By Alison Rooney
Despite having appeared in more than 50 television commercials, Bill Coelius of Cold Spring says he has only been recognized once on the street.
The person did a double take, Coelius says, and yelled: “Hey! You’re the Zantac guy!”
Indeed, he is, or was. Coelius has appeared in, by his count, 51 commercials since he was in middle school in Michigan, when he auditioned for an ad for a roller coaster. (His father taught high school drama, which may have helped with his confidence.) By the time he graduated from Eastern Michigan University with degrees in communications and philosophy, Coelius had enough credits to obtain membership in the three major actors’ unions.
“If someone had actually taught me how to do it,” there might have been many more commercials, he says. “Instead, I made it up as I went along.”
The industry veteran will share his knowledge beginning Tuesday, Jan. 8, in an eight-session workshop for students in grades 8 to 12 that will focus on how to audition for commercials. Two-hour classes will be held at 4 p.m. each week at the Old VFW Hall on Kemble Avenue in Cold Spring. The $300 course is capped at 15 students; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coelius says the class is suitable both for teenagers who have experience as actors and for beginners. He sees it as providing “life lessons for the kids which extend beyond the audition room to the classroom, to the boardroom.” The curriculum will be as much about the psychology of cracking the audition-room code as it is about line readings and learning how to interact with the camera.
“The foundation of the class is about how to be in service, in terms of ‘How can I help?’ ” rather than taking personally any criticism from directors and producers who are under pressure from the client to get it right, he says. It’s about recognizing “what is actually needed in the moment, which may not be what you think.”
In addition to commercials, Coelius has appeared on episodic television, including Criminal Minds, American Horror Story and Modern Family, and been directed by Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee. He’s always mindful, though, that “commercials are the working actor’s bread and butter.” In fact, he says, commercial actors who are union members collectively earn nearly as much as those working in film and TV.
The course curriculum will mimic classes Coelius has been teaching for years to adults. The first sessions cover basics such as signing in and “slating” (stating one’s name before performing), what to do in a callback and how to walk off a set. Some work will be done on camera. All the copy will reflect parts the teenagers could actually land. The final sessions are run like simulated auditions, including precise timings and director feedback.
After living in Chicago (two years, after college), New York City (14 years) and Los Angeles (6), Coelius happily made the move to Cold Spring in 2015 with his wife, Jennifer Williams, a therapist who practices in Beacon and New York City, and their daughter, Claudette, who is now 4. They were enticed by Instagram posts from friends who had moved to the area.
In addition to teaching commercial acting at the Maggie Flanigan Studio in Manhattan, Coelius instructs students in drama at the Manitou School, near Cold Spring. He also recently finished Art Thieves, a collaborative program for eighth-graders that reflects his years doing experimental theater. This past summer, the troupe “kidnapped” a production of James and the Giant Peach.
“They created a manifesto, their own characters, new props, their own lights — using just flashlights, and their own words,” Coelius says. “Everything had to fit into a backpack so it could be packed up when they were done. It was a great experience. I’ve found that for that age, if you just set up a few parameters, the volume of creativity is fantastic.”
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For the Actor: How to Love a Product
“What does the product want you to think of it? And what do you actually think of it? For example, superstores want us to think of them as All-American, family friendly, quality goods, which is different from what I actually think of them, which is: cheap crap destroying the mom-and-pop fabric of this country. If I’m not careful that will create an unconsciously cynical slate. I’ve seen it in class over and over and unfortunately noticed it in my own auditions. Your thoughts follow you into the room. Focus on what they want you to think, instead of what you actually think.” ~ Bill Coelius