By CHRIS KOMAI
Odds are, if you have watched any amount of television during the last decade, you have seen this guy’s face. Possibly in supporting roles in situation comedies such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Sullivan and Son,” but more likely you spotted him in a 30- or 15-second spot for McDonald’s. Or Wendy’s. Or Kmart. Or Snapple.
That guy is actor Aaron Takahashi and through no master plan of his own, he has become the unofficial Asian American King of Commercials. By his own count, he has appeared in 50 commercials in the last 10 years. These are not local commercials for Crazy Gideon or Hollywood Suits. These are national commercials shown across the country. His resume looks like a list of the top companies in America: State Farm, Progressive, Time Warner Cable, T-Mobile, even the United States Postal Service.
This is all the more remarkable when you discover that Aaron was not someone who grew up aspiring to be an actor and performer. The son of Ken and Hideko Takahashi of Torrance, Aaron grew up (with his older sister Adrienne) quietly.
“I was shy,” he admitted. Aaron did not take part in any class plays or performances. Instead, after graduating from North Torrance High School, he got a job working at the Meiji Market in Pacific Square in Gardena while attending USC as an English/creative writing major. Eventually he became manager of the store after college.
What changed was an open call to audition for the multicultural hereandnow theater company, which was founded in 1990. With virtually no formal training, Aaron decided to give it a try and was invited to join the group, which specializes in telling stories to audiences at colleges, festivals and theaters. Aaron continued his pursuit of performing when he saw the venerable improvisational group Cold Tofu. Impressed, he signed up to attend some of Cold Tofu’s workshops and eventually became part of that group in 1996.
Aaron then made the great leap of faith (the one that frightens all Japanese American parents) when the grocery store closed down and he decided to pursue acting full-time. “I wasn’t trying too hard to get into acting,” he explained. The position at the market had been advantageous since it gave him the maximum flexibility with his hours, but it was also a crutch. His “great hope” at that time, as it is with all performers, was to “make a living as an actor. That would be the greatest thing for me.”
As to be expected, Aaron’s jump into full-time acting did not lead into instant success. When money got tight, he even took and passed the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) to qualify him to do substitute teaching. But his big break came after he hired an agent to represent him.
“I had been submitting myself (to auditions),” he recalled. “A friend of mine who is a casting director suggested an agent represent me.”
Everything changed in 2004, when Aaron auditioned for a T-Mobile national commercial. He got the job and has been able sustain a career as an actor ever since. “It’s been pretty steady,” he reflected. “It’s cyclical. I will book a bunch (of commercials) and then months will go by before another job.”
Aaron explained that not all commercials pay equally well. “There are basically three types of contracts,” he revealed. “The national contracts provide a fee and residuals, depending on the number of airings in different time frames. Cable pays a flat fee. So does new media.”
The latter two contracts don’t provide any residuals (payment for airing the spot above a certain number). Aaron also gets residual checks for his acting jobs, but some are hilariously small. “I got a check for 17 cents,” he noted. “It cost them more for the stamp.”
While being seen frequently on TV can create an impression of oversaturation, Aaron said that it is just as important to have people in the industry who are familiar with his work. Time Warner Cable was about to film a commercial with Jimmy Fallon, who now hosts NBC’s “The Tonight Show” from New York City. The director of the spot was someone Aaron had worked with previously. Aaron got a call from a staff member, who said they could not find anyone they liked for the Fallon spot in New York City. After a teleconferencing call, Aaron found himself on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles on a Sunday night and filmed the commercial the next day.
He has also steadily accumulated a list of movie and television credits as well. He appeared in films such as “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002), “Only the Brave” (2005), “Yes Man” (2008) and “Awesome Asian Bad Guys” (2014) and on TV shows like “Community,” “The Mentalist,” “Ben and Kate,” and “The Millers.” Fans of Conan O’Brien have undoubtedly seen Aaron in several video skits on TBS. He is excited about his latest film, “The Wedding Ringer,” where he stars opposite Kevin Hart, Josh Gad and Kaley Cuoco, which will come out next January.
While some of his roles are clearly written for an Asian American character, Aaron is pleased that most of his parts were not Asian-specific. His role on the “Ben and Kate” show, for example, only described his character as the mailman. Takahashi’s ideal situation would be to acquire a regular or recurring role on a television series. But, he also stipulated that he would not take just any part, especially if he thought it was demeaning.
“I won’t go out for roles with accents,” he said, firmly. “I’ve been to auditions where they suddenly asked me to do an accent. It wasn’t written in the script. I think this could lead to something horrible.”
Aaron likes to stay involved with the local Nikkei community. He most recently emceed the Nisei Week Baby Show. “I like to help when I have time,” he explained. “I learned this from (actors) Rodney (Kageyama) and Tamlyn (Tomita).”
As a veteran of so many auditions and commercial shoots, Aaron has taken up a new role: instructor. Once a year, he gives an “On-Camera Commercial Audition” class through East West Players, where he explains the process and what to expect. He gives a similar workshop at a different site.
Aaron explained that casting directors start out looking at computer screens with dozens of one-inch by one-inch photographs of actors and actresses. Even if an actor is picked to audition from their photograph, that is only the beginning. “Looks might get you in the door, but talent gets you the job,” he said. “You have to perform.”
Another surprising bit of insight from Aaron about his work in commercials: don’t act. Unlike when he has a scripted role in a movie or on a television show, Aaron believes that commercials require him to be himself. Given the short time frame for TV commercials and little, if any, dialogue, being oneself is important, since most characters in this format are supposed to be ordinary people. Embodying that Everyman quality is something that he does quite well, even if the situations are extraordinary.
For example, asked about his favorite commercial, Aaron settled on a spot for Amp’d Mobile. Dressed in a tie, he is washing his hands in a public restroom when he begins to sing quietly. With no one seemingly around, his enthusiasm spurs on a full-throated rap when another man suddenly appears, creating the major awkward moment most of us would dread. One can see from this why Aaron gets cast in so many commercials, since we can all relate to him and his embarrassment.
Having made a career out of a leap of faith into acting, Aaron recently took another big jump: “I bought a house,” he said, with a smile. It was harder than expected, since, as most actors can attest, it was hard to document income when he is essentially an independent contractor looking for his next job. “They went through my bank account and asked me about individual transactions,” Aaron recalled. He finally got his loan approved and now he is a homeowner.
“Took all of my savings,” he said.
Thus is the life of a working actor. Even one who has done 50 commercials. Aaron Takahashi is looking for Commercial No. 51. Look for him on television. He needs it to make his house payment.