The Pros and Cons, Perks and Demands of Being a Stand-In

Photo Source: Bart Hubenthal

After being laid off from her desk job, actor Rachel L. Smith did background work on the TV series "Chicago Hope" to make some extra money. One day, she was picked to stand in for a guest star. Smith enjoyed working with the crew and being close to the action—much closer than she was able to get as a background actor. She decided to pursue work as a stand-in—asking questions, working on different programs, and getting to know the assistant directors (the crew members who supervise stand-ins). Eventually they started asking for her. Now she works on "Community," standing in for series regular Yvette Nicole Brown. Smith also has a regular background role as a cop on "The Closer" and steps in as a stand-in whenever the show has an African-American guest star. Thanks to these and other gigs, she works as an actor full time and earns her union benefits.

A stand-in is a person who literally stands in for an actor to help the camera department light the set and focus the camera. The principals, or main actors, will first rehearse a scene before they shoot it. When they are finished blocking it, they leave and go through "last looks" with the hair, makeup, and wardrobe people. That's when the stand-ins step in. They watch the actors during rehearsal, 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.

Getting Hired
"I can't tell you there's a direct path, because I don't think there is," says actor Jeff Kernaghan about being hired as a stand-in. Kernaghan got his first stand-in assignment from his job as a costume model. "In costume modeling, basically you are an animated mannequin," he says. "The costumers want to see what the costume will look like on someone who is relatively close" to the size and shape of the actor playing the part. "They want to see where it needs to be taken in, how movement affects the costume. When I was doing costume modeling for 'Thor,' I mentioned I would be interested in doing some stand-in work, and I ended up getting that job."

Kernaghan worked on the comic-book action picture as a utility stand-in, who stands in for many actors. "I didn't work with the main actors; I worked with the stunt crew," he explains. "You have an A team and B team. We would be considered B team. There might be six or seven actors in the scene, but only two of them are the main focus, so myself and somebody else would stand in for those two people while the crew lights it. Then the stunt guys come in and make their magic happen. Utility stand-ins fill the shoes of what is needed."

While on the set, Kernaghan got to know second-unit cinematographer Christopher Manley, who has also worked as the director of photography on "Mad Men." Kernaghan interviewed with and screen-tested for Manley and got a job as Jon Hamm's stand-in for Season 4 of the show.

Actor Ben Hauck has been a stand-in for Jason Bateman on the film "The Switch" and for Peter Facinelli on "Nurse Jackie." He owns and operates an informational website for stand-ins, StandInCentral.com. Hauck agrees that there is no one way to get work in this field. His website encourages wannabe stand-ins to first "live in the vicinity of a city with an active film and/or television community, get involved in doing background work in film and television to develop on-set experience, and join SAG and/or AFTRA," since most stand-in jobs are union jobs.

If you are actively looking for stand-in work, check with background casting offices. Like Smith, Hauck got his first stand-in job by being a reliable background actor. Often background casting directors are responsible for casting stand-ins. In Los Angeles, many background casting offices cast them through the company's calling service. In New York, most offices use websites like Casting Networks and Back Stage to post casting calls for stand-ins. Hauck's website states, "You might not be privy to a lot of stand-in opportunities until you get your foot in the door with background casting."

It's a Job
The job of a stand-in requires professionalism. "You're around people that really need to maintain their focus," says Kernaghan. "You have to be focused as well. A stand-in has a very important job. Listen to what's going on, and when they say 'Moving on' or they're going to another setup, you want to be there and be ready to go. You don't want to have your assistant directors calling for you. Every minute a stand-in saves on the set by being where they should be and remaining professional, it helps move forward the production."

It's important to remember to give the actors their space. You are both doing a job. Even though Hamm was polite and friendly to him all season long, Kernaghan says, he was careful to never invade Hamm's space when the camera was not on him. "There's a fine line," he says. "Sometimes actors want to stay focused, so you have to give them that respect." Stand-ins also need to be able to speak professionally to the principal actors and think of them as their co-workers. "The crew might re-block a scene with the stand-ins, and then you have to show your actor the new blocking," Kernaghan says. "If the crew tells you, 'Don't lean back in the chair because you'll go out of your light,' you have to say to your actor, 'When you're doing your scene, they've asked if you'll stay forward.' You will have some interactions, which is really fun, but it's very professional."

A common misconception about this work is that it's not demanding, similar to being a background actor. "With background acting, you're a little bit more removed," says Hauck. "When you are standing in, you're there in the midst of it. On 'The Switch,' sometimes the D.P. would ask me questions like 'How high does he lift his hand?' If you're not attuned to that information and the precision that he requests, you can be really frustrating to the D.P. You really don't want that to happen. If you miss a few details when watching a rehearsal, it can make you look bad."

The workday of a stand-in is as long as that of a crew member. "Twelve-plus hours a day," says Smith. During that time, "you have to really be focused. You could be outside taking a break, going to the bathroom, getting something to eat, and then all of a sudden they yell 'Second team!' and you've got to run right back in." You also might have to speak lines while doing the blocking. "The D.P., after they set up the shot, if there's a lot of walking, will ask for a second-team rehearsal, and sometimes we have to do dialogue. We don't have to memorize it, but we have to do the dialogue so everyone gets the timing."

Standing in for a main actor—or a "number one"—can be even more tiring. "Being Jon's stand-in required much more focus than being a utility stand-in," says Kernaghan. "Jon worked a lot. I worked five days a week, 13–14 hours a day, for six months. If you're on an hourlong with 22 episodes, you will probably work for nine months. You have to have stamina. I was exhausted by the end of the season."

The Cons
Because of the long hours, it can be extremely difficult to pursue your acting career while being a stand-in, especially if you're working for a principal. Kernaghan's former agent wasn't thrilled about him taking the six-month "Mad Men" job, knowing that it would limit the auditions he could attend. But Kernaghan had a different opinion.

"Yes, committing to 'Mad Men' for six months really affected my ability to go out and get work," he says. "That being said, I made that commitment because of the potential of what I would receive—education, in regards to filmmaking. Also, when you work on a television program, they have revolving directors. We had six or seven different directors that directed two episodes apiece. I got to be exposed to those seven directors I would have never been able to get in front of otherwise. I made the choice to learn something, network, and be around people. By doing that, I took myself out of the market substantially. Do I feel like it hurt me? I don't know. Nothing at this point has come into existence for me to get an acting job, but it is what it is."

When he stands in for Facinelli on "Nurse Jackie," Hauck doesn't pursue additional acting work. "It shoots from late September to mid-December," says Hauck, "and he works pretty regularly, which pretty much means my life is shot. I also train for marathons, so if I go to work, then train, my day is done. It's tough hours. I decide that I have to put my acting career on hold. If I personally try to manage getting auditions here and there, that's going to be an overstress for me. Other people try to do stuff like that; they don't mind that stress. But I wouldn't want to do that to myself. I instead just dedicate myself to the job for that time."

The Pros
Actors may need to take time out from auditioning to do stand-in work, but to many it's worth it. "Working as a stand-in on 'Mad Men' literally was like being paid to go to film school," says Kernaghan. "As a stand-in, you are in such a privileged position. You get to listen to conversations between the D.P. and the director, talking about how they want to shoot their film or TV show. You can't pay for that. If you are blessed enough to find yourself in the position to get to work for a number one or number two and you pay attention, you'll learn tricks you would have never learned anywhere else, 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. That's why I did it. I knew it would limit me, but I knew I'd learn so much about filmmaking. It was amazing."

"Some actors haven't been on an actual set that much or at all and they don't even know what a mark is," says Smith. "In my basic acting classes, they really didn't teach me about blocking, where your mark is, to make sure you're standing in the light." Stand-in work "is a good way to learn the different terminology and how to be alert and focused."

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."

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