This is the first entry in a series of essays from actor and co-creator of the Superego podcast, Jeremy Carter. He has been performing improv comedy for over 20 years.
When I think back to my days of auditioning for commercials, I picture myself sitting in my 1999 Saturn on the 101 freeway, the speedometer reading 5 mph. Traffic! There's probably a discarded couch on the side of the freeway that everyone has slowed down to look at. Perhaps a fellow actor, marinating in frustration, has decided to micturate on another vehicle while cold reading his sides, "Subway! Eat Fresh!" And the sun, in its all-seeing brutality, is magnified by the windshield, thereby rendering my vehicle’s pathetic air conditioning useless.
Sometimes I was hours early to auditions. Other times, a horse fertilizing the trail at the Burbank Equestrian Center piqued the curiosity of some motorists, leading me to sit in a traffic jam.
Auditioning for commercials -- and booking them -- is the path to getting enough on-camera footage to show to an agent, who then shows it to a casting director for film/television. I'm certain there is a way not to do commercials, and to go directly to the level of obtaining a theatrical agent (an agent that submits you for television/film). But I did not know how to do this, so the long, thorn-laden, soul-draining path of commercial auditioning was what I had before me.
It is gambling.
The commercial is for a car company. This could mean they want a spokesperson, or they just want to see your reaction to the vehicle passing on the road. You may be a passenger in the car, showing the audience what a good time you have with your friends in a sedan. So you leave work for the third time that week, risking unemployment, to drive 25 miles, which takes anywhere from one to three hours in Los Angeles, to gamble that you will book the gig and perhaps make as much as you would working at your regular job for six months or a year. If the casting director and director like you, you will be called back to do the same thing again, only on another day. If you're lucky, this will be on one of your days off, but usually it's not. Occasionally, you will be called for a second callback so that the client (the car company, in this case) can meet you, or see you do the same thing some more.
I'm terrible at auditioning. Do I look directly into the camera? Do I look off to the side? Which side? Am I bloated today? Does this shirt read on camera? Are my teeth white enough? Do I have enough gas to get home? How the hell do you pronounce this company's name?
And then, after you read the sides/script, you drive to the next audition, hoping you make it on time. Sometimes, the casting office is running behind, or sometimes, you don't have a chance to read the sides before you go in, state your name and agency, and leave thinking to yourself, "Did I say my name with enough confidence? Was I natural enough?"
One night, my car was towed. I had an audition at nine in the morning -- a callback, no less! After spending a horrendous evening retrieving the car -- eyes bloodshot, clothes rumpled, and unwashed -- I arrived. Did I mention I had just been hired at a job that paid me three times the amount I had ever made in my life? And that it was my second day at this job, and I was going to be arriving really late to it for this audition? Look, I know I'm complaining about something that I had total control over, but at the time, I didn't think I had that control. Also, I didn't get the commercial. But, I did keep my job.
When I did book commercial work, it wasn't fulfilling, nor was it enjoyable. There was no sense of accomplishment. If I'd had that sense, it wouldn't matter that the director called me by a different name for six of the nine hours of filming. It would be okay that a 12-hour day was a 12-hour day. But all I could think was, "If I can book another one of these, I'll be set for the next six months. . . so that I can audition more."
And it’s not just the auditioning or feeling of emptiness that makes commercial work horrendous. One year, I was on "avail" (when commercial casting calls to tell you that you are one of the people up for a role and wants to ensure your availability for shooting dates) an entire 25 times! It is a great feeling to be so close to being cast, but after canceling trips, and gatherings with friends, and simple trail hikes or bike rides, I realized I wasn't enjoying life. I had to ask myself, "What the hell am I doing?"
In 2005, my agent told me the internet was the "wave of the future." I decided to stop auditioning for commercials. I'm not what they're looking for, and that's cool. The feeling is mutual.