Not Just Stand-in' Around: "Second Team" Players Who Stand In for the Stars

"Stand-ins" are actors who, among many other things, do indeed quite literally stand in the physical places where the principal actors in feature films, filmed episodic television series, and other types of television programs will stand during the actual shoot or broadcast.

But that is only the bare bones basic element of the job. During production, a film's technical crew must very precisely work out every shot, every angle, determining what cameras to use, when and how. There are tracking shots, as the actor moves along, dolly shots, where the camera moves backwards or forwards, close-ups, medium range shots, among those used to capture the many combinations of angles that will be edited together to make a scene interesting. Precise lighting of each shot is crucial. This is an area in which stand-ins play an especially important role.

Often the principals must perform a scene several times in order for each of these angles to be shot. Stand-ins relieve them of the tedium of the laborious technical set-ups. They let the performers move directly to their acting work when those set-ups are ready.

Every working stand-in Back Stage spoke with emphasized that to be good at the job, you have to be a good actor. Every one mentioned that above all, you have to be observant in the extreme. You must watch the principal actor closely during rehearsals, and know when to back off and be-as Adam Bryant, Robin Williams' contractual regular stand in, put it, "a fly on the wall"-to let the crew do its job and the principals concentrate. Yet you must be present all the time, ready to dash in when suddenly needed. And you will be needed often over the course of long grueling hours.

"We are seen as part of the crew," says Whitney Hall, who has stood in for Shirley MacLaine, Lynn Redgrave, Lily Tomlin, and other top actresses in many films. The vast majority of stand-ins work in feature films and filmed episodic television, but they are also employed, as we'll get to later, in other areas of television work.

In the world of film, the procedure generally is that for any given scene, the first step is the principals' and the directors' rehearsal, as they work on their dramatic interpretations of the script. Then the principals head for makeup, wardrobe, or to continue their own preparation. This is when the stand-ins are summoned as the technical setups get underway. "When they call out "second team,' that means the stand-ins get out there," says Tim Wilson, who has stood in for Tim Allen in "For Richer or Poorer," and for several actors on the television series "Law and Order," among other such stints. "When they're done with the setup of a given shot and move on to block out another," he explains, "the term they call out is "new deal.' "

Detail-Oriented Duty

Bryant stresses, "You must watch the principals' rehearsals very closely and notice absolutely everything so that you can perform the exact same movements the exact same way. You're there to be as helpful as possible so things go smoothly when the scene is shot." Stand-ins are usually given "sides" (the specific scenes from the script for that day's shooting schedule), when they arrive on the set. Those like Bryant, who are contractually signed to specific stars, often get the script in advance. Bryant says he is usually off-book throughout a shoot. Like all of the stand-ins Back Stage spoke with, Bryant, who has extensive musical theatre credits, continues to pursue his own acting career. He works in theatre, in industrials and on other projects, his most recent being "Rhinoceros Tap," an audiotape for children.

Bryant points out the differences between film stand-in and theatre understudy work. "Even though an understudy stands on the same marks as the actor he or she is replacing, and responds to the same pre-arranged music or lighting cues, the understudy is performing as an actor, bringing his or her interpretation or style to the role. A stand-in has to be a mimic. You have to actually become the person you are standing in for. I have to notice if Robin tilted his head to the left at a given moment during his rehearsal or to the right, exactly how he stood or sat or walked and I have to do that exactly the same way for the camera and lighting people," he stresses. "You can't miss a single detail." Working with an actor like Robin Williams, who is well known for improvising, calls for a level of "observing" rehearsals and for rapid adjustments that can go far beyond the usual stand-in job. Working regularly with any one actor brings a certain amount of teamwork to the job-keeping the actor and the crew posted on many details, possibly running lines with the performer, etc. And heightened alertness was mentioned by every stand-in as one of the most important elements of the job.

Stand-ins are cast by the same people who cast "background actors" (formerly referred to as extras). SAG members are covered under the Special Abilities section of the union contracts that cover background actors. SAG scale for stand-ins is $12 per hour more than it is for background actors, or $115 for eight hours of work, with time-and-a-half after that. AFTRA's scale is $21 per hour for stand-in work, which is covered by that union's Freelance Performers Contract.

Lighting needs are the reason that it's important for a stand-in to have somewhat of a physical resemblance to the principal. Their immediate "bosses" are usually the assistant directors ("ADs"), though they ultimately answer to the "DP," director of photography, who has the final say in casting (except in those cases in which a stand-in has been picked in advance by major stars, sometimes to the chagrin of DPs who consider this choice important).

Maggie Murphy, who is currently second AD on Disney's "Bicentennial Man," which just wrapped in the Bay Area, says, "The big advantage of being a stand-in is how much an actor can learn about film, about how other actors work. The downside is that the actor commits to a shoot for a long time, which can interfere with looking for other performing work, though usually if someone tells us, with notice, that a performing job has come up, we'll release them."

Murphy has worked on 15 films with first AD David Sardi. "The big thing we look for, after resemblance," she observes, "is reliability. Stand-ins must be on hand when you need them. The time to head for the bathroom or make a phone call is while the principals are being filmed. At all other times, be there." Word gets around as to who is reliable and on the ball and who isn't. As in all areas of show business, word of mouth plays an important role in getting hired or rehired.

Lee Genick of Sylvia Fay Casting notes, "They send us stats-height, coloring, other factors that matter to a given DP. Sometimes an actor will be requested, if the crew has worked with that person before and thinks the actor is right for the job." Assistant director Mark Cotone, who recently worked on the film "Keeping the Faith" in New York, says, "The casting people pick about 10 possible people for each stand-in slot, with physical resemblance being the key thing since 99% of this is a matter of blocking and lighting. We ADs interview them, but the DP must approve and sometimes takes part in the interviews. "The main question for us is, "Is this someone we want to work with?' We'll be working long hours together. It has to be a congenial, cooperative person who will be on call whenever we need him or her. They have to be right there. As in most businesses, time is money in the film world."

Size Matters-So Does Coloring

Both Cotone and Murphy note that DPs differ in what they consider important physical traits and in their degree of fussiness. "Height is usually the most important thing," says Wilson. In fact, since stand-in work is generally too arduous for children and adolescents, it has proven a source of employment for many "little people" who stand in for child actors.

Coloring is often important, too. Aside from the actor's own complexion and hair color, Wilson explains, upon arriving on the set, stand-ins are sent to wardrobe for "color cover"-an outfit similar in color to what the principal will wear. The stand-in may or may not have a strong facial resemblance to the principal. But some DPs consider this a must. Others look at cheekbones, facial structure, the setting of one's eyes. Each has a different criterion as to what will make a major difference in getting the camera angles "right."

"Utility stand-ins" are also hired to perform this work for several of the more minor actors in a script. Whitney Hall points out that although the stand-in must imitate the movements the principal will be making, "it's not the same job as a body double. A stand-in does not appear in the film. A body double does, substituting for the actor in shots where you can't really see too closely who it is. A stand-in may do body double work, but not necessarily." The stand-in's work takes place while blocking is being worked out, which is why, Hall stresses, "you have to understand blocking and movement. That's why a theatre background can be very helpful." On a strictly technical level, she notes, "If a bedroom scene is being set up, for instance, you may have to just lie there with the other principal's stand-in in whatever positions the cameras will be shooting when the actual scene is filmed." On the other hand, while standing in for Lynn Redgrave for a drunken scene in "Annihilation of a Fish," Hall had to be "all over the place." So just being on the principal's mark is only the beginning.

When Stand-Ins Stand Out

Barbara Haas' first stand-in job was for Debbie Reynolds during the filming of "In and Out," and she recently stood in for Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream." She laughs and says that "patience" is one of the chief traits required, along with "height, hair, and humility."

"There is a scene in "Requiem for a Dream' in which Ellen is on her hands and knees cleaning and then is trying to get away from something frantically. The scene was going to be shot with a special kind of handheld camera. I had to crawl quickly, looking fearfully over my shoulder-in other words, I really had to act. It was quite a workout and it was fun. But it took us a long while to block it all out and get the movements down. I'm sure the crew won't forget me." Of course, this is one of the things stand-ins hope will happen-that they will be noticed. This is tricky, though, as a key part of the job, as with background work, is to park one's ego at the door and not to call attention to oneself.

"That's what makes my situation even more unusual," says Kas Self, Dustin Hoffman's regular stand-in-and a woman! They met while Mr. Hoffman was filming "Tootsie." She was cast as his stand-in for the scenes in which he plays Dorothy, the woman his character "becomes" in order to land roles. "Dustin observes everyone and asks many questions. That's what makes him such a brilliant character actor," says Ms. Self. "A stand-in has to watch the principal closely-and of course I did and I do-but during "Tootsie" he was watching me too during the technical setups because I was a woman wearing the same clothing he was and he wanted to see how I moved." She taught him how to walk in high heels.

"Mr. Hoffman observed that women often put their hands on their hips and when they do, they stand in a way men find physically difficult to imitate," she says. "I began as a dancer, so I'm very conscious of movement and was aware of this. In the end, we decided that Dorothy was too proper to stand that way, but Dustin and I worked together very well. We found we were very much in sync. He often asks me about things worked out during the technical rehearsals. I can help by letting him know if one of his marks was changed, for instance." There's so much detail work on a set and people concentrate so intensely that they can forget to mention something like that to an actor.

"Film scenes are shot out of sequence," Self points out. "That's a major difference from theatre. You have to leap right into each scene as a separate "moment' rather than have the progressive buildup a play has. In "Tootsie," the "Dorothy" scenes were shot first. When I removed my wig, the way Dustin had done, to reveal the "Michael" character, the DP, Owen Roizman, said "you can stay.' " So Self cut her hair short, stood in for Mr. Hoffman in the "Michael" segments and has been working with him for 17 years, at his invitation. Obviously, she wears men's clothing on the set and has to move exactly like Mr. Hoffman's characters. But, in her real persona, she has also done theatre work, voice-overs, and industrials and regularly continues to seek such work. Because of the rarity of a male actor having a female stand-in, "People in the industry know of me," says Self, "but a stand-in is there to do a technical job. It's not professional to try to get attention, hoping to be cast. The best thing to do is send a headshot and a note after the filming is over, reminding the director of who you are and noting that you are available for on-camera acting work."

Most stand-ins do not want to be typecast as belonging strictly in the "technical" arena, so they have separate "stand-in resumes" for background casting agencies. Many omit mention of this type of work on their "regular" resumes. Others put in one line, such as "available for stand-in work," or "stand-in credits upon request." Some actors list "stand-in work" under the "special skills" heading.

As prestigious as working closely with an actor of Robin Williams' stature is, Mr. Bryant's resume does not mention his stand-in work, though it does list on-camera parts in several of Mr. Williams' films. Landing a spot as a major star's regular stand-in is serendipity. Every story is different. Some principals keep to themselves on the set. Others do watch other scenes being filmed, and may decide a given person is a good working match for any of a number of reasons. Upgrades to getting an actual role within a film are rare for a principals' stand-in, AD Mark Cotone points out, because "Usually, no one wants a character in there who looks too much like one of the leads. It's distracting."

Protocol for TV differs from film, however. Utility stand-ins, and regulars on multi-character television programs are often given speaking parts. And there are always exceptions. Having worked as a stand-in does not impede furthering one's own career. For some time, Samuel L. Jackson was Bill Cosby's stand-in on "The Cosby Show."

Haas notes, "You're there, getting to know people who will have a key say in casting other work later." Self agrees with Murphy about the educational benefits of the job. "I feel as if I've been attending the best acting school in the world," she says. Before "Tootsie," she did a lot of Off-Off Broadway theatre work, plus stand-in work for several other performers (all women). She says "I learn more about the craft of film acting every time I do this work."

Speak the Speech, I Pray You

Another reason that it is important for a stand-in to be a good actor, notes Whitney Hall, is that "you're often called upon to read lines." There are shots in which only one actor is seen as he or she interacts with a character that is off-camera at the moment. Sometimes the script supervisor reads the off-camera character's lines. But on occasion, if a given principal is not available to read in on the day that scene is shot, several stand-ins reported, the absent principal's stand-in will often read the off-camera character's lines with the principal being filmed. Later, the "missing" principal will read the lines and his or her voice will be laid in on the soundtrack. "You don't read in a flat way as the other reader might do at an audition," says Hall. "You're expected to play the scene so that the other principal can act off of you. You find yourself performing with major stars."

While several stand-ins reported filling this line-reading function to be a regular part of their work, others in the industry found this role controversial. "That would be seen as a real insult to a major performer," said Cotone, "to not have a fellow actor there for a scene." Self agreed. "Dustin makes a point of being there to read to other actors. It's not the same thing, acting off of someone other than the "character" you're working with for most of your role. But at times, especially on a day a given performer was not needed on the set and this is suddenly decided on, they will ask the performer who is present if he or she minds doing this. Some do. Some don't."

While film and episodic television employ the vast majority of stand-ins-the key difference between these areas actors noted, is that TV filming moves at a much faster pace than feature shoots-other areas offer this work as well. Most soap operas do not use stand-ins, but Barbara Stein has stood in for various actresses on "One Life to Live" for 15 years, during "dry rehearsals" (the morning's first rehearsal), on days that a given performer can't turn up until later. She then fills the performer in on the blocking that has been worked out. She had been doing extra and "under five" work on the show when she was offered her stand-in position.

Stein is also one of many actors who do regular stand-in work during rehearsals for the big televised award shows. The telecasts of the presentations of the Tonys, the Oscars, the Emmys, and the Grammys, among several others, use stand-ins for the presenters right up until dress rehearsal. Stand-ins for the nominees (whose seats are known in advance and marked with the nominees' headshots) are hired for "the winner's walk," so directors can work out what cameras will be used if person X versus person Y is called on the big night. "You also improvise mock acceptance speeches when you get up there," Stein notes. "Physical resemblance is not important here but you still have to pay attention," she says. "It can be tedious, but it can also be fun. Sometimes you walk through skits with the hosts or with the other stand-ins. You have to be very good at cold readings."

Actor Perry Padgett also works at award show rehearsals. He explains that the speeches are for timing purposes. "You might give a very short thank you, then go on at length for another, so they can be ready to adjust accordingly. Padgett stresses, "You need very good teleprompter skills to stand in for presenters. The crew has to move very fast, so they want to work with people who know what they're doing. That's why this is a tough area to break into." He was first invited to be an award show stand-in by an acquaintance, who explained what was called for at his first rehearsal. "Then I got called repeatedly. They want people who know the process, so they tend to call the same actors. Most of us are on a first-name basis with the crew."

While it is hard to break into the award show stand-in arena, if one learns what production company is putting a show together (the organization presenting the award will know), it can't hurt to send a headshot with a note expressing interest. One never knows.

"Live on tape" sitcoms may use stand-ins during initial rehearsals, Padgett notes, "They work very quickly. Stand-ins are called for the technical setups, but the studio audience does not arrive until the actual taping." By then the stand-ins are literally out of the picture. While becoming a stand-in is not going to bring an actor ovations or public recognition, it offers an opportunity for ongoing work, for a front row seat within "the industry" and, with that, a chance to learn much of what one needs to know to "get one's chops."