By Mo Perry
Mo Perry is an actor and a columnist for Metro Magazine, where an earlier version of this article first appeared.
Here in the Twin Cities we're surrounded by theater artists whose work we enjoy on stages small and large. Most of us don't think about how those performers pay their bills. As an actor myself, I'm going to give you a peek behind the curtain at the world of the TV commercial audition.
Whether you succeed in getting a commercial has almost nothing to do with your talent, skill or training as an actor. It is deeply humiliating and ridiculous, and your odds of booking any given job are about on par with winning the lottery. But the ones you do book pay more than your last five real acting jobs combined. So you subject yourself to the process over and over again — which, come to think of it, is the same logic that drives compulsive gamblers.
Here are a few things I have been asked to do on camera while men in business suits watched and judged me:
Wrap my leg around a vacuum cleaner and snarl like a lion.
Play darts with an imaginary leprechaun.
Do a full standing backbend.
Mime getting stuck in a narrow airplane aisle with another actor, whom I had never met before.
Did I mention that I'm a college graduate?
The waiting room is its own special hell. My friend Dawn describes it as "competitors, dearest friends, former lovers, enemies ... all sharing the same five folding chairs." And they are all dressed in their own interpretation of the character described in the audition announcement.
I inevitably get it wrong. It's immediately apparent when I step into a sea of khakis and button-down blouses that I was the only one who took "suburban mom" to mean "short jean skirt and tall pleather boots."
In my defense, the character descriptions don't help much. Here are a few recent examples:
"The Mom: She is fun, but conservative; not too young; likable and suspicious."
"We want a smile in the voice, but it can't sound sarcastic or sweet."
"Professional and casual."
"Middle-aged, not too chirpy."
You can see how interpretations might vary. My "professional and casual," whatever that means, is someone else's Lake Street hooker.
A friend of mine came within inches of moving the date of her wedding because she almost booked a commercial that would have essentially paid for it. She and her fiance put their plans on hold for days while the clients decided whether they wanted her. In the end, they didn't.
The opportunities to lose all self-respect are endless. I find it helps to pick a favorite restaurant or coffee shop near every casting agency so I can tell myself, "Yes, I may have to go pretend to be a duck who is professional yet casual and pleasant but not too chirpy. But afterward I'm going to get a really good scone."
It's when the scone evolves into whiskey shots that you know it's time to take a break.
So the next time you're watching TV, remember: For every pathetic schlub doing something embarrassing in a commercial, there are thousands of even more pathetic schlubs who wanted that job. And didn't get it.