By Starrla Cray
Seven-year-old Justin May of Delano has what one would call “natural stage presence.”
It started with dance recitals and Wright County talent shows, and this summer, it progressed to starring in a national Nissan commercial.
“It took a lot of things going our way,” said Justin’s mother, Alisa. “He had the look they wanted, and they said he was very focused during auditions.”
The commercial debuted last week on prime time television, as well as on several cable networks. It focuses on the durability of the Nissan vehicle in a creative, playful manner.
Justin is shown destroying toy cars in a variety of ways smashing them with a vice, covering them with mashed potatoes, and even throwing them in a toilet.
“My favorite part was smashing the cars with my feet,” Justin said.
At the end, the Nissan is the only vehicle that remains pristine, despite the attacks of “Kidzilla.”
“Justin’s nickname for me is now ‘Momzilla,’” Alisa laughed.
Justin made the acting look effortless, but appearing on a commercial that will be seen by millions isn’t a simple task.
The Mays spent the entire summer in California, and the scene was shot in South Pasadena July 11-12.
“I warned him he might have to do the same thing 25 to 30 times, and I was right,” Alisa said. “It was eight-hour days.”
Justin, who has been performing ever since he can remember, wasn’t deterred, however.
“When he was 3, he saw his cousins at a dance recital, and said, ‘I want to do that,’” Alisa said. So, he signed up for dance classes, and had the opportunity to be in a recital of his own.
When it was over, Justin still hadn’t had enough of the limelight, so he and his older cousin signed up for the Wright County Fair talent contest.
“He just loved being onstage,” Alisa said.
The following year, at age 5, Justin won first place in the talent contest.
The judges said there was something unique about Justin, and urged Alisa to get him involved in some type of professional training.
So, when Justin saw a commercial on TV for acting classes through John Robert Powers acting and modeling school in Bloomington, Alisa said he could give it a try.
“I thought it looked fun,” Justin said.
Since April 2008, he’s been taking lessons once a week. Brian Vogel, who works with International Presentation of Performers (iPOP!), saw Justin at his classes and recognized his potential.
Last winter, Vogel invited Justin to the iPOP! convention in Los Angeles, where performers audition in front of qualified professionals.
“There were 300 to 400 children per category, divided by age and gender,” Alisa said.
They were judged in three categories: scene, commercial, and monologue.
“Each day, I had my energy pumped up,” Justin said.
At the awards banquet, Justin received first runner up in the commercial category, top 10 in monologue and scene, as well as second runner up as “actor of the year.”
“We were the screaming table,” Justin said.
The next day, 11 agents called to express their interest in Justin’s acting ability. Many of them wanted a long-term commitment.
However, with Alisa’s job as a high school health teacher at Benilde-St.Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park, she was only able to take off for the summer months.
“We were told that summer isn’t the best time, because it’s usually slower,” Alisa said. They decided to give it a shot anyway, and drove down to Los Angeles and rented a studio apartment.
“Honestly, we weren’t expecting anything,” Alisa said. However, they didn’t have to wait long before auditions started opening up.
“We were barely in LA, and he had an audition,” Alisa said. Throughout the summer, Justin had a total of 10 auditions and two callbacks (one from Hallmark, and one from Nissan.)
People who heard that they’d only been doing auditions for three weeks before Justin booked the commercial were shocked, Alisa said.
“Usually, it takes years,” she said.
Doing the actual commercial was an interesting learning experience, Alisa said.
“I didn’t realize how many people were involved,” she said. An artist hand-sketched each scene for reference, and special effects (such as the cars exploding), were edited in afterwards.
There was a child advocate on scene to make sure Justin was being treated well, and a stand-in child actor was available in case Justin got tired during the day.
“He even had his own trailer to rest in for lunch,” Alisa said.
Despite having booked the commercial, the Mays were given no guarantee that it would actually air on TV.
The director, Antoine Bardou Jacquet, is well-known for his high-quality work, however, so they knew there was a good chance it would make it.
Alisa and Justin said it was exciting to see the commercial when it aired for the first time.
“We’ve been getting phone calls from people who’ve seen it, too,” Alisa said.
Next summer, Justin said he hopes to go back to LA for more auditions.
“The big question is, ‘what’s next?’” Alisa said. “I don’t know what his future holds. I believe in him, and a lot of other people do, too.”
A video clip of the 30-second commercial can be viewed on You Tube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sR5M_mCH8I&feature=related.
To see the full one-minute version, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/lscribbly/4928163994/.