Crazy Larry, the struggling actor, is in a commercial run of a good play, which got him signed recently with a big talent agency. They told him to do two things immediately: Pay hundreds (again) for a (different) headshot, and enroll in an acting school.
It’s a specialized class. For $600—or was it $1600? He won’t repeat the cost—Larry is taught the jargon of the industry and to sell product on camera. For instance, if a director asks a union actor to improvise on camera, she has to pay him more, so everyone (who’s anyone) knows that when she says, “You know, um, go ahead and be more natural with it. Be casual. Have fun,” she’s really asking for improvisation without pay. And no one, not even the school’s faculty, knows what “M.O.S.” stands for, but everyone knows it means to emote onscreen, without lines, during a voiceover segment.
Knowing the lingo could make the difference between acting and waiting tables for a living. And despite Crazy Larry’s love for dramatic art, he said, “I’ll just give you this one as a present, Churm: I think I was born to do this stuff.”
From what he’s told me, a single day’s advertising gig can pay a month’s rent. If he fell into a long-term job—became, say, the regional face of Staples, the office supplies chain—he might have the income and free time to pursue any number of “real” acting jobs. I’d like that to happen for him. I’d like finding him looking out of the cheap flyers that my sons pull from the Sunday newspaper to shred and throw at each other, Larry crossing his arms in apparent satisfaction over some particle-board desk, with a cartoon bubble pointing at his mouth, saying, “That was easy!”
I’d like that a lot.
Some of my joy in seeing a good friend compromise his aesthetic principles is reduced by Larry’s glow over his own prowess, as well as by his awareness that he’s being educated in methods he can’t allow onstage. “It’s ruining me,” he groans.
He's been taught that when the advertising actor slides into his suit coat and strides purposefully out the front door, ready to take on the world because his diarrhea/constipation/impotency/priapism meds worked so well the night before, he has to keep his face from “evolving” with emotion. If he doesn’t get his expression set in frozen happiness, a video editor will have no graceful way to cut away from the scene. Obviously, a stage actor might want to evolve.
The instructors told the class that most people don’t know what their faces are doing. As an exercise, they asked Larry and his peers to “smile a little, smile more, smile a lot!” and taped them so they could see what they looked like. One handsome young model in the room couldn’t move his face.
As Larry told me all this, he began to convince himself of something. “It’s a creative endeavor,” he told me, “even if it is making commercials.” He talked about learning the “beats” of a scene by repeatedly pouring cereal from a box. “It’s an art,” he said. “Really.”
In workshop, they had practiced the timing of their beats by reacting to something surprising of their own invention. Larry ambled, stopped, pulled off his glasses—or pretended to pull off imaginary glasses—and “saw” a friend in the distance. Brilliant. A fellow student’s beats made no sense: She crossed her arms, put her finger to her lips, and looked up in surprise.
“What was that?” the instructor said.
“I saw the Eiffel Tower above me,” the woman said.
Larry, ever helpful, offered his critique. “You suddenly saw the Eiffel Tower appear above you? That’s funny,” he said.
I’m not saying advertising isn’t akin to art. Every time a fast food chain announces a “new” sandwich, it moves me to action. Recently, I had to try a “Baconator,” but since I don’t pay attention, I went to the wrong chain and bought a tiny double cheeseburger with half a strip of bacon on it. Starbuck was with me, and I couldn’t not get him one too. He told Mrs. Churm we’d eaten Baconators for lunch (“Six strips of hickory smoked bacon piled high atop two 1/4 lb.* patties of fresh, never frozen, beef. Complete with two slices of American cheese, mayo and ketchup for a mountain of mouth-watering taste. Go on, obsess a little”), and she and I had a long friendly conversation about parenting skills.
Starbuck and I were walking back from the library the next day, and he said he’d seen a commercial for some sort of “strawberry water” he’d like to try. After questioning, it became clear that a water-filter company was pulling a “value-added” stunt: They cram their filters with strawberry-flavored tar, and when you lift your faucet handle, out comes “strawberry water.” It must be great for making coffee.
“Don’t you think it would be kind of gross?” I asked Starbuck. “There’s no fizzies, like soda, you know. And it wouldn’t be very cold.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I want it. The people on TV were smiling, so you know it’s good.”
Somewhere in a darkened production studio, Crazy Larry intones his lines: “Water, Propylene Glycol (22%), Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Malic Acid, Acesulfame K, Sucralose, Strawberry Flavor, Sodium Chloride, Benzoic Acid (preservative), Sorbic Acid (preservative).”
He pauses and whips off his glasses, looks surprised. “Your kitchen faucet is about to become the most popular spot in the house.” He smiles widely, sincerely. “Crave the option of flavor,” he says. “Wait. Can I try that again?”