By Ashley Ward
Actor and industry veteran, Joe Smith discusses commercial acting, its benefits, and how he came to work with some of the biggest names in the business.
As an actor, it’s important to have a variety of tools in your toolbox; your go-tos that work to enhance your performance and prepare you for the next role that comes your way. Commercial acting is one of them. Just ask expert the himself, Joe Smith, the face of the lovable Cheez-It commercials, Best Buy ads, and countless other big-name brands.
No stranger to the industry, Smith has been a professional working actor for over 25 years, having performed nationally in regional theatre, indie films, voice-overs and, of course, commercials. He has also worked with some of the most notable directors in the business, including Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), Christopher Guest (Best in Show, The Princess Bride), the Russo Brothers (Avengers: Endgame, Extraction), and the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary), and he has commercials to thank for it.
Recently, we had a chance to sit down with the L.A based actor, who let us in on how embracing commercial work can be one of the smartest career moves an actor can make.
Sol Studios: What drew you to commercial acting to begin with?
Joe Smith: I grew up in a theatre, so that was my introduction to show business in general. I did not act as a kid, but I was always around it. My parents ran a regional professional theatre company in Massachusetts called the Foothills Theatre Company. They founded it when I was two years old, so I was always seeing theatre. It wasn’t a big leap of faith, like it is for some kids… I just always knew that it was one thing you could do for a living. As far as commercials, I somewhat fell into that.
JS (Cont): I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, went to Syracuse University to study theater, film, and writing, and then moved back to Boston to try and get whatever work I could get ahold of as an actor. I went out for theatre (and I did lots of theatre), but I also did commercials, indie films, corporate videos, live trade shows, and even events. There’s definitely a living to be made in Boston [as an actor], only if you accept whatever work you can get ahold of. And so, commercials was part of that. It allowed me to use my theatre training, and also learn all the nuances of on-camera acting, which has it’s own little technical demands.
SS: How would you say commercial acting is different from film acting?
JS: There is certainly some overlap, and we will cover some of this stuff in class. There are three basic categories. First, there are creative choices that apply to any type of acting (theatre, film, commercials, everything): “Who am I?”, “What is this scene about?”, “What do I want?”, etcetera…. Making good, strong, interesting choices. Then, there’s technical stuff that applies to any kind of on-camera acting: “Where’s my eyeline?”, “Will I be talking to a piece of tape on a C-Stand?”, “Am I in frame?” Then, for commercials, some of these things apply, but it’s just in a very condensed format. Commercials used to all be 60 or 30 seconds. Now, some of them are only maybe 15 or 7. So, you have to figure out how to very efficiently tell that story and hit all of those beats in a very condensed period of time.
SS: It seems like getting into character would be much more difficult for commercials than it would be for film..… How do you get into character when shooting a commercial?
JS: It’s trickier and it’s very condensed. It’s also a great reminder – and, again, this would apply to any on-camera acting – that what solidifies it is that you have to do as much as you can yourself. Sometimes, you can’t even count on getting direction. I did a commercial for Best Buy that was directed by Errol Morris, who’s a documentary director, and he directs very little. He likes things to unfold documentary style. So, I got cast for a Best Buy spot that he did. I was in makeup and wardrobe. They said, “Ok, here come to set. Stand here…. And rolling.” I got no direction about where I should look, or anything. So, just know that this is a possibility and make some of those choices on your own. Whenever you can make their job easier – “they”, meaning the director, crew, or anyone else – do it. Everyone’s got their own job. There’s 60 to 100 people running around making a commercial. They all have their own jobs to do… They don’t need to babysit you and your creative decisions.
JS (Cont.): So, the more you can make those choices (whether or not it’s in the script or it’s asked for), build something out of it. Even at the audition level, this will set you apart. For commercials, under the best of circumstances you’re going to be one of 50, 100, or 500 people auditioning for one commercial. And, at the end of the day (literally and figuratively), there’s a number of people who get to have a vote as to who they cast. So, at the end of seeing 300 people do the same 30-second thing, they have to sit down and ask, “Who did you like?” Part of that conversation has to start with, “Who do you remember?” There would be plenty of people in that group of 300 who had done a competent, perfectly serviceable job, but it’ll be that one person who made that interesting little character choice… Someone who brought something to the part that wasn’t imagined before. Sometimes, they don’t know what they want until you give it to them. So, you just try to make interesting, creative choices and hopefully that will be the thing that gets you the job and makes that moment memorable.
SS: How can film actors benefit commercial acting in general?
JS: If you get a job as a series regular on a sitcom and it’s rewarding, you love it, it’s steady work and you don’t have a desire or need to do commercials, that’s fantastic. However, the reality for most actors is that you have to do whatever work comes your way and commercials are there to make money. It’s got “commerce” right in the title. People aren’t doing commercials to feed their souls, they’re doing it to feed their stomachs. That said, it’s still a creative process. it’s still acting work, but there can be completely different casting directors and a completely separate pool of people [working on the production]. So, it can often be the thing that falls in-between your day job. Much like voiceover, it becomes another tool for your toolbox.
JS (Cont.): There are also some fantastic people who work in commercials on the production side, and also directors. Just doing commercials, I have worked with Errol Morris (an Academy Award winning documentarian), Christopher Guest (who directed Best in Show and was in Princess Bride and Spinal Tap). I’ve worked with the Russo Brothers, who directed a lot of the Avengers films. I’ve worked with Bobby Farrelly, one of the Farrelly Brothers who did There’s Something About Mary, Stuck On You, and a lot of those other kingpin comedies. So, you get to work with some really interesting, wonderful people and get this experience, and often in a much meatier kind of role, even if it’s only for 30 seconds. So, there are skills that you build and connections that you make that will grow the amount of commercial work that you have access to, but it can also expand into other forms of work as well.
Ready to get started?
Join Joe Smith for a virtual Commercial Acting Bootcamp hosted by Sol Studios! Starting Tuesdays, March 2nd, this 4-week class will provide experiential knowledge that students can easily integrate to the real world. Includes 4 free audition preps!