And now, a few words from that black guy in the commercials. You’ve probably seen him — the guy with the big, square, nerdy black glasses and funny hair? He’s having a beer on the roof with his buds in a Bud Light spot; he’s grilling in the backyard in winter with his buds in a Honda spot; he’s snuggling on a couch, unabashedly flirting with his wife, when he’s interrupted by his grossed-out tween son (“Really?”) in a Time Warner Cable spot. In his best year, he made 14 different spots.
He’s actor Jamison Reeves, 44, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Wendy Clifford Reeves, a sometime actress and spa owner (who happens to be white), and their 5-year-old daughter.
It seems like you’re everywhere. Are you really the only black man cast in commercials these days?
I don’t think they see me as a black man. They see me as a non-threatening entity. I’ll get called for a “black commercial,” but I never book them. They don’t think I fit into what is typically considered black. That means close-cropped Afro and darker skin than me. He’s not a Huxtable — a doctor or a lawyer. He’s not hip or trendy. He’s the average joe, trying to buy a TV at Walmart. A simple person. I’m the quirky guy with the glasses. Not the guy who’s going to be in a fight. I seem like the type guys want to hang out with. I’m the one acceptable black friend.
Yes, the one black friend who seems to grill a lot. You grilled for Bud Light, Honda and Johnsonville Sausage. Why such a griller?
I guess I make people feel comfortable. I’m friendly enough. They want me at their barbecue.
Well, you do seem to have a natural deadpan kind of reaction that is funny. And a good look, too. How did you get into the biz?
I always performed in high school in the marching band and the orchestra as the only guy in the flute section. I also did track, football, basketball in high school, and track in college at Cal State Hayward … I was in Guys and Dolls in college and then didn’t get back into acting until I started studying at ACT in San Francisco in 1994. I got laid off from a mortgage banking job in 1995 and then moved to L.A., where I got a job with Monkey Brothers Casting. I got into commercial acting by working with different commercial casting directors. Running the camera and developing my directing skills honed my acting skills. My wife says, “You started this,” and it’s true. I see so many younger versions of me turning up with the same glasses and similar hair.
So, sometimes it’s not you when we think it’s you? Do people recognize you from the commercials or do they think you’re someone else?
People do recognize me from the commercial work I’ve done almost once a day. People also think I’m the guy from the band TV on the Radio, or the rapper Busdriver. I think it’s funny.
Do you find that clients seem to be aware of diversity issues in casting?
I think clients want to give the impression that they care about the consumer. But from being in the room running the camera during sessions, I have heard statements like, “That black person is going to be hard to light” or “She’s ambiguous enough to cover a couple of ethnic demographics” or “Get some extras of color to even it out.” There is definitely a checklist because the client has to feel like they are covering all bases. A commercial will have an all-white cast, but there will be people of color in profile or in the background, out of focus, to give it a flavor.
When you’re working, does there seem to be a diverse mix on the client/agency/crew side?
Agency, client and crew all seem to be white. I am usually the only black person on set, or one of three, say, and I have PA’d for more than 100 commercials. There are so few people of color working as copywriters, ADs, directors, DPs and producers that when I see one, it seems weird, but good.
Why do you think there are so few people of color working in production?
For one thing, there’s a lot of nepotism: All the grips are relatives of other grips. But aside from the history of union jobs, a lot of the directors now seem to be coming out of ad agencies that are primarily white, or could afford to go to a fancy film school. It’s a privileged person’s business. This is true of the networks, too. You go with what you know. That’s why we have so many remakes and different versions of the same commercial, with the dumb husband and the smarter wife.
Well, we sort of have the women’s movement to thank for that, since if someone has to be dumb in those scenarios, it can no longer be the woman. But is there any progress on the diversity front? What would your advice to an actor be?
Tell your agent: “Don’t just send me for the black-guy roles. Send me for everything.” They’re only going to see what’s presented to them, and then the casting people can say, “I never thought of putting a black guy in that role, but he’s funny and great.” You only have your own story until you experience something else. There is some progress: I’ve seen a few commercials lately that feature interracial couples. It’s making inroads. I don’t think people care who they see in commercials, as long as the spot is funny. Advertisers should let people be who they are and have the relationships they have. I don’t think clients really know what’s funny.