I’ve been commercial acting for about seven years, and so far every role has been as a second or third banana. But last week, I finally made it to the pinnacle and got the starring role in a VW commercial .?.?. as an unemployed, wild-eyed psychotic cabbie, à la Travis Bickle, wandering the streets of downtown L.A. bearing a cardboard sign reading “The End Is Near.” When my character spies an oncoming Passat, whose driver yells out how inexpensive the swank ride is, he immediately transforms with a new lust for life and struts happily down Main in celebration.
Obviously, given the nature of the part, I wasn’t cast for my stunningly handsome good looks, but because I seem to possess a disconcerting stare and a beaten-down exterior (if the role calls for either law enforcement or its prey, I’m a good bet). Even so, it was a little disconcerting when the makeup girl gave me the once-over twice and pronounced I was “perfect as you are.” Uh, thanks, I guess. My so-called friends piled on, calling it “typecasting” when they found out I was going to be playing a homeless guy.
Still, it was a starring role, and I was looking forward to the sweet little perks that come with the leap from extra to principal. Too bad there weren’t any to be seen on this set — not even a dressing room or a trailer, and, naturally, it rained.
The shoot began at 8 a.m. on Fourth and Main. The establishing shot called for me to brandish the sign until the Passat appeared (the car wasn’t here yet, so it had to be imagined), and the director kept pushing for something more over-the-top with each take. Except commercial acting isn’t like television or film — minutia is the message here. Every one of the 75 takes we did was the slightest variation on the main idea. Like a trained seal, I did my best to comply with the directions (“Don’t dump the sign so hard .?.?. Don’t look up so fast .?.?. Smile .?.?. Curse.”). But after a while, I started getting loopy and I kept habitually shrugging, which caused the director to erupt. “DON’T FUCKING SHRUG. HOW MANY TIMES I GOTTA TELL YOU?” he screamed from across the street. Then, he took a deep breath and shrugged himself and said, “I know there’s a lot to remember, let’s try again.”
Because the director was across the street from me, and I apparently don’t need much help looking like a psychotic indigent, a lot of passersby didn’t deduce this was a commercial shoot. “Yeah, Jesus is coming back,” babbled one frumpy businessman type to his companion, adding, “This street is fucking filled with these freaks.” A guy in fatigues read my sign and said, “It took you how long to figure this out?” I decided to see how far I could take it and started panhandling the guy. “No, I haven’t got any change,” he said and scurried off. A middle-aged Latino couple taking their abuela to the clinic around the corner cowered when I wandered too close to them. I pointed at the cameras and told them, “Yo soy la estrella aqui.” They both laughed.
I can’t say I blamed them. After all, how could someone who looks like me be the star?