For commercial acting coach Judy Kain, the key to successful auditions is personality.

“Your authenticity comes from your training as an actor,” Judy says. “But, your personality is what lands you acting jobs. Often, you’re going to be auditioning with people who look like you. In the end, it’s your personality that sets you apart.”

What sets Judy apart from other acting instructors is her rich and varied career. Over the course of 38 years, Judy has appeared in more than 400 commercials, as well as 110 film and television productions. Along the way, she has won numerous accolades, including a SAG award for her performance as Olive Healey in Mad Men.

Now, as the founder of Keep it Real Acting Studios, Judy has made it her mission to help actors refine the way they navigate the entertainment industry.

Recently, we had a chance to see Judy’s approach to the acting workshop up close and personal. As part of our Inside Circle seminar series, Judy delivered a wide-ranging talk addressing some of the most important questions relating to commercial auditions.

Here’s what we learned:

Commercial Auditions Are About Branding Yourself

From Judy’s experience, performers want to believe all acting roles are within their reach.

Whether it’s a bowling ball-juggling unicyclist, or an unemployed mermaid, an actor sees this kind of versatility as necessary.

However, the approach is often misguided. In Judy’s opinion, what’s more important is identifying one’s brand and embracing it.

“In acting class, you can stretch and grow,” she says. “But, in commercial auditions you should type yourself. Identify and bring your brand into all your casting calls. Often, an actor will ask what does a casting director want? What are they looking for? The reality is, they don’t know what they want. It’s up to you to show them. And all of that begins with embracing and strengthening your brand.”

The 5 Types of Commercial Auditions

When it comes to commercial casting calls, there is no single type of audition. In fact, a performer is likely to encounter at least five variations when auditioning for acting jobs.

The Personality-Style Audition

This type of audition involves an actor being asked a set of personal questions. For example, what is your favorite book? Or, what did you do over the weekend? Here, the casting director is trying to gauge how an actor reacts to certain moments or suggestions.

MOS Commercial Auditions

MOS means without sound, and that’s exactly what this type of audition is about. During MOS auditions, there is likely no copy or scenario given beforehand. It is all about reaction, and an actor is encouraged to use little to no dialog when performing.

The Spokesperson Audition

Whether you’re promoting the viewpoint of a product or event, the spokesperson is the primary representative. During these commercial auditions, a casting director will devise a scenario that makes you the sole cheerleader for the campaign.  

Scene Auditions

As the title suggests, these casting calls involve a scene in which the actor must immerse themselves in. Often, this will involve more than one performer.

The Improv Audition

Again, this is a familiar audition in which a prompt is provided by the casting director, but no copy. As with many commercial auditions, the objective is to test personality and how one reacts in certain situations.

For Judy, it’s important to familiarize oneself with each of these audition variants. Ultimately, the knowledge can mean the difference between landing acting jobs and not.

Always Have 3 Topics Ready When Auditioning

For acting roles, passion is essential. Whether it’s dancing on stage or performing on a film set, the emotional intensity of a character must shine through. This is especially true during commercial casting calls.

When Judy first started auditioning she noticed she wasn’t booking anything. A casting director would ask her a series of familiar questions: What was the last vacation you took? What do you do in your spare time? What’s your favorite type of food?

Naturally, Judy would answer these questions honestly, but was still not getting callbacks. Then it dawned on her that what was lacking in these moments was passion.

In order to remedy this, Judy decided to come up with three topics she could talk passionately about day or night.

“I quickly realized that they didn’t care about what I did over the weekend or what book I read,” Judy says. “They wanted to see how my reactions would translate in front of the camera. That comes down to passion. So, I came up with three topics I could talk passionately about anytime. The first is hiking. I love hiking and could talk about it forever. The second is my dog and the third is my son.”

For Judy, the key is to work at integrating those passions into each and every response you give during auditions.

“The truth is, they don’t want to hear that you’re just sitting on your couch all day,” she continues. “That revelation doesn’t make you stand out. Here, the question is not important, but the answer is. No matter what the question is, you have to tailor your responses to fit your chosen passion. For example, someone may ask what’s your favorite movie. Instead of naming a title, say I don’t have time for movies because I’m always hiking. Remember, it’s not about avoiding truth, but steering the conversation in your direction.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Improvise During Commercial Auditions

Over the years, there’s been debate about whether or not to improvise during all types of commercial auditions. In the past, improv tended to be frowned upon. But in today’s world of acting, the attitude has shifted. Now more than ever, improvising has become an effective tool in landing acting jobs.

According to Judy, improvising is a great way to further showcase your versatility and personality. It’s something she promotes heavily in her acting workshop.

“Whenever I get copy, I tend to put it into my own words,” she says. “I usually go in with 99% of their words and 1% of mine. The product lines should be word perfect. If it mentions the product or describes the product, make your best effort to get those out as written. The rest of the copy you can play with. If you have a more unique spin on a phrase, try it. Certainly, if it says, Dude and you are more comfortable with Hey Man. Have at it. That is where you can play around.”

Although this 1% change may seem insignificant, it’s actually quite important. Additionally, the placement of the change is also vital. For Judy, the ideal spot to improvise is at the end of the scripted lines. This is also known as a button.

“An effective button should be three words or less,” Judy continues. “Think of it like a bumper sticker. It needs to be short, yet powerful. Something that provides the final impression of you and your abilities. Improvising can be scary, but you’re missing an opportunity by not using it. You need to overcome your fear of improv.”

Rehearsals are rarely given anymore

Of course every actor wants the opportunity to rehearse before an audition. Unfortunately, because of the volume of performers a casting director must manage, this is not always possible. As Judy explains, in the world of commercial auditions, rehearsals can be a luxury.

“You can always ask a casting director for a rehearsal,” Judy says. “However, because of changes in budgets, casting directors don’t have as much time and often cannot afford to do rehearsals. In the past, they used to rehearse everyone. Nowadays that’s not the case.”

Despite these time constraints, Judy has devised ways for actors to sneak in rehearsal time during casting calls.

“When you walk into an audition, I suggest you get on your mark and run through the scene before they start shooting,” she continues. “Although brief, this tactic can better help you prepare. It gives you a few moments to explore the role you’re playing. But remember, there is no rule that you are entitled to a rehearsal. A casting director can refuse you, and more often than not does.”

Headshots for Commercial Auditions

As an acting coach, Judy often receives the question how many looks should I have when it comes to headshots? Is it good to stick to one look, or should I include a variety?

For commercial auditions, variation is helpful. But, if you’re going to portray yourself in a certain way, you need to be able to reproduce that same appearance.  

“If you’re going to have all these different looks, you need to show you can replicate them,” Judy says. “I would say include no more than five different looks. Now, don’t try to conceal the same look with different outfits. That approach is not going to land you more acting jobs. Remember, if you’re going to display these different sides of yourself, they need to be significantly different from one another.”

Wrapping Up Commercial Auditions with Judy Kain

Judy Kain’s extensive background in commercial casting calls and auditions has made her an ideal acting coach. Although there is no one foolproof way of obtaining acting roles, the strategies Judy teaches in her acting workshop certainly help an actor to refine their craft.  

As with all things, it’s about finding balance. And for Judy, embracing unexpected qualities about yourself can be a reward in disguise.

I think irritated is okay, but angry not so much. You want to embrace unexpected emotions, but not make it so jarring that a casting director is disturbed. ( You should have mulitple ways to go with the spot, and if one of them is Irritation in a light-hearted way. Go for it. Take me for example. In commercials, I’m always the person who doesn’t have the right product. There’s a lot of bitterness and irritation in my performances. But, they’re not over-the-top or off putting. It’s about finding balance. Staying true to yourself, while not overwhelming the performance. ( And the scene and it demands) The funny thing is, I’ve made a career out of being bitter and irritated.” ( playing the irritated neighbor, or judgmental mom at the PTA)

For Judy’s students, her experience and instruction has enabled them to have careers of their own.