Katie Iacona is used to playing characters.
The 29-year-old Upper Township native is an actress who has auditioned for roles with descriptions such as “newly married older daughter” or “girl with athletic past” — two things she actually is. You may have seen her as prisoner Mercy Valduto in a Season 1 episode of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”
During her career, which started with performances with the Sea Isle City Players when she was a little girl, Iacona has valued the roles that were the most honest. She said she’s drawn to theater or film pieces that peek into someone’s private space.
One of her more recent jobs, a holiday commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods, brought a whole new reality to her repertoire.
Not only did Katie get to appear in a national commercial, her whole family did as well.
The Montclair home in which the crew filmed the ad was decked in the Christmas decorations that usually fill the Iaconas’ Upper Township home. Family photos were set on the mantle, including one of a young Iacona in her soccer uniform with her dad, her coach, standing behind her. Iacona’s mother, aunt and uncle prepared their traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner, only this all happened in October, not on Christmas Eve.
At the end of the commercial, titled “The Gift,” Iacona hands her father — her real father, Augie Iacona — a box. In that box is a pair of small soccer shoes. Commercial Katie tells Commercial Augie he is going to be a grandfather.
Katie said her father isn’t afraid to show his emotions, and during the filming, he got choked up. Katie isn’t pregnant, but she and her huband have plans to start a family, she said.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, doing what I love with the people I love most in the world,” Katie said.
Iacona auditioned for the Dick’s commercial in New York City soon after she and her husband, Brian McKenna, returned from their honeymoon in Italy. She was asked about her family life and her past experience playing sports. She said it was nice to be able to talk about herself instead of a character.
For the call-back, Iacona was asked if she could bring her dad along, as the commercial had a father-daughter focus. Iacona called her father, and he said he would make the drive up to New York City with her uncle. They could grab dinner after the call-back.
“I can’t do anything acting wise, but if it increased her chances of getting a job, I’d do it,” Augie Iacona said.
The two were handed scripts with some lines from the movie “Father of the Bride,” and Katie was surprised at how natural her father seemed as he read with her. The commercial director asked Augie questions about his family, and Katie said he got emotional when he talked about her getting married, and about her sister having two children of her own.
“My whole family, we’re all kind of emotional,” Katie said. “Crying is something that happens, good and bad.”
The questions continued during the call-back — what do you cook during the holidays? What are your traditions? What was it like coaching Katie in soccer and basketball? — and Katie and Augie Iacona left feeling that everything had gone well. Katie said she chalks up every audition as good experience for her career: If she gets a job, that’s just extra.
The night of the call-back, Katie Iacona got a phone call. The commercial producers had loved the Iaconas — and they asked if more family members might be able to participate.
Lauren Hobart, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Dick’s, said, “Our holiday commercial showcases how sports bring families together. Whether it’s playing an annual holiday game, coaching kids in the backyard or watching your favorite team together, sports provide lasting memories passed down through generations.”
Katie’s husband, his grandmother, her older sister, Jennifer Robinson, her mother, Joanne, uncles, aunts, cousins and other extended family joined in. Even the dog in the commercial is Katie’s dog, Tallahassee.
The multi-day filming of the commercial was a unique experience for a couple of reasons, Katie said. One was having her family on set, seeing what she does on a regular basis. The other was the way the director — “Blue Valentine” writer and director Derek Cianfrance — was so attentive to her non-acting family.
“He didn’t want it to be overwhelming,” Iacona said of the small crew that filmed the commercial. “He made a lot of decisions to be ... considerate of my family’s first experience.”
When it came to the climax moment of the commercial — when Iacona gives her father the gift — there were real emotions, she said.
“I remember looking around after the first take, and everybody in the room was crying,” she said. “I’m in a place of my life where I’m really married, we have plans on having children hopefully within a year or so. Having that moment with my parents, my father, my real family around me, it was interesting.”
Augie Iacona said he enjoyed the experience overall.
“We were totally amazed. We were in awe of what was taking place,” he said. “We didn’t know how big the commercial was going to be. They literally brought in snow.”
Katie said her friends in the acting community think the commercial is a good spot. Friends and acquaintances from South Jersey, however, said they recognized her and her family in happy disbelief.
“I think everyone’s in a little bit of disbelief or shock,” she said. “We have this incredible memory and this incredible piece of video that was so beautifully produced and put together. The whole story is kind of surreal and awesome.”