Q&A: Milana Vayntrub, aka AT&T’s Lily, Tells Us About Directing Her First Commercials

For Cracker Barrel's Macaroni & Cheese

Milana Vayntrub, the actress who plays AT&T's endearing spokeswoman Lily, just directed her first commercial work for Cracker Barrel Macaroni & Cheese. 

The comic new spots, which Vayntrub directed through Crispin Porter + Bogusky and production company Hungry Man, highlight the product's use of Cracker Barrel's cheddar cheese. You see, apparently Cracker Barrel's cheddar is so special that it's been an award-winning cheese for 60 years. And of course, if you're eating macaroni and cheese that uses award-winning cheddar, that renders all other awards and award ceremonies lackluster. At least, that's how the brand's new spokesman, Trophy Man, puts it. 

"Since the 'Award Worth Winning' campaign for Cracker Barrel Macaroni & Cheese was a character-driven campaign, we thought Milana was an interesting choice to bring him to life, since she herself stars in a character-driven campaign that's funny and successful," said Adam Chasnow, CP+B executive creative director.

Adweek caught up with Vayntrub to chat about her commercial directing debut, the status of her work with Syrian refugees (she released a video, "Can't Do Nothing," earlier this year, which documented her experience in Greece), and of course, macaroni and cheese.  

Adweek: Why did you want to direct these spots? 
Milana Vayntrub: Commercial directing felt like a very natural transition from my comedy, sketch, music video directing experience. Also, working with Hungry Man for over two years now [Hank Perlman of Hungry Man has directed most of AT&T's Lily spots], there's definitely a lot of collaboration in that commercial creating process. Those two worlds coming together felt like directing commercials now was the right next step. When the opportunity came from Hungry Man to direct for them, I was beyond honored and super eager to take on that task. 

What was your thinking going into the project? What did you want to convey? 
Cool question, cool question [laughs]. I think that my skill is in comedy creation, and I wanted to highlight that this is a premium macaroni and cheese product while also making something funny and lovable about a guy who loves macaroni and cheese more than anything, so much so that any other award is unworthy of attention. One of the things we talked about with the agency pretty early on is that there's something almost Seinfeld-ian about pointing out the ridiculousness of other awards, so that's kind of the way we approached this spot. My goal going in was always to highlight how premium this product was and make it as funny as possible. 

Are you interested in doing more commercial directing?
God, I hope so. I really hope so. It was so much fun. I genuinely felt so in my element, and I had a really great time. I loved the creative collaboration with the agency and the client and the actors, the producer, the DP, our whole crew was absolutely stellar. I had an absolute blast, and it fulfilled all my creative juices for creation and development and sales design. I hope to get the opportunity to do it many more times. 

You're traditionally on the other side of the camera. Is there a difference in the way you work with an agency when you're the star of an ad versus the director of an ad?  
It's very different. In the creative process, as an actor you have very limited communication with the agency until you shoot. You don't really see them until the day of production. As a director, you're involved creatively much earlier and developing the ad as a team. 

Do you prefer one or the other? 
To be honest, I love directing so much and acting has … It's hard to answer because I've been acting almost my entire life and I've been directing only for the past few years. My directing opportunities have been awesome, and my acting opportunities, some have been great and some have not. The AT&T commercials are the most fun acting opportunity that anyone could ask for. That being said, directing exercises a part of my brain that is really fun that I don't get to try out as an actor. 

Will we be seeing more AT&T ads with you?
You should expect to see more of those soon. 

The last time we spoke with you, we heard about your documentary "Can't Do Nothing." Is there anything new on that front?
The organization that's come from that documentary, it's called Can't Do Nothing, and that lives on Can'tDoNothing.org and it's been massively successful considering it's come from a little 13-minute YouTube video. 

But the effects that it's had on the organizations that we support has been really amazing. We've been able to fund classrooms in refugee camps in Jordan, we've been able to supply over 150 children with eyeglasses, we've been able to erect first-aid centers in Lesbos and be able to supply emergency medical vehicles. That's been really tremendous. 

I have plans to go back there this summer and shoot a little update video about where the people who have contributed their time, their money or their voice, where those efforts have gone to. 

The Netflix series Love came out shortly after that documentary. How was that? 
Every opportunity I've had to work and act with incredibly talented directors, like Dean Holland was on Love, and the writers and creators of that show, Judd Apatow, Paul Rust and Leslie Arfin, have been incredible learning experiences that have informed my creative process. All of the directors that I've learned with have been valuable teachers in moving forward as a director.

Did you guys eat that macaroni and cheese on the set?
I did [laughs]. I took a little bit to go. It was great. I feel really honored to work with this agency because they are the macaroni masters, and I feel lucky to be a part of their continuation of their working relationship with Hungry Man. 

CREDITS
Client: Cracker Barrel (Kraft Heinz Company)
Agency: CP+B
Chief Creative Officer: Ralph Watson
Executive Creative Director: Adam Chasnow
Associate Creative Director, Art Director: Stephanie Kohnen
Associate Creative Director, Writer: Mona Hasan
Director of Content Production: Kate Hildebrant
Senior Integrated Producer, Video: Annie Turlay
Production Company: Hungry Man
Director: Milana Vayntrub
Director of Photography: Kai Saul
Line Producer: Joshua Goldstein
Executive Producers: Nancy Hacohen, Dan Duffy
Editing Company: The Now Corporation
Editor: Owen Plotkin
Assistant Editor: Matt Corliss
Editorial Executive Producer: Nancy Finn
Postproduction Company: Method Studios
Lead Flame Artist: Wensen Ho
Flame Support: Cecile Tecson
Flame Assistant: Justin Monnier
Executive Producer: Robert Owens
Senior Post Producer: Cara Lehr
Mix Company: Lime Studios
Audio Mixer: Matt Miller
Audio Assistant: Peter Lapinski
Executive Producer: Susie Boyajan
Music Company: JSM Music
Composers: David Wolfert, Joel Simon
Executive Producer: Joel Simon
Producer: Norm Felker
Telecine Company: CO3
Senior Colorist: Stefan Sonnenfeld
Executive Producer (Telecine): Rhubie Jovanov
Producer (Telecine): Adam Van Wagoner
Vice President, Account Director: Evan Russack
Account Director: Kelly Olech
Content Manager: Laurie Tewksbury
Group Director, Strategy: Kaylin Goldstein
Strategist: Fabiana Brown
Junior Strategist: Katie Sherman
Senior Business Affairs Manager: Lisa Gillies
Junior Traffic Manager: Katie Hare