We were having a cow. The Screen Actors Guild was on the brink of a strike and we couldn’t find the right actor to play Jack in our “Jack and the Beanstalk” spot for KFC. No Jack. No commercial.
You Don’t Know Jack
KFC liked the storyboard. It was relatively cheap to produce – a simple studio set and only one on-camera speaking role.
That’s why picking the right actor for Jack was critical. He carried the spot. Right from fade up, you had to buy him as the classic Beanstalk Jack: boyish, playful, mischievous and all the other fairy tale tropes stuffed into his serf-like costume.
We held several casting sessions at Young & Rubicam and came up empty. Next, we hired an outside casting agency.
At the same time, we were all too aware that the Screen Actors Guild threatened to strike during our shoot schedule. This disruption could cost the client dearly because we had already booked to the production studio.
“We need a backup plan if there’s a talent strike,” the film director told us. He turned to me. “Joe, I’ve seen you do the script. Go to the casting agency tomorrow and tape an audition. That way we’ll have a non-union option, in case the client doesn’t want to cancel the shoot.”
Was it lunacy for me to play Jack? Not completely. I had red hair, a cartoon face and a wide, toothy grin. Also, I wrote the script. So I knew how the lines were supposed to be delivered.
“Wait, one more thing,” the director said. He raised a Polaroid camera. “Let me get a head shot of you to use as a reference for the casting director.” Flash!
The next day, I walked into the downtown casting agency.
A dozen faces turned my way – and they all looked like me! A bizarre doppelgänger reunion. Funhouse mirrors printed into 3-D human beings. Red hair, cartoon faces and toothy grins. The casting director had taken the Polaroid reference to heart.
An assistant hurried over with a sign-in clipboard. She glanced at my looks and nodded that I was in the right place.
I filled out the sign-in sheet and turned it in, eavesdropping on the young male actors waiting to audition. They bragged about gigs they had booked, parts they were up for, and the best slopes to ski in Aspen. Sounded like more fun than copywriting.
The assistant returned with my sign-in sheet. I’d left some spaces blank, such as talent agent and union affiliation. I brushed aside most of her questions, but she insisted she needed my age for the form.
Now the casting spec for Jack’s age was 16-20 years-old. I know. I wrote it. The other actors peered my way, sensing an imposter in their midst.
“28,” I muttered to the assistant.
“28?!?” chirped the adolescent look-alike sitting next to me, “Don’t you think you’re kind of old for this part?”
Suddenly the door to the audition taping room swung open. The film director spotted me with a warm welcome.
“Joe, c’mon in,” he ushered. The other actors gaped as I strolled to the inner sanctum of all casting sessions – the taping room.
And yes, oh yes, there were just deserts to come for the impertinent young actor who declared me too old to play Beanstalk Jack.
A short time later, I watched his audition on the TV monitor with the film director.
“Hm, he’s not quite right,” I commented absently, “Too young, don’t you think?”
Missing Jack Finally Found – on the West Coast
Good news, at last. SAG extended negotiations, which delayed the strike. Better yet, we’d found the perfect Jack. (Which ended my shot at non-union stardom.)
We had opened up the casting search to include Los Angeles. (Casting call to casting sprawl.) The client loved the talent’s audition tape and told us to book him. We’d meet Beanstalk Jack for the first time on the soundstage in a few days.
Shooting at Silvercup
It’s a New York production institution. A ton of classic movie work has been shot at Silvercup, as well as TV shows, such as 30 Rock, Sex in the City and The Sopranos.
We arrived early on shoot day, excited to see the set. The designers and scenic crew built a spectacular beanstalk and a detailed cottage façade for the closing scene.
We were then introduced to our actor, who flew in the night before.
Meet Beanstalk Jack
He had a great character face, even better in person than on the audition tape. And while I don’t remember the actor’s name, he struck me as being in his late teens, a good sense of humor and understood what we were going for. Sigh of relief. Send him off to wardrobe and makeup.
We shot the commercial’s opening climbing scene in the morning. The goal was to get all the action in one continuous shot.
There were a few factors to consider: the optical shake in the beginning and the Jack’s reactions to the Giant’s dialogue, which would be overdubbed later. By noon, we’d put a number of good takes in the can. Lunch break! Crew, one hour!
Lunch Break Cocktails?
In the commissary, we sat with the talent. He ordered a Scotch on the rocks from the waitress. Our old-school agency producer Charlie Capuano arched an eyebrow. The actor’s cocktail was brought to the table. Jack tipped back a long, leisurely sip.
Look, I don’t want to be a buzzkill, I thought. Must be exciting to book a national TV spot. Fly to New York. Get put up in a nice hotel. And collect a big cash payday. Why not celebrate. On the other hand, this guy’s a minor and there are underage drinking laws. I mean, who’s responsible for him out here? The ad agency?
Not to mention, we had a full afternoon of shooting ahead. Nobody wanted to see a tipsy Jack fall off the beanstalk and break his leg on a bucket of chicken.
In his gravelly voice, Charlie broke the silence. He spoke to the actor, oil charm mixed with vinegar warning.
“Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be drinking. Aren’t you a little young?”
Beanstalk Jack looked up at us, comical in his costume, Scotch glass in his hand.
“How old did my agent tell you I was?” he asked.
“Nineteen,” replied Charlie dryly.
Beanstalk Jack grinned.
“I’m 24. I have proportionate dwarfism, that’s why I’m small. I play a lot of fairy tale parts.”
Charlie and I traded glances.
Well, I thought, at least it makes the drumstick look larger in his hand.
Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Marcia Wilk. Creative Director: Brian Dillon. ACD: Mario Morbelli. Producer: Charlie Capuano. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: KFC. Production Facility: Silvercup Studios, NYC.
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