Towards the end of my acting training my class appeared in The Legend of King O’Malley by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy. In preparation for the title role, I scoured the local op-shops for weeks in search of my costume.
Having been an inveterate op-shopper for years, I knew the chances of finding anything my size were slim, so when I discovered a light green plaid jacket, the sleeves of which covered my long arms right to my knuckles, I rushed to pay the hefty $5.
But hey, I had an outfit that didn’t pinch me in the shoulders or make me look like Frankenstein, wrists exposed from cuffs halfway up my forearms. I felt able to play the man (“The King”) who had such an impact on the formation of modern Australia.
About a fortnight after the show, I was rehearsing for a production of The Popular Mechanicals by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor and William Shakespeare, at Penrith’s Q-Theatre, when I got a call from the only agent I’ve ever had (who recruited models and actors through letterbox drops), asking me to attend a casting session for a car commercial at Fox Studios in Sydney. “Dress corporate,” she said.
My only smart jacket was King O’Malley’s. Matched with a business shirt (I had to fork out another $2), I looked about as corporate I was ever going to get, and plonked myself down in the casting office waiting room, surrounded by people in black and grey.
We were seen in groups, seated in a mock boardroom complete with a whiteboard, and launched into a board meeting improvisation. I was asked to stand and play the boss, whiteboard marker in hand.
Having spent months in theatre training, I was used to playing to the car park, so I was drawn to channel Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford in the Pepsi Cola scene in Mommie Dearest, (“Don’t f#%k with me fellas!”), and launched into sacking the whole lot of my motley staffers.
A note from the big wigs in the shadows, behind the camera, asked me to “Do it again, but tone it down.”
So I changed gears, made it quieter, colder, figuring they might be framing my head and shoulders. My fellow actors looked back at me with fear. Before I knew whether they were acting or not, we were shuffled out.
At the callback we had to imagine, on cue, a wonderful new car driving past our meeting, which was so innovative and attractive that it stopped us, and all our corporate musings, in shock. The result was several rounds of dreadful face pulling, and a bit of inappropriate chuckling.
But I got the gig!
Marched before the director at the costume fitting, “The Board” all looked at me when he asked “Where’s your green jacket?”.
“At home,” I muttered, feeling like I’d worn the wrong gear to sports class. “Can you bring it to the shoot? Can he bring it to the shoot?” he asked, not allowing me to say anything to the first part of his question. The costume designer looked at me with daggers in her eyes, nodded, and marched us out.
There was me thinking it was my well-honed acting skills which got me the job!
On the day, “The Board” waited in a bland green room at Fox Studios, where we worked out very quickly that only one of us could be defined as a “proper” actor – the NIDA graduate cast in the role of “The Boss”. The rest of us were ring-ins, really – a film festival producer, an accountant, an ad sales-rep – all earning far more in one day than we’d ever get in our day jobs.
If we made the final cut, that is. Word got around the set that the director was speculating on too many scenes for his Asian-screened commercial, and if we got cut we might get nothing.
No-one said it, but everyone on “The Board” thought “Don’t f#%k this up, people”.
We were fetched by a man with five mobile phones on his belt, seated in front of a blue screen with a small black track across it, given two quick rehearsals to aid in focussing on the fluorescent taped mark as it sped by (indicating where the “car” would be keyed-in by the editors) and then we were on.
I was seated with my back to the “car”. After the first take, they asked us to take our cue from the NIDA graduate, who was to take his from the director. We were all to be amazed by the “car” at different moments.
After a few more takes, a message came through to the NIDA graduate that he needed to do his turn, his “discovery” of the “car”, “less Broadway, please”. Everyone chuckled, because he had, actually, been having far too much fun with it.
A few more takes later, I shoved some papers off the table, on purpose. “Upstager!” I imagined the NIDA graduate say under his breath. But they liked it, “Keep the papers falling, please.”
A few takes later, they asked for me to take my green jacket off and put in behind me on the chair and roll up my shirt sleeves. No problem, it was getting warm anyway.
Then things started to go a little awry. The NIDA graduate was turning early, which put us all off. The message came through to “Stick to the cue, please”.
Bemused, sweat trickling down his temples, the NIDA graduate looked as though he really was earning his extra dollars for being slightly more featured in this commercial than us ring-ins. While they reset the marker, he leant across to me and whispered: “What’s my cue again?”
“When the director says ‘action’,” I whispered, as reassuringly as I could.
A few more takes later and it was all over. “The Board” was marched off the set to loud applause from the clients, clustered around a mock living room at the edge of the sound stage.
“When do you think we’ll get paid?” one of “The Board” asked back in the green room. “Don’t be so cynical,” the guy with five mobile phones said, calling-in the two models cast in the scene where the secretary gets ravished on the photocopier by some random office guy, after seeing the “car”, or course.
We cynical non-actors laughed, exchanged business cards, raided the fabulous leftover catering, and departed.
I drove back to Penrith for the technical rehearsal of The Popular Mechanicals, which was to open in only a few days. After all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into putting anything onto the stage, we played to some houses comprising fewer people, showing less enthusiasm, than the ad execs after “The Board’s” gripping performance at Fox Studios.
And we got paid nix. Welcome to Showbusiness, Mike.
I kept the green jacket for a few more years, but ditched in a hurried move, and I have never acted since I gave it up. Maybe it was my Good Luck Jacket?
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.