Chapter 1 Commercial Acting — Training is Essential
Use what you know. Don’t worry about what you don’t know.
—Michael Shurtleff, playwright, casting director, and author
Maybe your friends tell you, “You’re so attractive, you should be in commercials!” Or perhaps you’ve been approached at the mall by a talent agent who says your child is a natural and it’ll be easy to get her into commercials.
Acting in commercials has the lure of seeming to be a simple profession. Everyone believes it’s easy to get into, easy to achieve quick success, and of course you will make piles of money!
But as commercial director Kevin Emmons says about a British actor: “I was working with this actor on a shoot. He was classically trained and brilliant, and he is now suddenly in front of a teleprompter with all these lines, and he has to do this specific action while walking and talking . . . and by the third take he was overwhelmed. He said he acted his whole life and this [commercial stuff] is hard!”
Good actors make commercial acting look easy. However, saying words that are product-driven with little- to-no time to practice or rehearse, getting virtually no background explanation whatsoever, making it look like you’re having an everyday conversation with a friend in front of complete strangers while the camera is rolling—it is all a lot more challenging than it looks.
A student in his late 50s took my 6-week A-Z commercial class. He was a successful ear/nose/throat surgeon, and typically impatient. After the final class he asked, “How long does it take to get a job?”
“Well, how long did it take you before you began practicing surgery?” I asked with a smile.
He said, “Four years of college, two years of grad school and four years in a residency.”
“Okay, and so what makes you think you can master commercial acting in six weeks?” I said with a little glint in my eye and steel in my tone. He was speechless.
Casting director Ross Lacy told me once, “I always laugh when someone says, ‘Omigosh, I would like to be in commercials,’ and I say, ‘Sure you would! So would every- body. That’s why these people are training and go to improv classes all night long because they make it look easy—and it’s not! And the people who think it is are mistaken!’
Ross continues, “The one thing I know is that training is imperative if you want a lasting career in commercials. Of course there are stories of the person who walked in, booked the job, and made a pile of money off one spot. This is definitely the exception. The same odds apply to winning the lottery.”
Just like my acting student/surgeon, most people wouldn’t dream of trying to start a new career in any field other than acting without getting the proper training, doing whatever it takes to make themselves competitive.
Study the Craft of Acting
Honestly, the best teacher of commercial acting is the commercial itself. Watch commercials, study them, and find yourself in them. Put the remote down and watch the stories being told in the amazing 30-second short films called commercials. There is much to be learned via this exercise, from tone and style, to how to dress for commercials, to how to wear your hair, to the nuances of an understated performance.
Find a class that can give you solid, specific, on-camera training for the art form of auditioning for commercials. For a small investment, you can find out in six to eight weeks if this is something for which you have a passion and ability. You will be able to get some insights as to what will be in store for you.
A commercial acting class should always be done on camera, or, in my opinion, it’s a waste of your time. Since every audition is done on camera, it’s completely unrealistic to study without using one. The most important things you’ll take away from your commercial class will be how to:
- Approach commercial copy
- Use a cue card
- Make the camera your friend
You’ll also need to take some acting technique classes to give yourself a strong technical foundation. Acting is acting, whether it’s drama, comedy, commercials, films, on the stage, or for television. Your job is to be authentic, connected and present within the confines of the scene, whether it’s Shakespeare or a 15-second commercial. As a well-rounded acting student, you’ll become a quality actor who happens to do commercials. Evaluate available acting classes using these key criteria:
Take a class from a working pro
Your best choice is a class taught by someone who is currently doing what they are teaching. You get firsthand experience from a professional who is active and successful in the subject being taught. A long as they still love what they do, you will be in good hands. Check out the instructor on the IMDb (Internet Movie Database), and run their name by several different sources, ideally working commercial casting directors or agents who are active in commercials.
Take a class in a studio with professional camera and monitor
You must be able to see what you and others are doing through the eye of the camera. Since auditions for commercials are always done on camera, it is crazy to take classes without actually working in front of one. You’ll learn what works and doesn’t simply by watching the other students. Most classes should offer a recording for you to review and see your growth.
Make sure the copy being used fits current trends
Commercial trends change quickly, and current copy is critical for you to practice for the auditions you will have. These days, most commercials don’t even mention the product in the spot. Only the voiced-over tag tells us what the product is.
Class should be minimum of 6-8 weeks long
You cannot learn everything you need to build a sustained career in a one-day seminar. You may become inspired or motivated in a day, but you won’t be trained. There are at least five different types of commercial auditions, and different techniques specifically apply to each of the five types. Building skill upon skill is critical for a confident commercial actor.
These new skills take time to develop and they are critical to know. Some techniques you will only do in an audition and nowhere else. For example, in an audition you have to motivate out towards the camera. You would never do it on the actual set, or even during a theatrical interview, but at a commercial interview, it’s vital that you motivate towards the camera so you can be seen.
Meet an industry guest
An industry person should be scheduled to come in at the end of class so you can make connections. You have heard the adage, It is who you know in this town. Unfortunately, it’s true! You want to build relationships based on your talent. So take a class, hone your skills, and then meet those who have the power to bring you in. Don’t meet them before you study—you want your first impression to be a good as well as a lasting one.
This is just the beginning of your commercial training. Start with the basics to get you going, then you will find that you need to take some improvisation to loosen you up. Improv training will add a layer of spontaneity and quick subtle responses to your acting when you do auditions.
You may find that you are not getting enough bookings and may need to take an advanced class to help you turn callbacks into bookings. Or perhaps you’ll need to spend a year or two in a theatrical technique class to learn how to access your emotions.
At some point, we actors often feel we no longer need to continue training. Always remember that is not the case. Classes refresh a tired performance, classes give us new perspective, and most definitely, classes rid of us of our bad habits.
Equate acting classes to gym workouts—you know what happens when we stop going there! Our muscles get weak, flab starts to appear and we lose our momentum. The same thing happens when we take a break from class. Our acting techniques become soft and out of shape.
You never know when you’ll have a chance at an audition. You want to be on the top of your game at that moment—you don’t want to be in a slump!
Do your research. Find a class that suits your needs.
About the Author
A professional actress for 38 years, Judy has show- cased her skills and talents in hundreds of commercials and film and television roles as well as transformed count- less actors’ careers with her two schools.
Judy co-founded Talent To Go, a training company that won The Best Casting Director Workshop in LA award in 2009 and 2010. She continued her teaching legacy and success when she opened Keep It Real Acting in 2012, an award-winning full-service acting studio that offers commercial and theatrical classes for all levels of students. She was voted Backstage West’s Favorite On-Camera Commercial Teacher in LA in 2010, 2011, and 2012 and again in 2015. Several of her classes have also won Backstage West’s Favorite in LA awards, and the school continues to produce amazing results for her students.
Judy’s hundreds of well-known credits include a SAG- award-winning recurring role on the Emmy-winning show Mad Men as Olive Healey (Peggy’s secretary). Other favorite recurring credits include Odd Couple with Matthew Perry, Hand of God with Ron Pearlman, Married with Children, For Your Love, Grosse Pointe, and Manhattan, AZ with Chad Everett.
Judy has done numerous guest appearances on the hit shows Modern Family, The Middle, Bones, Castle, Rizzoli & Isles, Scrubs, Desperate Housewives, ER, Seinfeld, The District, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, Friends, and The Drew Carey Show among others.
Her more than 375 commercial credits include several career highlights. Her role as judge in the famous Clairol Herbal Essence ad with Dr. Ruth was famously (and hilariously) spoofed on Saturday Night Live. She appeared in two acclaimed Super Bowl ads in 2013, Oreo’s Whisper Fight ad and Deon Sanders’ NFL promo.
The proud mother of one son, Frankie Manes, Judy resides in Los Angeles.