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Friday, 09 June
Ad Rock

When I was a junior in college, I began taking what I thought of as the "serious" acting classes. They were called the "studio" classes, for some reason, perhaps because it feels kind of dumb to call a group of five people a "class." It's a studio! Whatever. At any rate, we were the acting lifers, as it were, the dedicated fools who simply couldn't stand to wait another minute to ruin their futures. We were the ACTORS! The rest were dilettantes.

Our professor for the course that year was a preternaturally genial fellow named R. R. was a modestly successful actor who had done extensive commercial and voiceover work; he was one of those artists in residence types, and while we all got on with him nicely, he seemed, at times, genuinely aggrieved at our less-than-professional habits, like not shaving every day, and our staunch refusal to show up for the class (at 8:00 AM) not hung over.

R. decided, sensibly enough, that since we had presumably mastered all the basics of acting--don't say your lines until you're on stage, try and remember other character's names (there's no "Ted" in Hamlet! I'll never forget that), that sort of thing--that he would conduct a class that dealt with Real World issues. Things like how to present an audition piece; the dos and don'ts of head shots, the proper way to land an agent, etc. (It's interesting to note that, reviewing even that brief list, that I myself have not bothered with any memorized audition pieces since 1999, I have never had any head shots done, and have never bothered to even try to get an agent. Huzzah! Tuition well spent.)

One thing that R. taught us was that working in TV ads could be very lucrative. Really! So he brought in several actual pieces of ad copy from spots he had done or auditioned for. He also brought a video camera in so we could review our efforts on camera.

We were, every single one of us, completely hopeless on camera. In fact, "hopeless" is too generous a term here, as it contains the base word "hope," and we clearly, the lot of us, had none at all. We were . . . what? Anti-hope? Ahopal? No, those neologisms, awful as they are, still plainly allude to some concept of hope. The adjective I need is something like "hopeless," only encrypted with a one-time pad, and then someone merciful simply eats the one-time pad before it can ever be seen again.

We all started out working on a common script. It was from a Zest commercial. I can still remember the beginning of it.

"I don't use soap. But I'll bet I'm cleaner than you are! That's because I use Zest. And Zest isn't soap!"

That's all I remember now. (What the fuck was Zest, then? Industrial degreaser?) What I do remember is how gravely funereal we all looked on video playback, no matter how much enthusiasm we tried to inject into this dead-bird text. It turned out: It's hard to fake enthusiasm about something so pedestrian and lame as soap. (Or not-soap.) Every single one of us, no matter how chirpy and gleeful our affect (we thought), looked like recently slaughtered revenants on camera, glumly holding up a bar of unsoap for the camera, grinning rictuses with bad posture. Grimly clutching unsoap in tensed fingers.

R. explained this dismal showing with typical good humor. "Commercial acting is horribly difficult. When you're in a play, the playwright does a lot of the work for you. Even bad actors can get by sometimes by just stepping back and letting the playwright do all the heavy lifting. But in TV ads, it's all on you. You think Shakespeare is tough? It is, sure. But the hardest line I ever had to deliver was for a commercial. The hardest line I ever had to deliver--to sell--was, 'Great white bread, honey.' "

Which, really, is totally true. Actors like to give a lot of lip service about "being in the moment" and "emotional truth" and all kinds of other horseshit, but that pretty much all goes out of Arthur Miller's leaded-glass window (don't talk to me about that gnomic, deathless spanker) when you get stuck with some line like "Is this the right turn, Doug Doug?"

R. then cruelly assigned us our very own ad scripts to learn and to be humiliated by on camera. J., a perfectly lovely young woman, shot her ad touting a pizza place. And, as we watched her playback (it certainly looked good live), we watched in perfect horror as the camera somehow made her previously unnoticed slightly discolored canine all but unstareable-at. It looked like a tiny gravestone embedded in her gums. Worse, halfway into the ad, the video camera caught with undeniable, horrible clarity a truly flinch-inducing minor facial tic, where her left eye did a sort of slow roll and wink, which magically transformed her instantly, on camera, from a charming young woman into a lecherous old man. "ROLL IT BACK!! ROLL IT BACK!!" we screamed, as she died a thousand deaths. "You look like Patricia Neal!" exclaimed G. We watched it again. J. strokefaced again as we cackled. "I take it back," said G. "Patricia Neal makes stroke look good."

But none of us did any better. Granted, we were being shot on single-cam videotape, but it was clearly obvious: None of us ever belonged anywhere close to anyone even remotely conversant with video technology. (I should say that G. did manage to land a national spot in a few years: It was my supreme pleasure to see him in a Rogaine ad. And I will also say that he acquitted himself well. I was also happy that he was, well, naturally, losing his hair. If it isn't clear yet, actors are such turds.)

Me? Mine might have been the worst. For one thing, R. decided, inexplicably, to assign me a dog food ad where the guy was supposed to be a sort of "Rugged Dad" character. Say! Yes, that's perfect for the 140-lb. ectomorph. So there I was on video, in some supremely unconvincing flannel shirt, extolling the virtues of MANLY KIBBLE. It was like David Schwimmer shilling for MegaBulk Protein Shakes. And this is leaving aside 1. my terrific ineptitude in front of the camera, and 2. the depressing fact that I'm uglier than David Schwimmer.

Ah, well, it all ended up all right. I mean, I'm not famous or anything, but I've been able to get my share of work over the years--fringe work, but hey. It was clear to me early on that I was neither motivated enough nor energetic enough to bother with the stupefying grind that any dedicated actor has to endure. I have been content to simply toil away at a level I'm comfortable with.

After all, I'm opening a show tomorrow. It's a good show--and the wife is in it too, along with a bunch of good people. They're good actors, all of them, and it's a good show. I've been in bad shows with bad actors--too many of them--so this is a real blessing. What's doubly good about working with good actors is that they make you also want to do good as well. So I've also been motivated.

Can you guess what I think about every night, while I'm smoking and thinking over my lines--searching for weak spots--and getting myself ready to go? I go over my lines, I probe trouble areas, I restlessly smoke, and I also think:

Great white bread, honey.

Note: Comments are closed on old entries.


I just came from a commercial audition where my one line was "Oy." The note from the casting director was, "Yeah, great; listen. The producers on this one don't want you to act AT ALL. They think the script's funny enough; they don't want the actors to be funny."

Shall I tell you whether the script was, indeed, funny enough?

Comment number: 007574   Posted by: Peggy on June 9, 2006 12:11 PM from IP:

Too true, man. I remember working briefly on commercial acting during college, and it was sucktastically hard, indeed. There was this bowl of "soup" we had to taste, and then turn to the camera and say "MMMM". Nobody made that shit happen. I personally got busted from shaking my head from side to side, because I was doing a "There's no way this soup could be this good" thing which read as, "There's no fucking way on earth I would buy this soup."

Comment number: 007576   Posted by: Tina on June 10, 2006 12:47 AM from IP:

wow..that really hit home, actually. being in the midst of acting classes meself right now, and having the mortification of having one of our scenes taped recently. why does video render everyone so horribly disfigured?

Comment number: 007586   Posted by: Kiran on June 11, 2006 12:02 AM from IP:

Strokeface is not a verb. But god, it should be.

Comment number: 007587   Posted by: Jon on June 11, 2006 11:21 PM from IP:

Props should go to my boy Joe at for original coinage of "stroke face," though not in verb form. He wrote a sketch of that very name, which featured an ad announcer asking the audience, "Got stroke face?" It's been a favorite of mine ever since.

Comment number: 007589   Posted by: Skot on June 12, 2006 11:08 AM from IP:

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Comment number: 007666   Posted by: basjvcm ljftk on June 21, 2006 01:02 PM from IP:

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