What Is a Stand-In? The Pros, Cons, Perks, and Demands of the Job

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Photo Source: “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” Credit: Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

More than just a 2020 comedy starring not one but two Drew Barrymores, the stand-in fills in for principal actors on set while the crew refines lighting, camerawork, and blocking. This valuable role allows efficient and effective shooting and is an integral part of the film production process. If you want to learn more about the skill set, experience, and knowledge needed to become a stand-in actor, this guide is for you.

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What is a stand-in?

Oscar Isaac in “Moon Knight”Oscar Isaac in “Moon Knight” Courtesy Disney+

A stand-in is the person who literally stands in for an actor to help the camera department light the set, as well as tweak their blocking, composition, framing, and focus. The principals, or main actors, will first rehearse a scene before they shoot it. When they are finished with blocking, they leave and go through last looks with hair, makeup, and wardrobe. That’s when the stand-ins step in. They watch the actors during rehearsal to see what they do, then re-create it while the principals are busy. A good stand-in helps save time, which saves the production money.

Different types of stand-ins include: 

  • Utility stand-in: Usually used to test lighting and shot composition, utility stand-ins are there for just that—utility. Your physical appearance as a utility stand-in doesn’t matter so much as your height, which should match the height of the actor(s) you’re standing in for (although this can be approximated with heels and step stools). 
  • Single camera stand-in: Also used to perfect lighting and camera composition, single camera stand-ins should physically match the actor they stand in for in height, weight, hair, and skin tone.
  • Multi-camera stand-in: Hired for their know-how instead of their similarity to the main actor, multi-camera stand-ins usually act out an entire episode or scene in the actor’s stead so that the production team can establish blocking and dialogue before filming.

What do stand-ins do?

Drew BarrymoreDrew Barrymore in “The Stand-In” Courtesy Saban Films

A stand-in gives the primary actor a break during preproduction for scenes that require the actor’s physical presence in production. They stand, sit, gesticulate, and do any body movements required in the scene so that the production team can test out what it will look like when the actor does the same. For shoots with smaller production teams, a stand-in might also help with other forms of production such as testing audio equipment, setting up lighting, and even rehearsing script readings.

What skills do stand-ins need?

Film setLia Koltyrina/Shutterstock

Professionalism: Although being on a movie or TV set can make anyone want to squeal with excitement, stand-ins need to rein in that impulse and be professional. “It’s important to remember to give the actors their space. You are both doing a job,” says Jeff Kernaghan, who was Jon Hamm’s stand-in for Season 4 of “Mad Men.” Stand-ins need to be able to speak professionally to principal actors and think of them as their coworkers. 

If you really impress your principal actor with your professionalism, they might even request that you’re their permanent stand-in, like Fred Astaire did for Harry Cornbleth, and Robin Williams did for Adam Bryant. Reese Witherspoon asked her doppelgänger stand-in, Marilee Lessley, to fill in as her body and stunt double as well. 

Focus: Millions of tiny details go into filming productions. Scene order, desired outcomes, and job duties can shift by the second. “You’re around people that really need to maintain their focus,” says Kernaghan, and it’s important that stand-ins maintain a strong focus as well. Ben Hauck, a stand-in for Jason Bateman on the film “The Switch” and for Peter Facinelli on “Nurse Jackie,” agrees. “If you miss a few details when watching a rehearsal, it can make you look bad,” he says. Pay attention to your place in the script, instructions from the director and production team, and the scene itself.

Timeliness: Stand-ins must be prepared to be in place at call time. Production schedules are in constant flux, so it’s important to keep track of any changes in call times so you never miss one. Consider it your job to help keep the filming schedule on track. 

Knowledge: Familiarize yourself with production terms so you don’t look like a noob on set. Important terms for stand-ins include:

  • Banana: a directive to move in an arc instead of in a straight line
  • Blocking: figuring out actor movements for a given scene
  • Call sheet: a sheet that provides comprehensive information—such as shooting schedule, character number, and location—about each shooting day
  • Camera left: the POV of the camera, meaning your right if you’re facing the camera
  • Camera right: the POV of the camera, meaning your left if you’re facing the camera
  • Closed rehearsal: a rehearsal for the actors and directors only to do blocking for a scene
  • Color cover: wearing similar clothes to what the actor will be wearing in a scene
  • Downstage: the front of the set, toward the camera or audience
  • First team: principal actors for a scene
  • Half-speed: a directive to do your movements at half the speed you normally would
  • Marking rehearsal: the full rehearsal for everyone including stand-ins
  • Second team: the stand-ins for the principal actors for a scene (you!) 
  • Sides: the script for the specific scene or scenes being shot that day
  • Stage left: your left if facing the camera
  • Stage right: your right if facing the camera
  • Upstage: the back of the set, away from the camera or audience
  • Wrap: a word meaning that the day of shooting is done

Benefits and drawbacks of being a stand-in

Cobra Kai“Cobra Kai” Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix

The benefits of becoming a stand-in include:

Valuable on-set experience: Being on set gives experiential knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Kernaghan says that being a stand-in puts you in a privileged position since you get to witness on-set activity, conversations, and everything that goes into production. “You’ll learn tricks you would have never learned anywhere else,” he says. “You’ll see things completely differently. You’ll learn how to maneuver and manipulate the camera and the light much better. You couldn’t pay for the type of experience you get.” 

As a result of doing stand-in work, “I feel more comfortable on camera and on set,” says Hauck. “It’s not a big deal anymore. I’m not freezing up when I’m given those opportunities.”

Job security: Stand-ins make a base rate of more than $200 per eight-hour day for shows working under a SAG-AFTRA contract. Those standing in for principal actors have better job security than background actors, meaning better potential for job benefits like health insurance and employer contributions. 

The drawbacks of being a stand-in include:

A demanding schedule: The days are long, and a lot is expected of you. Standing in for a main actor—or a “No. 1”—can be even more tiring. “You have to have stamina,” says Kernaghan. “I was exhausted by the end of the season.”

Interference with your own acting: Because of the time you must dedicate to being a stand-in, it can be difficult to pursue your own on-camera acting career. Some people shift their focus and become full-time stand-ins, and others take extra care not to overschedule their stand-in shoots so they still have time to audition. It’s all about what you decide is best for you and your career.

How to get hired as a stand-in

Westworld“Westworld” Courtesy HBO

There’s no “direct path” to becoming a stand-in, says Kernaghan. While there may not be one standard route to getting hired, these tips can help.

Be where the jobs are: Since most shoots take place in industry hubs New York City and Los Angeles, you may need to travel or move to these areas to get cast as a stand-in.

Sign up for casting services: Backstage’s comprehensive casting database includes stand-in casting calls. Depending on the type of stand-in acting you want to do, be on the lookout for actors and roles that share your physical features.

Get in contact: Send your headshots and résumé to background casting offices and directors.

Join SAG-AFTRA: Most stand-in roles are under union contract, so being a member of SAG-AFTRA will provide you with opportunities you’d otherwise miss out on. 

Work on set: Kernaghan was working as a costume model for “Thor” when he was offered his first utility stand-in position. Similarly, Rachel L. Smith, a stand-in for Yvette Nicole Brown on “Community,” landed her position after doing background work on “Chicago Hope” and making herself known to the assistant directors. Working on set as a background actor, extra, or even as part of the production crew provides valuable job experience. It also allows you to be present for any last-minute casting needs.

Being a stand-in isn’t for everyone—but if you have the aptitude and ability to hustle, you can land a stand-in role and get that much closer to the silver screen.

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