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Recently I was taught a vital aspect of my craft. While I was sitting in an audition waiting room for a McDonald’s McCafe commercial, the assistant casting director came out to instruct all of us casually hip 20-somethings (their words, not mine) on how to fake-drink from the water-filled coffee cups.
We were to press our thumbs to the lips of the cups and kiss our thumbs.
Brilliant, I thought, though apparently out loud. She was not impressed, and with a cutting glance remarked: “That’s what actors do.”
I buried my face in the headshot I was holding. I’ve been auditioning professionally for six years, and got paid to act for the middle three. Somehow I had never been privy to this important component of being a thespian. The horror.
Eventually I opened my eyes to look at the grinning photograph of myself. This freshly shaved, mid-diet, just-exercised, two-days-post-haircut version of myself has always embarrassed me. I recall the photographer asking for the Gosling-esque mischievousness that works so well for commercials. Unfortunately, I’m not Ryan Gosling. If I were, I wouldn’t be in a waiting room hoping against hope that I hadn’t just blown my chance of booking this McDonald’s gig.
On my way to the audition, I ran into a friend going to give a presentation for his course at George Brown College. When I told him where I was headed he thought it was so cool. I’ve long since given up arguing with people who view a commercial audition this way, but at that moment I would have gladly traded places with him, and talked at length about the merits of Restaurant Management.
“Glamorous” to me is a constant paycheque, good insurance and being able to move out of my parents’ house. I continued on my way, wondering how much plumbers earn.
In the waiting room, as I glanced at the time on my phone (I was late for my part-time job at a brewery, or maybe it was Rosh Hashanah), my name was called to have a different photo taken.
I was thrilled I wouldn’t have to use the headshot I was holding, until I realized I hadn’t shaved my neck. That always adds 10 pounds, and the McDonald’s breakdown had explicitly noted they’d be sensitive to overweight people.
Whenever I get into the grip of these vanities, I try to remind myself it’s all about the performance. I try to recall the years spent at theatre school, learning from great Canadian playwrights, the summer spent in Los Angeles studying at a prestigious school, countless improv/scene study/mask classes, and the three years I worked on a television show.
No one had told me about the cup trick. But it’s been two years since I’ve seen an acting-related paycheque, and five years since I’ve booked anything at all. A bit of a neck beard was enough to send me into a relapse of mischievousness, which works so well for commercials.
When I first got to the waiting room, I saw another actor. He books everything I go out for. We barely know each other’s names, but I could give his description to a police sketch artist (not a bad idea).
We must have seen each other a few dozen times in different waiting rooms around the city. We are of a type. Every time I see his face staring back at me from my TV I wonder if he went to a better school, had better teachers, is that much better-looking, that much skinnier, or if he knows someone.
Every time I run through all the reasons he books over me, I land at the same conclusion: He’s probably a better actor. Then I try to improve somehow. But I really hope he has neck-beard insecurities.
In the time since I first acted for money, I’ve seen colleagues become international stars and watched talented people give up on their dreams. I’ve joked with friends that, if we make it to 40 in this business, we’ll book everything by default. But I’m sure several 40-year-old actors would disagree.
Everyone thinks this business is glamorous except those who are in it. One day MTV is filming you, and the next you’re being insulted in front of your peers while waiting to silently not drink coffee and smile.
When my name was called, I went into the room with two other actors, smiled at everyone, and sat down in front of the camera. Once we had our thumbs pressed to the lip of our coffee cups, the casting director asked us to banter. I can’t remember what I said, or if I said anything at all, but the casting director, his assistant and the cameraman all laughed. They laughed.
“Cut” was called and I thanked them. I shook the other actors’ hands, then rushed out the door to catch the streetcar with a gigantic smile on my face.
They had laughed! The insecurity, the constant rejection, the swallowing of pride, the thumbs kissed on coffee lids, are all endured for that moment of impact caused by a performance.
Some level of truth was found in a coffee-commercial audition room among three actors who were competing with each other. I got on the streetcar, and said to myself: “That is what actors do.”
Natty Zavitz lives in Toronto.