About the only thing Mike Dolphy and Megan Duffy have in common — other than matching monograms and thriving commercial acting careers — is coach Killian McHugh.
Before taking his classes, Dolphy had auditioned for three months with no success, not even a callback. Post-McHugh, he booked seven spots in seven months, including a worldwide Heineken ad. Duffy, who'd had modest success prior to enlisting McHugh for private sessions, has since starred in more than 50 nationals, including one for Burger King opposite David Beckham.
"I can't explain it. People come to me, and they book," says the buoyant McHugh, 40, seated in his new, stark white 4,000-square-foot casting studio on Melrose, just east of Highland with the words "Killian's Workshop" emblazoned above the door outside. "Commercials are a very technical thing, so I teach that aspect. I can just see what you're doing on screen, tweak it, and make it better."
McHugh's classes aren't for the faint hearted. His blunt criticisms require a thick skin.
"He terrified me at first, but about 20 minutes in, it started to click," Duffy recalls. "He doesn't coddle or tell you you're good when you aren't. It pushes you to work harder and to have accountability."
Born in a small town in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, McHugh arrived in Los Angeles in 1998 hoping to become an actor. He found success in commercials, booking spots for the likes of Budweiser, Comcast, Miller Lite and Hyundai. Later he became a casting director for a major commercial casting offices in L.A. and he believes that experience has been the key to his coaching technique.
"Once I was in those audition rooms every day, seeing what the actors were doing, hearing what the clients and commercial directors were saying, I wanted to let my fellow actors behind the curtain," he says. "My first class had 10 people. Right off the bat, four or five of them booked. So agents sent 10 more. And they booked. It just grew and grew and grew."
McHugh started his own school in 2006 and moved to his new space in January. The classes are always packed — four-week workshops range in price from about $275 to $400 and include everything from "Foundation Class" to "Callback Workshop." (Full disclosure: I have been a student in some of McHugh's classes.)
Each class starts much like any real-world audition: A dozen students, on average, enter the capacious lobby, sign in and review the script at hand. Given a collective instruction by McHugh's assistant, each aspiring actor, in turn, is then ushered into "the room" to play out the scenario for the camera. At the end of the exercise, pupils once again assemble and wait. When the guru finally appears, his amiability and everyman good looks are masked by a furrowed focus.
He wastes no time with pleasantries, opting to spotlight blunders while meting out harsh, if helpful, comments. Shaken actors are then ordered to repeat their performance. So stern is McHugh's tutoring facade that some students never return after Day 1.
"I'm doing my job as a coach," says an unfazed McHugh, "I'm trying to get you to care about this as much as you should. I'm trying to get you to book! If that means I have to carry you kicking and screaming into your career, then that's what I'll do."
Not every commercial actor requires his drilling to make it. For example, Stephanie Courtney, a.k.a. "Flo, the Progressive Lady," is not a McHugh alumna but comes out of the world of improv comedy. But those in the field say that for those who hope to make it in the highly competitive commercial world, formal training can help.
"A lot of actors think anybody can do commercials, and that's just not the case," says longtime agent Daniel Hoff, who books commercial actors. "There's a recipe to it."
That recipe often has little to do with standard acting. "It's always going to be about the car, the beer bottle, or the painkiller," warns seasoned casting director Michael Sanford. "Actors need an understanding of the advertising process and how they fit into that equation — how to sell the product without upstaging it."
"Improv! Improv! Improv!" declares Sheila Di Marco, a 30-year veteran of the business who with Neil Kreppel has owned Commercial Talent Agency since 1998. "All the casting directors I work with love our comedy/improv actors. Most auditions don't have dialogue, so having a flair for improvisation can be gold."
Then there's the Internet, which has roiled the advertising industry. Agent Robin Harrington, owner of the 8-year-old Lemon Lime Agency with partner Chaim Magnum, estimates that more than half of spots made today are Internet-only. Because these are much less lucrative than conventional commercials running on national network and cable television, performers must hustle even more.