"Behind the Camera; Talking to a Session Operator"
By Patricia Tallman
John Lacy has been a commercial casting session operator for 7 years for such casting offices as ROSS LACY/CASTING STUDIOS, DANIELLE ESKINAZI/HKM, LISA FIELDS/CASTING CAFÉ, VICKI GOGGIN, LARAY MAYFIELD, & AVA SHEVITT/VILLAGE STUDIOS. He also directed commercial advertising campaigns for ESPN, COMCAST, UPN(CW) and SUBWAY. John has been a working actor in Los Angeles for 20 years and has appeared in over 200 commercials, as well as numerous episodic television shows including Desperate Housewives, 24, ER, Bones, CSI, Big Love and NYPD Blue.
Currently John is working with Francene Selkirk- Ackerman & Judy Kain in developing a class called “Booking the Call Back”.
Pat: In Judy Kain’s commercial class the other night I was struck by something you pointed out. You mentioned that there is a way to find out what the ad people were looking for in the copy. Can you talk about that?
J: It's the moment in the copy that is selling the story. It’s in every piece of commercial copy. The ad people spend so much time with the idea/concept. By the time it reaches the CD and the actor, it’s so succinct in its story telling. It becomes the actor’s job to whittle away the extemporaneous beats and focus on the moment that is going to be the one that gets them the callback…those selling points are in there. You need to know how to identify that this is the moment that’s important and selling the story. As you are looking at the copy, you need to create a few moments that are believable as you are starting, but the moment you need to nail is the moment that tells the story. It’s in almost every piece of copy, so don’t fly through it! And you can’t always count of the session operator to spoon feed it to you…even though it’s nice when they do. When I ran sessions, I always tried to highlight those moments. They’re always there.
Pat: I’ve never heard it put so clearly before.
J: You have to know what that selling point is. I think a lot of session directors have gotten pretty good at breaking it down, but you can’t leave it up to them.
Pat: I auditioned for a spot recently where the ‘husband’ carried all the weight of the copy. I had one line. The way the session operator directed, had him focused more on the pacing. If they had talked about what you just spoke of, it might have helped him. The actor, then, started to worry about the words and how fast he could say them instead of the point of the story.
J: That’s a perfect example. You have to decide what eggs you are going to put in what basket.
Pat: You’ve run sessions for commercials and you are having a great career as a commercial actor. Tell us a bit more about your background.
J: Almost 20 years as an actor. I have been blessed with making a living almost all of that time. There was a chunk of time where I wanted to be a director. I took myself out of the theatrical acting world and made a transition behind the camera. I had a couple of film projects that I spearheaded and I started running sessions for commercial casting directors to sharpen my teeth as a director. I was learning how to break down a story board, directing actors, learning the camera and composition. It was about a 7 year period that I looked at as if it were directive training. Consequently, I was good at it. I never looked at it like it was a grind…I never got bitter towards the actors and never had a chip on my shoulder but I would think to myself “What I really want to do is act, but I’m stuck behind the camera!” I always looked at it as an opportunity to get better at directing actors and to find that shorthand with actors to deliver good succinct direction to 150 of them. I wanted to give the first one the same energy I gave the last one, and make it a great session. I tried to be consistent with that and it was really a rewarding experience. In the final analysis, I decided I was missing too many opportunities myself as an actor, because I was too committed behind the camera. I wouldn’t leave a casting director in a pickle to run across town for an audition!
Soon, I was booking enough that I knew if I auditioned more I’d book more and I never looked back.
I do miss the daily energy of being around creative, nice energetic people. But it’s very nerve racking when you are running a session knowing your agent just called and you are missing out on an audition or a callback.
I did have a nice run behind the camera with some wonderful casting directors and I learned a lot.
Pat: Talk about what you learned as an actor, while you were running sessions.
J: Being in the room with the clients and director was a great crash course in the collaborative hierarchy. The call back is a great learning experience for an actor or director to witness and see what works in a performance…and what immediately doesn’t work!
There are at least 2 different camps and the client who ultimately has the final say. Even though you are in the room with the ad agency and they have their notebooks and actors rosters on the couch, and the director who is hopefully a little more engaging with the actors, they all still have to submit their choices to the client. The ad people have spent so much time with the idea that all they want to do is see it come to life. If it’s a comedic spot they all want to laugh genuinely, and think-wow this thing we thought was funny in the boardroom and conference call is funny because she or he made it funny. I like him or her.
The director hasn’t lived with it as long. He’s been brought in as a mercenary to execute the concept. The director is looking for an actor to make it work and make his job easy…someone easy to work with. Every good director understands the significance of casting. They want to look up and see an actor who is going to make his day a lot easier so they can do other things like composition and color pallets or something they want to do with the camera. If the director senses the actor is right for the job, but is going to be difficult, that’s hard for them to get past.
So you have the two competing camps, the ad people and the director. And then you have to get past the client.
Pat: What advice can you give us commercial actors, after all that time in the room?
J: Don’t’ push.
Pat: Keep it real?
J: No. Do keep your personality real. That which is not your performance, but that which is your energy that you bring into the room, keep that very real. Don’t try to ingratiate yourself to people. They don’t really want it. They don’t want you to befriend them; they want you to make their spot work. Keeping your energy very real, relaxed, and calm so you don’t put anybody off by being overly aggressive or eager to please- which I think is always obvious. You want to be very directable, you want to make adjustments, you want to be someone who can do it a number of ways and make it work.
Pat: That’s something that you and Judy have been talking about a lot in the past two classes. Be flexible and make adjustments.
J: I can think of so many bookings where I knew I was going to get the job because I made a 180 adjustment, from something I knew just worked to something that also worked. Now they know that I have just demonstrated to these people I can do this a number of ways and they’ll have options with me. It will now come down to something arbitrary whether or not I will book the job.
Conversely I have also had the experience of not being able to make the adjustment and I felt the job slipping through my fingers! Sometimes the director isn’t specific enough or is not articulating what they want. So, I’m left there trying to do something with that vagueness… or sometimes the spot just isn’t that funny. Other times you are dealing with the fact they are distracted and have their minds on a conference call from earlier, or already found somebody they love! In this instant, you have got to do something heroic, which is impossible with the material which has been handed to you. So there are all these little mind games you can play with yourself. Those are the types of things you get very good at not letting destroy your day. The rejections are just so fast and furious. I have had so many recently I could very easily get discouraged.
Pat: You have been in the room and you have heard how arbitrary it can be. Does that help?
J: Oh yes. It’s easy to dismiss little things like wardrobe and Polaroid’s. Yet, when it comes down to the end of a long day at the coffee table and they have one more spot to fill for an ensemble, and you look like the character, and they have a good feeling about you, you could get the job just because of that.
Pat: Spending the time to dress right can be a detail that matters.
J: You’d be surprised how often it comes down to the mixing and matching at the end of the day and who looks good. If you didn’t audition well, you are not going to even be on the table. You still need your skills.
Pat: Judy has talked about how she has booked jobs on her slate.
J: I have always felt like my slate is my first step forward. I’m going to tell you what I do. It comes from experience and relationships. I break the ice walking into call back rooms. A lot of times I know the session operators, and I’ll make a point of addressing them by name and having a brief casual exchange with them. It makes me feel like I’m in a friendly environment and it demonstrates immediately to the people on the couch that this guy is friendly. ‘He’s not too friendly in our face, he’s friendly to this operator we happen to like, who brought us a cappuccino at 8:30 this morning. He seems like a nice person.’ I also say good bye to that person and thank them. You can’t do that if you don’t know the session operator.
Pat: Take notes when you have auditions!
J: I may joke with them if something’s funny.You don’t always feel like you are in a friendly environment. The ad people don’t look like they love you and the director doesn’t introduce himself (even though it’s great when they do). I am very aware when they are not interested in me at all but I don’t let it affect me personally. Sometimes I wonder, “Why did you call me back?” But I get past that quickly and try to find something to talk to the session operator about. That helps me feel like I am worth while.
Pat: Having been on the other side of the desk, I have been in the room when something else has come up, and this poor actor comes in to audition, and he can tell we are not connected to him at all, because we are concerned about something else. And then when we do click back in- the actor may have already taken away the impression ‘Oh cold room.’
J: The session operator can alleviate that, and bridge that energy. Or if I walk into a room and there is something going on and they are not paying attention, I’ll have a seat. If they are not going to ask me to step outside, which is the polite thing to do, then I’ll just show them I am a professional. I am ready to roll as soon as they are ready.
You can’t let it irritate you. I can get irritated sometimes when waiting in the lobby for a long time, when I know perfectly well it shouldn’t take that long. That bothers me because it’s a lack of respect for an actor’s time and schedules. It’s so easy to come out and say ‘sorry guys we are moving slowly, here’s why’, and try to pick it up. A little communication goes a long way. But you can’t let any of it get to you. It’s part of the business. That thick skin doesn’t come cheap, you have to earn it. It’s from taking a lot of lumps.
Patricia Tallman co created Talent To Go with Judy Kain. Their goal is to help actors hone their acting, auditioning and marketing skills.Go to www.talenttogo.net for more info or email email@example.com for info on Commercial classes with casting director Francene Selkirk – Ackerman.