It can be hard, being an actor. Work isn’t always steady, money is never a guarantee, and actors have bills like everybody else. To maintain a lavish lifestyle, finance a pet project or to even make ends meet, actors will often find themselves shilling for whatever product or business is offering up the most money.
There’s not much artistic integrity to be found in selling coffee, credit cards, or bread, but it’s a living. Even A-list actors usually demanding top paychecks for films find themselves as spokespeople for various companies — Jennifer Garner and Samuel L. Jackson are just two featured prominently right now. Left-leaning actors who bemoan corporate greed and capitalism find themselves participating in a supply-and-demand market through ads, like George Clooney in his ubiquitous Nespresso spots.
While it’s fairly normal to see even A-list celebrities in ads now, commercial acting has not always been so accepted. In the 80s and 90s, when the idea of “superstar” was being introduced, actors would grab advertisement paydays and try to hide the proof from fans.
Mega-stars including Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger would earn big paychecks for sometimes only a day of work. But they would mostly be doing them overseas, where there was a good chance American audiences would never see them. The ads were viewed as being beneath those huge stars. Nobody wanted to witness Rocky Balboa selling ham in Japan.
Then came the Internet, and those ads have been found. You can now see Willis mock his action persona, Schwarzenegger scream like a maniac to sell a foreign energy drink, and listen to the Italian Stallion butcher the Japanese language.
Now, it’s no longer strange to see someone like Jason Statham mock his onscreen persona to sell a phone. Some may see it as “selling out,” but even the actors behind the commercials understand the reality of show business.
“I’m trying to make movies in my life, and particularly in the position I’m in, that last longer than opening weekend. That’s it, that’s my whole goal. I don’t have to make money, I do films for scale and then you know, I go do coffee commercials overseas and I make a lot of money doing those, so I get to live in a nice house,” said Clooney in a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
He said that commercials are his way of income and allow him the freedom to create the movies he wants. It’s not a new concept. Esteemed “Citizen Kane” actor and director Orson Welles famously sold everything from frozen peas to wine for the right price. The money allowed him to pay his bills and create films that didn’t always hit with the public. Welles, who died in 1985, was often scorned for his willingness to “sell out,” but he was living a reality many actors now accept.
Ads can also sometimes revive a flagging career. Case in point: 1980s star Jean-Claude Van Damme was thrust back into the spotlight in 2014 when he starred in an ad for Volvo. The commercial showed off the pretty amazing stunt of Damme doing a split between two moving trucks. The spot went viral (over 80 million hits on YouTube) and gave Van Damme a mini-comeback with audiences.
Not everyone is doing back-breaking stunts in commercials like Van Damme, but it doesn’t mean a celebrity doesn’t need to bring some purpose and talent to their spots. Beyond recognition, they need to bring trust to a brand.
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This is why few companies find themselves signing checks to Mel Gibson or Charlie Sheen, figures known for their embarrassing outbursts and controversial standing with the public.
One such figure, Alec Baldwin, was front and center for Capital One, doing multiple spots for the credit card company. They kept the acclaimed actor on even through his more noted public upsets and run-ins with paparazzi. However, his tenure was recently ended in favor of a more trusted Hollywood actress with an untarnished reputation: Garner.
Garner is a well-liked actress; she’s attractive and has a wholesome image in the eyes of most people. She’s devoid of public meltdowns and talks regularly about her grounded lifestyle as a churchgoing mother. When she speaks, most Americans listen. That is exactly the value a celebrity needs to bring to the advertising game.
Still, not every artist is as open about their advertising exploits as others. Many actors still perform their selling duties exclusively overseas and do their best to keep American audiences away from their ads. Leonardo DiCaprio and Meg Ryan are among the stars who have filed cease-and-desist letters with websites that have attempted to share some of their overseas spots.
But plenty of respected stars are only to happy to just embrace the capitalistic endeavor. Joe Pesci even popped up in a 2011 Snickers ad. Kevin Spacey’s newest commercial for ETrade pits him as a director taking charge of the ad, which stars Robert Duvall.
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The paydays are hard to deny. While exact figures are kept pretty well under wraps, some reports have actors like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston earning as much as $7 million to film ads and allow likeness rights to be used. It can sometimes mean getting ribbed for it (Pitt’s ads were mocked by SNL and many others) — but it’s a small price to pay for the big paycheck.
According to Therichest.com, The Most Interesting Man in the World, played by actor Jonathan Goldsmith (who just ended his gig), has earned $8 million selling us Dos Equis beer over the years, while also doubling the profits for the company. He’s not the only one. Stephanie Courtney — Flo from those Progressive commercials — earns a yearly salary of $500,000 and boasts a big fan base from her commercials alone, with the character “Flo” sporting over five million likes on Facebook.
That’s money even the most revered artists have a hard time denying. Just ask “There Will Be Blood” actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who made money by intensely saying two words in a Japanese commercial for mineral water. “It’s pure,” says the Oscar-winning actor, most likely making far more than he ever did portraying President Abraham Lincoln.