If you watch any TV at all that still includes commercials, you’re bound to see a lot of your fellow jugglers on the screen. If you watch very closely, you might notice that some of the jugglers are the same from commercial to commercial. I thought it might be fun to ask two of America’s leading jugglers in TV/Film and commercials – Ivan Pecel and Jack Kalvan – about their experiences with TV/Film and specifically commercials. I posed a few general questions, but generally left it up two these two pros to talk freely about their work in this medium. I’m going to share a bit about each juggler and provide some background on their work in TV and Film, and then share their own words about some of their TV commercials and thoughts on this type of work.
34 year old Ivan Pecel learned to juggle when he was 10, and started getting serious about it when he was about 15. He went to his first IJA fest in 1998 in Primm, NV. “I saw a juggler on a cruise ship (ended up being Michael Holly) when I was young and it sparked my interest. There was no internet or anything back then, really, so I learned a lot from whatever VHS tape I could get a hold of, and I had Dave Finnigan’s book “The Complete Juggler.” I could pretty much do most everything in that book before my first IJA fest and, not really knowing any other jugglers, I went there KNOWING that I had to be one of the best in the world… So so so wrong… I walked in the gym and I’d never felt so discouraged and inspired at the same time.”
Juggling has been Ivan’s only career. He graduated with a degree in Film Production from Cal State University Northridge in 2003, but bought a house in Las Vegas right out of college. From about 2003 – 2009, he mainly worked on cruise ships and shows in Las Vegas before focusing more on corporate, college, and theater work. Currently, he does four weeks a year on cruise ships, and fills the rest of his schedule up with corporate, college, comedy club, performing art centers, and TV work.
Ivan was married for 8 years, but is now divorced. He has twin boys who are 4 years old, and he currently lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Caitlyn, and her 1 year old daughter. “My twins happen to have had a pretty great TV career… They aren’t identical but from the time they were 6 months old up until about 3 years old, they were featured in a TON of different TV shows and commercials. Little known fact, but 95% of the time when you see a kid under 6 years old on screen, most likely they are a twin. Kids are unpredictable so if one of them has a fit, or a bathroom accident, or anything, they take that one out, and bring in the other one. Anyways, they’ve been on about 5 different commercials, Jimmy Fallon had a TV show on NBC called “Guys With Kids” and my boys played the main character’s son the entire run of the series. They were on “Desperate Housewives,” “Up All Night” with Christina Applegate, “CSI,” FX’s “The League…”
The kids have a better TV career than me now that I think about it… Maybe you should interview them!”
Ivan has done many different commercials, a few music videos, and was on America’s Got Talent Season 1 and Season 10, “King of Queens” with Kevin James, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” MTV, Comedy Central, a couple of failed TV Pilots, and countless news stations and talk shows for show promotion.
“My main experience with the TV industry is, ‘They DON’T KNOW what they want.’ I would say 80% of all my TV work, I go in to the shoot with the director and producer having this “vision” of what they want… and it ALWAYS changes. So, you have to be willing to adapt and be respectful of what it is they think they’re trying to do.”
Adelphia Internet – My very first national commercial was for Adelphia Internet. We shot in Boulder, CO in like 2002 or 2003. There was no audition for this – a producer saw me at a show and loved my “look.” I spoke with them on the phone and what they told me was, “You’re going to be out on the street in a suit juggling 3 different objects… Can you handle that?” I said, “Sure… What are they objects?” They said, “We’re thinking a full size computer monitor, a steering wheel, and a baby bottle…” So, I had to explain to them that juggling a full size 40 pound 2003 style desktop computer monitor just isn’t going to be possible. I had to convince them to have a hollowed out one that was made of plastic, they sent it to me ahead of time and I was able to practice with it. It was still virtually impossible to juggle, but I pretty much had the hang of it by the time I got to Boulder. So, shoot day comes and I show up on set. The entire commercial is based around me. I’m the only one that’s going to be on camera. We’re about to start shooting and a P.A. comes up to me and says, “Here… They’re going to have you juggle these as well…” He hands me a cell phone and a toilet plunger. So now they want me to juggle: A cell phone, a baby bottle, a steering wheel, a toilet plunger, and a DESK TOP COMPUTER…” I looked over at the director and I was like, “You can’t do this… This is impossible.”
The director, I won’t say his name, was a jerk. “I thought you were supposed to be good” he said. I was like, “Look, it’s not that “I” just can’t do this… It’s physically humanly impossible to juggle all these items. Nobody could do it. I can barely HOLD all of these things.” “You only need to juggle them for like 30 seconds” he said as if that was some sort of consolation. He took off his headset and was genuinely pissed off. He was saying things like “I guess we need to fire casting… Who found this guy… Etc.” Long story short, they had to use a green screen where I juggled the items individually for the cascade of 5. I actually juggled everything minus the computer screen at the end… Then there were some close up shots where I juggled the computer monitor and 2 of the other items. The commercial ended up looking great… But the director had an unrealistic vision of what was possible.
JC Penney – Recently, I was cast in a national JC Penney “holiday” commercial. The commercial was directed by the famous director, Barry Levinson. The premise of the commercial was going to be that of a scene from the movie “Polar Express” where all these waiters come out on the train and are jumping around doing acrobatics and juggling and they set the table and serve food. So, we were going to be JC Penney employees throwing plates and doing acrobatics setting up the store for the holidays. So, I was cast as the juggler along with Josh Horton. There were some of the BEST acrobats and contortionists and break dancers I’ve ever seen that were cast in this commercial. It was going to be awesome. We were in Dallas, TX for one week filming this commercial. We get to the shoot and they give me and Josh the props they want us to use and tell us to “Come up with some stunts to set the table so we can give Barry some options.” Josh and I were going to be throwing actual dishes and glasses around doing tricks setting up a table. So we come up with all these options to show Barry. He watches us as we do our stuff (Shoulder rolls, plate passing, kicking cups up to a balance on our heads… Some cool stuff) and all he says is… “This doesn’t seem believable. Why would employees be doing all these crazy things in a store?” The Assistant Director explains the premise once again to Barry and he doesn’t seem impressed. Long story short… There were about 25 of the most talented people in their fields cast for this commercial… NOBODY did anything on screen with their skill. No flips, no breakdancing, no hand balancing, no aerial… The closest thing to anybody doing their skill was me throwing a plate to Josh, him catching it, and putting it quickly on the table… All of these amazing talented people that were cast to do what they were best at, ended up walking across screen caring a wrapped present or sticking a Christmas ornament on a tree… The commercial aired in Canada, Mexico, and the US, so I stopped complaining when the residual checks came in.
Thoughts on TV Work in General
Sometimes, your work can get cut in the editing room. I did an episode of the TV show “King of Queens” starring Kevin James. It was a flashback scene where Kevin worked as a bouncer in a bar in the mid 80’s and he was always so impressed by the Tom Cruise esque bartender (played by me). I was cast in this show as a “juggling bartender.” We filmed for about 45 minutes me doing tricks with bottles, cork screws, pouring drinks, juggling glasses, etc… When the show aired, all the juggling was cut. They had me shaking a drink in a shaker cup, a girl leaning over the bar, and me pouring a drink in her mouth…
Click here to see the clip.
If you want to work, you first need an agent – a commercial or theatrical agent. Places like Los Angeles, New York City, or Chicago are littered with them. Set up meetings with a theatrical or commercial agent and let them know what you do. To be honest, you aren’t going to get anywhere saying “I’m a juggler, put me on TV!!!” I get calls from my agent when there is a role that a juggler is called for, but it’s not like that’s asked for every day. My agent submits me for sitcom comedy rolls that she thinks I may be good for, modeling gigs, and a lot of fitness related roles like “10 Minute Ab Infomercials” or the “Perfect Push-Up Device” so I give more to my agency than just being “a juggler.”
Also I think that main thing people don’t realize is that unless it’s something so specific like, “We absolutely want a juggler that can do 7 clubs standing on top of a ladder” (Which as we’ve learned, they’ll probably change their mind once you get there anyways) it doesn’t really matter “how good” you are. It’s “the look” they want. That’s everything. Most commercials that have somebody juggling in them, they aren’t necessary “a juggler.” It’s somebody who “knows how” to juggle. I’ve gone out for COUNTLESS auditions to be the juggler in a commercial and didn’t get it, and when the commercial comes out, it’s some dude that I’ve never seen before that you can tell, can barely juggle. But, it doesn’t matter. He had the look that they wanted. Who cares that I did 5 club backcrosses in the audition. Is that going to make you buy Pantene Pro V? Or is the consumer going to buy it from the guy who has the blonde silky smooth hair that radiates in the sunshine and playfully juggles 3 oranges in slow motion for 2 catches in an orchard?
In closing, I LOVE doing TV work. I definitely don’t do as much as I would like as I’m on the road nearly 20 days a month performing my show. Half of the time I’m either home for the audition, but I’m already booked during the shoot dates. Or I’m just flat out not home to even make an audition. Also, it’s a tough ,tough, tough industry. Hollywood is quite unforgiving. If you were to think that you could make a living being a “TV Juggler” I would say you need to be committed. So, go into an agency offering other things. Take an acting class, take an improv class, get speech lessons, learn how to “speak into the camera.” You’re more likely to be sent out for more roles if you have more to offer. Also, it’s not paid work until you book the gig. So, hundreds of auditions that have consumed hours and hours of my day, I’ve essentially done for free. The upside is if you do book a national commercial, with residuals and everything, it could be a 5 figure pay day… But booking it is not guaranteed. Your geographical location also matters. No offense, but if you live in Dubuque, Iowa, there’s not going to be that much of a chance for you to get on TV – not at a national level anyway. There is SO much competition out there already, so, I’d appreciate it if you DID NOT move to LA so as to leave room for all the TV gigs for me. Thank you for your help in this important matter. Good day.
Jack Kalvan grew up in Miami and learned to juggle in 1980. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After working for IBM Research for a year or so in New York, Jack quit to become a full-time performer and has now been juggling professionally since 1990.
He’s performed solo and as a duo. With Rick Rubenstein, he performed as Clockwork from 1990 – 2000, medaling in the IJA Teams competition several times. Currently (and since 2005), he performs with his wife, Jeri Habberstad as Jack and Jeri. Jack started performing on the street, before moving on to amusement parks (including Kings Island in Cincinnati with Rick, and Scott and David Cain), colleges, fairs, cruise ships, casinos, and European variety theater, corporate events, performing arts centers, and TV. He now lives in Valley Glen, California with his wife Jeri and sons Max (10) and Oz (6). Jack is a regular at the IJA Festivals, having attended every one since 1985. He has produced the XJuggling competition for the IJA for the last 10 years.
Jack has been fairly successful in the TV and Film market. He moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago. For a few years, it was his main source of income, but Jack says that generally he would not be able to survive on just working in that market alone. Jack’s television credits are lengthy, and include appearances on “America’s Got Talent,” “Angie Tribeca,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “CBS This Morning,” “Days of Our Lives,” “The Drew Carey Show,” “Ellen Degeneres Show,” “Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon,” and the “Tonight Show.” His film work, on screen and as a coach, includes “Alice in Wonderland,” “Basement Jack,” “Coyote Ugly,” “Water for Elephants,” and the upcoming “Trumbo.” Jack may be the King of Juggling Commercials though, with over 30 credits to his name. Within just the past two years, several national commercials featuring Jack have gotten a lot of play time.
Bank of America – In January, I shot a Bank of America commercial that is currently airing. The audition was for “Flying Branzino circus family” who did acrobatics and jumped through hoops of fire. I initially tried to turn it down because jumping through hoops of fire was not my thing, but my agent convinced me and my family to go anyway. The audition was crazy with many large troupes of performers trying to get the job. There were about 100 people there. I didn’t see anyone jumping through hoops. They liked us and asked if we could jump through hoops of fire. We went home, practiced, and made a video of what they wanted. In the end, they chose me, my wife Jeri, and son Max, and they added 2 more girls to our family. This was an amazing opportunity for us. It took 4 days to shoot. We performed a variety of circus feats including juggling and diving through hoops of fire.
Humira – Also currently airing is a commercial I did for the pharmaceutical Humira. In this one, I play a street performing juggler. For some reason, they only called in like 3 jugglers to the audition, much fewer than usual, so my odds were good. I was hired, but I didn’t really know what I’d be doing. For the shoot, I brought a bunch of my street performing props. But the commercial director and prop department had already chosen props. They provided me with three antique wooden Harry Lind clubs (!). They had also drilled a hole in the side of each one so that they could be put on sticks, because the commercial called for me to be frozen at first with the clubs also frozen in mid air. Some CG would be used to accomplish this but they hadn’t really figured that part out yet. After a brief talk with the director and CG guy, it was decided that I would juggle 2 clubs, and the third club, which would start frozen in the air, would be added later in CG. I had my doubts that they would be able to pull this off realistically, but they did. The end result is seamless.
Sears – Two years ago, I did this spot for Sears, which played a lot. What they wanted was actually very similar to a trick I was doing in my show, juggling 4 mixed objects. Still, this was a very difficult shoot, requiring many takes. But I got the shots they wanted and I’m proud to say that no CG was used.
State Farm – Last year, an annoying commercial that played constantly was the talking mime commercial for State Farm. Unfortunately, I’m not the mime (I don’t say that very often). I’m the juggler in the background, which paid much less. When you are a “principal” actor in a SAG commercial, you make a much higher rate, plus you get residuals (you get paid more every time they show the commercial). When you’re designated “background,” you don’t get residuals. They made two versions of the commercial. In one, I juggle 3 clubs. In the other, I juggle 4.
Thoughts on TV/Film Work in General
There are plenty of opportunities in L.A. to perform for a little money (and some exposure). But there are also occasional opportunities to do something on television for a lot of exposure (though it’s not always good exposure). And on rare occasions, you can even make a lot of money.
To get good work in TV, it helps a lot to have an agent, and be a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In L.A., there are agents who only book only television work and they usually represent you exclusively in TV. The problem is you generally can’t get an agent or get into SAG if you don’t have TV credits. These are the first major obstacles to getting into the business.
Usually, the process for getting work in TV starts with an audition. At a juggler audition, there are typically 20-30 jugglers, (mostly your juggling friends, who also want the part) and some actors who can juggle 3 balls a little. Sometimes they have a good idea of what they want you to do (for example, juggling three chainsaws on a unicycle while riding in a parade), and sometimes the audition just says “juggler.” One by one, you go into a room with a casting director and a video camera and you have a few minutes to show them what you think they want… or what you can do. A few days later they’ll usually have a “call-back,” where they bring back their favorite 5-10 to audition again. Usually the director is there and they have a better idea of what they want. Sometimes your age or appearance is more important than your ability. Sometimes it’s all about the ability. Usually within a day they have made their decision and they notify your agent.
Sometimes the skill that they end up filming in a commercial is completely different from what they initially asked for in the audition. The various people in charge (director, ad agency, etc.) change their minds often. Sometimes they realize that the skill they asked for was impossible. Often they decide on something much simpler and more reliable.
Last year, I was hired to help with a CoverGirl commercial where they wanted to make it look like Ellen Degeneres was juggling a bunch of different household objects. They filmed me juggling all the objects a few at a time. Then I coached Ellen on how to move her hands realistically, and then they put it all together with CG. Here’s how that turned out…
Back in the late 1990s, I got a call from a commercial production. They were looking for a juggler who could do 6 clubs. At the time, I was one of the few people who could juggle 6 clubs, not for very long, but I could honestly say no one in L.A. could do it better. I was hired. It turned out it was a promo for NBC and they wanted it to look like Brooke Shields (who was on some NBC show at the time) was juggling 6 clubs and then the clubs would form the NBC peacock logo in the air. When I went in to shoot my part, they had already filmed Brooke pretending to juggle the day before. I wore a green body suit, including head, so they could easily remove me digitally and superimpose the clubs on Brooke. They kept asking me to juggle the 6 clubs lower and slower so they would fit in the frame and match what Brooke had done, not realizing that I would have to violate laws of physics. We tried a few different things with lower numbers, to make it work, but it was hopeless. The spot never aired.
One more thing I want to mention…There’s a movie called “Trumbo” coming out on Nov.6, about blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. In it, Diane Lane plays Trumbo’s wife, who had a circus background. And she will actually be doing a little juggling in the movie. I was fortunate to have gotten the call last year to teach her to juggle so she could do a couple of juggling scenes in the movie herself. I choreographed two little juggling sequences for her in the movie, which she was able to do. My wife Jeri doubles her in the movie for a couple of more difficult tricks. One of the juggling scenes has been released and you can see it by clicking here.
Finally, Jack has put together a clip of various TV and Film appearances all in one video. Enjoy!