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NY Conversations: Sketchy Pickpocket

11 April 2012 | 9:02 pm | Tom Hawking

In the pantheon of "Strange Things I Have Done to Make Money in NYC", auditioning for a TV commercial features pretty prominently. Your correspondent is not an actor in any shape or form — the extent of my experience in such areas is one rendering of the Porter's speech from Macbeth in Year 10 English, along with a spirited but ultimately uninspiring attempt at a South African accent while doing voiceover work in Bombay.

Still, an integral part of freelancing in Gotham is being perpetually broke, and I'm thus always open to pretty much any way of making cash that doesn't involve large men named Bubba. I have a friend who works for a casting agency, and she put me on their books a while back "just in case". I've never really expected anything to come of it, so it's a surprise to get an email asking me to come by the casting studio the next day to try out for a role in a TV commercial for a large electronics company.

My initial excitement is somewhat tempered by the fact that I will be auditioning for the role of, wait for it, "Sketchy Pickpocket". I'm told I have a "good look" for the part, which is either promising or mildly insulting. Quite what sketchy pickpocketing has to do with large electronics companies is unclear. But anyway, ours not to reason why, etc etc.

The casting studio is in a relatively nondescript office building on W 19 St. The elevator opens onto a lobby whose walls are adorned with framed posters for The Life Aquatic, Lost, Signs, Cars 2 and a bunch of other films I've never heard of. I sign my name on the register, leaving the "Agent" column blank, and sit down to wait. Several other people are already sitting on the chairs that line one of the lobby walls — a well-dressed black man with diamond earring and BlackBerry, a white guy who looks more suited to the role of "sketchy pimp" than "sketchy pickpocket", and a suitably dodgy-looking Eastern European type. I identify the latter as my most likely professional competition, and start wishing 'Macbeth' on him.

Time passes. The black guy scrolls back and forth through the emails on his phone. The pimp plays endless games of solitaire. More people arrive. You can tell the serious actors from the amateurs because the former group have casting cards and names to write in the Agent column. A young Adonis, clad entirely in black, sits down next to me. I can't help thinking that he'd make an unfeasibly attractive petty criminal.

Eventually, the studio door opens, and a woman with a clipboard steps out. "Tom?"

I stand up.

"What role are you auditioning for?" she asks.

"Sketchy Pickpocket," I announce proudly. There's a ripple of laughter. I sit back down, uncertain of what to do next, as the others rattle off their roles. It turns out that we're not all thieves — there's cops and innocent victims and various other parts, too. It dawns on me that I may be required to, y'know, act. I think of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. I bet she never had to audition for Sketchy Pickpocket.

Eventually, I'm summoned into the studio with the black guy — who's playing Police Interrogator — and the Eastern European I'd fingered for a fellow larcenist, who turns out to be a) not Eastern European at all and b) the leading contender for the role of Innocent Victim. The three of us are plonked in front of a camera, have our pictures taken, and then told to "do a bit of improv." The first scene comprises Sketchy Pickpocket surreptitiously lifting the wallet of Innocent Victim while he pretends to talk on his phone. I dutifully remove his wallet from the non-Eastern European's trousers and leg it.

The second scene involves the resultant grilling by Police Interrogator. By this stage I am genuinely terrified, mainly because I hate being on camera and Police Interrogator is rather too good at his job — he keeps haranguing me about why the wallet was in my possession and why the ID therein didn't match my face and etc. The whole thing starts to feel like I really have lifted someone's wallet, and I end up insisting feebly that I'm not saying any more until I speak to my lawyer. Method acting, y'all.

We're cut short after a couple of minutes, which feel like hours. I ride the lift back down to the street with Police Interrogator, expecting never to hear from the agency again. However, it appears that my genuine interrogational terror was convincing enough, as I get invited back two days later for a "callback". This involves filling out a proper actor's profile card, which has boxes for all sorts of esoteric body measurements ("Under Chest", "Inseam", "Nape to Floor") that I have no idea how to complete, and then undergoing the entire improv process again — this time in front of the director, a raucous type who looks a bit like Gary Ross, along with various other important looking people who I guess are from the large electronics firm in question.

Before we begin, the director compliments me on my 'look" and thanks me for taking the trouble to dress the part. I decide it's better not to apprise him of the fact that I'm wearing exactly what I wear every day, mainly because I only own one jacket and one hoodie. The Police Interrogator from last time is here, too, and gives me another going over, as does another hopeful for the same role, a large black woman in a bob wig that she later tells me "was the only way I could think of to look conservative".

The director roars with laughter as I try to convince Police Interrogator #2 that I found the wallet on 6th Ave in broad daylight. I'm not sure whether this is a good sign or not. The whole process is entirely inscrutable. I still have no idea what this whole scenario has to do with selling consumer electronics, either. Still, the director slaps me on the back as I leave and tells me he'll be in touch. I ride the lift back down to the street again, this time thinking of Withnail and the wolves. What a piece of work is man, indeed. Apparently I find out over the next couple of days whether Sketchy Pickpocket will be my first step on the road the TV stardom. Wish me luck, eh?