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Careers Clinic: Am I too different for commercials?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I trained in physical theatre and the work I have most enjoyed since graduating is very much the kind of show where I get the chance to use my full range of skills.

I recently signed with an agent who saw me in one of those shows, and while they are putting me up for similar roles, the actual castings they have got so far tend to be commercials.

I’ve been happy to go for these and I put the same prep into them that I would into a drama piece, even if it’s just a minor role selling insurance or something.

I’m getting a bit frustrated by the cattle-call nature of the auditions. Usually, you join a queue of up to 50 people and you literally get two minutes or less to show what you can do.

I always try to bring a different or offbeat interpretation to make my take on the character stand out, but I have never had a callback.

It’s getting frustrating for me, and, I would imagine, for my agent, too. Am I approaching this wrong?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVIVE I once spoke with an up-and-coming singer who landed a prestigious and lucrative gig as a backing vocalist for a major recording star.

Unfortunately, she was let go after the first rehearsal. She couldn’t understand why. Not only had she got the widest vocal range of anybody on the session, she had even “out-sung the lead” on several occasions. I had to gently explain that most backing vocalists have had to work with leads they could easily out-sing. The fact that they instead use their voices to make sure the lead sounds good is precisely why they continue to be employed as backing singers.

No matter how much talent a performer has, if there is a secret to turning that talent into gainful employment, it is knowing what aspect of that talent to apply to the job at hand. There are awards for ‘best supporting actor’, but none for ‘best upstaging actor’, which would suggest that a similar principal applies in the acting world. This is especially true of commercials.

By the time most commercial castings arrive in the actor or agent’s inbox there have usually been quite a few cooks working on the broth.

The vision of the scriptwriter and the director are certainly an important factor, just as they would be in any other production, but the casting director is often also having to juggle the views of the advertising agency, the owner of the brand and even the cultural norms of whatever territory the ad will be broadcast in.

The need to leverage the law of averages to find somebody who fits all those criteria is the reason why commercial castings tend to be more crowded than others. It’s also the reason why, like it or not, the casting director needs to see actors who fit the brief fairly tightly so they can make a quick decision before moving on to the next applicant.

It follows that decisions will usually be based much more on your most obvious general casting types rather than any nuances or other interpretations you can bring to the part.

That’s not true of every commercial, of course – sometimes you will be deliberately encouraged to improvise, or to try something a different way. However, I would be inclined to let that instruction come from the other side of the casting table rather than taking it upon yourself to change the brief.

You can, of course, decide that you don’t want to do commercial castings at all, but that can be a slippery slope. Just like somebody waiting for the perfect relationship, an actor who will only show up for the perfect casting is likely to spend a lot of time waiting by the phone.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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