Commercial acting techniques and the fight for what’s right
On another sunny and beautiful Los Angeles afternoon, I was headed to meet with Killian McHugh, owner of Killian’s Workshop. It’s the go-to acting school for anyone interested in learning the unique skillset necessary to book a Pepsi or Kleenex commercial. Although we’ve never met before, I’ve been sending actors his way for years, as it’s almost a rule in Hollywood that when you take a class with Killian, you book a commercial. (I want actors that book commercials!) So I was excited to finally meet the man behind this frenzy to discuss how he became such a standout in his field. I wanted to know what made a commercial actor book and if it was really a craft that could be learned and improved. I also wanted to discuss Killian’s recent public stand against so many of the ads that are non-union. He’s been actively pursuing SAG-AFTRA for answers and coming up with solutions on how to make lasting, positive change. I was proud to hear his passion on the issue which effects so many in Hollywood. Please join me in reading about Killian McHugh and the fight for what’s right.
How did you get to where you are today?
KILLIAN: I started in casting around the 2000’s. I really liked it and I worked my way up. I did everything in casting that there is to do and I worked for everyone in town. I was working for this one big casting office and the casting director made me teach because she said, “Every time you give actors an explanation, they book.” I didn’t want to teach a class but she told me she would fire me if I didn’t. So I tried it with about 10 actors and right away 4 or 5 of them booked commercials right out of the gate. Agents then sent me 10 more to see if it would happen again and those actors booked! Then it grew organically. But the first night that I did it, I remember thinking, Oh, this is what I do now. I knew this was what I was supposed to do.
That’s incredible. And your name has grown so big in this town. There are many commercial acting classes but your name is really the go-to. Do you feel that?
KILLIAN: Yes, I do feel that. I do believe that Killian’s Workshop has become a “must do” for actors in LA, but it’s all about the bookings and my love for what I do. Some years back, I found out this casting director that teaches class was bad-mouthing me. I’m a very in your face person- I’m east coast in that way. I’ve know him for years so I called and said, “Hey I heard [etc. etc.]” “No, no, no, That’s not true,” he responds. And we had this wonderful conversation. Then a year goes by and I hear it again and so I called him and asked, “What is your deal? You need to stop talking about me.” I quoted exactly what I was told. I said, “I’m just doing my thing. Leave me alone.” He responds, “You’re so arrogant, Killian. You’re so full of yourself. You know, the only reason people come to you is because they book after.” So I stopped and I thought about that and I thought, Well, duh! It’s not my Irish charm! They’re supposed to book. And in that moment I realized what was going on. I stopped the conversation and told him he could say whatever he wanted about me and after that, I never cared about what anybody said because I’m not in competition with anybody else. I just need to be the best at what I do.
It’s hard to not care what people think, especially in this town when your reputation is everything.
KILLIAN: The bottom line is that for the past 15 years people have been coming to me and then they book. I can just watch you on screen and see what your strength is and then I tweak it and make it better. Everybody has a thing and this is mine.
So what are you teaching actors that makes them book?
KILLIAN: Well the commercial process is all about listening. And nobody listens. So that’s a big part of it.
KILLIAN: The people directing you. There is some room for fun and interpretation but that’s more the theatrical world. They just need you to shop or eat. Pick up the drink, take a sip and then look off wistfully. They don’t need you to interpret that moment. When I was session directing, I realized that 60% of the actors that were coming before me had no idea what to do in the room. So I just started to teach them.
Makes sense. I know most actors in LA come to LA to work in TV & Film…
KILLIAN: Yes, but commercials are a way to subsidize that. There’s no artistic value to what we do in the commercial world. The only purpose of a commercial is to raise a corporation’s profits. So I feel that my contribution to the arts is giving actors a way to subsidize their artistic life. I cannot stand when I am out and about and I’ll talk to actors and they say they don’t do commercials. Why? Do you have your own show? It just cracks me up.
I completely agree. Why!? You get to go on set, practice your skill, make some connections, maybe travel, hopefully make some decent money, maybe get some footage for your reel. The list goes on.
KILLIAN: And every giant director does commercials for the money. So you never know who’s going to be there.
KILLIAN: I think a lot of actors have this fantasy in their mind about this town with the award shows and fancy cars and things looking easy. Then you get in front of a camera and you realize it’s not that easy. It might beat manual labor but it’s still a difficulty in itself. But then there are all the expenses.
It’s expensive. Some actors can’t pursue it because they don’t have the money for it.
KILLIAN: You cannot do your headshot on the cheap. Doesn’t mean you have to spend thousands of dollars but you can’t have a friend do it in the backyard.
That’s one of my worst nightmares.
KILLIAN: You also can’t ask your Facebook friends their opinions. None of your friends are going to tell you your headshots or your reel suck. You have to ask strangers.
Do you teach actors some more administrative things to do for their careers such as keeping spreadsheets about their auditions or casting directors they’ve met?
KILLIAN: Yes. I think that actors should do that. I also tell them to take pictures of what they wore so they know what to wear for the callback. And just being overall accountable.
I also feel like actors should be watching more commercials. I know they’re watching TV and Film especially when they have certain theatrical auditions but I’m sure they’re DVRing or HULUing everything and missing all the commercials. How important is it to watch commercials?
KILLIAN: I always make a speech about that in class on Week 1. It’s mandatory that they watch commercials. Whether they do that at home I can’t say but I make it an assignment. You have to not only watch them but love them. They’re stories. They’re shot like film. So you need to understand that story.
SAG-AFTRA AND #ADSGOUNION
Recently you’ve been very active with SAG-AFTRA and so many commercials being non-union. Can you explain further what the frustration is and what you’re trying to accomplish?
KILLIAN:Well the issue is that it’s very hard for actors to make a living now. So I’m not against the non-union actor, after all, we’re all born non-union. Some actors don’t know that $300 in perpetuity is a terrible thing because they just got to town. But the big argument is, okay fine, commercials are going non-union but nobody else takes a paycut but the actor. The director is still making $20,000/day. Production doesn’t take anything less. The casting director doesn’t take anything less for casting a non-union commercial. Everybody is making the same! Wal-Mart is making the same profits, the board of directors are making the same salaries, the stock holders are making the same. The only one that is made to take a cut is the actor and nobody can give me an answer for that. They say, “Oh, we don’t have the money in the budget.” Really? Wal-Mart? I think you do because you just paid that director $20K per shoot day. It’s just immoral.
It’s just what’s happening in the country as a whole and we need to say enough is enough. People need to make a living. People might look at the actor’s payday and say, “$300 is good.” But then you have to pay your agents and your manager and taxes. And then you might not book again for 4 months. Then you have rent and headshots and classes and wardrobe. So it’s not sustainable.
Every time you go to a SAG meeting (and I’m not bashing my union because I’m very PRO-union), it’s either the same thing over and over and nothing is getting done or you call and you get conflicting answers. The volunteers work so hard and they’re always just saying, “The people at the top.” Well, I want to know who these people are. So I reached out and they’ve been gracious at getting back to me and we’ll see if things happen, but if they don’t, then we’ll take it to the next level.
What’s the next level?
KILLIAN: That’s what we have to figure out. I have some ideas. I don’t want to put them out there just yet but I do expect actors to show up.
Like a march?
KILLIAN: Yes, something like that and I expect actors to show up to really bring attention to the cause. And every Monday at 6pm I’m posting updated on Killian’s Facebook about this cause so check in and see what the latest progress is with SAG-AFTRA.
I really applaud your efforts for the community and I know so many people are appreciative of you.
KILLIAN: I just don’t want to look back in 3 years and say, “Wow, we wasted all that time.” But, 4 new companies this year did flip and become SAG Signatories so that’s huge news. Actors don’t know these things sometimes so that’s what I’m posting about.
Do you feel like actors are attending SAG meetings?
KILLIAN: When I go, they are there, but often times it just becomes a shouting match because we are all so frustrated.
What are some steps in the right direction?
KILLIAN: First, A-list celebrities have to be involved. They have to be informed and they have to say, “Look, if you want me to be part of your campaign, then you have to do the next 5 spots union.” But they need to be involved because those companies will do that to have that celebrity. Also, union directors doing non-union commercials- why is that a thing!? Why?
I guess nobody has spoken up.
KILLIAN: Yes, and that needs to stop. If those two things happen, I think 50% of our troubles will be gone. So that’s what I’m working on.
I feel very confident you’re going to achieve great, permanent changes for people of this industry. You have the support of so many.
KILLIAN: Or I’ll be chased out of town. Time will tell.
“No. No you’re not. Because if you were just an artist you would have stayed wherever it is you came from and did your art. But you didn’t do that. You came to Los Angeles.”
THE GOLDEN SKILL OF HOLLYWOOD
So what do you wish you knew when you first started in this industry?
KILLIAN: I wish I knew how important networking is. Networking is everything in this city. I teach commercials. Commercials are technical. You need to learn the technical aspects of commercial auditioning. In the theatrical world, you need to train as well, but you need to not just train. You need to go out where people are and network. Not walking up to somebody and saying, “I’m an actor.” Organically, of course. But everything in this city is about connections and I didn’t realize how powerful that is. When I first got to LA, we would go out and drink and we had a lot of fun but I should have been at the hot-spots making connections. I think that’s the biggest advice I would give to people- if you’re going to go out and party in LA, pick a smart party. You’re still going to have an equal amount of fun but don’t just party with your friends.
So many actors are afraid of the word ‘networking’ because they think it’s a forced act that they prefer to say is ‘not for them.’
KILLIAN: Yes. Definitely not forced. Just go out where people go out.
And all of us need to do it. Writers, directors, producers, agents, managers, DPs. You must quickly accept it and come up with a business plan for your networking that will work for you. Don’t tell me, “But I’m just an artist. The business side is what I have people in place for. Boohoo.”
KILLIAN: No. No you’re not. Because if you were just an artist you would have stayed wherever it is you came from and did your art. But you didn’t do that. You came to Los Angeles. So, then you need to play the game. And I did not do that enough. I had a lot of fun in my 20s but an actors needs to go one step above.
An excellent book on how to create lasting relationships that are meaningful, beneficial and genuine (with whomever and no matter the industry) plus how to groom and maintain those relationships is Never Eat Alone. I think everyone should read it unless you work under a rock. But then, still read it.
So what’s the goal for Killian’s Workshop?
KILLIAN: World Domination.
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
RESTAURANT: Le Pan Quotidien
LOCATION: 113 N Larchmont Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90004
DISH: Avocado Toast & Super Green Smoothie
NOTES: Casual, healthy restaurant chain for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Great smoothies!