Brooke Thomas, Mary Egan Callahan, Brooke and Mary: On-Camera Commercial Intensive Class for Actors
I first met Brooke Thomas when I was 16 years old, and cast in a University of Rhode Island production of William Inge’s “Picnic”. She was a sophomore theatre major. When I later enrolled there as a student and became a theatre major, Brooke and I became fast friends. We have worked together many times and had many adventures. Her gift as an actress is obvious to anyone who has seen her in action, but she has gone on to become one of the most successful casting directors for commercials in New York City. She started out at Liz Lewis Casting, and now works at House Casting, and, along with raising two wonderful kids, maintains a brilliantly busy career, not only at the casting office but co-teaching a popular commercial acting class with her House colleague, Mary Egan Callahan. Commercials are the bread-and-butter of the industry and how many actors not only keep themselves solvent but have the financial freedom to do off-Broadway shows and non-commercial productions. They also are an art form in and of themselves and we’re going to talk about that in this interview. To quote a phrase, what Brooke doesn’t know about commercial casting probably isn’t worth knowing, so I really wanted to sit down and talk with her about it. This is the second in what will be an on-going series of “process interviews”, the first being my interview with teacher/actress Jennifer McCabe. Brooke and I go way back, so there was certainly some editing to be done here, as we frequently devolved into out-and-out gossip or inside jokes. I decided to keep one of the inside jokes – “Honey, I’m a nurse” – because it not only came up multiple times, but is indicative too of Brooke’s practical and yet passionate attitude towards her work. She loves what she does. “Honey, I’m a nurse” ended up capturing that. Thank you, Brooke, for your openness. Although I know Brooke well, it is not often that you get to sit down and grill your friends for information on their particular biographies. I learned a lot about Brooke Thomas in our conversation, and I am pleased to share it with you now.
Sheila O’Malley: I wanted to talk with you about casting because it’s an interesting side of the acting business. It’s practical but it’s connected to the artistic side as well. I also wanted to talk about acting and your journey as an actress. As a kid, where did it all begin for you? How did you get interested in acting? Did you have an A-ha moment?
Brooke Thomas: You know, my mom and dad told me that when they were at a May breakfast when I was a baby they put the carrier on the stage. And so for my mother, that was always: “We knew you were going to be on the stage.” I did have an “A-ha” moment. In 10th grade a teacher really turned me onto plays, and I started to read plays, and I thought, “This is cool, I really like it.” So I did a couple of plays in high school and then I went to college and I was a psychology major because, you know, you can’t major in plays.
SOM: Hi, I would like to major in plays.
BT: Yes, I would like to major in plays, please. So I went to college and I studied psychology and I really didn’t like it. Beginning of my sophomore year, I thought, “Okay, I need to regroup.” I took the semester off and I went to Europe by myself. I don’t know how my parents allowed me to do that but at 19 I bought a ticket on People’s Express and went to Europe for two months and toured around. Spent time alone, really thinking, What am I doing? I came back and I met with an advisor and I said, “I want to come back to school but I’m really unhappy with what I’m studying.” And this really old woman, I wish I could remember her name, she was an advisor, said, “Well, what do you LOVE?” And I said, “Well, I love plays.” She said, “Why don’t you study theatre?” And I said, “I don’t know. Am I going to be able to … feed myself? How am I going to live?” And she said, “If you do something you love, you will find a way to live.” That was it, it was settled. When I came back the second semester of my sophomore year, I came back as a theatre major. I loved it, and I excelled. I was on the Dean’s List. It was where I needed to be. I loved school.
SOM: When you came in as a sophomore, you came directly into the Sanford Meisner training [program] they had at URI. Had you heard anything about Meisner before?
BT: Nothing. Not a thing.
SOM: What were you expecting from your first acting class?
BT: I was expecting to read a script and pretend to be a character in a play.
SOM: How would you describe your experience of the Meisner technique?
BT: Really listening and observing behavior. Learning how to listen to somebody, which has helped me in my life, outside of acting. It’s also hindered me in some ways, because I read people’s behavior now, rather than just listening to what they say: “Okay, you’re saying that, but that’s not what’s really happening” and that can be a little problematic. When I started doing the Meisner technique, it was exciting, it was frustrating, but the first time I got it, I knew: Wow, this is an incredible technique.
SOM: Do you remember what that moment was?
BT: Emotions come quick to me, so it was filled with lots of tears, and “how can I be feeling this?” High drama. Kimber Wheelock, our Meisner professor, was one of a kind. He was a very good professor because there was no coddling. There was a lot of respect paid toward me. I was seen as an adult. His attitude was, “You’re an adult. Take responsiblity for yourself.”
SOM: How did you feel about acting when you graduated?
BT: Studying theatre in a university is very safe and it’s lovely but I feel that most universities don’t prepare their graduates for the real acting world, and the real world of making money, and survival. They are preparing them in terms of academics, but not … how are you going to DO it? So I was scared when I got out because I didn’t know enough. I hung around for a while, because I wanted to keep doing plays. I was a teaching assistant, I choreographed some shows, and I helped out and I enjoyed it, but finally, it was time for me to go. It was time for me to move on, although I could see myself in that world. I could see myself as a professor in academia. I like to be the big fish in the very small pond and I am totally happy with that. I don’t need to be the big fish in the big pond. My dream was always to work in a repertory theatre. Like Trinity Rep. Trinity Rep turned me on to theatre when I was a kid. I saw everything there growing up in Rhode Island. Even when I go there now, the smell of it… it brings me back. I love that theatre. It’s the best of the best.
SOM: So talk to me about your life after you graduated from college.
BT: I did some odd jobs. My then-boyfriend got a job in Dallas in a regional theatre – the Dallas Theatre Center – with Adrian Hall – and I followed. I started working a little bit in that regional theatre, running spotlight for one show, performing in another show, in Romeo and Juliet. I thought, “Okay, this is where I want to be.” It was the same form as Trinity Rep. And then my boyfriend’s father passed away and we came back to New England. We moved to Boston and I was thinking, “What the hell am I going to do here?”
BT: I was waiting tables and another waiter said, “Oh, this improv troupe is looking for someone to replace somebody else, and I don’t know if you feel like auditioning but – ” I had no improv training. I remember feeling very uncomfortable at the audition. There were no other people auditioning, I felt like there was no competition to get in. So it seemed like their attitude was [in a weary voice], “All right, you’re in.” So I got in. I don’t know why. But Adam Felber was in the troupe, and Michael Bernard … They were all amazing.
SOM: How long did you perform with them?
BT: I performed with them for almost two years and I have to say that for the first six months, maybe eight months, I was despicable. I almost quit I don’t know how many times. We’d all be backstage, and everyone would be saying, “All right! Let’s go on!” And I’d be thinking, “I hate this so much. It’s not fun for me. I am really bad. I never get a laugh. I destroy every scene that I go into. I’m self-conscious through the whole thing. I’m really bad at this.” But they didn’t fire me.
SOM: When did it crack?
BT: I remember exactly when it cracked. We did college shows, and we were at some college and I thought to myself before we went on, “I suck at this. I’m not funny. And I don’t have fun. So tonight – I’m just going to go out, and I’m just going to think about myself ONLY, and I don’t care if I’m funny and I don’t care what other people think about me, and all I’m going to do is just basically have fun and try to get my cast members to have fun with me. That’s it. I don’t care anymore.” And … it worked. And that’s when I got it. I got out of my head. To do improv, you have to get out of your head. You have to stop thinking about “funny” and really enjoy yourself. And from that point on, I really didn’t have a problem. It was a click: “Oh! That’s it!” Why couldn’t someone have said to me, “Just have fun. Don’t think about anything.” But I guess I had to sink to the bottom of the pool and push off. After that I had a blast.
SOM: Those shows were packed, too. When we saw those shows, there were massive crowds.
BT: We were doing the musical, too, which no one was doing then. I mean, that’s what Baby Wants Candy is doing all the time now. That was so fun.
SOM: Let’s go back to college for a minute. URI was a big state school, but there was a very good theatre program.
BT: Very good. Kind of an under-the-radar theatre program.
SOM: You had experience with all these different kinds of plays, musicals, new works, Lanford Wilson, Noel Coward. I’m just curious what you felt your place was in all of that, or if it was like, “I am living my dream of being at a place like Trinity right now.” Did you get a sense of where you shined the most?
BT: I didn’t. I was good at a lot of things. I was a good stage manager. I am very good at organization. I love to sew. I really enjoyed making costumes. I loved reading plays, I loved acting in plays. I loved dancing. I choreographed shows after I left and I’m not a trained dancer! I just loved the whole of it. I loved everything except singing and juggling. I didn’t like juggling at all and I thought that was a waste of my time and energy. And clowning. No to clowning. But I loved all of it. So I really didn’t feel like, “Yup. I’m Broadway-bound.”
SOM: Do you have a favorite show that stands out?
BT: There was a show that I did called Home Free. It was a student-directed project, Joanne Fayan directed it, and she gave us time, we really explored. We didn’t do a lot of intense shows like that at URI. I do have to say that the way that Judith Swift staged a lot of things, and her creative vision, has inspired me to think outside of the box. She always thought outside of the box. Like the slow-motion scene in Anne of Green Gables, and Compuhension – her musical about computers – in the 80s – and here we are now, I live on my computer. The way she staged Rimers of Eldritch, or how she staged Cole with the audience sitting behind the stage – it was almost experimental. Very innovative. I feel lucky that I had that. I feel lucky that it wasn’t all standard Miller-Chekhov. But I do wish I had had a little of that.
SOM: The paradigm-shift that went on for you when you decided to get into casting: how did that come about?
BT: I was waiting tables in New York. I was working a lunch shift and talking with this other woman who I had become friendly with – Andra Reeve – and it was dead and we were just standing there, and she was an actress, and we were saying, “What are we gonna do? This is not looking good for us right now.” She said to me, “Have you ever thought about casting?” I said, “Not really.” And she said, “I think that we would both be really good at it.” I said, “Really?” And she said, “Yeah!” And I said, “You know, I’m going to look into it.” She said, “Me too.” I did a little looking around. I had my Ross Reports. I didn’t go on a lot of film auditions, I clearly didn’t go out on a lot of commercial auditions, I had no agent. I talked to Andra the next day and said, “I think I’m going to try and see what casting’s about.” And she said, “Yeah, me too. Let’s get our resumes together.” We went home that night and made our resumes. I don’t know what I put on it. Probably just an objective and my theatre training. I sent my resume to every casting director in the Ross Reports. And I got a response from Liz Lewis Casting. Peter Kalin, who was there at the time, called me in for an interview, not telling me that it was an unpaid position, and I met with him. They were moving their office, so everything was in boxes, and he said, “We would love to have you but we have to hire you as an intern, can you work for free and learn what’s going on?” I was working nights, mostly, so I thought I’ll do it. It was a small office and I really liked him. And it was the only place that called me!
I started interning at Liz Lewis. I helped them move their entire office. I was carrying boxes for two weeks. I worked for free for about six months. I moved them into their new office, I set up their filing cabinets. I liked the group of people, I really liked Liz Lewis, they were all nice people, and they were eager to share casting with me. The receptionist was moving to the assistant position and I remember saying to Liz, “I want that job”, and I got the job as the receptionist. I worked at the reception desk for maybe 8 months. And then the assistant was leaving, and I said, “It’s only normal for me to move up to that position. I want to be in casting.” Acting was gone, for me, although I did do a play while I was the receptionist. I played a nurse.
SOM: “Honey, I’m a nurse.” [The aforementioned private joke which arose out of Brooke playing a nurse.]
BT: “Honey, I’m a nurse!” I don’t remember the name of the play or who was in it or who directed it, the only thing I remember about it is, “Honey, I’m a nurse.” I played a nurse, it was brief, and I thought, “This is for the birds. I’m done with this. I’m done with the New York acting thing. It’s not for me.” Remember: Big fish, small pond. This pond is way too big for me. And so I changed: I’m in casting now, I’m going for it. And so I was an assistant at Liz Lewis casting.
SOM: And what does Liz Lewis Casting do?
BT: Liz Lewis does commercial casting, industrials, voiceovers, and an occasional independent film. Liz was very nurturing and caring, very girlie-girl and warm. She would bring me into the studio, showing me how to operate the camera. She trained me. But it wasn’t just her saying, “Oh, come on in”, it was me also saying, “Show me what to do. I want to run a session. I can do it.” I was speaking out for what I wanted and going for it. Soon enough, I was running castings, and meeting actors, and the thrill and the charge I felt from helping an actor get a job … was amazing. It’s so amazing, still. I love it, because I know how hard it is. I know that struggle, and if I can help … I feel so good. It’s rewarding to me. I feel a satisfaction in helping actors that has kept me driven to continue in casting.
SOM: Do you have situations where actors are nervous and you have to help them relax?
BT: Yeah. It’s commercials, so it’s fast and furious. There’s not a lot of time to delve into the process, but whenever I was in the studio, I would try to give action-oriented direction, as opposed to result-oriented direction. Action-oriented direction gives the actors something to work off of. I knew that everybody who was coming in was good and it was just a matter of being comfortable and relaxed. If everyone is relaxed and free, they’re going to do great work. Kind of like me with Improv Boston saying, “I don’t care anymore, I’m just going to have a good time.” So I would try and instill this level of comfort in the room, which I think is really important in any audition room. Actors want to feel safe and comfortable, they’re going to expose themselves. It’s like getting naked with someone for the first time, you want to feel safe.
SOM: How long were you at Liz Lewis?
BT: I was there for nine years. When I left, I worked freelance for a while, and then I started working full-time again at House with some of the people I worked with at Liz Lewis. We cast commercials, voiceovers, industrials, independent films here and there.
SOM: From beginning to end of a process, how does it go? Let’s say Gillette comes to you guys with a campaign … how does that go?
BT: I teach a class, too, with Mary Egan Callahan, called Brooke and Mary, and this is something we tell each and every person in our class. Nobody knows how it all happens, and there’s this big mystery. I think a lot of the industry retains power from mystery and it’s detrimental to actors to have this mystery and not know what the real process is and how things happen. So. Suppose Pepsi is creating this new product called … Pepsi Teen Boy. And it’s a Pepsi Cola for teen athlete boys, it has lots of electrolytes in it, it’s a sports drink. The people at Pepsi contact their advertising agency of record, whoever does their campaigns for them. They contact them and they say, “Okay, we have this new product, it’s called Pepsi Teen Boy – or … PTB – ”
SOM: Really catchy.
BT: That’s why I don’t make up products. They say, “We have a new campaign coming out for this product and we need you to come up with some ideas.” And so, much like Mad Men – or Bewitched, the agency comes up with campaigns to sell the product and presents these ideas to the Pepsi people. The Pepsi people choose a campaign. Let’s say they choose a campaign with a lacrosse team of boys and a coach and the team is failing and the coach says, “Try this new sports drink” and then they drink it and they score, and win –
SOM: That’s a horrible message.
BT: Terrible, for sure. What they do next is they look at the campaign idea and they decide what director they want. Is it going to be a director who specializes in action-adventure, comedy, sentiment, is it going to be beautiful – and they start going through directors’ reels to find out who they want to direct it. They find the director they want and contact that production company and work out what they need to work out to get that director. The director signs on and then most of the time the director/production company hires the casting agency. Sometimes the advertising agency will choose, but usually it’s the director. Directors are particular about casting, so it’s understandable. The production company will then contact the casting people and give them the breakdown of what they need: all the characters, their ethnicities, their ages, everything. They’ll also give them the specs on how the job is going to run: Is it going to run national network or is it just going to run in Ohio? They’ll also give the casting people the conflicts: Can someone who has done a previous sports drink commercial that’s currently running also do this one as well or is that a conflict? They’ll give you the shoot dates, where it’s shooting, and payment. Most of the time it’s SAG scale, but if not, they’ll give you the details of what they will pay. The casting director takes all that information and we contact talent agents, or we contact actors directly. Sometimes we put it out on Actor’s Access. Suppose we needed someone who could do triple back-flips. We would put that one out to the masses because that’s a tough thing to find. But if we just needed Paul Rudd-looking guys, or Channing Tatum-looking guys, then we just go to talent agents. We put all that information out to the agents and then the agents respond to the casting directors with lists of names. We choose who we want to come into the audition. That’s what I do mostly now.
SOM: How do you choose?
BT: I pretty much know everyone now, and if I don’t know who they are, based on the fact that I know the agents… If that agent is putting the name on the list, I trust that agent. They know me, we have a relationship, they know what I like. I give appointment times out and then actors show up and audition, and the link of the casting is then emailed to the advertising agency and the production company and the director.
SOM: This used to be VHS tapes, right? When you started?
BT: VHS tapes, yes, and the big 3/4 tapes. But now it’s a link. The link gets sent out and then the advertising agency people look at it and the director, the production people look at it, and then they email back who they like, who their choices are for callbacks. Sometimes they’re on the same page, and sometimes they are opposite ends of the spectrum which can be difficult.
SOM: What do you do then?
BT: You just bring everybody back, and let them work it out. I’m there to serve them.
SOM: “Honey, I’m a nurse.”
BT: “Honey, I’m a nurse.” I schedule those people for the callback, and when I schedule them, I also put them on first refusal. It’s an important thing for an actor to know what a first refusal is. A first refusal is the shoot dates. Say your callback is on September 30, and the first refusal dates are October 4 and 5, and if you say “Okay, I’m good” that means that you’re okay to shoot on the 4th and 5th, you have no conflicts, you don’t have a wedding, you’re not working that night, you’re free to be booked those days. If you’re on first refusal to shoot another commercial that same day, it’d be a second refusal. It doesn’t mean you’re going to lose the job, but it just means that there’s another commercial that has first option on you and they may have to clear you from that one before they can book you. Everybody comes in for the callback. The director’s there, the ad agency’s there, the copywriter’s there, everybody’s there.
SOM: Are people from Pepsi Teen Boy there?
BT: No. The client is rarely there. Everybody auditions and at the end of the day, the director and the advertising people decide who they like and they pick their top two or three choices in each role, and those get put on a separate link, and then that link is sent to the client. And then their client, Mr. and Mrs. Pepsi Teen Boy, decides who books the commercial.
SOM: How long, in general, is this process?
BT: A week, maybe 2 weeks.
SOM: But this is just one campaign.
BT: Right, we have several going on at any given time, so it’s really intense. It sounds more intense than it actually feels. It’s fun because the actors are really fun. When I prep a session and decide who is going to come in for the actual audition, there are some categories that I really love, just because I know all of those actors.
SOM: So for the most part when you’re seeing people, you’re seeing people with a ton of experience. Do really green people get to you?
BT: For non-union stuff, particularly. If they’re SAG, they’ve usually booked something already.
SOM: Do you see bad behavior?
BT: Yes. Not listening, not taking direction, over-acting. You’re on a camera, everything has to be tiny. You can’t act, you have to just be. People want to act, and I get it – you’re an actor, you want to act – but it just doesn’t work for camera. I can’t take time to work with them, though. “Thank you. Next.” You have three minutes with each actor to put on camera. So my thought is, if you don’t have commercial training, please don’t go out on commercial auditions. It seems ridiculous, like, “How hard can it be to do a commercial?” But it’s a skill. You’re reading a cue card, while trying to relate to the camera, and you have 30 seconds to come across. Don’t think that because you have an MFA from Yale that you can come in and do a commercial. You might not be able to. It’s a skill you need to learn. It’s fast, you have to be prepared, you have to be confident, you have to listen, it is not easy at all.
SOM: So I know you teach a commercial class with Mary. Tell me about that.
BT: We work with people on camera. It’s individualized coaching in a classroom environment. It really works. I think it has to do with us creating a very comfortable environment where people don’t feel afraid to be vulnerable and expose themselves, and once they do expose themselves they know what that feels like. They also are encouraged to take risks. A big thing for us is taking risks and improvising. We’re all about improvising in commercials. I don’t care what the script is. Honesty is the most attractive thing that anybody wants to see on camera. So if you say the lines a little bit off, but what you’re talking about comes through, and you’re being honest, you’re going to get a callback. It’s not about getting the words perfect at the initial audition. It’s about honesty. It’s very exciting when people get it. Everybody looks at commercials as though it’s, “I’m just selling you some Glad Trash Bags” and yeah, you are, but you can still be you selling Glad Trash Bags.
SOM: Do you think actors should take classes?
BT: Yes. Most definitely. I always tell the people that take our commercial class – if you only take improv classes, then take a scene study class. One person I recommend is Gary Swanson, because he’s great with people who are just starting. And then for people who have only done acting classes, I tell them to take an improv class. Get out of your head, learn how to play. I think people should always be in class. If this is your thing and you’re doing it and you’re going for it, absolutely. 100%. Being in commercials is about being yourself. That’s all it is. Commercial acting is about being comfortable enough on camera to be yourself talking about a product … which is really hard.
SOM: I look at commercials from when we were kids and they were much more formal, like a doctor in a white coat saying, “Look at the bunsen burner …” or it was a woman holding up a product. You still see those commercials, with people holding up a product, but it’s rare.
BT: They don’t do that anymore.
SOM: The style feels looser now. Like, the Progressive girl, who probably has a house in the Hamptons now from what has happened with those commercials.
BT: Isn’t she great?
SOM: She was probably like that in her original audition, right?
BT: She’s not putting a character on. I don’t know her, so she might be really faking me out, but I absolutely believe that that’s her. That’s her personality, and she felt comfortable enough in that audition to allow people to see her. It’s hugely vulnerable.
SOM: You obviously have relationships with actors that you like, that you call in a lot. Are there people where you’re like, “I gotta find something good for this person.” Obviously you want someone to book.
BT: I do.
SOM: What kind of actors do you respond to the most favorably?
BT: It’s the actor that when I see them, we talk about everything else but acting. It’s the actor that has a life outside of business business business. Always talking about business is boring. I know you’re an actor, I know that you’re working. I so much more enjoy talking to you about you. It’s not about rattling off your resume. Those actors that can just talk on a real-person basis – those are the people that I love to see.
SOM: Are they rare?
BT: No. There’s a lot of them. And they may very well just be good at that end of their business. That’s another skill in the business, being able to shmooze. And they’re shmoozing but there’s a level of honesty to it as well.
SOM: New York is a big town but it’s also kind of a small town. You’re going to see the same people over and over. Is there a kind of jostling for position to be your BFF, because “Oh, Brooke can help me get ahead”?
BT: There’s that, yes. I don’t like that at all. If you don’t have the goods when you come in, I can’t do a thing for you. I can’t say, “No, no, no, really, you should hire this person … no, they were just having a bad day …” I have no power over that. I just have power to bring the person in.
SOM: I’m interested in your thoughts on non-traditional casting. You are dealing in commercials, so you are dealing in cliches and broad types.
BT: There’s no veering off it. It just doesn’t happen.
SOM: There are those great moments, though, when someone is cast in something and you think, “God, who thought of her for that?” “Who thought to hire someone who isn’t conventionally attractive in this part …” Those are life-changing, sometimes industry-changing moments.
BT: Yes. They are.
SOM: So I would love to hear your thoughts on that.
BT: I have a good story about this. I was working at Liz Lewis Casting, and I was working on a job for Pennzoil. I was working with Neil Myer, who I work with now at House. Camryn Manheim used to come in for commercial auditions all the time, and I really liked her. She always made a point of saying Hello. She was just a very friendly warm person, not fake, very real. She was a big girl, with long hair that she always wore down, and she always came in in motorcycle attire. She was definitely riding a bike around the city. At the time, she was doing her show called Wake Up, I’m Fat at the Public Theatre, and it was a great show, she was so good.
So Neil and I were working on this Pennzoil job together. The character that we were casting was one of the guys that is in the pit in the Pennzoil place, under the car. So the car pulls in, the guy is under the car, and then he pops out for the commercial. He was supposed to be skinny, what you would picture an oil-changing guy to be. A skinny oil-changing man. And I honestly don’t remember who said what, but Neil and I decided that wouldn’t it be great if we brought Camryn in for it, if Camryn was the one who came out from under the car. The client wanted a man, they wanted a skinny man, but we loved the thought of her doing it, and we loved her, so we brought her in. It was all men auditioning for the job and she comes in and she’s got her hair down, she’s got her biker outfit on, she’s in the audition, changing the oil. And she booked the job! It was so exciting because not only did we like her so much – and I’m always excited when an actor I like a lot books a job – but we changed the character. We made the advertising agency and the client see something different based on somebody’s talent. And that is just so charging to me. Open up your ideas about people! I don’t really take chances like that often. People can get upset. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. It’s not my place, it’s not my job. I am just there to do a job for somebody else. But that one really worked out.
In terms of our office at House, we have really changed the whole improv-in-commercial thing. 8 or 9 years ago, Mary and I went to the UCB Theatre one night and saw tons of great improv performers and we said to each other, “Why aren’t any of these people in commercials?” We ended up conducting classes just for improvisers to do commercials. Ed Helms was in the class, Rob Huebel, Jessica St. Clair, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll – all of these incredibly talented improvisers did not know that this other world existed and it was a good stepping stone for them. And directors were eating it up. Directors were saying, Yes, make my commercial funny. Yes, people want you to change the copy up and bring that kind of funny to it. This whole world exploded in terms of commercials with improvisation. There are tons of directors and advertising agencies and producers asking for improv now, so that was huge.
SOM: Do you write people off ever? Is it a one-strike you’re out kind of thing?
BT: No. I expect people to behave professionally. It was instilled in me at URI with our professor, Judith Swift. And so I’ve had maybe three in the many years that I have been casting, where I’ve actually called an agent and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with so-and-so, but they behaved very inappropriately today and you may want to have a discussion with them.” But I’ve never written anybody off. Everybody has a bad day. But they need to know that you can’t do that. You can’t yell at me in front of a client. You can’t behave inappropriately.
SOM: When you were standing there with Andra and saying, “Let’s try casting”, did you think, “Oh God, I’m going to regret this someday”? Were you afraid to pursue another avenue in the business besides acting? Were you afraid you’d regret it?
BT: I don’t have regrets. I also definitely don’t think that I will never do a play again. I don’t think I’m done with acting.
SOM: I’ve noticed that some actors – and I’ve noticed this in New York more than in other cities – get so bitter about acting that they lose the love of what they once had. I have always felt from you that you just love it. You love ALL of it. Did you ever feel that your love of acting was in danger?
BT: No. I never felt that. I do love all of it.
SOM: You’re in the side of the business that is quite practical. You’re not in the Labor of Love side of the business.
BT: A lot of the actors who come in have families. They need to make a living. They’re working actors.
SOM: Many times, the press and the public focus on the 1% that is usally the least interesting percent, the flavor of the month, the tabloid exploits. Sometimes it gives this feeling that acting is all about fame, but there are many ways to make a living. What you see in your side of it is so un-celebrated.
BT: I think people who are commercial actors are amazing. There are people who think acting is about memorizing the lines, and getting up there and saying the words. I don’t even argue with it because there’s no way to … I can’t explain to you what it is. The only way that you would know what it is would be to get up and to actually attempt to do it. That’s the only way somebody’s really going to know how difficult it is. It’s kind of flattering when someone thinks it’s just memorizing lines, because if that’s true, you’re seeing really good stuff. But still: “You did such a good job, I don’t know how you memorized all those lines.” Whenever I hear anybody say that … That’s the hardest thing about acting?
SOM: Yes. The hardest thing about doing Sophie’s Choice was memorizing all those lines.
BT: I just can’t grasp that! When anybody says, “How do you memorize those lines?” … Well, it’s part of the job, I don’t know what else to say to you. That’s the tiniest part of the job, compared to the whole.
SOM: When you’re teaching, do you use anything from the teachers you’ve had in your life?
BT: I use the exercise of speaking in monotone in my commercial acting class. [Kimber Wheelock, our professor in college, made us learn our lines in total monotone before we got to rehearsal. This was a way to avoid interpreting the lines in a certain way.] People who are theatrically trained, or who are musical theatre people who get up to do commercial copy, often they have a hard time toning it down for the camera, so they’ll do it a few times and often I use the monotone exercise. I’ll say, “Okay, we’re just going to do an exercise. All I want you to do is just read the words into the camera monotone.” And I have to say, 9 times out of 10, when they read the words into the camera monotone, it’s perfect. It’s not monotone at all, they’re just simply talking. Everybody in the class is always like, “Wowwwwww.” I also snap behind the camera to tell them to pick up the pace, like Kimber always did. Move faster. Don’t think. Stop thinking. So they start doing the commercial copy, and I can see their minds racing, and I’ll snap my fingers behind the camera. It works.
SOM: Faster is always better.
BT: Always. It’s very interesting what you retain. Until I just mentioned the snapping thing to you, I didn’t even think that was coming from Kimber. But he snapped! That was his thing. I think of going back to acting. I do. It’s so funny, I read your interview with Jennifer McCabe. She’s very inspiring. And so I do have fantasies about getting out of New York in my retirement and doing a play somewhere, and I will. I will do that. Last night I watched Carnage, and it made me think, “I could play one of those roles. I could do that. That’s an acting role.” Some day, definitely. I’m not done. I’m just on Pause. I’m doing something else. I’m raising children, and I don’t want to do anything here in New York. I’m small pond. But someday.
SOM: You could create your own company.
BT: Small Pond Theatre.