Must Be Airline Pilot

It has come to this. Must be airline pilot. Must have clocked a minimum of two hundred hours flying. For a non-speaking role. In a commercial.

Please, someone, tell me how this makes sense? That they must hire an actual, real life pilot for a thirty second spot. Are they going to have the actor take off and land the plane in the shot?

“…and that’s a cut! Reset. Back to one. Bring back the plane.”

How many airline pilots can there possibly be, who are taking acting work on the side? Don’t they earn enough money flying planes?

Why must this actor be an airline pilot in order to play an airline pilot? What’s wrong with a guy who looks like he might be an airline pilot, but is actually an actor? Isn’t that kind of what actors are supposed to do in the first place?

Commercial casting in Los Angeles has gotten so out of control ridiculous when it comes to finding actors who are not, in fact, actors. Every casting notice, it seems, is calling for real life surgeons. Real life firemen. People who have professional experience as lion tamers.

“We want actual customers who are currently using our phone service. Please include your most recent account statement with your submission.”


When I moved here from New York, I was told by everyone that I was not commercial. It was true. I wasn’t. That was in 2003. Back then, commercial actors had perfect teeth. They had perfect hair that never got mussed. They were bronze and tall and it was impossible to tell their ancestry.

Over the years, that changed, and I began booking commercials. Casting people began saying they were looking for people who were not models. People who looked real. Like me. Complete with imperfect smiles, and non-symmetrical features. It was okay to have a scar, or an everyday body type, okay to look as though your grandfather came through Ellis Island on a boat.

Now, it seems I don’t look real enough. Now, the only roles I am qualified to play, apparently, are actors, mimes, and Russians.

Don’t ask me to explain the Russian part. I can’t.

For mimes or clowns, sure, it makes sense that they would want people who have those skills. That’s different. However, even then, it can get crazy.

I once worked on a shoot with a guy who plays the accordion. I was a mime. It was set in Paris (but unfortunately, not filmed there.) He really did play the accordion, and it was right that they should have hired a guy with that specific and unusual skill. No problem. Good for him.

Another time, I was hired to play a cellist. Hired because I have a cello, and can look as though I know how to play. When I showed up on set, I was handed a violin. I don’t play the violin. When I asked why I was given an instrument I do not know how to play when I was hired with an instrument I do know how to play, they said they were worried about the metal endpin on my cello damaging the wooden floor.

I tried to explain that I have a rockstop, which is a rubber thing that is designed for that very purpose, to go on the endpin and… you know what? Never mind. I took the violin and did my best to pretend that I was playing it.

That’s my whole point. That’s what makes this all so ridiculous. They make such a fuss on the casting end, about everyone having to be a real life whatever, but when you get on set, they have no idea whether or not you are a real life whatever. What’s more, they don’t know anything about whatever, and don’t really care.

What they do know is that they hired you to do your job. What matters is that you can act the role of whatever. Convincingly, on cue. That’s it. That’s all.

Actors know this. Their agents know this. So now, everyone is lying at the audition. Everyone is claiming to have whatever skill, or to be a real life whatever. When they do not, and they are not. By limiting the casting to actual real life priests or pastry chefs, the casting directors are stacking the deck in favor of the liars and hustlers whose agents have no reservations about lying and hustling themselves.

“Must be a real life plate spinner.”

That one, I got called in for. As a clown, I’d used the silly magic trick that pretty much anyone can do. A plastic plate with a little groove for the tip of the stick. So yes, I can spin a plate. Sort of.

The night before, and while driving to the audition, I worried that I would not be good enough. That there would be high end circus performers, and compared to them, I would look like some actor who went to the party store and bought a plastic toy and lied about being a plate spinner just to get the audition.

One old guy in a black suit with a full professional set up had a stack of china plates. A stand for spinning several at the same time. He was the real deal, and by any measure, he should have gotten the job.

With a glance around the waiting room, I could see two or three other clowns like me, who had the plastic toy. The rest of the guys were tall handsome models. One of them I recognized from a bunch of commercials. Picture the cover of a romance novel. Exactly the type they said they did not want. It was highly unlikely that any of them could spin a top, let alone a plate.

My name was called. The guy running the camera said not to bother with the trick, as it was going to be done with CGI. So, why did the casting notice insist on real plate spinners?

When I saw the commercial, I was not surprised that they cast the romance novel cover guy. They probably recognized him as well, and everyone knows the guy who is already working gets hired over the guy who is not.

Another time, I was cast as a clown in a scene with a whole bunch of clowns. Which is often the case. Writers find it funny to include a sight gag with a lot of clowns coming out of a bus, or crowded in an elevator, or attending a funeral.

There were two former circus clowns that I have worked with before. They only accept me in their tight circle because they know I am a clown, too. Not on their level, but even so.

With clowns, you can tell at a glance who is the genuine article, and who is just an actor in a Halloween costume. Or at least other clowns can tell. For example, one of the clowns I’ve worked with I met a year earlier at an audition. He was wearing his underwear on top of his clothes, a red nose, and that was it. I knew he was for real. Anyone with the chutzpah to show up at an audition in such a minimal costume was sure to have major skills.

The three of us gravitated toward one another and spent the day sitting apart from the room full of actors who had made a trip to Party City. They all wore nearly identical primary colored tacky costumes. They all had scary makeup. The director came to inspect us.

“Are any of you real clowns?” They always ask that.

A young actor in a cheap rainbow wig piped up, “Yes, we all are!”

I turned to the old timer next to me. He has worked with Emmett Kelly. He’s got a dozen suitcases full of props. Grease paint. Floppy shoes. Floppy hats. An entire career in the circus behind him. More schtick than you can shake a stick at. Here he is, standing on set in front of a director who cannot tell him apart from the twenty something actor in a cheap rainbow wig.

“Can I take a picture?” The director had his iphone out.

He wasn’t asking me, or Emmett Kelly. He was asking the young actor.


It was a good thing they hadn’t hired him to fly a plane.


About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
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2 Responses to Must Be Airline Pilot

  1. Yvonne says:

    All I can say is….. Oh my dear friend. I would love to see you in a Russian soap opera. Playing an actor.

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