NY Conversation May 2012 (Bumper Edition!)

In the pantheon of “Strange Things I Have Done to Make Money in NYC”, auditioning for a TV commercial features pretty prominently. Your correspondent is not an actor in any shape or form — the extent of my experience in such areas is one rendering of the Porter’s speech from Macbeth in Year 10 English, along with a spirited but ultimately uninspiring attempt at a South African accent while doing voiceover work in Bombay.

Still, an integral part of freelancing in Gotham is being perpetually broke, and I’m thus always open to pretty much any way of making cash that doesn’t involve large men named Bubba. I have a friend who works for a casting agency, and she put me on their books a while back “just in case”. I’ve never really expected anything to come of it, so it’s a surprise to get an email asking me to come by the casting studio the next day to try out for a role in a TV commercial for a large electronics company.

My initial excitement is somewhat tempered by the fact that I will be auditioning for the role of, wait for it, “Sketchy Pickpocket”. I’m told I have a “good look” for the part, which is either promising or mildly insulting. Quite what sketchy pickpocketing has to do with large electronics companies is unclear. But anyway, ours not to reason why, etc etc.

The casting studio is in a relatively nondescript office building on W 19 St. The elevator opens onto a lobby whose walls are adorned with framed posters for The Life Aquatic, Lost, Signs, Cars 2 and a bunch of other films I’ve never heard of. I sign my name on the register, leaving the “Agent” column blank, and sit down to wait. Several other people are already sitting on the chairs that line one of the lobby walls — a well-dressed black man with diamond earring and BlackBerry, a white guy who looks more suited to the role of “sketchy pimp” than “sketchy pickpocket”, and a suitably dodgy-looking Eastern European type. I identify the latter as my most likely professional competition, and start wishing Macbeth on him.

Time passes. The black guy scrolls back and forth through the emails on his phone. The pimp plays endless games of solitaire. More people arrive. You can tell the serious actors from the amateurs because the former group have casting cards and names to write in the Agent column. A young Adonis, clad entirely in black, sits down next to me. I can’t help thinking that he’d make an unfeasibly attractive petty criminal.

Eventually, the studio door opens, and a woman with a clipboard steps out. “Tom?”

I stand up.

“What role are you auditioning for?” she asks.

“Sketchy Pickpocket,” I announce proudly. There’s a ripple of laughter. I sit back down, uncertain of what to do next, as the others rattle off their roles. It turns out that we’re not all thieves — there’s cops and innocent victims and various other parts, too. It dawns on me that I may be required to, y’know, act. I think of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. I bet she never had to audition for Sketchy Pickpocket.

Eventually, I’m summoned into the studio with the black guy — who’s playing Police Interrogator — and the Eastern European I’d fingered for a fellow larcenist, who turns out to be a) not Eastern European at all and b) the leading contender for the role of Innocent Victim. The three of us are plonked in front of a camera, have our pictures taken, and then told to “do a bit of improv.” The first scene comprises Sketchy Pickpocket surreptitiously lifting the wallet of Innocent Victim while he pretends to talk on his phone. I dutifully remove his wallet from the non-Eastern European’s trousers and leg it.

The second scene involves the resultant grilling by Police Interrogator. By this stage I am genuinely terrified, mainly because I hate being on camera and Police Interrogator is rather too good at his job — he keeps haranguing me about why the wallet was in my possession and why the ID therein didn’t match my face and etc. The whole thing starts to feel like I really have lifted someone’s wallet, and I end up insisting feebly that I’m not saying any more until I speak to my lawyer. Method acting, y’all.

We’re cut short after a couple of minutes, which feel like hours. I ride the lift back down to the street with Police Interrogator, expecting never to hear from the agency again. However, it appears that my genuine interrogational terror was convincing enough, as I get invited back two days later for a “callback”. This involves filling out a proper actor’s profile card, which has boxes for all sorts of esoteric body measurements (“Under Chest”, “Inseam”, “Nape to Floor”) that I have no idea how to complete, and then undergoing the entire improv process again — this time in front of the director, a raucous type who looks a bit like Gary Ross, along with various other important looking people who I guess are from the large electronics firm in question.

Before we begin, the director compliments me on my ‘look” and thanks me for taking the trouble to dress the part. I decide it’s better not to apprise him of the fact that I’m wearing exactly what I wear every day, mainly because I only own one jacket and one hoodie. The Police Interrogator from last time is here, too, and gives me another going over, as does another hopeful for the same role, a large black woman in a bob wig that she later tells me “was the only way I could think of to look conservative”.

The director roars with laughter as I try to convince Police Interrogator #2 that I found the wallet on 6th Ave in broad daylight. I’m not sure whether this is a good sign or not. The whole process is entirely inscrutable. I still have no idea what this whole scenario has to do with selling consumer electronics, either. Still, the director slaps me on the back as I leave and tells me he’ll be in touch. I ride the lift back down to the street again, this time thinking of Withnail and the wolves. What a piece of work is man, indeed. Apparently I find out over the next couple of days whether Sketchy Pickpocket will be my first step on the road the TV stardom. Wish me luck, eh?

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If you happened to read the first instalment of New York Conversation’s new online incarnation, you’ll know that your not even remotely thespian correspondent last week found himself auditioning for the part of “sketchy pickpocket” in a TV commercial.

Well, here’s the best bit: I got the part. Hilariously, NY Conversation will be appearing on TV as a briefcase-lifting criminal in an advertisement for a large Japanese electronics company’s line of security cameras. Life’s never dull, etc etc.

I’m in the ad for about 5 seconds all up, but filming takes two solid days. The first day is, curiously, at the New York Giants’ football stadium in New Jersey — it turns out that my role is one of many in a whole suite of ads for the Japanese electronics company’s various product lines, and there’s a scene at the end of the day in which all the actors involved in various scenes will double up as a football crowd.

My call time is 10am, which means I have to drag myself out of bed at 7.30am to make it out to Jersey. There’s a crowd of actors milling around the entrance when I arrive — security is hilariously tight, and everyone is awaiting the arrival of the sniffer dog, which will check our bags to ensure we’re not carrying bombs, or unauthorized booze, or something. In the meantime, I’m instructed to surrender my ID to have it scanned — the scanner seems to have trouble with Australian licenses, and I’m forced to explain to the surly gate guard that my name actually isn’t “VIC BENTLEIGH”.

Eventually, the dog arrives, perched like visiting royalty on the back of a golf buggy, and we’re ushered two by two into the stadium. My initial attempts to make conversation with a couple of my fellow actors, by making friendly complaints about having to get up early, fall flat — it turns out that pretty much everyone else had to be on set at another location in Newark at 6am. Eeeek. But one the initial ice is broken, they turn out to be an interesting bunch — unlike me, they’re all, y’know, proper actors, with agents and showreels and all such things.

It turns out that the scene I’m shooting out here today involves me being interrogated by a detective after being spotted on a security camera lifting someone’s briefcase. The “interrogation room” is some sort of little medical room in the bowels of the stadium, and it’s fascinating to watch how quickly the crew transform it into a convincingly spartan room from a police station.

The sheer number of people involved in the whole thing is amazing — there’s grips, key grips, runners, lighting guys, the props people who provide the detective with his badge, a make-up artist and her assistant, several costume types and a battalion of people in folding canvas chairs with laptops, whose purpose is apparently important but remains unclear. The lighting guy pulls off one particularly impressive trick with a large folded piece of black canvas and a couple of lights to approximate the effect of having a single globe dangling from the ceiling, film noir style.

Amusingly, the initial concept for the shot seems to involve seeing it through the security camera made by the electronics firm in question, which is mounted on the wall above me — but, well, it doesn’t work. Eventually, the director gives up and uses a gigantic movie camera. I spend half an hour being grilled by the detective, who in real life turns out to be a fascinating guy who’s friends with several NBA players and has just made a film with Wyclef about the Trayvon Martin shooting. He makes a very convincing cop, so much so that by the end I’m feeling very chastened for being foolish enough to think I could get away with lifting someone’s briefcase and legging it.

When we’re done, we’re treated to a pretty impressive spread for lunch, and then sent back upstairs to dick around for a bit until it’s time to shoot the crowd scene. This turns out to take ages, for some reason, but eventually I’m ferried back to Manhattan and told to report to a street corner in Chelsea the next afternoon and “look for the mobile home.”

As it transpires, the mobile home is a genuine proper movie star trailer, which is being used by the crew as their temporary base for the day. Today’s shoot involves my other two scenes — snatching a briefcase from an unsuspecting victim, and getting arrested by a passing cop after my crime is caught on camera. We shoot the latter scene first, and it’s at this point I start to question the wisdom of this whole affair.

Getting arrested, as you might expect, isn’t a great deal of fun. It involves getting my head shoved into the bonnet of a large Buick SUV again, and again, and again. The clean-cut kid who’s playing the policeman starts out doing his best to be gentle, but this apparently shows on the tape, because the real-life policeman who’s directing traffic to allow us to film is sent over to show us how to “do it right”. He does so with gusto, demonstrating to my fellow actor how twist my arm up behind my back, push my face down and “stand to one side so he doesn’t kick you in the balls.”

There’s a touch of the Stanford Prison Experiment about the whole thing, because by the time we finally get the shot right, half an hour or so after we began, my clean-cut companion is performing the arrest procedure just a little too convincingly. I’m left with a sore neck and a belting headache, so it’s a relief that there’s only one scene left to shoot, and that it doesn’t take long at all. I’m to sneak up behind my victim, grab his briefcase, and leg it. I do so a couple of times before our friendly neighbourhood cop steps in again to demonstrate, um, how you steal a briefcase. “You gotta push him, man,” he tells me. “He ain’t your friend. Push that motherfucker, grab the case and run.”

I push that motherfucker, I grab the case, and I run. (Note to any fellow sketchy pickpockets reading this: it’s a throughly effective method.) It seems that I’m a natural, because this scene only requires a couple of takes. And then we’re done, so it’s back to the trailer for a nice hot cup of tea and some complimentary biscuits. It’s not half bad, this acting lark — so long as one isn’t required to actually act, of course…

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