Actor 101: The Actor, The Art & Advertising

Being a working actor can be tough. You willingly jump into a world where only a very small percentage  of people in your field know where their next paycheck is coming from. It is a world where you constantly put your talent on display and are regularly told “no.” Those without thick skins are harried by doubt and even those who have the mental fortitude have moments where they wonder if it’s all worth it.

So it’s easy to see why, when the actor is working, they take a great deal of joy in being a part of whatever production they are a part of. But what I want to remind you of today, especially given the current shift in how media works, is that the actor, no matter what media they perform in, is a sales person and as much as we want to use our art to effect people we are being hired to sell things to them. 
You may be saying to yourself, “Whoa, dude, I’m an artist! I’m not some shill!”
I have bad news for you, you are totally a shill. 
Here’s the good news, these things DO NOT need to be mutually exclusive. 
Note One: television exists because of and for commercials, not the other way around. 
If it wasn’t for the products that need to be sold there would be nothing on television. It would be a dead platform. Ever heard of soap operas? They got their name because they were paid for by the soap companies that wanted to be seen by mothers who were home during the day. Ever wonder why network television doesn’t push boundaries very often? They need to sell ad space and, as anyone whose ever heard the word “boycott” before knows, the networks are very nervous about alienating their audiences. Ever wonder how HBO manages to create shows like “Game of Thrones?” One word: subscribers. All television is paid for by the audience, whether indirectly by buying products or directly by paying subscriptions. 
Note Two: Performing in commercials is an art all on its own. 
As I just mentioned, the reason “Breaking Bad” is on TV is to create a space of sixty minutes where 13-18 minutes can be filled with ad space to sell to the companies that want you, the “Breaking Bad” audience member, to see their products. Advertisers know that the double edged sword of this relationship is that most of the audience doesn’t care how essential these commercials are and they would rather not see any commercials so they work VERY hard to create little 30-second stories that sell a product and try to be as entertaining as possible. We, as the commercial actors, are then required to bring life to these stories so that sales are made which then translates into revenue that can be budgeted to be spent on more ad buys. There’s a reason that whole classes are dedicated to commercial acting and it’s because it has a very different feel and goal than what you would learn in your standard on-camera Stanaslovsky based classes. The basic techniques are the same, but execution is very different. 
(Author note: I will probably do a whole different entry about the differences in acting styles. They are very different and understanding them can be the difference between booking and not booking. – CA)
Note Three: Selling something is not the same as “selling out.”
For the actor as an artist, “selling out” can be one of the worst things you can be accused of. Music artists are accused of this all the time and it usually comes when the artist in question starts making a whole buncha’ money and becomes more well known. When the original fan base feels marginalized they lash out, but actual selling out is different. Selling out, by definition, is accepting money or other compensation for compromising your principals and/or integrity. Integrity – that’s the name of the game. So, by that definition, a militant vegan actor doing a commercial for zucchini? No problem, sell away. Same militant vegan selling sausage? Well, that isn’t looking great for your integrity. And things like this are considered even by the talent agencies. Each time I have signed with a commercial agent they have always provided me with a data sheet that asks if there are any products or companies that I am not willing to endorse or work for. And they pay attention to that. You should too. Even in this economy, where it can feel like heresy to decline any kind of work, if you can’t maintain your personal integrity you may not be in the right field. Paychecks are great, for sure, but are they worth the regret and resentment that it may come later? Only you can answer that. 
Note Four: Media is changing so fast that we are doing sales more than ever. 
Let’s just ignore the traditional sales aspects of the job for a second. As any actor has noticed the whole internet thing seems to have caught on and it has changed our career completely. Instead of hard copy head shots being delivered by messengers we now just sign up for a few different casting sites and get our info emailed. Instead of just the networks and cable there’s now internet commercials, web series, webisodes to supplement network shows, personal YouTube channels and a host of things that can hire you that didn’t even exist three years ago. There’s also about 1000 times the competition for those jobs. There has always been a “personal branding” aspect to the business and to some extent a need to sell yourself, but now you need to get yourself above a growing amount of noise from up and comers who may have a better knowledge of After Effects than you do (I’m not saying that your acting reel should have light sabers in every scene, but it can’t hurt, right? But seriously, don’t do that.). Now marketing yourself is as important as technique because you could be the most amazing actor in the world, but it doesn’t mean a thing if people don’t know who you are. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that this blog is part of a bigger strategy to help sell myself! Social media, the right pictures, websites and, when appropriate, public relations professionals are all important components to a personal marketing strategy. 
Sales and selling can feel like bad words sometimes. It carries a connotation of lying or being disingenuous, but in the end what it really does is let tell people about a product or service. In the case of the actor it advertises you and your talents. It’s important that you not ignore this aspect of the career. Remember if you maintain your personal integrity and remain authentic to what you are then you have no reason to feel bad about what you put out. 
Do you have opinions about selling, whether it be of yourself or products? Tell me in the comments. 
See you soon. 


Filed under acting, actor 101, actor stuff, commercials, marketing

4 Responses to Actor 101: The Actor, The Art & Advertising

  1. Jan Parker

    Great article. I found it while looking for an answer re: personal ethics vs role. I dpo believe that one might not be taken seriously…that you might undermine our integrity if you “sell “something you don’t believe on. But I don’t think you’d be selling out if you take commercial jobs. That brings me to why I like your post…
    Feel like giving advice? I am wondering if you can help us.
    Short story, doing “South Pacific” at a Community college. Guest director ( local guy who has made a couple independent shorts) suddenly decides he wants the sailors to be vulgar and crude…unlike the movie or any stage production we’ve seen of South Pacific.
    We have a few young men who have fairly high standards and do NOT want to be crude. It was never presented to them that they would be doing anything other than what is in the script. Now, with 11 weeks of rehearsal under their belt, the director says they need to be vulgar and that ” to be a good actor you must be willing and able to substitute your moral upbringing…that’s acting 101″
    Seems to me one should be able to maintain one’s integrity. I just can’t see someone like Jimmy Stewart becoming a potty mouth.
    What are your thoughts on this?
    Thank you

  2. CurtisAndersen

    I apologize that I haven’t replied earlier. I was traveling and wasn’t paying the closest attention to my comments. I hope it’s not too late to offer an opinion on this.

    I actually cover this a lot in my acting class because if we, as actors, are going to do good work then integrity must lie at the center of that. It’s the kernel that a good performance sprouts from. There are a few things that must be considered in this answer:

    1) The show itself: Tone and final objective for the audience is the biggest factor to consider here. Are they supposed to enjoy themselves? Should they have a visceral reaction for or against? Should they be shocked? Assuming that you are doing a standard version of South Pacific it’s a pretty solid romantic musical. The audience should be happy when the relationships culminate. However, if this is an avant garde take then perhaps another goal is trying to be reached?

    2) The director: They are in command of the overall vision of the show, which can include adjusting the tone of the show as a whole. While actors see individual “strokes,” the director is responsible for the completed “painting.” Based on your description it sounds like he is trying to put his own stamp on the show? Maybe making it grittier? My default reaction is to have trust in the vision, but it’s also his duty to make you, as performers, understand what that vision is and what part you play in that vision. Based solely on your description it sounds like this may not be very clear.

    3) The actor: You have a responsibility to deliver the character that you have been hired to play that matches the tone of the show and the vision of the director. To that end it is entirely possible that there will be 11th hour changes that may need to be integrated into a performance, but these changes, whatever they are, need to be applied as they would work for the character. They need to be defensible if you are asked where they came from. There needs to be a motivation behind them. There’s a reason why the phrase, “what’s my motivation” exists – it’s a legitimate thing for an actor, it just sounds really pretentious. If the actors being asked to change behaviors that don’t match their personal beliefs then the performance may come off either contrived or poorly done – neither is good for the show. But the people are not their characters so if the character displays different behaviors then the actor that is something the actor should be prepared for. I don’t like the phrase, ” to be a good actor you must be willing and able to substitute your moral upbringing…that’s acting 101″ I disagree with that, but characters do things that actors as people would never do and sometimes the most powerful performances are the ones that challenge the actor to really think and maybe even question why they feel the way they do about something.

    I’m not sure how vulgar they are asked to be, but in my opinion the best solution is a director/actor meeting where each side comes open minded and the reasoning for this change is discussed. That way a compromise can be made that follows character and place in show versus “I say do this!” “But I don’t want to do this!”

    I hope that helps and that you guys have a great show!

    • Jan

      Yes, it certainly helps and thank you for the reply!. I guess the biggest problem is that the director did not say from the getgo that he was going to make big changes in what is the “norm” for South Pacific. He just started changing things to “edgy” about 3 weeks before showtime. In fact, he totally sees South Pacific as a show about bigotry- not romance.
      In the end, as one of the actors put it, ” If I was being paid, I might understand his demands-but we are all volunteer amateurs!” (the director being an amateur himself as this is only the second stage production he has directed)
      Thanks again for your reply. I’m going to save your reply in case we need it for a show future.

      • CurtisAndersen

        Oh, well, yeah that is a pretty big change. Best of luck with the show and check in to let us know how it went. I’m very curious.

Leave a Reply