TV ads are a prime arena for emerging actors to get steady work and to build up some credentials, but there are plenty of pitfalls in the profession as well. The first is that even though one is getting paid to act, that’s not their primary goal which is to sell the product. An actor has to build a characterization in five seconds, say a middle aged man hanging out with his bros at the golf course. At the drop of a dime, he has to then explain to said bros, in terms no group of males would ever use unless they were in a commercial, the benefits of medication to combat erectile dysfunction. In other words, their goal is to act in a way no casting director would consider.
Yet it works out that many actors have graduated from commercials to film and television shows, and Jay Leno has been beating superstar guests up with evidence of their priors for decades. Many of these were able to walk that fine line between doing their job but not being too closely associated with their campaign counterparts, leading us to pitfall number two: The Whipple Effect. Actor Dick Wilson was a mainstay of TV character actors up until he became Charmin toilet tissue’s beloved storefront curmudgeon Mr. Whipple, imploring the customers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!”
It is difficult to say if the following actors will break out of the gate and become huge, or whether they’ll find financial stability solely as advertising actors, but you’ve seen them before and now we pull back the curtain to tell you who they are. Understand that our ranking system here is not in any way meant to diminish the work these actors do. It is merely a way of estimating the chances that they will become “name” entities in the field at a later period.
Emily Tarver – You know her from: the Yo Plait Lite commercial as the dieter looking longingly at the raspberry cheesecake as her interior monologue contemplates the awful compromises she’ll have to make, just to have a slice. She has also been in commercials for Lowe’s Home Improvement and T-Mobile.
Her chances: very good. Her roles have been non-specific, her comic timing is naturalistic and she has a slight resemblance to Kirsten Dunst.
Stephanie Courtney – You know her from: the series of Progressive Insurance commercials as extremely enthusiastic employee Flo who “just loves saving people money.” She is a member of the Groundlings improv comedy organization and appeared as Marge during the 2007 season of AMC’s Mad Men.
Her chances: hard to say. The extreme styling of the Flo character will not follow her along, so there is the ability to assume other characters without too much hassle. Also, her persona seems likable and her improv training allows her a wide range of acting options. However, the Flo character has caught on and, depending on how long the ad campaign continues, she might get blindsided by the Whipple Effect.
Matt McCarthy – You know him from: commercials for FiOS as he portrays a hapless cable installer who is perpetually thwarted by the chipper FiOS guy. He is also a stand-up comedian who has appeared on Comedy Central.
His chances: McCarthy has said on various occasions that his goal is to be funny, so he seems comfortable with any medium that allows him to be so.
Jake Wood – You know him from: by face in the US, probably nowhere. By voice, you would recognize him as the Geico gecko. He has appeared on UK television’s long-running soap EastEnders as the womanizing Max Branning.
His chances: We’ll categorize Wood with a different state – The Kasem Effect. Should he choose to take roles on US television, and it’s likely those roles will never have him standing next to animated lizards, his cockney accent will be totally disassociated. Just as it is when people find out Casey Kasem was the voice of Shaggy on Scooby-Doo, Wood could easily walk away from the gecko if he chooses.
Ajay Mehta – You know him from: the series of Fiber One commercials as the swarthy grocery store manager trying to convince customers that Fiber One products actually have fiber in them. He is also a prominent character actor who has appeared on CSI:NY, Nip/Tuck, Sex And The City and The Sopranos.
His chances: He’s already a recognizable character actor, even if you didn’t know his name, and the dude has the kind of delivery that could sell beef to PETA. All he needs is the role, that’s all.
Suzi Barrett – You know her from: the 1-800-Dentist commercials as the woman in the elevator who ought to find a dentist. Previous to that campaign, she was just a talking head for the company’s commercials in the role of a phone operator. Afterward, her associations with the Upright Citizens Brigade provided a quirky twist to “elevator woman” as those series of ads revealed the character to be just a little bit twisted. She has recently appeared in commercials for E-Surance.
Her chances: As a UCB member, and through some of her edgy but very funny internet videos, Barrett may well break into larger comedy roles, but more likely on a cable show than regular broadcast television. She’s shown that she likes to tweak hard the perception of her created by her commercial work.
Mike McGlone – You know him from: the series of Geico commercials entitled “Rhetorical Questions” where he asks the question up front, and the scenario is played out afterward. Standouts in this series ask if Elmer Fudd has trouble with the letter “R” and if drill sergeants make lousy psychologists (featuring Full Metal Jacket‘s R. Lee Ermey as said psychologist.)
His chances: Having already been in She’s The One, The Bone Collector and The Brothers McMullen, McGlone has film credentials to stand upon, but the popularity of this ad campaign seems to indicate he will be asking rhetorical questions for some time to come. None of this has bearing on his music career which seems to be his driving passion.