From Audition to Set: My first commercial booking

Over on The NYC Actor on Tumblr I was asked to talk about my first booking. I chose my first commercial because that is the better story!

There was a posting on Actors Access for a Comcast commercial. I was working with a non-union agent at the time but I wasn’t going out that much. The audition was at House, here in NYC. It was a pretty standard commercial audition process where I read with another actress.

This audition experience had something that most don’t for me, and I’m convinced it is why I booked it – I DIDN’T CARE. I wasn’t ambivalent. But, there were absolutely no stakes involved with whether or not I booked the job. I went in and gave them the best damn work I could, then I left, and I honestly didn’t think about it again until I got the callback.

When I went in for the callback, I still had that same feeling. It was this odd self-assurendness (I say odd, because it’s not something I carry every day!). I knew I was good at what I do and I didn’t mind if they saw it or not. I was paired with a different actress outside the audition room. I don’t think we read together beforehand (I don’t remember). Then we were called into the room. It was the same room as before, but where there had been one casting assistant at the audition the room was now filled to the BRIM with people. Everyone was crowded onto couches, peering at laptops, and some picking at bagels and coffee on the coffee table. There was a HUGE flat-screen TV facing them and it was on – the image on the screen was of the blue wall the camera was facing. I think I said an audible, “wow – theres a lot of meat in this room” or something arcane like that, which got a titter. The assistant asked us to stand on the other side of the camera. But that is where she stopped talking.

One of the couch-dwellers was a young man with a beard. He leant forward and said a hearty hello to us and introduced himself as the director. I’m pretty sure he stayed seated and also had a laptop. Then he gave us some simple direction and we were on our way. I believe we did two takes with direction… TO ABSOLUTE SILENCE. No one made a sound. Most of them were still typing away at their computers and no one seemed to even notice we were there.

The director said a sweet “thank you” and “goodbye” and we left the room. I was half way out of House when the director grabbed my shoulder. He asked if I had a couple more minutes to do another read. And, I said sure. So I went back into the room and it was the same experience as before. No one really noticed I was there. I stepped in front of the camera and he asked me if I could do an American accent. Without even thinking about what I was saying (there’s that odd self-assuredness again!) I said “Yep” and did it. He said thanks. Smiled, shook my hand and I left. On my way out I noticed that a few of the couch-dwellers were looking at me. One even had what I perceived to be a smile on their face.

I felt pretty good. I had a feeling I’d probably booked it. But then I didn’t even think about it again. I don’t know how or why that happened in my head that week, but it was great.

Needless to say I booked it.

I got a call the next day with all the details I needed: shoot dates and location, script, phone numbers, etc. I was being flown to Boston for a few days where we would be shooting. I would be staying in a hotel and I’d have a per-diem (cash to spend on food and basic necessities) on top of my pay. I was picked up from my apartment and driven to the airport. When I landed in Boston there was a production assistant waiting for me and the other cast members. We all bundled into a car and headed to wardrobe.

In the car we realized that no one knew what roles they were playing. The PA driving us didn’t seem to know either. And it wasn’t until we were being fitted for our wardrobe and the director and DP came in to check up on our “looks” that we found out. I was playing a different role from the one I read ENTIRELY! And it seemed the other actress was too. In fact, I think it was here she very subtly started to lose her nerve.

We were given new scripts and sent on our way to the hotel. There were two different commercials being shot that week and the other cast members were also staying in the same hotel. We all agreed to have dinner together at the Bennigans, I think it was, attached to the hotel.

Seeing as it was the first time I’d ever been FLOWN somewhere or PUT UP IN A HOTEL (!!!) I was pretty excited about the whole experience. So I took a number of pictures… of my room ; P

I ate my dinner then went back to my room to learn my lines. They were pretty easy and I decided to get an early night’s sleep. My call time was 5am the next morning… and I am NOT a morning person.

Of course I barely slept because I was so excited to get on set! I got up the next morning, showered, dressed and headed downstairs where the PA from the airport was waiting to take us to set. God knows what time HE woke up!

We arrived at a huge mansion outside Boston somewhere:

Next, we were ushered to wardrobe to check in with the designer who double checked the outfits and made some last minute changes. Then off to holding – the word they use which basically means waiting room for the actors. When you are ever on a film set of any kind, be prepared to wait. To wait. to wait. And to wait. Nothing ever goes as planned and it ALWAYS takes longer than anyone expects. So, if you’re on set in your home town and you have somewhere to be after shooting… don’t expect to get there. I recommend freeing up your whole day and being flexible to shoot whenever they want you to that day. It is very hard to make a film (I use the word film here for anything that is shot with a motion camera device) but most of us take it for granted. So the more you can help out the crew by being flexible and available the better off the whole experience is going to be for everyone.

Another tricky thing with film sets is the food. It is VERY rare to have a craft service that will nourish you appropriately. There should always be real meal breaks when you shoot but there should also always be food available. Preferably food that will sustain you effectively between those meal breaks. But, usually, craft services (or “crafty” as it’s known on movie sets) is just M&Ms and coffee. So, if – like me – you’re prone to low-blood sugar, make sure you bring your own snacks.

This set’s craft service, however, was excellent. It had bananas, bagels, bread, a toaster, cream cheese, peanut butter, lox, onions, cucumber, you name it. I don’t eat this well at home! They even had a box of good old english PG Tips tea. I’m sure it wasn’t for me, but I like to pretend it was.

After fortifying myself with some good nosh, it was my turn in the makeup chair. I’ve usually been pretty nervous about the makeup department. I have large eyes and for some reason makeup artists LOVE to over shadow them. I frequently look more like a prostitute after a stint in the makeup chair than I normally do when I do it myself… However, this woman knew what she was doing. I was playing a pretty nerdy needle-point lady, so there was no fear in being made up too much. But – and this highlights to me how much self-confidence I had that week – half way through getting my make up done the makeup lady stopped. She looked at me very closely and then she said “How would you feel about me removing your moustache?” MY MOUSTACHE?!?! I HAD A MOUSTACHE?!?! Well, normally and observation of this magnitude would have been humiliating and would have reduced me to tears, but that day I just laughed. I was relieved in fact. I had been having a sneaking suspicion that I was the proud owner of a lady-STACHE, but (and I’d asked – trust me) no one had ever confirmed it. Until now. I asked her what that would entail and she introduced me to a little razor that Asian women everywhere have been using for decades. With a few little wrist movements the blighter was gone.

Then to wardrobe for a final fitting and approval. The outfit was absolutely hilarious. So very frumpy and sad. This was the last time I believe I ever saw my ego as an actress. Lady-stache. Old-lady clothes. Being laughed at and called a total dork – straight to my face by every PA that passed by. And none of this bothered me. I was gonna play the best lame-oh ever.

So. At that point it was set-time. I walked down the stairs and the first sight I had of what I would be looking at for most of the day was mind-blowing to me. There were the couch dwellers. A whole room swarming with people on cell-phones and lap tops. These are the people from the ad agency and from Comcast – THE CLIENTS. They are responsible for the writing and for making sure that the final commercial represent the brand as best as possible.

We were going to be shooting the other actress first. So we went to her set. It was FREEZING. They were going to be doing this effect to illustrate the high-speed nature of Comcast which involved funnelling air from outside (it was February!) at high-speeds down a tube directly at the actresses face. The actress was seated at her desk. Her lips were already looking blue, and there were a handful of people tinkering with the air-pipe. In addition, there were people from set design futzing with props around her.

I set up camp in the corner behind the cameraman so that I could take in all the wonder. After about 2.5 hours of futzing, primarily with a couple of bicycle ornaments placed in various spots around the actress, they were ready to shoot. And I could tell by looking at her the actress was stressing. She looked very uncomfortable and very nervous. Her job was to deliver her lines as loud as she could, at the same time as looking chipper, high-status, and powerful, while a pipe blasted freezing cold air right at her. I think they did about 20 takes of each angle. Each time changing the placement of one of those stupid bike ornaments or giving her meagre direction such as “a little more,” “bigger,” “smile more.” I could see that she was faltering and there was nothing to be done about it. It was awful. After each take they’d stop and wait for THE CLIENTS to give feedback from watching it live on their monitors. And each time they did another take I swear the actresses shoulders slumped a tiny bit. I wish I could go back and let her know what was going to happen and that none of it was because of her. But she took it pretty hard. Like a personal failure every time they did another take.

After hours on this set we took lunch. An AMAZING meal of steak and mashed potatoes, veggies, salad and desert. It was very, very good. And JUST what I needed to get me through the rest of the day! On a film set, in general the crew always eats first. So you wait in line until they have got their food. Then you get yours. Everyone sits in a big makeshift dining hall – almost always a garage if you’re on set at a big house, by the way! – and it can be quite a raucous experience. This is where I took some time to look over my call sheet. A call sheet is a piece of paper that everyone on set is given the day before a shoot. It has call times for every single person on it – crew and actors – and it also has contact information. I decided to do a little research on my crew. First the director. He was a commercial director and had been shooting up in Boston with this particular ad agency for a while. He’d made a few short films, too. Then I looked up the DP. He was one of the photographers on Dave LaChapelle’s “Rize.” I almost fell over. He had tons of credits to his name and he was VERY talented (if you haven’t seen Rize, I highly recommend it by the way). So this is where I learned that commercial shoots are littered with people from the film industry in general. I have since auditioned for directors such as Michel Gondry, Kevin Spacey, and more. So, if you’re one of those people who scoffs at commercials, think again. You can meet some pretty impressive people on the set of an ad!

After lunch we were on to my set. MUCH warmer! And very laid back. I think it’s a rule of thumb to get the hard stuff out of the way first so that the rest of the shoot is a breeze. And that is exactly what it felt like here. I nestled into my seat as the crew set up the camera and lights around me. They checked every little detail with a fine tooth comb and then we dove in. It was an absolute blast! Because the room was so compact once all the equipment was in it the director, DP and I were basically shut in together. And we got a bit silly. I don’t remember there being any problems and (unfortunately) thanks to watching what the other actress went through I knew not to take anything too personally. Just to stay focussed on my work and stay positive. The overall effect was a light set and things went very quickly and smoothly. I was also proud because no one knew I was English until after we shoot! I can hear my accent when I watch the spot, but, I’m fine with it : )   I’ll keep working on it.

When we were done, we were given the choice to stay an extra night or go back to NYC. We decided to go back to the city (one guy had to stay the night as his shoot went long). I made a conscious effort that day to learn and remember peoples names. So, before leaving I went around and said thank you and goodbye to everyone who wasn’t busy. I shook hands with both the director and the DP who gave me great feedback. I also asked if I  would be allowed to have a copy of the ad when it was done. The director gave me the name of a person to contact after about two weeks. After signing contracts and receiving our checks right there and then (that is not common practice, FYI) we all bundled into the car and headed back to the airport. I was flying high. It had been a great experience and I had learned a lot. AND, I’d booked it BY MYSELF thanks to Actors Access. The money I made from that shoot covered my membership for years.

The spot was aired about a month later. Here is the final product for you to check out. Enjoy!

About The NYC Actor

Angela Dee is a professional actress working in Film, Theatre, TV, Commercials and Voiceovers. She currently lives in New York.

One Response to “From Audition to Set: My first commercial booking”

  1. Thanks for this! My daughter just booked her first commercial, and now I know what to expect.

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