“Want to audition for a Starbucks commercial with me?” I asked my partner, David, after I had finished setting up the tripod in our living room.
“Right now?” he responded as he got up from the couch, realizing from my tone and also the bright lights I was busy flicking on that my question was mostly rhetorical.
Despite him not being an actor, we had auditioned together before; when my agent occasionally sends through casting notices for couples, I harangue him into pretending to look for an Airbnb or enjoy a sandwich or recount our meet-cute directly into camera. He always agrees, mostly because they never go any farther than our living room.
Now I needed him to be adorable while baking holiday cookies with our imaginary daughter and FaceTiming her grandma. As the ad was meant to highlight how Starbucks can be delivered with UberEats, at the end of the two-minute improv, we were told to cheers our coffee cups into the screen, celebrating the delivery and masking the sadness of life during COVID-19 with caffeine.
After we finished and I sent the clip off to casting, David went back to the couch and I went back to deciding if we should move to Mexico.
We had been living in Los Angeles and working as artists for the last couple of years, David successfully as a singer and I slightly less successfully as a comedy writer and sometimes actor. After the world ended but our rent still hadn’t, we were searching for an option where we could save on living expenses and continue to work online. When a late-night YouTube rabbit hole showed us a bunch of expats doing just that in Mexico, we couldn’t shake the idea. The more we talked about it, the more sense it made ― if we were left solely producing content from our living room, why not get a less expensive living room?
A couple of days later, my agent texted letting me know we got a callback for the Starbucks spot. Held over Zoom, it began with an excited woman from the casting office introducing us to a British director surrounded by blank squares, behind which I assumed representatives from the respective companies’ marketing departments sat, no doubt in their own living rooms or kitchens, half paying attention while trying to help their kids with schoolwork or ignoring their dog tipping over the garbage.
The director had us interact with our imaginary daughter in various ways, all of which felt slightly ridiculous ― but no more ridiculous than any other day since March ― and the whole thing lasted less than 10 minutes.
That night over ice cream ― how most major life decisions are made in our house ― we decided we’d move at the end of October, which of course meant the next morning I woke up to the news we had booked the spot. Because Hollywood knows when you’re leaving, and it loves a good laugh.
We arrived at the shoot the following week, a giant production occupying two massive houses on a leafy street in Studio City, California. Trailers lined the block and a masked-up crew were busy working in every direction. Wardrobe had provided us with fancy clothes and we filmed in an even fancier kitchen, waving at the gorgeous actress hired to play David’s mom through a real FaceTime connection even though she was in the next house over. Between takes, she was learning choreography with the 10 year-old playing our daughter, because tweens now communicate exclusively through TikTok dances.
It wasn’t until the next morning, sitting in our much-less fancy kitchen and having my grocery store drip coffee, did I realize what we had just done. I googled “Starbucks commercial gay couple” and from what I could see, we were going to be the first real-life same-sex couple featured in one of their holiday ads, after an animated lesbian couple generated predictable “controversy” online in 2017.
I didn’t have much time to dwell on it, though, because we were busy packing up our lives and moving countries, and I’d almost forgotten all about it when our phones started buzzing this week with friends who were asking if they just saw us … on their TVs? Drinking coffee? With a kid? And also, was David’s sweater a subtle tribute to Ruth Bader Gingsburg?
When I finally caught the whole ad and read the responses, it hit me that people everywhere were going to see us, a pair of interracial dads making holiday cookies with their mixed-race daughter and FaceTiming with a smiling grandma. Our imaginary family resembled so many real families who only catch glimpses of themselves reflected back on their screens, and I am incredibly proud to be a small part of this particular reflection.
Do I think a commercial can change the world? Probably not. But I’m encouraged that the world seems to be changing commercials. Even as the Supreme Court seems to be intent on defending the rights of religious groups to discriminate against gay Americans and amid a record number of our trans brothers and sisters being murdered, it’s heartening to know two huge brands are willing to place a queer and diverse family front and center in one of their most important marketing pushes of the year. And why shouldn’t they? Despite the temper tantrums thrown by right-wing groups whenever they spot us on TV, a broad and growing swath of the country supports our families and our rights, and more and more companies seem eager to respond.
And so as I reply to text after text ― Yep, that was us! No, David’s sweater wasn’t meant to resemble RBG’s collar but yes, it sure looked like it! ― I have a huge smile on my face, sitting in our much-less-expensive kitchen but still drinking grocery store coffee, only now the grocery store is in Mexico.
Travis Grossi is a writer and stand-up who has lived and performed in New York, Paris, Shanghai, Los Angeles and most recently Merida, Mexico. You can follow his adventures on YouTube and read more essays in his weekly newsletter.
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