 98% Podcast where CD Michael Cox breaks all this down in detail.” 

Why it’s important to remember casting is a ‘numbers game.’
“When you’re on pencil, it might be you and eight other people. But at your recall they might bring in a load of new people. Just before we went into lockdown, I was recalled for a job and the CD said the director loved me. But, instead of white guys in their 40s, they went for black guys in their 20s. In the end it didn’t go my way because so many people have an input and opinion now. It’s a numbers game, a roll of the dice. Get that into your head. By which I mean, give yourself the best chance possible and then let go – remember that it’s up to somebody else.”

How to prepare for a casting.
“Get as much info as you can from your agent, like is there a dress code? If you’re a man with a beard, ask if you need to shave it. Don’t wear logos, don’t go in with a Nike hoodie or an Iron Maiden T-shirt unless that’s what they’re after. Don’t go for stripes because it doesn’t work on camera. Know what works for you, what colours work for your skin tone. Often, commercial casting studios have a coloured backdrop, usually blue or grey. If I get there and the background is blue and I’m wearing blue, I would have a second layer in a different colour, for instance a green cardigan. Anybody looking for books on how to have a career as an actor should check out the Andy Nyman book The Golden Rules of Acting. One of his tips is to wear the same clothes as your first audition because it helps people go ‘Oh, it’s him.’ And stating the obvious, but sleep well, don’t come in with a hangover or smelling like booze or cigarettes, don’t drink too much coffee. You know how to make yourself look good.”

Why the ident [or slate] is crucial and how to nail it.
“In the UK we call it an ident, in the US it’s called a slate. You look straight down the barrel of the camera and you say your name and your agent. Sometimes you might say your name and height. And they ask for profiles, looking to one side and the other. Remember, this is the first time the director sees you, so it’s important. The trick that was taught to me 20 years ago is to look down the lens and imagine that there’s somebody you love or who makes you laugh whenever you see them. Imagine they’re behind the camera as you say your name and agent. It’ll be better, there will be a smile in your eyes and you won’t go into short focus.’

Why your eyes are all-important.
“You should already know that the most important part of your face is your eyes. Sometimes when you’re driving, you’ll see a truck with a sticker that says: ‘If you can’t see my mirrors then I can’t see you.’ That’s true for your eyes on camera. Ask the people in the room where the best eye-line is. Keep them in shot [and] cheat it if you have to look at something that takes your eyes off-camera. Ask the CDs for help. Remember, they are on your side – they want you to be good.” 

Remember that commercials are stories.
“They key to commercial castings is remembering they are stories told in 15 or 30 seconds, often without dialogue. So, you need to tell the story in your face in the smallest amount of time possible. I don’t usually say ‘less is more’ because I think for camera acting, if it’s rooted in truth, you can be as big as you like. But remember that people making the commercial need to put their vision on top of you, so if you’re playing something really big then that could be quite hard. A good note is that if you think it, the camera sees it. The secret of any drama is change and conflict. In ads, there’s very little conflict but there’s lots of change. The moments when you have the thought: ‘Oh yeah, I do want to do this.’ It can feel like the worst acting in the world, but change is what the director is looking for. 

And if you’re given a note?
Listen to the note, take the note and then play the note. It’s as simple as that.”

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