Twenty Second Truth
by Jean Schiffman

The art of successful TV commercial acting is not that different from the art of acting in general – it just has to be quicker.

Carolyne Barry, a Los Angeles commercial casting director and coach who has herself appeared in more than 400 national commercials over a 30-year acting career, believes that scene study and improv classes are important prerequisites to acting in commercials. In classes and through her instructional audio tape, “Getting the Job,” she advises actors to ground themselves – for auditions as well as for the actual gig, if they land it – just as they would for a theatrical role.

I asked her about the differences between acting in commercials in other genres. “Time,” she said. That is, the shoot time is relatively long, and the commercial itself is very short. “In commercials, you rarely do 20 to 30 seconds of dialogue in one take,” she explained. “It’s broken up. So you need to build quickly…come up to speed on one line. That’s the most demanding thing for actors.” You don’t have time to start at level one and go to 10; you have to start at three or four.

For most commercial jobs, she said, you are hired to be yourself-but which self? Since we all play many life roles-parent, boss, employee, student, lover, etc.-it shouldn’t be hard to personally connect with whichever of those roles will best help motivate your lines. (My sourpuss Dentist Girl must have chosen her teach-with-an-Excedrin-toothache persona.)

Then you need what Barry calls a “before life,” or given circumstances. Imagine or improvise what you were thinking, saying, doing, just before your first line, and let your line flow naturally from that. Barry also recommends imagining what you are going to do after your scene, to create a realistic sense of ongoing life; for the audition, she suggests adding a few words or a gesture as a closing “button.”

Of course, you must decide to whom you are talking. Barry proposes imagining a specific person in your life. This technique helps you establish a human relationship with the camera, but you can also use it if you’re in a scene with another actor with whom you must quickly create a solid rapport (as a stage technique, this is sometimes called substitution). If you’re supposed to be having fun, choose a friend who makes you laugh. If you must appear authoritative, choose someone who perceives you as a mentor. Need to be vulnerable? Imagine you’re talking to a teacher. Some of Barry’s students tell her they can’t visualize the person they’re talking to, and she tells them not to worry: “You talk on the phone to specific people, right?”

In addition, you need an objective, albeit a simplistic one: to help or to get help – not to sell. “Commercials are written kind of…not human,” Barry explained. “So you have to know why you’re saying what you’re saying.” She has her students paraphrase the material to make sure they get a personalized sense of what their lines mean. When actors lack objectives with which to motivate and justify their lines, “They literally follow direction,” said Barry. “If the director says, “Tilt your head here,’ they’ll do it, but they’ll look plastic.” She recommends getting in practice for commercials by watching them, and adjusting certain life habits accordingly; learn how actors in commercials hold a cup, comb their hair, apply makeup.

She also tells students to familiarize themselves with the concept of tone in a commercial, because you’ll need to match it, whether it’s deadpan goofiness, lightly comedic but serious (Barry mentioned current Excedrin commercials as an example of the latter), or completely over the top.

And don’t forget there’s often a visible product, which you need to really see. In many cases, the product is the focus of the scene, not you.

Barry pointed out other traps for actors in commercials: For one thing, there is no time for pauses – so you have to make your internal transitions on your line (or on the other person’s), not between lines. She also stresses the importance of being your most genuine self: “A lot of actors, as they get older, are still playing younger. They don’t allow themselves to mature. They’re too animated, which was cute at 25, but looks like bad acting when you’re older.”