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Emma Bentley’s latest column explores the benefit of doing commercial gigs as an actor and how they can free you up both financially and creatively — if you can book them.
Doing commercial acting gigs has changed my life but in terms of how I see my acting career, they don’t necessarily mean anything. Just because I was cast in a Kenco ad which has been watched by millions across the globe doesn’t mean Nina Gold’s going to see me for the next Star Wars, unfortunately. However, I’ve concluded we should give them more credit for two reasons: they give actors an opportunity to cut their teeth on set, and most importantly, they pay really well. Like, REALLY well.
Commercial casting can seem like a frustrating diversion from the career you really want. They inevitably always clash with work (a reason why self-taping in lockdown has actually been easier — once I learnt how to use a tripod, anyway) and are sometimes are in obscure locations. I almost couldn’t go to my graduation because I had a recall for Not On The High Street the next day. Obviously 21-year-old-me was thrilled to be considered, even though it did mean I had to miss the massive final piss up in our SU bar. It turned out to be worth it though because I got the job! And even though it was a tiny part, it allowed me to get a feel for being on set, which I won’t digress into too much (because this is A Younger Theatre after all), but in short I learnt how to be good at waiting, to be polite but not a flirt, and efficient. Seven commercials later, I feel confident that when I do get my first telly job I will be ready.
Aside from gaining experience on set, let’s talk about what we’re not usually good at: money. The fact is that many actors who make their own work thrive from the pay cheques they get from commercial work. At the end of the first year of my MA, I got cast in a Kenco advert, which was amazing because that money meant I didn’t have to panic about not always working 5 days a week plus working on my writing. It’s mad the amount of financial and physical freedom you can get given for being on set for a day or two.
Commercials don’t usually require having to do challenging scenes, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily easy to get. Someone wise once told me that it’s like a lottery. For example, I think I auditioned for about 40 commercials this year. I got one. But that one was a good one so it made all the time and effort put into those castings worth it. Commercial auditions often don’t run on time (sorry if you are reading this and you are a casting director but it’s true), and you can wait between 10 minutes to an hour to go in. Then there’s the travel time/cost, the relentless forms, and the time you spend learning the script. It all adds up, so you want it to pay off at some point.
Sometimes it can be fun though! I think of advert auditions as improv classes — there’s usually a lot of mime involved, you’ll get notes on the spot and you have to work with other people you’ve never met quickly. Take it as a positive opportunity to get stuck in, even if it’s just pretending really hard that you like KFC when you’re a veggie. The key is staying relaxed and breezy, the casting director’s usually in a room with no windows with a client breathing down their neck, but you can change that by solving their problem. Remember, they can’t act, but you can.
I give these pointers because sometimes I look around at castings for ads and everyone looks so blummin’ nervous. I just want to say, “Babes, you’ve all got this, you’ve trained for three years to do a lot harder stuff than this.” Patronising, I know, but it really ain’t Hamlet, and now that they are casting more and more diversely, often better than TV, everyone has got a shot. I’ve often thought it would be good if there was a way to make a system for people getting commercial gigs, where actors could be registered and you were given one commercial a year. Wishful thinking about a “fair” industry I know, but if you’re reading this, please go into your next casting confident you are one day going to win that lottery. Somebody’s got to.