July 28, 2011 / By Bryan Harris
“Good morning. Are you the Actor?”
I weighed the question with equal parts skepticism and humor. Were I to be brutally candid, my response would have been, “Actor? Me? Are you kidding? I’m just here for the shoot.” For the record, my last scripted acting role was in the sixth grade class production. But at the risk of gaining a reputation for being difficult on the set, I simply remarked, “Yes, I am. How are you doing today?” Apparently, to the young woman who inquired, this low-key guy in a dark suit, joining a bustling group of casually dressed folks amped up on caffeine, must be the “Actor.” I suppose I looked the part.
But on this crisp early morning back in April, I was not prepared to act. Quite the contrary. I found myself in this basement sound stage beneath an old walk-up in Soho at the bequest of our agency’s banker, City National. They showcase a select group of their clients via testimonials on their website as well as in regional print and broadcast ads. I felt privileged to participate, as City National has been a valued and dedicated financial partner to Taylor for several years. So ironically, after years of preparing executives and public figures to serve as corporate spokespersons, I was now cast in that very role. Minus the fees and limo service, of course.
When asked to appear in the campaign, I figured the bank would send a small crew up to the office, take a few shots, gather some b-roll. But I underestimated the size and scope of the project – and my expected contributions to the marketing efforts of City National Bank. The day before the shoot, I got a call on my cell phone (How’d they get my number?) from someone named Jake who asked me to meet the director for a production meeting at the Soho Grand. The Soho Grand? Isn’t that where, like, De Niro and Scorsese meet for drinks? Shortly thereafter, Tasha from wardrobe called asking for my shirt size, what kinds of suits do I wear, my preference in ties. “Just bring three suits,” she instructed. “One blue, one charcoal, and one black. And a few shirts and ties to match.” This was serious. And a bit intimidating. Do I even have a charcoal suit?
The next evening, in the frantic lobby bar of the Soho Grand, I found myself surrounded by a lot of hyperventilating hip, downtown types sprung from the pages of GQ and Vogue. I sat down to meet Jonathan, the producerdirector, and four other amiable production folks who treated me like I was Jake Gyllenhall. But would Jake be drinking pinot noir right now? No, probably Ciroc. We had a few drinks, they sized me up, got to know me and our business a little. After an hour so, they had a pretty good feel for the Taylor-City National relationship and of course, how I would translate on camera. I guess I passed the unofficial screen test because they gave me directions to the sound stage and asked that I arrive for an 8:00 am call. I left feeling excited but a bit anxious. Kind of like the day before a big media event.
So upon arriving on the set the next morning, greeted as the Actor (call me the Laurence Olivier of bank testimonials), I made my way to wardrobe where I met Tasha. Fortunately, one of my three suits met her approval, although not the one I was wearing. I think it was charcoal. She preferred the blue. My white Brooks Brothers shirt with French cuffs was scrapped for a more modest white Joseph Abboud with subtle gray stripes. And my selection of Brooks Brothers ties did not match up to the yellow Kenneth Cole number I was asked to wear. Apparently, they were trying to make me look younger, including Elena, in make-up.
I thought just a little powder would do, but again, my inexperience in the world of Hollywood production — City National is an LA-based bank after all, with a large clientele in the entertainment business — was all too apparent. Elena began to smother my pores with a variety of creams and lotions. It took her longer than I expected to work on my eyes, delicately applying some magical ointment to hide the wear and tear of too many sleepless nights and hours pouring over expense reports. She then went to work on my prominent forehead, which glistens like a reflecting pool, powdering and puffing me like a baby’s bottom. I think I look somewhat young for my age, so imagine what it takes to prep Keith Richards or Mickey Rourke for a close-up? Scary thought.
Next, I stopped by the food station for a quick bite. A granola bar and bottled water would have sufficed, but the woman from craft services was cooking up omelets. Egg whites with mushroom and sausage? No problem. It amazes me the lengths to which production companies spring for catering, even for an amateur like me. I don’t even have a SAG card and I get omelets made to order.
Finally, it was time for me to deliver. Jonathan eased me in front of the camera and played interviewer. He asked that my comments be light, conversational, authentic. In other words, no canned marketing speak or flat sound bytes. Convey the special nature of Taylor’s relationship with City National and the bank’s unique selling proposition of superior customer service. After about 20 minutes of some clean and choppy remarks, everyone appeared satisfied that I offered at least 60 seconds or so of solid material.
Next up was the print shoot and while the crew worked on the lighting — which required the collective efforts of four people, two cameras, two Macs, and an iPad — I went for another snack. The craft services person had made fruit salad and someone had run to Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. These folks don’t stop eating. And they’re all thin. Must be all that nervous creative energy. Too bad I couldn’t stick around for lunch.
With the lighting set, I stood in front of a screen and was asked to relax. I smiled, grinned, laughed, primped, gesticulated, and conversed for the camera – handled quite adeptly, once again, by the multitalented, multi-tasking Jonathan. Turn slightly to the right. Now turn a bit to the left. Face forward. And smile. Hands in your pockets. Now just the right hand. Now just the left. Arms folded. And every ten minutes, Elena came by to powder my forehead.
This went on for about 40 minutes and easily 200 exposures. The lighting, the angle, the perspective, the positioning had to be consistent with all the other “Actors” who had been or would be shot for the campaign. No easy task for photographer and crew. Not to mention me, the center of attention.
So finally, it was a wrap. Somewhere, everyone seemed to agree, they captured me at just the right moment, conveying a sense of trust and satisfaction as a City National client, a man confident and secure that he has the ideal banking partner by his side. Nice suit. Nice tie. Confident smile. This guy’s a happy client .He knows “the way up” (the bank’s slogan).
After one last trip to make-up, where Elena liberated my pores, and to wardrobe, where I packed up my reject suits, shirts and ties, I walked out onto Elizabeth Street feeling only a little less anxious than when I entered the stage three hours earlier. Did I deliver? The crew seemed to think so but I wasn’t so sure. Did my sincerity resonate? Was I authentic? Will people look at me and feel, “I too want City National to be the way up for me and my business.” Regardless, I knew it would be best to keep my day job.
* * *
A few months later, I got a chance to see how I faired. Submitted for my review were a print ad, which is slated to run in regional business publications in LA, Vegas, and eventually New York; a banner ad that will run later this summer on wsj.com and other business news sites; and a video that is now featured along with other client testimonials on cnb.com (you can find me right above Wolfgang Puck). It was a little disconcerting to look at myself in this light. My hair looks choppy. Can’t they photo shop out that fold in my neck? I seem a bit laid back and monotone on the video. I did like the ad copy, however. They really captured my key messages, although they preferred that I refer to them as a financial “advisor” as opposed to a financial “partner.” A legal subtlety, I suppose.
Our friends at City National were very pleased, as was everyone in my informal, unscientific focus group of friends and colleagues. Most importantly, I hope my message resonates with current and prospective City National clients and they find me real, authentic. Not just some actor playing the part.