by LILIBET SNELLINGS
My first husband’s name was Todd. He showed up in a t-shirt and jeans, which I thought was a touch underdressed, but he was polite and seemed like an all right husband all the same. Our child’s name was Elsie. She was six years old and told me she had a zoo in her backyard. (When I asked what kind of animals she didn’t have any specifics.) Todd and I went through a lot together – a proposal, a pregnancy, and six-plus years of marriage – all in the fifteen minutes it took to audition for a Nationwide Insurance spot on national TV.
In one of my many harebrained attempts to stay financially afloat while living as a writer and graduate student in Los Angeles, I decided to become an actor. I should rephrase. I decided to go on auditions. I have absolutely no idea how to act.
For an "active lifestyle" dating service commercial audition, I recited the lines, "With my busy schedule it’s just so hard to meet people. I wish I could find someone who shares my passion for running and the outdoors" — while jogging in place.
For a Cox High Speed Internet commercial audition, I had various household items thrown at my head – an oven mitt, a ruler, a handful of markers – while a giant, industrial-sized fan blew my hair. For a Capri Sun audition, I stood on the sideline of a make-believe field and cheered on my make-believe son, who was apparently playing soccer with other make-believe children.
For a Bare Naked Granola audition, I rode on the back of a German model named Rolfe while pretending we were on a hike. (Because don't you always hike with your boyfriend piggy-back style?) And I feigned true love at a Match.com audition. Yes, I hate to be the one to tell you, but the people on the commercials did not actually meet on Match.com. They met in the lobby of a casting facility on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood.
The only commercials I ever actually book are running, or fitness-related, and that’s because I ran track in college. That, and the fact that the other actress girls interpret, "Come to the audition in running attire" to mean, show up smelling like cigarettes in yoga pants and flip-flops with an iced coffee in one hand and a small dog in the other. The art director for an Asics campaign said he knew he was going to book me as soon as I got out of my car. "You had on running shoes," he said. "And your hair was in a ponytail." The bar was set pretty low.
That I have never booked any other type of commercial hasn’t deterred me from google-mapping my way across Los Angeles to go to auditions. After all, the waiting room of a casting facility is a treasure trove of material.
One Tuesday morning instead of commuting from my bed to my desk to play the role of "graduate student" in the wardrobe of "sweatpants, t-shirt and tube socks," I took a detour to the bathroom to take a shower, put on makeup and blow-dry my hair to play the role of "wife" in a Nationwide Insurance commercial. My agent called me with the specifics the night before. Role: Wife. Age Range: 27-35. Description: Attractive yet approachable, not too model-y. Wardrobe: Upscale Casual.
The only reason I have an agent is because I used to be her assistant. At my first job after college, my journalism and political science degrees were put to excellent use at a Hollywood talent agency. There, my primary responsibility was getting models to go to their castings, which, I would learn, actually takes some skill. From the models I heard excuses like "I can’t make it to the casting because I burnt my eyeballs in the tanning bed." Another model told me she wanted to get a gap put in her teeth, because, she explained, “Duh, messed up teeth are so in right now.” This was the same girl who once referred to parentheses as “those half-moon thingies.”
I knew it was time to quit, though, when I returned from lunch one day to find a sticky note on my computer screen that read, “Amanda H. needs a bikini wax.” Now it was one thing scheduling haircuts and highlights for these girls but quite another to be making appointments for the removal of their pubic hair.
When I quit, my boss suggested I go on commercial auditions. So by sneaking in the back door, I am occasionally one of those girls, and some poor assistant named Mona has to call me with audition information. I do, however, make a point to schedule my own bikini waxes.
The day of my Nationwide audition was hot and the air conditioning was broken in my car, and by broken I mean it had never actually worked the entire time I had the car – a 1989 BMW convertible that I bought on Craigslist. This left me with two unappealing options: roll down all the windows to stay cool, which would whip my hair into a beehive of sorts or keep the windows up, to keep the hair in place, and arrive at the audition looking like I’d just walked out of the steam room. When I left my apartment, freshly showered and deodorized, my hair slightly spritzed into its on-camera position, I looked like someone who could at least fake it as an actor, someone presentable enough to be in an insurance company commercial. But by the time I arrived at the audition I looked like exactly what I was: someone who didn’t even have insurance.
Inside the casting facility a giant flatscreen read: "Quaker Oats: Room 1. Alltell: Room 2. Budweiser: Room 3. Nationwide: Room 4." I took a seat outside room number 4 and filled out my "Size Card" – name, agency, height, weight, bust, hips, waist, inseam, glove size, hat size; the last two of which – glove and hat size – I never know and sometimes just write “regular” or “proportional.”
I pulled out my book and pretended to read. At the far end of the waiting room were the Alltell guys – all in their mid-30s, all dressed in suits, all with brown hair, all holding the same piece of paper. Some sat and read silently while others paced, pantomiming their lines. They became increasingly distracted as the room began to bustle with busty blondes arriving for their Budweiser auditions.
I swear some guys only go on castings to pick up girls. And if they don’t, they should. It's like a buffet. Everyone is skinny and pretty and between the ages of 20 and 30 and there are 50 or 60 of them all in one waiting room, all in similarly low-cut tops. The Budweiser candidate to my right – platinum blonde hair, jeans, heels, low-cut top – seemed to be having some sort of dispute with a salon receptionist. “Well then can you at least squeeze me in for a pedicure?” she said into her cell phone.
The Budweiser candidate to my left – golden blonde hair, jeans, heels, low-cut top – recognized another girl – dirty blonde hair, jeans, heels, low-cut top – and greeted her with, "Heyyyyyyyyy. How are youuuuuuu?" The words dragged out like a wind-up doll that needed to be wound. The dirty blonde one replied, "Oh my god I left my cell phone at home and I am like totally freaking out." The golden blonde one said empathetically, "Oh my god, that suuuuuuucks."
As I enviously eyed these girls’ perfectly curled and coifed locks, I tore my fingers through my hair attempting to untangle its nautical-sized knots. I adjusted the collar on my shirt. I was wearing a blouse and slacks (two words I rarely use and two clothing items I rarely choose) but I was going for the "conservative" and "responsible" look. The insurance commercial look.
A few minutes later the casting director emerged to inform me I would be auditioning twice since they had, at the moment, a shortage of women for the role of "wife" and a surplus of "husbands" and "children." He then explained that the Nationwide commercial will show three major snapshots of my life: the marriage proposal, the pregnancy, and then, cut to five years later: a portrait of my new little family.
Husband Todd entered and we exchanged awkward hellos. For the first shot we were told to sit on the couch and pretend we were watching TV but what we were really watching was another chair across the room. Todd was then instructed to – ever so casually – put his arm around me and dangle an imaginary engagement ring, on an imaginary string, so it would lightly graze my right shoulder. I was then told to notice this imaginary ring and gasp and smile and scream and look at this complete stranger and say, with orgasmic enthusiasm, "Yes! Yes I will marry you!" And then we were told to embrace in a jubilant hug.
For the next shot I was told to stand in our pretend living room holding papers from the doctor’s office which apparently informed me I was pregnant while rubbing my belly and smiling gaily into the distance. Husband Todd was told to walk in as if getting home from work, see me smiling gaily and rubbing my belly, notice the papers in my hand and just know, and exclaim, "Yeah?! Really, hon?! That's great! This is so great!" The casting director chimed in, "This is something you have both been hoping for, for a long time. Be sure to look as excited as your wife, husband."
For the final shot the child actor joined us. Child actors always sort of scare me. So much bravado at such a young age. It's as if at any moment they might bust out a tap dance rendition of Fiddler On The Roof. They are unnerving, and sort of creepy. At any rate, Todd was told to pick up Elsie and I was told to stand next to them, my arms around both, and smile like we were taking a family portrait at the softer side of Sears.
Todd and Elsie left and in came my next husband and child, Wes and Haley. Like my first husband, Wes also interpreted "upscale casual" to just mean "casual." I was the only dope in the room dressed like someone whose day would be made upon hearing the news there’s cake in the conference room. Wes was clad in your standard East L.A. actor uniform: a flannel shirt untucked but not entirely, the sleeves rolled but unevenly, the collar not popped but not totally flat either – a very orchestrated, calculated disarray, a level of disheveled-ness that can only be achieved with the finest attention to detail.
Our child was five and three-quarters and was missing her two front teeth. She told me she got twenty dollars per tooth. My mouth dropped open like a codfish. This may seem like an indication of astonishment. What it was really expressing was jealousy.
Wes and I went through the same motions, the proposal, the pregnancy news, the glamour shots at Sears, all in around five or six minutes. My life's most momentous occasions cranked out twice and packaged up tight, all for the sake of selling insurance. I always imagined I would someday get married, get pregnant, and have a child, or maybe even a few. I just never imagined all of this would happen with two different men, and within ten minutes, in a windowless, soundproof room with coffee stained carpet on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Lilibet Snellings is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here, and she tumbls here. She twitters here.
"You Make Me Feel" - Cobra Starship ft. Sabi (mp3)
"Sophia" - Laura Marling (mp3)
"Breaking Down (acoustic)" - Florence + the Machine (mp3)