An aspiring actor endures the indignity of auditioning for commercials
On a good day, I leave an audition and run errands, wearing a lot of makeup and clothes without stains, in a decent mood. On a bad day, I can’t get back to my house quickly enough to change clothes, rinse my face and my brain, and set about forgetting the 30 shifty seconds I spent in front of a camera. It’s hard to tell what makes the audition good or bad: Did I drink too much coffee? Did I misunderstand something pivotal, like the audition location or where the product to be sold falls on the aspiration meter? Perhaps I was late; perhaps I got the audition notice at 10:00 and had to be there at 11:00 and perhaps I couldn’t find a meter and the empty lot was plastered with signs saying NO ACTOR PARKING.
My workday consists of getting to and from casting locations and, once I’m there, waiting. Commercial auditions rarely last more than five minutes. What consumes my time and energy is the preparation (the side streets, the tongue swipes over the teeth to remove lipstick, the studying of copy that is often short or even nonverbal) and the aftereffects (trying to convince yourself the job meant nothing to you, to refuse to make note of what you wore because that would mean assuming you have to remember it for a callback, which would mean jinxing yourself).
The space surrounding auditions is dangerously ideal to house despair and self-doubt. You screen a mental tape of yourself in a bright room wearing a bikini, stuttering and asking in a high-pitched voice to start again, then being denied and slinking off, putting on your smudged glasses. You come home to see the piece of spinach lodged in your teeth. Included in the footage is the time you sang a song in your off-key alto about shaving your bikini line while wielding a hedge trimmer. And were denied, denied, denied.
Three hours to get ready and get there; three hours after to cleanse your brain of psychic wounds. In between, the audition itself: “Carol, I didn’t know you were a coffee drinker!” (To which the client casting the coffee ad replies, “I wasn’t but then I discovered the delicious new taste!”) Carol, I didn’t know you were a coffee drinker! Carol, I did not know you were a coffee drinker! Carol, oh, Carol, I didn’t even know!
I was late for an audition and looking for parking when a sweatsuit-clad woman indicated that she was leaving her spot on Beverly. She got into her SUV, backed it up four inches, and angled into traffic. Then she changed her mind. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been trying to park for 10 minutes and felt wronged in the extreme. I pulled up next to her and told her to go fuck herself.
A detail that I am loath to mention: I had a length of Kleenex under my glasses to keep them from smearing my makeup. I was trying out the Kleenex method for the first time and if you’re curious, it works, but the problem is you may forget your accessory and scream at a stranger and only afterward remember how you look.
My victim got out of her vehicle and started heading my way. I pressed the gas pedal and fled.
I turned down Sierra Bonita and almost rear-ended a garbage truck in the process of picking up every bin on the street at a snail’s pace. Two rows of parked cars trapped me for 20 minutes, which my clock told me was half an hour after my appointment.
The other day I waited for an hour to deliver one line about the temperature of water. There’s always a wait at auditions, sometimes brief but more often not, so that enough actors can show up and get the scene explanation and the camera can be set, and inevitably reset, and sometimes even master reset by a technician who has to be specially called in.
“I’ve been here since 10:30,” grumbled a guy next to me. “It’s taking for-fucking-ever.”
I felt for him: My meter was going to run out and I had to pee, and the order kept getting shuffled so that people who’d waited two hours continued to wait as someone who just walked in the door was ushered into the back room and then dismissed. Auditions condition you to go on auditions. Each one trains you to accept the paper cut–like indignities of the next.
“I don’t know,” mused one girl, “I think if you wait, it just means that they’re giving everyone a lot of consideration and respect once they’re in the room.”
“Yes!” another girl piped up, so loudly that the casting director in her office looked over. “I love when it takes a long time because I know that they’re being very careful about who they choose for each role!”
My friends from college who work straight jobs look at me with their adult eyes and say, “So how are things? What is your day like, anyway?” Their tone makes me shrivel and forget whatever it is I’ve done that day. Let the record show: Yesterday I auditioned to play a mermaid. My scene partner, a man called in for the role of pirate, showed up with his own sword, furry hat, and half of his trousers bunched up to imply a peg leg.
If you hear something enough (boyish figure, face so angular it casts shadows, skin tone of a blonde so why fight it by remaining brunette?), you start asking questions: Am I wasting my time? How could it take me so long to realize I am wasting my time, when these people figured it out in 30 seconds? What else don’t I know about myself? If you didn’t realize you were unfit for one thing, it follows that you might be misguided in other pursuits, too.
I am watching Saturday Night Live stoned. I feel completely neutral—neither happy nor sad, just beige-mooded—and after the close of the first musical number, I try to find the remote inside the sofa’s guts. While I’m rummaging, I hear my own voice, and I look up to see that I am on television in a bathroom with a man talking about how his breath smells.
Why does this shock me so much? I shot the commercial. It took 12 hours. Could it be because I thought the rejectable part of me was so offensive that I would never be in a commercial? Could it be because I thought they had pitied me—me and my crooked nose and lips that don’t read on camera—when they offered me the job? Could my self-worth have been that low? I am so surprised that I sit there talking to myself, though my fiancé rockets up from the armchair to pound his fist in the air, saying, “Really? Oh my God, really? It’s really on?”
I have no memory of performing the tasks I see my screen-self doing: picking up a fake tube of toothpaste, putting it down, trying to look at the other actor as though I loved him while we sat on a sofa in a staged living room. I do remember the drive at dawn to the shoot location, the conversations over the craft service table, the cold hands that put a microphone down my pants. I remember the wait outside the audition room, when it came down to me and one other girl, and how I left feeling sure she would book the job because her nose was prettier and she was not sweating through her shirt. I remember even more clearly the certainty that I would not work, ever—the realization I had driving on Cahuenga Boulevard after the callback that I was too fragile for this, that I was persevering mainly because I would like to be less afraid.
But there it was, and it showed up over the next year, like episodes of a nature series about some wild animal. In each installment I could see the person I’d forged between the drives, the fuck-yous, the face scrubbing and waiting-room waiting. She looks like me but not quite; some trick of lights made her seem more confident and less apologetic. She’s the one who got the paycheck, the health insurance. If I met her in a bar, she’d be sitting at a table with bottle service and wearing a furry hat, a conversation piece maybe, and she would dismiss me if I tried to talk to her. She’s nothing special, not even really an actor, but she took over for me when I could no longer operate my bodily vehicle; I, however, drove us home that night.
Tess Lynch is an actor and writer in Los Angeles. Excerpted from n+1 (February 2, 2011), a journal of literature and politics published three times a year. http://nplusonemag.com