Are You My Mother?
For the months leading up to Mother’s Day, my job as a casting director is to find the perfect “mom” -- or at least the advertising version of our moms. The commercial Mom is a well-known figure in advertising history, and I find that she falls into one of several archetypal categories. These moms appear in ads selling everything from detergent to minivans. But casting for these iconic figures requires a closer study of their advertising so that we can make them easier to relate to. My job is to look past the stereotypes and find the realness underneath.
In Mother’s Day commercials, for example, there’s the new mom: gorgeous, utterly contented, with hair perfectly coiffed. All she wants to do is make her beautiful and sparkly baby happy and dry.
Now look at the mom of young kids. Her children are adorable toddlers and unbearably sweet elementary school kids. That mom is a bundle of energy. She’s always happy to help the kids with their school projects. Where does she get all that energy!?! Amazing!
Then we get a glimpse of a mom to teenagers. She is always exasperated and sarcastic. She’s always making those The Office-style deadpan frowny faces as her kids make mistakes. I didn't realize that once you’ve been a parent for 16 years, you only really need to perfect your deadpan face and you’re good to go.
After high school moms, there is a bizarre leap, and apparently all moms become 65-year-old women. Their hair goes white and their smiles become warm, all-knowing glows of approval over the multitudes of grandchildren they are now watching over.
Audiences may laugh at these stereotypical “moms,” but they won’t relate. The archetypes ring false.
When I was a kid, my mom read to me Are You My Mother? by PD Eastman. It’s a story about a baby bird that hatches while his mother is away. He begins asking various creatures if they are his mother. To him, anyone and anything could be his mother. The same thing happens in commercials. As viewers, we are supposed to see a mom on screen and think, “Are you my mother?” We should relate to her -- but only in the broadest way, as millions of other viewers need to be able to relate to her as well. And as if that isn’t enough, advertising is supposed to also make you aspire to BE her. We want to be like her and have it all figured out.
This is the dilemma that I face coming into these months of mom casting. How do you direct someone to relate to a wide range of viewers while also helping her to avoid becoming a stereotype? How can I find my mother in the character? My mom isn’t a stereotype; in fact, she is quite the opposite. She is hilarious and nuts and a terrific mom, but she didn’t glow all the time when I was a baby, and while she helped me out with school projects, she always grumbled while she was doing it. She did have a deadpan face sometimes, but it was never comical. It was scary as hell.
If my years of casting have taught me one thing, it’s that you cannot sell a product without honesty. The actor can’t just read the lines on the sheet. He or she has to bring it off the page, give it life and find levels to the role. A lot of people think that commercial acting is an oxymoron, but it isn’t. Commercials are still scenes to be acted and fleshed out. People will not respond to a commercial if they think it’s insincere. Many times I have to direct actors to imagine someone they know in the booth with them so the copy feels more personal. Other times I have them move around and gesture with their hands while talking to make the dialogue come out in an organic way. It’s those little touches that can make the difference between insincerity and a real person.
But when I approach casting for a mom, I also have to make the search personal for me. I have to try and find my mom in the role. She’s there, but I have to dig deep sometimes. Depending on the product, I try to think about who their audience is. Who is this mom supposed to relate to? I don’t care if it’s just one line about shoelaces that cost only $2.99 -- if I don’t relate to the actress delivering the lines, the commercial is wasted. So when I run a “mom” casting session, I constantly have to ask the question: “Are you my mother?” -- and work with the actors until my answer is “Yeah -- a little bit, you are.”