“Don’t be no cloud on a sunny day!” If you have not yet seen the Superbowl #Gethappy commercial featuring a chipper, young corporate guy from the “Gopher State,” you are missing out on your dose of happiness for the week. Actor Erik Nicolaisen, a self-proclaimed “reggae head” took great care to play the role of Dave Johnson a white man from Minnesota whose mission for a day is to spread Jamaican love to his fellow officemates. A commercial, voice over, and stage actor, Erik Nicolaisen’s work extends from lead role in Shakespeare’s Romeo to the voice of a character in a PlayStation game. He is also a seasoned artist who occasionally sketches, doodles, and paints.
We talked with Erik Nicolaisen about his craft, his background, and what he did to prepare for his role in his most recent commercial. While he’s only visited Jamaica once, Nicolaisen has been a life-long lover of reggae music and our culture. Jamaica has given birth to many stars. Perhaps playing a Jamaican may now propel Nicolaisen’s career to “to di worl.’”
*Watch as Dave singlehandedly turns all of everyone’s “frown di adda way aroun’” with his portrayal of the “Don’t Worry About a Thing” attitude:
Tell us about yourself. Apart from the guy who played Dave from the land of “ten tousand lakes,” who is Erik Nicolaisen?
I live in Los Angeles with my wife and 2-year-old son and we have another son due in May. I was raised in Portland, Oregon and I consider myself something of an outdoorsman. I went to the University of Oregon on an American football scholarship, and I studied fine art & theater during my time there. In addition to my acting career, I manage a hand-painted mural company that I started last year (www.oldcityartists.com). If I have any free time, I like to cook, travel, and watch American football or Documentary films.
What was the first thing that came to mind when you were told you had to play a Jamaican? Did you have any apprehensions?
I was excited when I first auditioned for the role of “Midwestern guy, in his 30’s with a thick patois accent.” What a fun role, especially for a lifelong reggae fan. I was even more excited when I’d learned that I had booked the commercial…nervous, but excited. Since I have Jamaican family and friends, I was worried that I wouldn’t represent the accent correctly, which led me to prepare a lot mor
Have you ever visited Jamaica?
I visited Jamaica one time, back in 2003.
Describe your experience as you all filmed that commercial about “turnin’ dat frown upside down.”
I have played to live audiences a lot in my career, but doing comedy on a commercial set is very different. There is no validating laughter on that quiet set, and you don’t have the privilege of watching the playback of your last take to make sure it was funny - you really just put all of your faith into the director, trusting in his instincts and following his instructions at every bend of the road. The director of this commercial, Tom Kuntz, is really an amazing artist, and it was a treat to get to work with him. The man produces award-winning commercials! It’s certainly reassuring to trust in your performance with such an accomplished director at the helm.
What did you do to prepare for the role?
Having played a Jamaican character in the past, I knew that I could convincingly deliver phrases in patois. However, I knew that speaking and improvising in patois for three days on set was going to be a daunting challenge. First, I studied many of the “How to Speak Patois” videos on the Internet, devoting to memory some of the unfamiliar Jamaican phrases and words. I made sure that I could convincingly deliver the lines that the advertising agency had created for the character. Then, I consulted with my brother-in-law, who is Jamaican, to help fine-tune the more difficult phrasing. I generated a substantial list of alternative patois phrases to try for each of the scenes, in the event that I was given the opportunity to try them on set.
How do you feel about the controversy that has sprung from the commercial?
People are entitled to their opinion on the matter, and it really isn’t my place to affirm or deny the controversy, or how the advertisement made people feel. I’m just an actor, hired to play a role in a television commercial. I must admit though, that as a fan of reggae music who is familiar with non-black patois-speaking artistes (Gentleman, Matisyhu, and Albarosie, etc.,) I was certainly surprised at the initial controversy that my acting created. I suppose I see patois as more about culture, and less about race. On the other hand, I’m not blind to the social construct of race, and I realize that race is a sensitive topic for very good reason. I see both sides of the controversy.
What do you love about Jamaica/Jamaicans? What are some great qualities that Jamaicans possess?
Well, the Jamaicans that I know are all hardworking and easy-going. They have a deep sense of tradition and family, and they’re outspoken and proud of their Jamaican heritage.
Jamaicans are responding positively to the portrayal of the accent. How did you learn the accent?
I’m a fan of reggae music & culture and some of that patois and phrasing has obviously rubbed off on me. I suppose I tried to polish up my patois after my visit to the island in 2003. As a voice-over actor, I have an ear for accents and I’m always looking to put another character in my repertoire. I also recently gained a Jamaican brother-in-law, so I’m hearing patois more often.
Have you tried the accent anywhere else other than in the commercial? How did people respond?
Yes. I would often do a Jamaican character in a weekly live comedy show I had at the world famous Comedy Store, to a predominantly African-American audience and that character always won the crowd over. At least for an American audience, I think thick patois is pretty unexpected coming from the average white guy. Perhaps that helps explain some of the controversy this commercial has seen in the States.
Were the lines scripted or were some impromptu?
Many of those great lines were scripted, but the director and the agency really welcomed my improvisation once we had gotten good takes with the scripted lines. The final advertisement contains quite a bit of improvisation within the framework of the scenes.
As a fan of football and a former football player, what was it like watching yourself on television during the Super Bowl?
Usually you’re nervously waiting to see the commercial on TV for the first time. Only then can you evaluate your performance and the final edit – what was left in, what was taken out, what you did terribly, etc. Since this commercial was aired a week early (which is uncommon), I had already seen it several times by the time it aired. Certainly my friends and family were excited during its Super Bowl airing, but I was just relieved that VW decided to run it!
Have you been approached to do any other projects as a result of this project?
I have been approached by some interested parties as a result of the commercial, but mostly by my friends asking me to do that “sticky bun” line.
What message would you like Jamaicans to take away from your work?
I just hope they walk away with a smile.