You’ve probably seen actor Todd Alan Crain on TV, but you didn’t know his name. He’s guest-starred in high profile TV shows, like Broad City and Orange is the New Black. He’s also appeared in scads of commercials. He’s a funny guy with an amazing baritone voice. After this interview, you’ll be searching for him every time you tap your screen or hit your remote.
Media Medusa: Tell me a little about yourself, your background, how you got started.
Todd Alan Crain: I had a fantastic drama teacher in high school that encouraged and supported me to pursue acting as a career. I went to Otterbein College (now University) in Westerville, Ohio, and graduated with a BFA in Musical Theatre. After graduation, I moved to New York City and landed a job for the Slim Goodbody National Touring company.
I was on the road for 18 months, by myself, driving through 46 states, doing 4 different,1 hour edu-tainment shows for grade school kids–in a gender-neutral, anatomically correct spandex stretch suit that included painted on organs and bones. Hard job, but I learned about responsibility and giving your audience what it wants in order to keep them engaged. The biggest lesson was to never “phone it in.” I knew if I ever faked my way through a performance, the audience would lose interest and I would never get them back.
After the Slim tour ended, I moved back to NYC, and left again on a 10-month tour with Sesame Street Live!. It was an amazing experience, performing as the only human, live-mic’d character in a show where I wasn’t the reason everyone paid to be there. When you’re standing next to an 8’ 2” yellow bird known across the country by millions of people, no one cares that you’re “Sam the Postman.”
Next up was a Brazilian tour of the musical Grease!, then back to the states to stumble upon the hosting world.
MM: So you traveled the country in your car playing Slim Goodbody. Do you still do wild, endurance-testing gigs like that? If you don’t, do you miss them?
Todd Alan Crain: This entire entertainment business is an endurance test, really. When you are shooting a 30 second commercial or a TV/online show or a film, you may work for 15 hours straight. Being the same character at the beginning of the day as at the end of a 15 hour day is the ultimate endurance test. Pretending that you aren’t worn out or starving or uncomfortable during a shoot is a challenge that every actor faces. For example, all of the people who filmed the movie musical Les Mis had to endure singing live in the rain or in freezing water for hours at a time. It looks like a glamorous business, but the audience doesn’t usually get to see the challenges that go into putting something together for mass media. About 14 years ago, I did a series of commercials where one of the spots required that I be hung from the ceiling on rigging to make it look like I was being hit by an airplane. There is nothing comfortable about the harness used to do such a stunt. Nothing. I was sore for a couple of days after that—and the bit was less than a second long. But, totally worth it.
MM: I recently spotted you in some fun Keurig commercial spots. Do you like improv? What’s that gig like?
Todd Alan Crain: The improv Keurig gig was great. I’ve worked with that particular group of improvisers before. We’re kind of a little troop, having done several corporate events together. I’m a little bit of an odd man out with that cast. They all have extensive improv sketch comedy backgrounds and that’s not what I do. My version of improv stems more from an interview process. I love to hold a conversation with someone I’ve never talked to before and find out just how much they are willing to share about themselves. People and their personal stories fascinate me. The unknown story of what makes someone who they are today has always been something that intrigues me and, honestly, it helps me tremendously with my acting gigs. I’ve used bits and pieces of people I’ve met over the years as background history in characters I’ve created.
For the Keurig gig, we were, literally, hired to talk to people. That was the extent of our responsibilities. We weren’t “selling” the new coffee maker. We were giving out free coffee (and a free cab ride) in exchange for conversation. The campaign for Keurig was based on the idea that New Yorkers don’t talk to one another, so they hired a group of improvisers to do just that–talk to strangers.
MM: You have long list of commercials to your credit. Do you have a favorite? Or least favorite?
Todd Alan Crain: I have a few favorite commercials. The first one I ever did was for Pendaflex. Coming from a theatre background, I had NO idea what I was doing in front of a camera, but I made the decision to have fun and do what I could with the character and the material. I think it turned out pretty well, but the spot had an incredibly short run. I actually never saw it on air.
Another favorite is the Haverty’s commercial. I worked with this incredible improv actress named Emily Tarver on the campaign for a Southern furniture company. Emily was the face of the campaign and I went down to Atlanta to shoot a spot with her, playing her boss. This is the ad that played on TV (below) and this is the version that our brilliant Canadian director cut himself (he preferred this version, but Haverty’s decided to go with the other version in their campaign). I love both versions of this spot. The whole “Linda!” ending was improvised. The original scripted ending wasn’t funny, so he let us play around until we found a better ending. I would like to think we did. Oh, and they used my actual name on the name plate on my desk. It was a strange decision to do that without consulting me or my agent about it first. My agent was not happy.
My absolute favorite spot I did a couple of years ago for a Canadian family restaurant chain called Boston Pizza. This was the United Nations of all commercials. It was a Canadian family restaurant with a New York based actor and we shot it in Mexico City, Mexico. It took 14 hours to shoot this commercial using only 75 extras in the audience (made to look like thousands—thanks to the magic of computer-generated graphics). This was a job I was REALLY hoping would extend into a huge, ongoing campaign. I loved “Terry Peters” and would have been thrilled to have done a series of commercials as the self-proclaimed “icon.” Alas, it was “one and done.”
MM: I see on your website you have lots of experiencing hosting everything from corporate events, to comedy club events to even games between IBM’s Watson computer and Jeopardy! contestants. How in the world do you become a professional host? Did you throw a lot of parties in your apartment first?
Todd Alan Crain: This is one of those horrible showbiz stories that has a fantastic ending–for me. Keep in mind that, at the time, I had no hosting experience whatsoever. I graduated with a degree in musical theatre and had performed mainly for kids for the past 4 years. Then, about 16 years ago, I was hired to do an in-house video for a pharmaceutical company. I was playing a non-speaking Wile E. Coyote-type villain (who was a drug sales rep from a competing pharma company) who had set a series of traps for the “good sales rep” (a rep for the company for which we were shooting the video). Just as the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner story lines always went, the traps I set to destroy the “good sales rep” always backfired on my character. There were probably 6 or seven horrible things that happened to my character–from broken bones to slime to a pie in the face. The video turned out REALLY well and the pharma company decided it would be a great idea if I went down to Orlando for two weeks and recreated that same character during a “recap game show” the sales reps would be playing after they had seen the video. This was a huge job and it was the very first time I was hired for an event where I wasn’t given a script. They wanted me to be the “bad sales rep” in front of all of these people who really worked as the “good sales reps.” They also hired a New York stand up comic to act as the host of the game show.
The stand up comic and I rehearsed in New York for a couple of days before we went to Florida and I could tell he wasn’t comfortable with what was being asked of him. He seemed really nervous and uncomfortable with this whole job from the beginning. During rehearsal he had worked out a joke to warm up the crowd, something from his act. Here’s the joke, “Hey, you guys want to hear my idea of a good workout? No pain, good.” That was it. Now, I was nervous.
We arrived in Orlando, rehearsed on the set and prepared for our first of 13 shows. My entrance was staged in a way that I was to come through the crowd, walking and talking to the sales reps, as I made my way to the stage after the game show host had a chance to warm them up and introduce what they would be doing. The show started and he came out on stage and IMMEDIATELY began to sweat. A lot. The phrase “deer in headlights” doesn’t begin to describe what I saw from behind the audience as I waited for my cue. It was going so badly that he decided to whip out his joke to win them over. All I kept thinking was, “No. Not now. Don’t do the joke now. Please. For the love of all that is good and holy. Don’t do this.” And, he did.
Here’s how it went, “Hey, you guys want to hear my idea of a good workout?” And 1,200 people screamed, “NO!” Game over.
All I could think was, “I’m supposed to be the BAD GUY in this situation. Clearly, they HATE him. What are they going to do to me when I make all of these horrible comments about them as I walk through the crowd?” And then he said my cue to enter.
The spotlight hit me and I (reluctantly) started my way through the crowd (knowing that they’ve just seen my Wile E. Coyote video) and I could hear a smattering of whispered comments start about me being the guy from the video. As I got closer to the stage, I walked by 1,200 people who were now on my side and laughed at everything I said as if it were the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Obviously, it wasn’t, but they hated the game show host so much that they attached themselves to me and wouldn’t let go.
It was the best/worst performance I’ve ever given. Every comment out of the comic’s mouth was a bomb until I added my bit of improv that saved it. It was the strangest situation I’ve ever found myself in and there was nothing I could do to help him become the good guy again. I wanted nothing more than for him to be the champion of this crowd and they wanted nothing more than to feed him to the lions. Literally.
The game ended and we went back to our respective hotel rooms. An hour later, my director called and said, “I have good news and bad news.” I asked for the good news first. “The client and audience loved what you did.” Ok, what’s the bad news? “They fired the host and you have 8 hours to learn how to host a game show before tomorrow’s event.”
I had never hosted anything. I didn’t know how to use a teleprompter and I couldn’t say half of the scripted pharmaceutical clues on the game board. Nevertheless, a script showed up to my room and I spent the night trying to memorize as much as I could for the next day’s game. I had an hour rehearsal and then it was up to me.
Long story–well, longer–as I was standing backstage to go on for my first game show, something clicked inside of me and, in my head, I heard the phrase, “I know how to do this.” To this day, I don’t know if I was just trying to convince myself that I wasn’t going to die a horrible death in front of 1,200 strangers, but I walked on that stage and something just felt so right about where I was and what I was doing. I hosted my very first event . Trial by fire, but I did it. It started me on a journey for which I am incredibly grateful.
MM: You’ve worked on some amazing TV shows, like Broad City, Orange is the New Black, Alpha House and 30 Rock. Obviously, you are a funny guy. Who do you look up to in comedy?
Todd Alan Crain: I LOVE stand up comics like Amy Schumer and Anthony Jeselnik, Louis C.K. They’re smart, daring, unexpected, well defined on-stage personalities. Comic actors like Ricky Gervais, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, and my ultimate inspiration, Jim Carrey.
MM: Do you do any theater in between all your commercials, TV shows and hosting gigs?
Todd Alan Crain: I haven’t done any live theatre for a few years now. Back in 2009, I did a new musical in Kansas City, Missouri. a friend of mine wrote called Married Alive!. One of my greatest joys in life is to create characters that haven’t been seen before. I really don’t seek out doing 8,000th regional theatre performance of Oklahoma!. That’s just not my thing. I want to do original pieces where I can help a writer define a character. I’m doing a reading of a new piece written by an actor/director named Todd Graff (he was the guy with the rat in the movie The Abyss and also created the young male lead in the musical Baby). It’s a role that requires a lot of improv, which is something that I’m finding I’m doing more and more.
MM: What is your dream role?
Todd Alan Crain: Easy question for me to answer. I would LOVE to succeed my friend Mr. Trebek as the host of Jeopardy!. I’ve hosted 196 full games of Jeopardy! with the IBM computer, Watson, (four of those games in front of Mr. Trebek himself) so I have the qualifications. It’s just a matter of doing enough high profile jobs so that more people become familiar with my work before he decides to retire.
MM: If you could see yourself doing something other than acting, what would it be?
Todd Alan Crain: I think I could teach young actors. I’ve coached several friends with their audition material and I really enjoy that. I’ve worked really hard over the years to get rid of my own personal characteristics when I perform a role and enjoy helping other actors find characteristics they can use to create their own auditions that stand out.
MM: Have you ever considered doing what other actors do and launching your own YouTube channel?
Todd Alan Crain: I actually have my own channel on YouTube. It’s where I post videos of the work I’ve done from kid’s projects to Jeopardy! to Deadbeat (a show I do on Hulu with Cat Deeley), and my commercial work. I’m not a writer, so I haven’t ventured into the land of writing material for myself. My schedule is pretty packed at times and it’s hard to commit to a project I’ve created myself when larger projects get first refusal on shoot dates.
MM: What can we look forward to seeing you do next?
Todd Alan Crain: On February 27th, the new season of House of Cards drops [on Netflix]. I have a pretty great role in one of the episodes that allowed me to guest star with someone I admire very much (other than the cast regulars).
I also bring back my character from the first season of Deadbeat. That will drop sometime within the next few months.
“Kevin,” the character I did on Broad City on Comedy Central, unfortunately won’t be returning for season 2 of the show, but there’s always hope for season 3!
And, my Experian commercial is running nationwide right now. Other than that, I’m back to the audition grind and hoping for that ever elusive big next project!
You can connect with Todd Alan Crain via social media.