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How One Actor Went from Tumbleweeds to Commercial Booking Machine

Raised in New York City, after surviving public school and actual seasons, Sunah Bilsted now resides in Los Angeles where she’s performed at comedy clubs all around town, including The Comedy Store, The Ice House, and The Laugh Factory. You can see Sunah in the hilarious, dearly departed Starz series Party Down and in the film happythankyoumoreplease, winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award. Her visage often interrupts many of your favorite television programs trying to convince you to purchase a variety of very useful products and services. As an alumna of IO West, Sunah uses her extensive background in improv to bring a fresh, dynamic presence to the stand-up stage and not too many jokes about farting. Her comedy has been described as honest, provocative, personal, witty, and absurd. Check out her website for more info and performance schedule.


Psst. Over here. I kind of wanted to keep quiet about this. They say that baseball fans are extremely superstitious. Well, if that’s true, than actors aren’t far behind. Every actor knows, when you feel like you’ve figured something out, unlocked the answer to some actor riddle, and it’s working, may lightning strike you down if you talk about it too much. If you do, you might jinx it. Nay, you WILL jinx it!! JINX! Okay, now that I’ve said that out loud, I believe that having done so, naturally, releases any superstitious negative outcome. Like when I’m on a flight and I start imagining the plane crashing, I then believe, of course, that since I’ve already played it out in my mind then, obviously, it won’t happen! That totally makes sense. Totally.

If you are of the human persuasion and an actor who auditions for commercials, then read on.

In a surprising and exciting turn of events I booked 6 national commercials in 7 months (2 for Time Warner Cable, 2 for Td Ameritrade, Dodge, and Southwest Airlines). It was actually 6 in 6 months, but I changed it to 7 because the double 6’s freaked me out when I saw them so close together. Eek. Now, maybe I magically and spontaneously became a better actress or more “real” “subtle” and “natural” in my auditions, but between you and me, I am pretty effing sure it’s because I cut my damn hair.

I have been blessed with having the same wonderful commercial agent for 6 years, Pam Sparks at Sutton, Barth & Vennari (as well as their recent fantastic addition, Rachele Fink). Over this time, I had many auditions and very, very, I mean very few jobs. My numbers really sucked. Bad. Yeah, I did get some callbacks, and some avails here and there. I booked a few small gigs that I either got cut out of or that didn’t run. Needless to say, I was waiting, ever so patiently, for my lovely agent to drop my ass.

Occasionally they would call me into the office to “discuss” why I wasn’t booking and I would inevitably get simultaneously awkwardly defensive and awkwardly apologetic. We always ended these discussions with a renewed (ahem, repeated) sit back and wait for “my time” attitude. Which is, frankly, often the case. Any good commercial agent, in my opinion, knows that it can take years, and literally hundreds and hundreds of commercial auditions, for that ever-elusive “click” to finally happen. It’s like dating. Sometimes you have to kiss a hell of a lot of frogs before that frog turns into a national commercial.

But I had hit the wall. I was carrying far too much tension at my auditions, and even more at my callbacks. I couldn’t stop that desperate energy from sifting out from my pores and bouncing off the walls. And I was so tired of seeing the commercials that I didn’t get mocking me during my favorite TV shows. I was even more tired of seeing them go to girl-with-short-wavy-bob. I became obsessed. For the non-actor, this seems crazy (and, um, it is.) I mean, really. It’s. Just. Hair. But for us, changing our look is a big deal. It means money, new headshots…it’s a commitment. And what if it doesn’t work? Then you have to wait for it to grow back and of course think of all the things you’ll be missing when it’s in the inbetween phase!! (Oh the neurosis.) You’ve convinced yourself that you’ve lost your “big break” job while you were growing out your bangs!

But this is what I’ve learned: when you’re not working as much as you think you should, then get out of your comfort zone and try something new. For me it was becoming the girl-with-short-wavy-bob. For you it could be something else entirely. But no matter what it is, the answer is right there in that little square rabbit-eared box. Oh god, I just aged mean, that 42 inch plasma screen box. I started looking and learning from commercials in a new way. I began dressing exactly the way they did. I studied the trends. Hair, make up, colors. This takes some self-reflection and honesty. Are you being realistic about your age range? Do you have a clear idea of your basic type? Also, simple things too like hair color. Is it dull on camera? Needs some highlights? Or is it dead from too many highlights? Do you even know? For men, is there a facial hair trend going on? And for those that can’t grow any, then how else does that look play out? There isn’t any one answer, but there are many practical things that you can do that may just help your chances in a very competitive industry.

This doesn’t have to be about a giant makeover or a huge overhaul. I asked one of my agents at SBV, Rachele Fink, to weigh in on the subject and she had this to say: “Commercials set the trends and hair is a major trend that young girls and women look for in commercials whether they actually think about it or not. One time I asked a girl if she would cut her hair, even just style it, and she said no, and I said this isn’t the agency for you because you won’t book with the same style from the 90’s. Actors have to be current and willing to set, and be able to change with the trends of our society.”

In my experience if you want to book commercials, you’ve got to conform, conform, conform. A tough pill to swallow? I know.

I get it. Two awesome lefty artist types in the East Village of New York City raised me, so the idea of conforming to the norm was totally against my grain. But in this case, the norm was working and I wasn’t. I had spent my whole life trying to be different, to be un-labelable. You know, Me! What I ultimately realized was that “me” is what books the job, and looking “right” for it just makes it easier for them to do it. Ultimately, your personality, your essence, your vibe is what people want to see and hire. But the commercial world also needs you to meet it halfway.

Jill Alexander, a friend and talented actress, has worked on over 50 National Commercials. She also teaches a fantastic commercial workshop, which I highly recommend, by the way ( This is what she said on the matter: “I think you have to be a real person in order to be successful in commercials. Which means wearing your hair in a way that makes you feel confident and attractive, and not in a way that makes someone else look confident and attractive. I do not believe that there is any rule of thumb. A smart haircut will help you in all aspects of your life.” I can’t speak for how that new haircut will go over at home, but feeling confident and contemporary will never hurt you at your auditions!

I bumped into an accomplished commercial casting director recently at Trader Joe’s. This particular office hadn’t called me in a really long time so I fumblingly saddled up to her in the cheese section and said hello. When she asked how I was doing, trust me, I was thrilled to finally be able to blurt out, “Great! I booked some stuff recently, and….well, I cut my hair. What do you think?”

And she quickly responded, while fingering through the Brie, “Ah, commercials…it is all about the hair….”

Shit. I hope I didn’t just jinx myself…


You can see Sunah & her wavy bob in action here and here.


Photo by Maya Adrabi

  1. Angela Dee on Tuesday 3, 2011

    GREAT article!
    I really love when actors share their success-stories. It’s so empowering. And I LOVE the part about type and trend. It’s a hard thing to do all on our own but the sooner we get on that page the sooner we’ll start working. I just cut my hair a few months ago, too. No bookings yet, but I took it up a couple more inches and the response has been tremendous.

    And as far as jinx’s go, I believe there is a universal code out there called the ten-fold law. So you should be just fine : )


  2. Emily Johnson on Tuesday 3, 2011

    I can amen to that! My hair was always beautiful but never really “me”. I recently had a baby and since I didn’t think I’d be working very much while pregnant (another misconception we all have), I sat with my hairdresser and said “Do it. Just cut it all off and make me the funky girl I am.”

    See, I have the face of a soccer mom. You could give me a mohawk and people would think it was cute and yet, I’ve been trapped by this notion that I had to keep my hair that safe Kmart soccer mom hair in order to book commercials… that i wasn’t booking… then I WATCHED a Kmart commercial and dag nabbit if she didn’t have the hair I wanted! Fast forward to a fun new haircut that really reflects me and I have booked 3 commercials in as many months. Just do it! Be who you are and they will come knocking (pregnant or not!)

  3. Michael Venske on Tuesday 3, 2011

    There are so many great little reminders in this article!

    Thank you for sharing this!

  4. karen Steele on Tuesday 3, 2011

    love her attitude about the whole thing.she did her homework and she got results. not the hair but the homework . love it!!!!
    that’s something i can learn from it.
    thank you

  5. Randy on Tuesday 3, 2011

    Congrats!!! Keep doing what you do and the world will be yours:)