Try It Again Without Smiling

A few days ago I asked people to send Culturebot their Art Worker Horror Stories. To start things off, here’s actress, playwright and screenwriter Juliana Francis’ tale of her misadventures in commercial acting.

I was a squatter in a three-story grand ballroom in a since-demolished derelict hotel when I began working for the commercial agency. The squat was a beautiful and solemn place that smelled haunted, damp and mousy. I kept my food tightly wrapped in I love NY bags hooked to an old chandelier and I took ho-baths in the ladies room of a 24-hour diner nearby.

I figured I was probably not the only New York squatter signing up with a commercial agency. I’m sure there are parents who are so crazed with the idea of making their children stars that they sell their houses and move the whole family into their station wagons to focus solely on that endeavor. Nonetheless, I decided it was a somewhat special occasion, so I stole a bottle of pink nail polish to gloss over the persistent squatter grime. And now here I was, sitting in the office of a venerable Madison Avenue commercial talent agency.

“How do you see yourself?” Asked one of the five commercial agents. Two of them had liked me enough to call the rest of them in to look at me, and now they were all holding clipboards and squinting quizzically at me in the commercial agency office.

“Um…I think I’m…I could be the sort of arty person making pottery or painting or something when I get a phone call from my granny in Denmark in the long distance commercial.”

“Hip and trendy?”

“Sure. I like coffee, too. I could be the person who wakes up because someone is making really good coffee downstairs.”

Two of the commercial agents jotted something down.

“How about young mom?”

“Yes. I would like to be a mom.”

One commercial agent looked at another.

“To me she looks like Jamie Gertz crossed with Terri Hatcher with a little Julia Roberts and the young Ann Margret.” She smiled at me.

I hadn’t pursued commercial representation. I’d only ever wanted to do avant-garde theater, and I’d done it in Los Angeles, Europe and New York. But I’d heard that someone was making a movie of the great comic TANK GIRL. I was a genuine TANK GIRL fan, and I’d just finished a play where I’d been bald, just like TANK GIRL. I had called some agencies hoping to get an audition.

This agency had told me that they couldn’t get me the TANK GIRL audition, but they felt I had an “interesting quality”, and thought my very short hair was cute and “distinctive”, so why don’t I go downstairs and meet the commercial division.

So here I was, smiling politely and smelling like the diner’s sharply flowery pink liquid soap. I suddenly realized that my new pink nail polish matched the diner soap exactly.

“Are you Irish?”

“No, I’m Danish, Scottish, and Mongolian.”

“Well, we could send you out as Irish!” The commercial agent smiled hopefully.

At the Irish Spring deodorant soap commercial audition, I realized how wrong the agents had been about my potential Irishness. I sat and stared at the real Irish commercial actresses, with their light eyes and their strawberry blonde hair. Sitting next to them I felt like I finally looked ¼ Asian.

“Irish Spring as fresh and clean as a summer day…and now it’s BLUE, too!”

I was averaging three to five commercial auditions a day. I had learned all sorts of new things. I’d learned that most 20-something commercial actresses, unless they are so-called character actresses, are significantly underweight, know how to blow out their hair so it gleams and bounces, and have asses as flat as pizza boxes. I’d learned that “nice-casual” does not mean jeans. It means an Ann Taylor plucky corporate thing. “Hip and Trendy” doesn’t mean jeans either; it means, “dress kooky-slutty like an addled fifteen-year-old fashion model.” And it also seemed that one rarely sees an actual “young mom” in a “young mom” commercial, because she would probably look too exhausted to fulfill the requisite Gerber/Pampers/Johnson & Johnson dewy radiance.

I’d also learned that commercial acting was really tricky. It seemed to require a lightness of touch that contradicted its underlying motive of selling things as quickly as possible. I read some How-To books. They all cautioned against selling, they invoked method acting, they even told you how to pretend to eat delicious commercial food in four easy steps (1. Taste. 2. Chew. 3. Let your eyes move up towards the ceiling as you realize how surprisingly yummy it is. 4. Nod your head in delight.)

The books did me no good. I was still a wretched commercial actress, the commercial equivalent of the brothel whore left sitting alone on the parlor couch, smiling anxiously, sweating in her spandex.

Every time the door closed behind me at yet another audition, my eyes glazed over and my hideous whore smile crept across face. I’d march up to that taped line on the floor, and I’d “slate” my name. I had started to hate my name and I was thinking of changing it. Maybe I could find a Mongolian name that no one could pronounce, not even me.

“Hello my name is Adanquan Uriangqui Batbayar.”

The idea made my smile grow even more manic. Casting directors began to
look nervous.

“Wow. I’ve never seen anyone smile that much. Could you try it again without, um, smiling?”

“Sure. I’ve got a headache, and it’s got Exedrin written all over it…”

The evil smile never really left. It would flicker at the corners of my mouth. I’d fight to suppress it, an activity which set me into psychic free fall, glaring desperately into the camera lens as I spun farther and farther away from those elusive commercial qualities: “warmth…sincerity…talking to your closest friend…”

“Um. Okay… Thank you, Juliana!”

I was growing increasingly convinced that my three to five commercial failures a day were slowly poisoning whatever acting talent I had. I learned to hold back my tears of despair until I got a block away from the casting offices. I wondered if anyone would understand why this made me cry so much.

The really odd thing: the commercial audition circuit came with a strange amnesia. I would resolve to quit almost daily. But a few hours after even the most humiliating audition, a strange amnesiac fog set in. I would sneak into the grand ballroom, crawl into my sleeping bag still wearing my approximation of a nice-casual outfit and just lie there, plotting how I would explain to the nice commercial agents that I was, in my heart, Tank Girl. I was not the girl who has gotten her life back since she started using Valtrex, or the girl who can’t convince her roommate that the delicious dinner was really just Lean Cuisine. I didn’t care that Country Crock had no trans-fats, even if my kitchen radio sprouted eyes so it could roll them as it told me, and I would never trust my memories to Kodak. Maybe I could invite the agents round for tea at the squat and…but after a few hours of despair, a flat voice that claimed it was reason broke through: “oh, it’s not so bad, you just need to get one of these things,
then you can quit and finally visit Cambodia. And maybe it will be different next time!”

After three months of auditions, I received this message: “Hi Juliana, this is Gilsey, you booked the Nippon Ham commercial, it’s a foreign market buyout, shoots Friday, Saturday, Sunday, please hold tomorrow morning for your fitting, and call me to confirm. Thanks! Bye!”


The Nippon Ham commercial was shooting on several streets in the West Village, and starred a Japanese rap star who I believe was named M.C. Koda.

I’m not really certain because the entire crew was from Japan and they had
very thick accents.

The commercial had a narrative. The rap star went grocery shopping and bought a package of Nippon Ham sausages. On his way back from the store, a very tall and menacing gang of American hip-hop kids confronted him. They glared down at him. He smiled up at them nervously. Then one of the hip-hop kids noticed the Nippon sausages sticking out of the rap star’s grocery bag, and he broke into a grin. Cut to the happy block party: rap star, American kids, neighbors, all grilling sausages. Near the end of the party, two happy models from the block show up.

A girl on skates and I were the happy models.

The happy models didn’t shoot anything until about 4:00 in the afternoon. The crew was exhausted by then, and worried that we were losing daylight, so by the time we got on set, their accents seemed much heavier than they had been at 5:00 AM when we’d all arrived.

It took a while for me to realize that I was the happy model who had a close-up. I was meant to sit happily down next to the rap star, pick up a sausage that had been stabbed onto a fork, bite it, chew, discover how delicious it was, and smile.

It took me even longer to realize that a key sausage selling point was the audible crack the things made when you bit into them. To illustrate this phenomenon, one had to bite into the sausage with conviction, and deftly twist the fork down and to the left (but not out of frame.)

I was a vegetarian, but I think the most diehard meat eater would have been scared by the sausages. They were small and irregularly shaped, pale gray and studded with knots of gristle. They looked like boiled arthritic fingers. One member of the crew had been solely assigned to mopping up the copious amounts of grease that flowed out of the tiny horrors as soon as they were stuck onto the forks.

After my first take the director yelled “CUT” and put his head in his hands. Then he spoke rapidly to his assistant in Japanese.

His assistant approached me, smiling nervously, “Uh when you chew no teeth.”

“No teeth?”

“Yes. No teeth showing, like GRRR.”

“Oh!” The sausage was so gross I’d curled my lip up in disgust. “Okay! Sorry.”

The grease-mopper handed me a freshly speared sausage.


I valiantly kept my lips together, chomping on that damn sausage with fearsomely happy aggression.


The director gestured for his assistant, and spoke to her in a hushed voice.

The assistant approached me, with an even bigger smile.

“Uh, good MOUTH closed, but frown and fear.”

She smiled at me again, and suddenly I recognized her smile. It was the same anxious and self-censoring smile I’d been fighting through months of commercial auditions. The assistant looked about my age. She was pretty and a little sleepy looking and she wore funky red shoes. She had some ink on her hands and her nails were short and bitten. I wondered what she really wanted to be and what it meant to her to have come from Tokyo to New York to work on this commercial. Had she ever been here before? Would she walk around the City all night, looking at people and in the windows of shops and cafes and apartments? Would she mail a postcard to a sweetheart, buy a little sister or a cousin a souvenir T-shirt? Would she feel lonely, small, exhilarated, free? I wanted to thank her somehow, for showing me what the smile of displacement looked like from the outside, and revealing that it wasn’t evil or desperate, it was just in transit.

We did four more takes of my Nippon Ham sausage moment. I don’t think I
ever quite got it right, but finally it was good enough and the sun was low enough in the sky to move on.

Jamie Gertz uncrossed herself with Teri Hatcher, and they both shook themselves loose from a little Julia Roberts and the young Ann Margret, and
when the agency contract was up they chose not to renew.

And I made it to Cambodia after all, thanks to a Richard Foreman play that
traveled to Singapore.


Juliana Francis is an Obie Award winning actress, playwright and
screenwriter. Her plays have been translated into four languages and
produced in NYC, London, Greece, Italy and Austria, and she is one of the
13 screenwriters chosen for the 2004 Sundance Lab. Her commercial
conflicts include Kodak, Molson Beer and Nippon Ham.

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