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University of Maryland physics professor featured in national TurboTax commercial

The Baltimore Sun
UM physics professor shows how simple filing can be in national TurboTax commercial.

Update: Jan. 12: This article has been updated with comments from Dr. S. James Gates Jr.

Who should know that doing your taxes can be so easy?

University of Maryland professor and theoretical physicist Dr. S. James Gates Jr., that's who. At least that’s what we see in a national TurboTax commercial.

A part of a comical ad campaign proving that "It doesn't take a genius to do your taxes," the series of commercials feature Gates, 65, and other notable physicists, including George Smoot and Michio Kaku, helping out average Joes with their taxes. Gates' commercial debuted New Year's Eve. 

Gates, best known for his work on supersymmetric string theory and his devotion to making otherwise complex concepts easy to digest, assists a confused man named Marvin in filing his W-2 via the TurboTax smartphone app.

“You got a W-2. You got a finger. Take the finger and press it right here,” Gates says, instructing Marvin’s finger to the smartphone screen to take a picture of the form. After a few taps on the screen, Marvin’s W-2 is filed.

“Yay, you got it!” says Gates, who serves on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

If only supersymmetry were this easy.

Gates described the experience of filming the TurboTax commercial as very “Hollywood” and “stunning" for a "newbie" like him. 

“I was used to the idea that there would be a large crew of about 60, but I never went on location before,” Gates said. “It’s kind of like going on a safari, I discovered.”

The 12-hour shoot took place in Montclair, N.J., where police shut down nearby streets for production. Gates had his own rolling RV for a dressing room, a driver, two makeup artists and a full day to prepare his wardrobe. (But after trying out numerous outfits, Gates said he ended up wearing most of his own clothes in the commercial.)

Gates said he received compliments on set about his acting skills, especially when he and professional actor Jeff Solomon, who played Marvin in the commercial, improvised.

Despite calling himself a "newbie," Gates is no stranger to being in front of the camera. The scientist also acted in a Verizon commercial in 2014 and has been featured in several science documentaries, including the PBS series “NOVA.” Last year alone, Gates appeared in six documentaries.

“The claim is that I look very comfortable in front of the camera, but if you could only see what’s going on in my head,” said Gates, who admits he gets a little nervous, but “people tell me I hide it very well.”

Since his first commercial, Gates said he has been approached for TV appearances. After his first commercial, he received a call from a Hollywood casting company asking him to audition for a TV series that is now in production. Gates declined to name the show, but he said he turned it down because it was not a show with which he wanted to be associated.

“I understand it would be a chance of a lifetime. Especially for young people, it would be a dream,” Gates said, but it wasn’t the part for him.

After the TurboTax commercial aired, he received an offer for a TV appearance from an author whose books have been made into movies. Gates wouldn't say what author but said he is considering the opportunity.

When he’s not dabbling in Hollywood life, Gates is on a science mission. He traveled to Australia in December to speak to two universities about global warming. He is the 2015-2016 Roth Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth University.

And he is particularly excited about the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed by Congress in December and largely replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. Gates was one of lead researchers and presenters of the report used to create the bill, which aims to boost science, technology, engineering and math education and increase future job opportunities for young Americans, Gates said.

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