In March, while we were in Ecuador, I received an email from them. This is not unusual; they are kind of like Pottery Barn, in that they relentlessly bombard you with emails. I’m surprised I even opened it. Here is the email I received:
About a week later, the casting director both called and emailed me. She invited me to have a Skype call with her, which would be recorded, so I could tell my story without any time constraints. George and I were back from Ecuador by then, so I made the call from my sister-in-law’s kitchen table. It was a simple, straightforward conversation, and I was relaxed as I told my story. After about 30 minutes she stopped recording the call and told me that I “had everything they were looking for” and she would be in touch.
The next step was a call from the director, Matt. I was at the beach for that call, and we spent about a half hour chatting. Toward the end of the call, I asked him what my chances were to be selected. He said he would be very surprised if they didn’t use me. I was shocked.
A few days later the casting director called to tell me I was officially chosen. She said the competition was pretty fierce, they had about a thousand submissions and were only taping 5 stories. She said I would soon get a call from wardrobe, and they would be flying me out to Los Angeles to tape the commercial.
Wardrobe said to bring casual slacks, a nice pair of jeans, a solid colored button down shirt, a sweater or two and comfortable leather shoes. I flew to Los Angeles on Jet Blue early on a Thursday morning, and, after checking into my hotel, I was picked up to go to a wardrobe fitting.
I did have a quick laugh on the plane. There was a woman on the plane, a couple of rows ahead of me on the opposite side of the cabin. You couldn’t miss her. I would describe her as unfortunate looking, and she kept jumping up out of her seat. Sometimes she’d use the restroom, sometimes she’d grab a snack. Often she would get treats for the people in her row, and the people behind her. She seemed to be treating everyone very nicely, even if she was a bundle of nervous energy. When I walked by her to use the restroom, I realized my mistake. This wasn’t a homely woman at all–it was actually Rod Stewart! I should have said hello–we might be related.
Wardrobe was set up in the hallway of the ad agency. It was great fun. First they looked at what I brought. They liked my jeans, my Cole Haan shoes, and my plaid Penguin button down shirt. They vetoed my sweater, so they supplemented my outfit with a sweater of their own.
Then they had me in lederhosen, shirt, hat, hose and what I would describe as peasant shoes, which I thought were kind of cool. They wanted me in a jacket, too, and I explained you wouldn’t wear a jacket with lederhosen. They took me at my word.
While they had several pairs of lederhosen, shoes, and shirts in different textures and sizes, they only had one hat. They had asked for all of my measurements before I arrived, but they never asked about my giant bulbous head. The hat, of course, was too small, but they managed to cram my cranium into it and make it work.
Next was the kilt. It was a little tight, so they let it out. They also rented a big swooping sash, which would go over the shoulder. They never really got the sash to hang right at the fitting, so when I returned to my hotel room I googled examples which I brought to the shoot. They tried another hat, but there are simply times in your life when scissors, glue and tape can’t compensate for your supersized skull.
The fitting took about 2 hours, even though only 45 minutes were allotted. While hanging out in wardrobe I got to meet a couple of the other people also cast in the commercials.
There was a set of twins who looked familiar to me. They are African-American OBGYNs living in Chicago. I was wracking my brain, it sounded so familiar, so I googled them. They were on a The Amazing Race. I’ve never watched it, but I must have seen some promos. They were here because they thought they might be descendant from John Quincy Adams, but they couldn’t prove it one way or the other. They did find, however, that they could trace sets of twins back hundreds of years.
One young woman, also African-American, told me her story. Her great-grandfather was a doctor in Alabama, but it was against the law for African-Americans to have a medical license. The most advanced license they would give him was Pharmaceutical. It was also illegal for him to treat white people and, since blacks were living in abject poverty, he could not make a living treating them. He finally ended up working for a pharmaceutical company and had a fairly good career. Unfortunately for him, Alabama was NOT a place to be making money while black. He was murdered, and his land was taken away from his family. His murder was never solved. If you think we’ve come far from this behavior, read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It is a great read and, sadly, shocking.
Two other people were going to be filmed, a woman from Oregon who, from what I could tell, simply had fun tracing her lineage. She told me her story but there was no draw-dropping moment. The other woman, who was from Ohio, was pretty sure she was descended from the Vikings, but her DNA showed inconsistencies from her family members. I don’t think any conclusions were drawn here, either. I guess we will know if they air her commercial!
I returned to my hotel room. They were picking me up at 6 AM to take me to the studio, and I knew I’d be pretty bright-eyed if I kept to East Coast time. I went out for some pizza, was in bed by 8, and awoke at 5 in the morning, feeling pretty great. I couldn’t believe I slept so well—I was pretty excited!
The twins and I were in the same car, so I asked them about The Amazing Race. They were very personable and charming—I bet they are a casting director’s dream.
There was no traffic, but the studio was pretty far. It took about an hour to get there. We were met by a production assistant who showed us where the catering tent was and told us to eat. I took a muffin and coffee. Then I tossed the muffin away—I was convinced it would get stuck in my teeth. If I knew there were still a couple of hours before I would be in front of the camera, I wouldn’t have worried. I was too nervous to eat, anyway.
Once inside I met the wardrobe team again. They had taken some things in and let some things out, so they wanted to give them a final once-over. Then they dressed me in my own clothes, the ones they picked out the day before. Then they were called up to the set with their pins, tape, elastic bands and racks of clothes.
Make-up was next. They had two make-up chairs, and they worked on the twins first. Once the twins were beautiful, they were led up to the set. They would be taped first. I took a seat in the make-up chair and, well, they did their best with what they had. I thought it would take a bucket of paint to spruce up this old barn, but it was pretty minimal. The day before the director instructed me NOT to shave, and the make-up crew was unsure this was best. I told them I brought my razor just in case the director changed his mind, but I returned home with it untouched.
Then I sat and waited. A long time. A very long time. I tried reading, but couldn’t concentrate, so I really just sat there.
Twenty-one years ago, back when I was a probie training for my Fire Department, my friend Jon Gilbert and I were at the Fire Academy to try our hand at the smoke maze. Our masks were covered so we could not see. We were kneeling on the floor getting ready to force the entrance door open when Jon had trouble with his mask. Prior to this I had no anxiety at all. As I sat there, blindfolded, waiting to “go in”, I got the chance to worry. “What is on the other side of this door?” “Do I know what I’m doing?” “Can I get hurt?” “Will I make myself look the fool?” Things like that. By the time they fixed his mask, I had used up most of my air bottle. Once we got started I calmed down a little bit, but worrying about the unknown had unnerved me. I’m sure–had we just gone in right away as planned–I wouldn’t have given it another thought. Within five minutes my pass alarm went off and we were forced to retreat.
We weren’t allowed on-set until they were ready for us, so sitting and waiting to be called was a similar experience. Other than pitching my muffin in the trash, I really hadn’t given this any thought. At all. Up to now, I was remarkably calm. Now I was sitting in a very big room, alone with my thoughts. My mouth stayed dry no matter how much water I drank. I leafed through magazines and struck up a conversation with anyone who came by, just to distract myself. Mercifully, after about two hours, I was brought to the set.
Wardrobe pushed a sweater over my head and make-up dusted me with final flourish of magic powder while my set was put into place. My very own set. It had a big wooden chair, and shelves with books, beer steins, a boat and some framed family pictures. One of my great grandfather, and two of me in my lederhosen. They put a piece of tape on the floor and told me to stand there. So I did, for a long time, while they adjusted the lights. Then, with a flourish, the bookshelves were deemed unsuitable and stricken from the set. My family pictures were set up on the floor behind me, and a small table appeared to hold the beer steins and a photograph. And then they began to tape.
There was no script, of course, I was just telling my story. On the teleprompter, where an actor’s lines would be, was superimposed the director’s face. Like the Great and Wonderful Oz, his slightly green face floated in front of the lens. This way I could respond to him, but be looking directly into the camera. It was great fun. He asked me a few questions to warm me up, then asked me my story. I think I did pretty well—although I kept calling it “Ancestry.com” when they wanted me to simply call it “Ancestry”, so we had a couple of “do-overs”. Sometimes they would stop and adjust the lights, and sometimes they would come up from a huddle and ask me the same question again.
That was difficult. I think I sounded natural when they asked me a question the first time, but to go back and do it again, it felt weird. I was also concerned because I realized how much I say “ummm” and “uhhh” when I’m thinking, but someone on the crew told me not to worry—they can just cut those out.
At some point they asked me if I was going to continue tracing my tree back even further. I said that I planned “to trace my tree back to an acorn!”. There was a brief silence in the room, then from the far corner we heard laughter. Apparently it was the client. The folks from Ancestry.com loved it. If they do chose to air my commercial, I hope they put that in!
Then it was time for the lederhosen. He asked me more questions, some of the repeats from before, and then he asked me to do something I hadn’t anticipated: The Schuhplattler. I was impressed with myself, actually, I nailed it—even though the last time I danced was 45 years ago! There was one thing I noticed that was different from my childhood. I was now wearing a costume, it was made of cotton instead of leather, so it didn’t have the right sound when I slapped it. It surprised me that I even noticed that, but I did.
Next came the kilt, which, thanks to my research, was correctly worn over one shoulder, instead of hanging in front of my like drapes. A touch-up by make-up, a few more questions from the director, and I was done.
After I was changed, the Ancestry.com people wanted to have a chat and said how much they liked my “audition tapes”. We chatted for a bit, and I told them the story of how I used Ancestry.com to find evidence that Karlyn had no family. They thought it was an interesting story and had me tell it again so they could tape it. They were very nice, and seemed to genuinely like my enthusiasm for their product.
I was released. I had the option to go back to the hotel and stare at the walls, or wait around for lunch. I chose lunch—I wanted the full experience, including Craft Services! Afterwards I returned to my hotel and got ready for my very early flight home.
So, it was great fun. It was interesting to be on a set, especially one built just for me! I had a wonderful time. Even if they never air my commercial, I have to admit this has been an amazing experience and I’m grateful it happened.
Last week, they asked for pictures of my family—Siblings, Aunts, Uncles, Parents, Grandparents, and Great Grandparents. They want to build my tree to show on-air. I hope they use my family pictures—I think it would be fun to have everyone in the commercial together. This could be a great experience for everyone.
So, that’s the story of filming the commercial. Keep your fingers crossed, and perhaps you’ll see me, and my extended family, on TV. I didn’t notice any gauze on the lens, so I hope HD is kind to this 53 year-old face.
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© 2015 Kyle Merker