Naomi Snieckus is instantly recognizable. Even when she’s covered in blood.
That’s because, before Ms. Snieckus landed a role in the seventh instalment of gory slasher movie franchise Saw (this time in 3-D!), she was busy accruing the kind of strange fame that comes with a career in TV commercials.
Whether bemoaning her schlubby husband’s dancing Christmas Tree gift in a Staples ad or cooing at her goofy husband’s pronunciation of “Emmenthal” for Kraft, her usually bespectacled face will be familiar to most viewers of English Canadian TV. She’s not alone. Canadian commercials are filled with actors whose faces seem to be everywhere while most people don’t know their names. The weirdo who kisses a friend’s girlfriend (while having the good sense to know Alexander Keith’s is not to be shared) is the same guy who went door-to-door telling people that Barq’s has bite. The fellow who photocopied his bum in a Diet Pepsi spot is the same one who played ping pong with a bag of Uncle Ben’s rice.
“There’s 100 guys in the room, they all look like you, and 95 per cent of them could do the job. And for some reason, they keep taking us,” said Jason DeRosse, the ping pong player.
But what drives the trend? In many cases, it’s as simple as reliability. Actors who build up a reputation for showing up on time and landing a joke or a line on take after take are a valuable resource for directors and agencies who are themselves under pressure to deliver a quality product. Clients investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a national campaign won’t be happy with a performance that falls flat. Mr. DeRosse has been told that directors will ask for him by name, which is common for the top tier of advertising actors.
“Casting is so crucial. You need someone who’s going to make an immediate impact. A guy like Jim [Annan, the Barq’s guy], he’s a pro,” said Pat Pirisi, creative director with DraftFCB. In addition, a large number of ads require a comic touch. While Canada’s acting community is by no means small , the pool of comedians who can hit the right tone in a scene, have a relate-able face and come across on camera can be – especially since so many comedians feel they have to go to the U.S. to succeed, he said.
That may be why the Second City comedy troupe is such a fertile breeding ground for commercial actors as well: the top comedy talent, at least in Toronto where many ads are shot, often cycle through the cast at some point, learning valuable lessons in performing comedy and improvisation that are crucial in an ad shoot.
“It’s a small community,” said actor Geoff Gustafson. He has lived in Vancouver since 2005 but is still drawn to Toronto to shoot ads for directors that know him.
But the drive to please can also create problems for clients.
“It’s actually a big issue for marketing people,” said Tim Hamilton, a director with production company Sons and Daughters, who often casts actors he has worked with before. There are cases where it doesn’t make sense, of course: Almost all actors have non-compete clauses in their contracts stating that they can’t be in an ad for a competitor in the same category, typically for a year after a commercial airs. But he’s puzzled by how often clients will hesitate because they believe an actor is “overexposed.”
“I don’t think anyone complains that Meryl Streep gets too many roles,” he said. “They’re simply good at what they do and they have something special that makes them stand out.”
Still, with so many advertisers competing for attention, marketing executives will often understandably insist on every facet of their campaign being completely proprietary – right down to the look of the actors playing the parts. Ad agencies respond to this; Mr. Pirisi will sometimes avoid using an actor he has seen too often, he said.
“I’m definitely saturated right now,” Ms. Snieckus said. “They don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, it’s the girl from that [other] ad.’ ”
Mr. Hamilton disagrees with that relentless drive for fresh faces in the industry. But sometimes all it takes is a dormant period, he said, before clients are comfortable with an experienced actor again.
“I like using the same people, and I don’t think the consumer cares,” he said. “If they do notice, it’s to say, ‘Oh, there’s that funny guy.’ ”
I know that face...
- Geoff Gustafson
Type: Affable, slightly odd, occasionally “dumb as a post”
You know him from:
Wiser’s whisky: Refusing to subject himself to the indignity of holding his girlfriend’s purse.
AGF: A surveyor discovers his true passion is fashion photography, even if the subject is his burly co-worker.
Visa: On vacation, he insists a manatee is just an elderly dolphin.
-Future Shop: reviews products and bests his co-worker’s 5 out of 5 rating with a 7 out of 7, declaring, “I win. AGAIN,” and miming a championship belt around his waist.
-Other ads for Future Shop, Volkswagen.
His other jobs: Teaching audition skills at the Vancouver Acting School; in a series about time-traveling dinosaurs called Primeval: New World on Space network beginning in October.
- Naomi Snieckus
Type: “The pony-tailed, glasses-wearing blonde lady,” the wife
You know her from:
Rogers: HD television is so easy to install, your husband won’t get to use his tools. “He’s so handy,” she insists in an effort to soothe his ego.
BMO: The traditional “worry dolls” a shopkeeper offers her on vacation can’t keep up with her worries over “investmentitos” and market fluctuations.
Kraft: She uses shredded cheese in a lasagna, her teenage son is mortified as her husband (Snieckus’ real-life fiancé Matt Baram, also an ad regular) reads out the names of the cheeses to her in a “seductive” Italian accent.
-Other ads for Staples, Verizon (U.S.), Canadian Tire.
Her other jobs: Recurring character on CBC show Mr. D, co-artistic director for improv troupe The National Theatre of the World, formerly with Second City.
- Jason DeRosse
Type: “Nonthreatening,” the goof-next-door.
You know him from:
BMO: He washes his own clothes rather than use a dry cleaner that doesn’t give Air Miles. Shrunken hilarity ensues.
Whiskas: As part of a series where human actors play cats, he enacts a kitten clinging to a set of drapes.
-Other ads for Uncle Ben’s, Future Shop, McDonald’s and Canadian Tire.
His other jobs: Part of the current main stage cast at Second City in Toronto, did a season of the show Hotbox on the Comedy Network.
- Alastair Forbes
Type: “A high-status buffoon: a guy who thinks he’s smart but is actually an idiot,” sometimes a straight man.
You know him from:
Tim Hortons: Eating breakfast sandwiches with his female colleagues, who have different ideas about what constitutes an active lifestyle.
Wiser’s whisky: Refusing to subject his nether regions to the indignities of a climbing harness.
Wal-Mart: Holiday season guaranteed price match – he raps about it.
-Other ads for Telus and Halls.
His other jobs: Part of the current main stage cast at Second City in Toronto, as well as work in Web series and writing.
- Jim Annan
Type: Non-threatening, babyfaced goof.
You know him from:
-Alexander Keith’s: Learns the lesson that “some things are not made to share,” including beer and your friend’s girlfriend.
-Verizon (U.S.): Was the spokesperson for its Fios service for two years.
-McCain’s: reviving a popular Superfries ad from the ‘80s, he says that was him 20 years ago. (That was not him. “I have friends who were like, ‘I didn’t know you were that kid.’ I’m like ‘I’m not, it’s television. You have watched television right?’ People get very angry when they find out they were duped.”)
Other jobs: Formerly in Second City, sometimes works with Ms. Snieckus’s improv group the National Theatre of the World, in a movie called Unlucky that was just purchased by distributor Breakthrough Entertainment.
- Matt Baram
Type: Nutty professor vibe with a shock of dark, curly hair.
You know him from:
-Staples: though he’s there for just a moment, director Tim Hamilton says his reaction is an oft-recalled part of the spot, as a professional chef insulted that his rich client’s daughter claims to be “cooking.”
-Alexander Keith’s: Plays Dave, who shares a disturbing photo with all his friends, and tries to defend himself with a claim that he has a twin.
-Kraft: Four-cheese Italiano. Daddy needs more lasagna.
Other jobs: Co-artistic director of The National Theatre of The World, formerly of Second City, TV credits including Punched Up on The Comedy Network and CBC’s The Next Comedy Legend.
Like most thespians, commercial actors live a very unstable life – never knowing when the next paycheque will come in.
Here’s the typical take for an advertising actor doing a national commercial in Canada:
The baseline: an actor makes a session fee, at scale, for on-set work -- $700 for the first (often only) day of shooting.
The rest: Residuals, the talent fees that roll in when an ad actually airs, are where an actor makes money. How much this is depends on different factors, such as what markets the ad is shown in, and for how long. For a national spot running for the typical 13-week cycle, that generally ads up to roughly $1,600. Ads can be re-used, however, meaning that further residual cheques can show up.
The total: A typical campaign could net an actor around $2,200, or more (or less) depending on those factors.