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NY Conversations: The Newark TVC Experiment

Apr 22nd 2012 | Tom Hawking
Tom Hawking discovers that even a dog gets treated better than extras on the set of his new TVC.

If you happened to read the first instalment of NY Conversations' new online incarnation, you'll know that your not even remotely thespian correspondent last week found himself auditioning for the part of "sketchy pickpocket" in a TV commercial.

Well, here's the best bit: I got the part. Hilariously, NY Conversations will be appearing on TV as a briefcase-lifting criminal in an advertisement for a large Japanese electronics company's line of security cameras. Life's never dull, etc etc.

I'm in the ad for about five seconds all up, but filming takes two solid days. The first day is, curiously, at the New York Giants' football stadium in New Jersey — it turns out that my role is one of many in a whole suite of ads for the Japanese electronics company's various product lines, and there's a scene at the end of the day in which all the actors involved in various scenes will double up as a football crowd.

My call time is 10am, which means I have to drag myself out of bed at 7.30am to make it out to Jersey. There's a crowd of actors milling around the entrance when I arrive — security is hilariously tight, and everyone is awaiting the arrival of the sniffer dog, which will check our bags to ensure we're not carrying bombs, or unauthorized booze, or something. In the meantime, I'm instructed to surrender my ID to have it scanned — the scanner seems to have trouble with Australian licenses, and I'm forced to explain to the surly gate guard that my name actually isn't "VIC BENTLEIGH".

Eventually, the dog arrives, perched like visiting royalty on the back of a golf buggy, and we're ushered two by two into the stadium. My initial attempts to make conversation with a couple of my fellow actors, by making friendly complaints about having to get up early, fall flat — it turns out that pretty much everyone else had to be on set at another location in Newark at 6am. Eeeek. But one the initial ice is broken, they turn out to be an interesting bunch — unlike me, they're all, y'know, proper actors, with agents and showreels and all such things.

It turns out that the scene I'm shooting out here today involves me being interrogated by a detective after being spotted on a security camera lifting someone's briefcase. The "interrogation room" is some sort of little medical room in the bowels of the stadium, and it's fascinating to watch how quickly the crew transform it into a convincingly spartan room from a police station.

The sheer number of people involved in the whole thing is amazing — there's grips, key grips, runners, lighting guys, the props people who provide the detective with his badge, a make-up artist and her assistant, several costume types and a battalion of people in folding canvas chairs with laptops, whose purpose is apparently important but remains unclear. The lighting guy pulls off one particularly impressive trick with a large folded piece of black canvas and a couple of lights to approximate the effect of having a single globe dangling from the ceiling, film noir style.

Amusingly, the initial concept for the shot seems to involve seeing it through the security camera made by the electronics firm in question, which is mounted on the wall above me — but, well, it doesn't work. Eventually, the director gives up and uses a gigantic movie camera. I spend half an hour being grilled by the detective, who in real life turns out to be a fascinating guy who's friends with several NBA players and has just made a film with Wyclef about the Trayvon Martin shooting. He makes a very convincing cop, so much so that by the end I'm feeling very chastened for being foolish enough to think I could get away with lifting someone's briefcase and legging it.

When we're done, we're treated to a pretty impressive spread for lunch, and then sent back upstairs to dick around for a bit until it's time to shoot the crowd scene. This turns out to take ages, for some reason, but eventually I'm ferried back to Manhattan and told to report to a street corner in Chelsea the next afternoon and "look for the mobile home."

As it transpires, the mobile home is a genuine proper movie star trailer, which is being used by the crew as their temporary base for the day. Today's shoot involves my other two scenes — snatching a briefcase from an unsuspecting victim, and getting arrested by a passing cop after my crime is caught on camera. We shoot the latter scene first, and it's at this point I start to question the wisdom of this whole affair.

Getting arrested, as you might expect, isn't a great deal of fun. It involves getting my head shoved into the bonnet of a large Buick SUV again, and again, and again. The clean-cut kid who's playing the policeman starts out doing his best to be gentle, but this apparently shows on the tape, because the real-life policeman who's directing traffic to allow us to film is sent over to show us how to "do it right". He does so with gusto, demonstrating to my fellow actor how twist my arm up behind my back, push my face down and "stand to one side so he doesn't kick you in the balls."

There's a touch of the Stanford Prison Experiment about the whole thing, because by the time we finally get the shot right, half an hour or so after we began, my clean-cut companion is performing the arrest procedure just a little too convincingly. I'm left with a sore neck and a belting headache, so it's a relief that there's only one scene left to shoot, and that it doesn't take long at all. I'm to sneak up behind my victim, grab his briefcase, and leg it. I do so a couple of times before our friendly neighbourhood cop steps in again to demonstrate, um, how you steal a briefcase. "You gotta push him, man," he tells me. "He ain't your friend. Push that motherfucker, grab the case and run."

I push that motherfucker, I grab the case, and I run. (Note to any fellow sketchy pickpockets reading this: it's a throughly effective method.) It seems that I'm a natural, because this scene only requires a couple of takes. And then we're done, so it's back to the trailer for a nice hot cup of tea and some complimentary biscuits. It's not half bad, this acting lark — so long as one isn't required to actually act, of course...

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