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Commercial Acting

How a 30-second spot can keep on paying for years to come

By Mark Jarvis

You’re an actor waiting for the break that will jump-start your career. Try commercial acting and you may find that 15 seconds in a commercial spot is the little investment with the large return you’ve been waiting for.

While commercials may not seem as glamorous as the stage or film, they can be invaluable to an actor, both financially and professionally. A single commercial spot can provide an actor with a substantial income boost and possibly lead to future roles in film and television.

The name Squire Fridell may not ring a bell, and even though you may have seen him hundreds of times on television, you probably wouldn’t recognize his face if he approached you on the street. Fridell is “the man with the forgettable face,” according to United Press International, and the “King of Commercials” according to Newsweek. In his 30-year career as a commercial actor, Fridell appeared in nearly 2,800 commercial spots and may very well have acted in more commercials than anyone else alive. “I was Ronald McDonald for six years and pitched every single product you can imagine from toilet paper to toothpaste,” Fridell said.

Fridell was one of the last contract players for Universal Studios, and while his CV lists “scads of television shows” (including “M*A*S*H” and “Mama’s Family”) and motion pictures, commercials are where he made his mark. Fridell has since retired from the commercial business, with the exception of the occasional Toyota spot.

The first thing to know about acting in commercials is that it can be financially lucrative. This is largely because actors are well paid for a very small amount of their time (hours as opposed to days, weeks or months), with residuals to boost. Residuals are an additional amount of money paid to an actor each time a commercial airs. “The residuals are just terrific, especially if you have some national spots,” said Fridell. “During my heyday I had 18 national spots running at the same time.”

In the commercial world, national spots are the best of the best. These are commercials that are shown across the country. Next come regional commercials, followed by local spots.

Actor Stephen Guarino recently did two commercials for Wendy’s restaurants and one for Johnson & Johnson. While commercials haven’t made him rich, they have provided him with enough income that he can focus his time and energy on his true artistic pursuits, which include spontaneous theater. Guarino is “the cute one” of the threesome that makes up the improv musical show, The Nuclear Family.

“One time I had an affair with an orange, another time I sold hotdogs,” said Guarino, describing two commercial auditions, one for a fruit juice and one for wieners. Why does he do it? “Because I make more off of commercials, even though it is maybe only one day out of the year. Plus, it makes my manager happy. He’ll make more money off of me through my commercial career than my theatrical career.”

Just how rewarding are commercials? In 2005, total Screen Actors Guild earnings for commercials topped at $750 million, which included ads for new-media platforms like cell phones and the Internet. In fact, last year SAG members voted in favor of a two-year extension of their contract with the advertising industry. This extension covers new media as well as traditional outlets like television and radio.


Training for the Job

At first glance, commercial acting may seem “so easy a caveman could do it.” After all, commercials are at most 30 seconds long. In truth, however, getting those 30 seconds on film can be grueling. Businesses pay a lot of money to have their commercials created just right, which can mean numerous takes. The proper training, however, can help you land an audition and ease your way through the shoot.

If you’ve never done a commercial and know nothing about the business, study up. You can start by watching TV. Instead of heading to the kitchen for a snack when commercials come on, stay and watch them. Pay attention to what kinds of characters are paired with various products. 

You can also pick up a book. There is a wide assortment of available reading material on commercial acting. Joan See’s Acting in Commercials: A guide to Auditioning and Performing On Camera offers a wonderful introduction to the business. If you need pictures to keep your eyes from glazing over, go with Fridell’s Acting in Television Commercials for Fun and Profit, which is fully illustrated and full of humor.

If you’re serious about acting in commercials, look into getting formal training through a class or workshop. “There are nuts and bolts you need to learn because auditioning for commercials is very different than auditioning for other things, even though they all rely on the basic foundation of being an actor,” Fridell said.

In addition to authoring a book and appearing in hundreds of commercials throughout her career as an actress, Joan See currently teaches advanced commercial acting classes at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts (formerly the School for Film and Television), which she also founded. According to See, “Actors can have a hard time dealing with the camera and the speed of commercials. Commercials are an application of your acting skills in a very specific way.”

Every commercial is a story, and 30 seconds or less is not a lot of time to tell a story. “One of the biggest problems actors have is how fast they have to work and how accurate they have to work,” See said. Commercial acting is a fast-paced business. When an agent gets a call from a commercial casting director and relays it to the actor, it’s for an audition the very next day.

“To get two or three days’ notice on an audition is kind of leisurely. Most of the time the call comes in and the audition is tomorrow,” said See. “On top of that, your agent gives you sketchy information. You don’t know what the job is until you get there. Then you have to get up there and do something.”

According to See, it’s imperative for actors to know some essential tricks of the commercial acting trade, such as learning how to act on camera, getting more information about the role beforehand, reading and analyzing commercial copy (i.e. the script) in a short amount of time, and listening to directors to pick up hints on how the role should be performed.

Get an Agent

In the commercial business, you need an agent. There’s really no way around it. Unlike the widely advertised casting calls for stage, television and film, commercial spots go directly from casting directors to commercial talent agents. If you want to be in the loop, you need to hire an agent to give you the heads up.

“Many people I work with have this fear about getting an agent, like there’s some kind of mystique about agencies,” said longtime actor William Mahoney. “It’s actually very easy to do.”

Because commercial roles vary so much and are so specific, agencies need a full stable of actors of different sizes, shapes, ages and looks. Although commercials are just as competitive as other forms of acting, commercial agencies need to have a good selection of available actors, meaning they are often more open to signing new talent.

Mailing resumes and headshots to agencies is the standard approach, but Mahoney recommends something more personal than blind submissions. “Ninety-five percent of agents just toss the headshots,” Mahoney said. “They are inundated. When the mail arrives there are hundreds of nine-by-twelve manila envelopes of people submitting themselves.”

As an actor, your goal is to book auditions and get spots. The way to do that is to get an appointment with an agent and have him sign you. Getting a personal reference from someone who already works with an agent can also bring you a step closer to getting your foot in the door. If you know an actor who has been getting booked regularly for commercial spots, ask her if she can put you in touch with her agent.

Most agencies say don’t call or visit. Mahoney has done both, and he’s gotten booked. “They say that to discourage the easily discouraged. You can’t be afraid of taking those kinds of steps. If you are, then you shouldn’t be in the business. Taking a chance is what being an actor is all about.”

Like all of show business, the commercial industry is full of low-level assistants who act as gatekeepers. Be courteous and respectful to everyone you encounter. There is a lot of mobility in the industry, and the girl who works today as the senior talent agent’s assistant’s assistant could be running her own agency one day. She may remember that you were rude to her when she was a peon.

Whether you’re cold calling or there in the flesh, the first person you talk to is most likely going to be one of these gatekeepers. “Most people will look at that receptionist and see a nobody and ignore them,” said Mahoney. “Instead, you should be building a rapport with that person. Get their name, talk to them. Say, ‘I would like to have an appointment with so and so or her assistant.’ Then they will be more likely to take your headshot and get you an appointment.”

 Simply stated, if good relationships are the foundation of success, you need to be pouring concrete on everyone you meet.


Commercials are Legit

If you’re a young actor in New York City, making commercial acting a priority from the start can put you ahead of the game. Although commercials may not be the high art of acting, they are far more artistically satisfying than waiting tables or mixing drinks behind a bar. If you’re looking for creative validation, commercials probably won’t do it. But if you give them your best, they can at least put some cash in your pockets.

“Nothing makes success like success,” said See. “And the hardest thing is getting the first job.” Once you start getting auditions, you may find that even though you may have been the best act in the room, for some reason the director or client decided to go ten years older or ten years younger, blonder or darker, etc. The best actor in the room doesn’t always get the job, but if you perform well at an audition, those directors and casting directors are going to request you for future calls and continue to bring you in. “You should be shooting for a 50 percent or more callback ratio,” said See. “That means you are doing well in the room and your agents are submitting you. And if you get enough callbacks, you’re going to book.”

“The definition of a successful actor is someone who makes a living as an actor year after year no matter what the medium is,” Fridell said. And success in commercials can often lead to success elsewhere.

According to Elizabeth Bunnell, a former casting director with Liz Lewis Casting, “There are a lot of directors who do commercials who are either up and coming or doing commercials on the side. So it is a great way for actors to meet and get to know these directors. The same goes for producers. It’s possible.”


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