This episode is humbly dedicated to my college friend, Emmett Loughran, a superb Technical Director and later Director, who brought me in to work in Live Sports TV in the days before ESPN. The stakes were high, the stress to get it right even higher, but even then, at his young age, performed with incredible grace and professionalism under huge amounts of pressure. And still does.
Adult Commercial Class – Week 3
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to class, after the kinder and gentler Terminix copy, along comes Week 3.
This one is long, and not for reasons you think, so go and get a snack and/or a beverage and come back. I’ll wait. I’m an Actor, so I’m used to it.
Ready? Here we go.
Once again our class sat huddled in the lobby, although by this time, everyone had started to talk to each other, still in soft voices, but with a sense that the worst had happened and we could relax a little.
We were so, so, so, so, so, so, so wrong.
We were given not one, but two commercials, for Taco Bell. There were 3 characters in each spot, and we were required to know all of them.
The good news was, (at least for me) we were forbidden to rehearse with each other in the lobby, and that was spelled out in no uncertain terms on a pice of paper posted above the sign in sheet.
It was an easy spot, the lines were idiotic, but short.
When auditioning commercial copy, for me, short is always good.
We were marched up the stairs for group instructions.
Now pay attention, because here’s where it got tricky, and I can say that now in the literal sense of the word.
Group Instructions are where a group of actors are brought into the audition room before being called in individually to audition, to listen and hopefully remember the directions of the Casting Director.
What they want out of you, out of all of us Actors, for the spot.
Because the Director of the spot has told the Casting Director what they want.
So there are no misunderstandings about anything.
Casting Directors walk you through the copy as if they were the Director, which is why they are called Casting Directors.
They tell you the tone of the copy, the blocking of the copy, from the very beginning to the very end and they will even tell you the relationships of all the characters in the copy.
All of this is not only so you have the opportunity to deliver the goods asked for, but to facilitate the swift and consummate completion of the casting session to everyone’s satisfaction.
In this business, time is money, the meter is always running and Casting Directors do not want you to waste their time with a delivery style of Hamlet‘s soliloquy in Act III, Sc. 1, when all they really want from you is a deadpan reaction with a piece of foam core hanging from your head.
So they don’t leave anything to chance, except for your actual performance, and they don’t leave anything out.
In an extremely abrupt and terse manner, we were told in this group instruction:
- We would be auditioning both scripts, first would be the “Fajita Sizzle”, then “The Dog Barking”.
- Who would be playing which character: Guy #1, Guy #2 or The Girl, would be determined once we got into the room.
- Where we would be sitting in the scene.
- When to slate.
- Where to go after the audition. (Not surprisingly, we were to go into the room next door.)
- The standard rigmarole of “on-deck” and “top-of-the-stairs” to get us in the room beforehand, although I think for this we just lined up on the stairs.
- The reiteration not to rehearse with our scene partners.
Did I mention that Jacob, our usual Giver-Of-Group-Instructions and Runner-Of-The-Casting-Session, was nowhere to be seen?
So, the anxiety, which had somewhat softened in the lobby beforehand, had not only instantly returned but shot through the roof of the dark little room at the top of the stairs, when we all realized who would be running the “session” from start to finish.
We trooped back down the stairs in dead silence to wait.
I can’t speak for my classmates’ experience, but here’s what happened to me.
I think my group was the 3rd group to go in the room.
We came in, we sat down to slate.
I asked if I could ask a question.
I was told “No.”
And the balloon went up.
There was a bowl of cut up bread that magically had appeared, to simulate whatever product we were to be selling.
Although that was not mentioned in the Group Instructions.
Action was called.
I picked up a piece of bread I assumed was the product that we were supposed to be enjoying.
Although that wasn’t mentioned in Group Instructions.
I was Guy#2, but I started to speak, because in the stage directions of copy, it said we were supposed to be enjoying a sunny day in one of our backyards, although who was the host of this little gathering was not made clear, and whenever I either host or attend a gathering in either my or someone else’s backyard, I tend to talk to them, rather than descending upon and devouring whatever food and/or beverage I could get my hands on, in silence.
Although that was not mentioned in the Group Instructions, either.
But that was the question I had hoped to ask The Casting Director, because adding introductory business to the audition is their purview and not mine. Tick-Tock, as they say.
Anyway, I didn’t get the chance because Guy #1 had started speaking when Action was called, since he had the first line.
So after that, I said my line.
The Girl did not say their line. Or did not say it in time.
I really don’t remember, because what happened next shocked me to the core.
The Girl was told to Get Out.
The Girl got up and fled to the next room. Fled.
Because at the end of the day, Actors will pretty much do what you tell them to do.
If you tell them to do it.
I don’t even remember if “Cut” was called.
The Girl was replaced by another Actor, while Guy #1 and I regrouped for a second take.
This wasn’t easy because I had started to imagine some Monty Python-esque contraption in the room next door that annihilated inadequate Actors as they passed over the threshold.
We re-slated, I picked up my bread/fajita and Guy #1 said the first line.
I said my line.
The Girl did not.
The Girl was told to Get Out.
The Girl fled to the next room.
The second after the door closed behind them, without bringing in anyone to replace them, and without telling either Guy #1 or me, The Casting Director threw the first line.
Of the second spot.
“What’s your dog barking at?”
Guess who had the second line?
But by the time my brain registered, in that split second, that I was to reply with the copy of the second spot, because it was still under the assumption we were still working on the first spot, because we hadn’t made it to the end of the copy, it was too late.
I was told to Get Out.
And being an Actor who is trained to do what someone else tells me to, I did.
With some relief, I discovered that there was no Monty Python-esque contraption in the room next door that annihilated inadequate Actors as they passed over the threshold. Instead there were the still-shocked faces of my classmates, huddled in their chairs.
I found one of my own and as I sat, the next deficient Actor came through the door, eyes wide with alarm and bewilderment and stuttered to the rest of us the universal phrase for “I have no understanding of what I just went through” –
“What The F*CK was THAT????”
I don’t know about the rest of my classmates, but I was livid. For several reasons.
Actor by Actor came through the door, with much the same expression, both verbally and visually. Eventually it was all over, and we were commanded back into the dark little room to view our performances and receive adjustments for the second attempt, which now included the inclusion of the stage directions and the allowance of the using the cut-up bread as a prop, which had been left out of the first Group Instructions.
Suffice it to say, our second attempts were better than the first, and since all three Actors passed, in a group, through the doorway to the next room, I can only assume that they all had navigated the copy in some kind of acceptable manner and no one had been told to Get Out.
We were called back to view these final auditions with one more twist.
We were no longer to be merely Actors, verbal cogs in the wheel of Advertising, we were to view these second auditions as Callbacks, and we were to be the Agency Executives responsible for hiring the Actors cast in the spot.
Here’s where it gets a little interesting and a lot ironic.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in a land called Costa Mesa, I worked at an Advertising Agency called Bozell, Someone, Someone and Someone.
I was a Broadcast Producer.
And my client was Taco Bell.
I am very fond of Taco Bell, not so much the food, although I do enjoy their Chalupas, but mostly because they bought me my first house.
There is money to be made on both sides of the camera in Advertising. Big money.
But I digress.
As Broadcast Producer I was responsible for the entire execution of the commercial.
From the moment I got the “Boards”, the drawings of how the commercial was supposed to be shot, through viewing the video reels & recommending the Directors I thought would best enhance those storyboards, to supervising the entire production of the commercial, to choosing and overseeing the editing and any post-production work necessary to deliver unto my Executive Producer, my Agency Creative Director and my client, Taco Bell, a completed spot that would be broadcast on television stations across the nation into your living room. Everything that went into manufacturing that commercial was now under my authority.
And although I rarely attending the first go-round of auditions, I was always there for callbacks, but not for the reason you think.
I would go to Callbacks not so much to observe the Actors; I could watch the callback reel if I wanted to do that. At Callbacks I was usually the person in the back of the room going through paperwork, if you are an Actor and want to know who all those people are that are not paying attention to you, in the room.
I went to Callbacks to observe the Director and the Casting Director, to watch & listen to how they interacted with each other and how they interacted with the Actors, because that was one of the first indications of how things would evolve during production. My production.
So, if this class was actually a real Taco Bell casting session, and the Casting Director had run this session the way this class had been run, well, let’s just say I would have been the one to say GET OUT, and not to the Actors.
As a matter of fact, I would have shut down the session, kicked out the Casting Director, reamed the Director a new one, shoved my paperwork into my bag, driven at high-speed the hour and a half nightmare from the 101 to the 5 to the 605 to the 405 to the 55 and strongly recommended, much like the note pinned above the sign-in sheet in the lobby, in no uncertain terms, that the Director be fired and replaced – immediately.
So even if I only had vague recollections about Casting Sessions I had attended as an Actor, I have clear recall of Casting Sessions I have attended in the service of the Ad Agencies who employed Directors who employed Casting Directors who looked for Actors for them to employ and none of them were ever run like this class.
I don’t know. Maybe things have changed and I never got the memo.
I do know in this day and age of High Speed Tweets, someone, somewhere at Taco Bell, or other high paying Ad Agency Client, would eventually learn of the shenanigans taking place during such a casting session for their product, maybe not from an actor, as actors are notoriously allergic to doing anything that might piss someone off and prevent them from getting their next job – and everyone knows Hollywood is run on, after imagination, plain palm sweating fear – and fearing, because theses Big Clients have a lot at stake as well, that these shenanigans would spread far and wide, across all platforms and devices, until almost everyone on almost every corner of the planet would know about it, and perhaps, for good or bad, boycott their product, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want their casting session run along these lines, as well.
So as an Actor, I was angry to be treated in such a manner and as a former Broadcast Producer I was angry that this class was run in such a way as to potentially bring down the House of Taco Bell.
After all, they bought me my first house.
As a “Mock Agency Client”, I voted for the Big Black Guy to be cast in our Taco Bell Spot. I know Taco Bell and KFC and McDonald’s, and I know all they really want is for some consumer out there in TV Land to turn to someone else and say, “Dude, let’s go get one of those things that Big Black Guy was eating.” They all know, as enticing as their food appears in those commercials, (and I can’t even begin to tell you the time, money and expertise that goes into making that happen) it’s the people eating that food that does most of the selling. The Big Black Guy was a little rough around the edges, but I would have called his agent and told them if they put him with a coach, he got the spot. I was outvoted by the rest of the class, who chose the Mousey Little Girl. She read better, but I know if I’m trying to sell a Fajita Quesadillas in 30 seconds, that Big Black Guy has won half the battle for me, just by showing up onscreen. Casting is everything.
I acquiesced to the majority because, as Killian said, everyone just wanted to get to Shutters.
And just so you know that no one is immune to the ups and downs of this business, we eventually lost the Taco Bell account to a company that came up with a brilliant, though ill-fated campaign featuring a dog not unlike the three I live with and the slogan, “Yo Queiro Taco Bell”.
The entire 6th floor, including me, was fired, although I went to the 4th floor and worked on some smaller, specialized client campaigns for a while.
I still miss Shutters.
I can’t remember whether this was the week or last week at the end of class we were treated to a video of Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye from I think the 1959 movie “The Five Pennies”, which delighted me, because I adore them both, and mystified my classmates, much like the Eartha Kitt video we were treated to in Week 4 of Foundation Class, (and which would eventually, I am quite sure, mystify the current Foundation Class, who had no one even remotely close to my age in attendance). It might have been, because the Very Special Lesson we learned through that video was about Relationships.
I am pretty sure that Satchmo and Danny’s relationship was formed long, long, long before that movie was shot and even longer before it was presented to us on the classroom monitor, but I didn’t care. Watching them sing and play was far better than talking to a Wall, and had at least started to take the bad taste out of my mouth that was this Taco Bell class.
Although I still like their Chalupas.