By Nathaniel Clarkson
“My friend is making good money as a bartender, having the time of his life. I’m working ten-hour days in a door-to-door sales job, and I said, I’m doing it, I’m going to be an actor.”
As Don Jeanes (Texas State) tells it, his new job is still in sales, and in many ways he still goes door-to-door. Only now he sells something else – himself – and he makes pitches to Hollywood casting directors instead of small business owners. “Acting is like being in sales,” he says. “You are your business. It’s your job to reach out to people every day.”
Don started doing theater when he was seven, later competing in some one-act play competitions in high school. He landed a scholarship to study theater at Kingwood College in Texas where he worked as a technical assistant while attending classes.
Don’s mom eventually convinced him to have a backup plan in case the acting thing didn’t work out, so he spent three years earning a marketing degree from Texas State.
“A lot of these casting directors would say, You have blond hair and blues, you should move to Los Angeles.”
“In Brooklyn I did a lot of off-off-Broadway,” he says. “I call it Almost-in-New Jersey Off-Broadway. They were small theaters where the writer, director, and producer are all the same guy.” Don worked with a company called Working Man’s Clothes Productions, founded by another Texas State alumnus who Don discovered through his Brooklyn roommate, a fellow Sigma Nu from Texas State. (Videos of their Pulling Teeth production can still be found on YouTube.)
In the two years Don spent doing small theater acting in Brooklyn he also signed on with an agency that got him some commercial gigs doing print ads. The agency would also send Don out on theatrical auditions where casting directors would place him in roles around the city.
As Don auditioned for more roles and demonstrated his commitment to the process, the casting directors offered up guidance that would prove instrumental in his acting career. “A lot of these casting directors would say, You have blond hair and blues, you should move to Los Angeles.”
“First thing I did after moving here? Find a job,” he says. After finding work at a cafe in North Hollywood, where he first lived after moving to the area, Don started searching for an agent to help him find auditions. “What they call it is ‘papering the town.’ You get a list of 90 or 100 agents in town and you send your headshot to all of them.”
Don credits Sigma Nu with preparing him to network and be sociable – two skills that have served his acting career well.
At about this time Don also happened to read a book that would help him realize one of his favorite parts of living in California. “When I realized you can split lanes here the first thing I did was go out and buy a motorcycle.” Don’s referring to the California law that permits motorcycles to ride between cars in heavy traffic. The book was the cult favorite Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Don’s first bike was a 1981 Yamaha Maxim 550 he bought for $700 and drove for four years. “I crashed that bike so many times,” he recalls with a grin.
Don remembers one crash in particular in which he was – wait for it – riding to shoot a motorcycle safety video. He was crossing Mount Wilson on the way to the filming location in Newcomb’s Ranch, deep in the Angeles National Forest north of the city. “I was running late and hit a downhill thinking I’d be able to make up some time. The road turned quickly and I realized I wasn’t going to stop. I started to ride up the side of this embankment and just went air born.”
Thankfully a bystander who witnessed the wipeout stopped to check on Don and ended up taking him to the filming location (on a Ducati, naturally). The director was understandably concerned when his actor showed up with bleeding gashes and gravel stuck in his back. Don convinced them to go ahead with the shoot and drove himself to the hospital to get stitched up after returning home later that day.
Don wasn’t deterred by the episode and rebuilt the bike a month later. “I go crazy sitting in traffic – I can’t stand it.” He sold the Yamaha for $300 before upgrading to a 2009 Harley-Davidson Iron 883.
“I can pretty much follow my career with the Dow Jones. Advertising is the first thing to get cut when the company isn’t doing well.”
It wasn’t long before Don settled into a daily routine of riding around town to audition with various casting directors, sometimes 3-4 a day. He says the total number is in the hundreds in the six years since he moved to L.A. Don’s propensity for splitting lanes in L.A. traffic helped a lot, he says.
In what is perhaps a testament to the Woody Allen adage “80 percent of success is showing up,” Don says the casting directors are more likely to book someone they recognize from repeatedly showing up to auditions.
“If you stay in Hollywood long enough you’re going to get booked with something. It’s a matter of whether you have the stamina to stay here with your hand raised long enough saying Pick me, pick me.”
Don made a decision early on to avoid drinking during the week or within 48 hours of an audition. “You need all your mental faculties for auditions. If you’re not present and sharp-minded you won’t be able to get inside the moment, which is the critical skill for an actor.”
Don’s business approach to his acting career was paying off as he started earning regular gigs as a commercial actor.
And then the 2008 recession hit.
“I can pretty much follow my career with the Dow Jones,” he observes. “Advertising is the first thing to get cut when the company isn’t doing well. If you’re a commercial actor your livelihood tracks closely with the overall health of the economy.”
The recession had an immediate impact on Don’s fledgling acting career. “I had just booked all these commercials and I was getting ready to fly to Portland to film another one.” As he was leaving for the shoot, Don learned that his employer at the time would be scaling back, which would mean a significant reduction in the steady employment Don had enjoyed up until this point.
“I didn’t even know it was a Super Bowl commercial until the third day of shooting.”
2008 would prove to be a difficult year for Don as it was for countless others affected by the recession. He had to borrow money to pay his rent over the first 3-4 months of the year and picked up some shifts at a Chinese restaurant in Brentwood for some extra cash.
Don found a way to endure the Great Recession and slowly things picked back up again in 2011 when Don landed his first movie role as Neil Armstrong in Transformers. While he was ecstatic to land the role, Don also knew it was somewhat of a gamble. Appearing in a feature film required him to join the actors union, which essentially prices actors out of lower level jobs. Landing a major role can require some actors to leave behind smaller but more reliable acting jobs.
About one year later Don auditioned for what he thought would be just another commercial gig. “I was just going about my usual routine of taking whatever audition I could get. They didn’t say what the commercial was for,” he remembers thinking at the time.
The casting director told Don to come dressed as a cowboy and asked if he was good with horses. “’Sure I’m good with horses,’ I told them. ‘I grew up on a ranch in Texas.’” Don completed the initial casting call at an agency in Santa Monica; things got interesting when he learned the callbacks would be in Thousand Oaks, a more rural area in the valley.
“I show up at the callback and they bring out this Irish draught horse. I end up doing the whole action shot at the audition. When you see me come out of the barn and nuzzle the horse, we did the whole scene during the callback.”
Don didn’t hear anything at first and figured he didn’t win the job. “In acting, no news is bad news. If you don’t hear within two weeks you didn’t get it.” But the call eventually came and it was good news. Not only did he land the job but it was at this time Don learned it was for a Budweiser commercial, which almost certainly meant national exposure. The shooting would require two days in L.A. and one day in Boonesville, Mo., home base for the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales.
“I didn’t even know it was a Super Bowl commercial until the third day of shooting,” Don recalls. He says it’s common for clients to attend commercial shoots so they can make sure the original concept for the ad is reflected in the final product. But he remembers thinking how odd it was to have so many extra people present at the shoot. At one point a Budwesier advertising executive approached Don to tell him they were shooting a Super Bowl ad – and one that was expected to be the number one commercial.
“I was sitting at my buddy’s house when the commercial aired. I had told everyone I know, so my big fear was that the commercial would end up not airing.” As we know now, last year’s Bud commercial stole the show. It was the most talked-about the following week, and sure enough, it was the unanimous choice for top Super Bowl commercial (Don learned the news from a friend’s Facebook post.)
Ever since playing the lead role in a Super Bowl commercial that became an instant classic, Don has secured regular work as a successful commercial actor, among other projects. (The follow up to last year’s Super Bowl commercial has already earned 29 million views on YouTube.)
Don flew to Uruguay for a Bacardi commercial and filmed a movie in the Amazon. He’s filming commercials for Kia and Subaru. More recently he’s gotten into voice acting. “There isn’t much fame in voice over acting but they work constantly.”
Don joined Sigma Nu thanks to a group of his high school friends who all attended Texas State. “I see most of them every time I go home. A lot of the guys were at a wedding in Louisiana recently.”
“They pay me to act. I can’t believe they pay me to play pretend.”
Don credits Sigma Nu with preparing him to network and be sociable – two skills that have served his acting career well. He’s also observed a difference between the actors who finished their degrees. “Just because you’re weird and artsy doesn’t mean you’re a great actor,” he quips. Actors with talent combined with strong social skills are much more likely to succeed, he says.
For his 30th birthday Don decided to run a marathon, training in the parks surrounding the Hollywood Hills. “If I can do the Runyan Canyon trail twice then I know I’m ready for the race.”
“In the end, I’d love to be an A-list actor where people send me scripts, offer me money, and ask if I’m interested in doing their movie. But for now I’ll be satisfied if I can make a comfortable living as an entertainer.”
“They pay me to act. I can’t believe they pay me to play pretend.”
Visit donjeanes.com to follow Don’s latest projects.