If you live in Vancouver long enough, you end up auditioning for something. And so I auditioned for an American TV commercial an actor friend told me about.
“Non-union,” he said. “You’d be perfect. They want regular people.”
I was given a little information about the part. Middle aged Caucasian male. Dress: business casual, sophisticated. Situation: seeking financial advice. No lines to learn. Easy.
“Just be yourself,” said my friend.
A number of years ago, I was in a television commercial—by accident. I used to write the Sunday Telegram’s weekly radio spot for a small ad agency when I lived in Maine. I would pick up the assignment on Thursday afternoon and deliver my copy on Friday morning.
One Friday, I noticed a large foam rubber costume lying on the conference room table. It was white with bright red, yellow and blue spots.
A loaf of bread.
“Who gets to wear that?” I asked.
The bookkeeper looked at the account executive, who looked at Ed the art director, who said, “What are you doing tomorrow from one to four?”
“What’s the pay?” I asked.
“Seventy-five bucks,” said Ed.
“It’s a deal,” I said.
So I showed up the next day at the Civic Center, where they were filming the ad for the local grocery chain’s annul food festival. Suited up as the loaf of bread (Freddie Fresh guy was the name of my character), I took my place in line with Twinkie the Kid, Drakie the Duck, and Penelope the Cow. We were to hold a long banner with our left hand or wing or hoof and wave with the right while dancing along in front of the entrance.
Take one. Trot, trot, trot. Wave. “That’s right,” shouted the director. “Keep waving. Look happy inside.” It was hard to see where we were going. Our costumes covered our heads. We kept bumping into each other. Our trotting was out of synch.
“OK,” said the director. “Let’s try it again.”
And so we did. He put us closer together, then spaced us farther apart. He wanted us to raise our knees higher. We tried turning around and doing it in the other direction. Then tried it again the original way. The July sun shone bright. It was hot. After every three or four takes, the director gave us a break. We were drenched with sweat.
Twinkie the Kid complained of a headache. Every time Penelope the Cow took off her head, her face was a deeper shade of red. Her husband, a driver for the dairy for which Penelope was the mascot, grew more and more worried about heat stroke. She had high blood pressure, which he hadn’t mentioned before.
The director reminded him that she’d signed a release.
Seventy-five dollars. We all needed the cash, no matter how many other jobs we had.
I am thinking of all this as I arrive for my audition in Vancouver, wearing grey slacks, a dress shirt and blue sport coat. Business casual. Sophisticated. I have come a long way from playing a loaf of bread. And the pay promises to be quite a bit better. Even at non-union rates.
I worry a little about being a scab, but it’s not as though I’m crossing a picket line. So I walk in.
There’s no one at the table where I assume I’m supposed to register. The hallway is full of women wearing black cocktail dresses and high heels. One of them points to a form to fill out: Name, height, weight, eye colour. Shirt size. Coat size. Shoe size. Waist size. Inseam.
Then I sit down and wonder if I got the right time.
The casting director appears. He looks to be about seventeen, sporting his first beard. He calls out several names, mine among them, so I stand up and follow eight women into a room with a row of chairs and a man behind a camera facing a large sheet of white paper.
“This is going to be easy,” says the casting director. “I wish it were more interesting. No lines. No dancing.”
I hear myself voice what I had intended to be a silent thought: “Thank God there’s no dancing.”
A full-figured woman to my right leans over and smiles. The other women look disappointed, but they all laugh.
Rule number one: Be ready—and willing—to do anything, the director asks.
The casting director explains that since the cameraman works in the travel industry, he’d like us to talk about someplace we’d like to go.
“Just say your name and describe your ideal vacation,” says the director.
I’m thrown for a loop. I travel, but I don’t take vacations.
Rule number two: Never act surprised. About anything. Unless they tell you to.
St. Petersburg comes to mind. Russia, not Florida. I went there to study Russian a month before the August Coup in 1991. I think of Catalonia in the north of Spain, where I taught English the year after Franco died.
The director calls the first name, and a young blonde woman steps in front of the white paper. She states her name and says she wants to go to Hawaii because she loves the sun and surf. The next woman says she wants to go to Las Vegas for the shows. Both are enthusiastic—animated and perky.
All I can think of is post-fascist Spain and the criminalization of Russia.
Rule number three: Avoid any reference, however oblique, to political situations.
The director calls my name. I stand up and ask him if I’m in the right place, just to make sure.
“I thought I’d be asked questions about my financial future, or something.”
The women smile. If it wasn’t before, it is now clear to them that this is my first audition.
See rule number two.
“You’re in the right place,” says the director.
I state my name and offer Australia as somewhere I’d like to visit again. When I was there doing some work in March, I realized, even in downtown Sydney, that I was standing on one of the oldest continents on earth. And I’d never seen the birds and plants that were around. So yes, I’d like to go back to Australia, I guess.
Flat, matter of fact, my speech lacks the perky enthusiasm that seems to come so naturally to these women in black cocktail dresses.
They know what’s expected. They know how to be regular people. They are, I suspect, real actors.
Later, my actor friend asks how it went.
“Not so well,” I say. “It’s harder than I thought to be myself. I’m not sure I’m the right kind of 'regular'. And I was never very good at impersonating an American, even when I was one.”
We both laugh.
“Don’t get discouraged,” he says. “We all go through it. I hope you’ll audition again for something.”
“Sure,” I say.
And I probably will.
After all, this is Vancouver. We all need the cash, no matter how many other jobs we have.