So close, but so far...
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
In response to a reader's question, The Anonymous Production Assistant (TAPA) recently kicked a little dirt on the shoes of stand-ins.
“See, when the DP is lighting the set, he needs someone standing there to make sure the actors will look as pretty as they can be. Now, a normal person might think, “So, what’s the problem? Have the actor stand there.”
But that’s not what happens. What happens is, the production hires someone to… stand there. That’s all. Stand there while the crew works around them, and the actors rest in their trailers. During the actual filming of the scene, the stand-ins sit on lawn chairs at the edge of the set, reading People magazine.
And these people get paid as much as I do.”
TAPA was voicing an opinion based on his own experience in his usual snarky manner -- a style I happen to enjoy for the most part. Although actors were the real target of his response, he managed to deliver an elbow to the ribs of stand-ins as well. Although you could call it collateral damage, I suppose, it was nothing worth citing the Geneva Conventions.
But then he added this: "I’m glad to hear that Elyse wants to do real work on the set" (emphasis mine) -- referring to the reader, who was already working as a stand-in but wanted a job as a production assistant.
"Real" work? That's a rather low blow.
Over my first twenty years in the biz, I rarely saw any stand-ins at all. The ultra-low budget features I started out on couldn't afford to hire "second team" (as they're known on set), and the TV commercials and music videos I did later would simply shove the nearest PA in front of the camera whenever necessary. The first time I recall seeing stand-ins at work was on a steaming pile of cinematic crap (a biker flick) meant to mark Gary Busey's triumphant return to the big screen after a stint in rehab.* Accompanying the actors was a handful of stand-ins to help us light each scene. That's pretty much all they did, too -- stand on their actor's marks. Had that been my only experience with stand-ins, I too might share TAPA's low opinion of their professional skills. It was only much later when I began working on sit-coms that I gained a true appreciation for what stand-ins really do to help the production of each show.
Stand-ins occupy a nether-world that remains strange even by the notoriously loose standards of Hollywood, where the term "normal" can encompass an astonishingly wide spectrum of jobs and behavior. Their task is different on every production, depending largely on the DP and his/her preferences. Some cameramen want their stand-ins to plant themselves on the actor's marks like statues until the lighting is finished, while others like to see the them run the whole scene complete with action and dialog. On a multi-camera sit-com, stand-in's perform an essential, under-appreciated, and most definitely underpaid function. They study the script carefully to know who says what, when, and where in each scene, then pay very close attention to the blocking -– the actor’s movements within each scene -- during rehearsals. They have to know every one of their actor's marks, looks, and lines of dialog. Stand-ins for child actors (whose hours on set are restricted by labor laws and educational requirements) play out the role during extensive rehearsals until the kid is once again available. Before a pre-shoot (while the stars are in make-up and wardrobe), stand-ins often perform the entire scene with the non-star actors for full camera rehearsals.
As one stand-in told me: "I'm the understudy who never goes on."
Think about that for a minute...**
Every now and then a stand-in does get a small role in the show, finally giving him/her a chance to experience the adrenaline-fueled rush that comes from making two hundred and fifty people roar with laughter. Those are great moments to share, watching a stand-in who has spent so much time in the shadows finally have the opportunity to step into the heat of a brightly lit set in front of an audience. But it's a fleeting, bittersweet Cinderella-at-the-ball moment at best -- by the next day, he or she has already morphed back into a pumpkin, once more a stand-in.
My impression is that many (if not most) stand-ins start out in pursuit of an acting career. Working as a stand-in puts them on set right in the center ring of the Hollywood circus. A few manage to make the jump to acting careers, while others solider on, keeping the torch burning year after year. For many, the bumpy realities of Hollywood (and life) eventually douse that fire within. Some leave the biz altogether for better paying civilian jobs, while others settle in for the duration as professional stand-ins. Although severely underpaid compared to most below-the-line jobs, a stand-in who works steadily can make a living (if barely) that includes guild health insurance.
At some point, though, every stand-in must find a way to come to terms with what can be a very frustrating role. If your desire is to be an actor, working as a stand-in puts you tantalizingly close -- on set, in the lights, speaking the lines -- but in all the ways that truly matter (money, respect, career prospects, artistic fulfillment) you may as well be standing on the dark side of the moon. That must be a bitter pill to swallow, and in some ways can be counter-productive. One veteran stand-in told me he warns young aspiring actors to avoid the temptation of stand-in work, because doing the job right demands a dedication and discipline that will inevitably conflict with their ability to do auditions. It's hard enough to build a successful acting career under the best of circumstances, but an actor who can't make every possible audition is attempting to fly with one wing tied behind his/her back.
Just as not everyone is cut out to be a grip or juicer, working as a stand-in certainly isn't for everybody. Whatever your own limited experience or feelings on the subject, it's unfair to make the glib assumption that stand-ins don't do "real work." They might not heft hundred pound coils of cable or muscle camera dollies up circular staircases on location, but the stand-ins I've seen in my twelve years of toiling on sit-coms bring a level of concentration and effort to their job worthy of any grip, juicer, or production assistant. A film crew is a machine that can only run well when everyone is paying attention and doing their job -- we're all essential parts of that machine, and everybody counts. Good stand-ins are professionals who take their job very seriously, and in so doing, help make everything else on set run smoother.
And that deserves a little respect.
* We did the first painful six-day week on that feature before our DP got fired on a night that sent five cast and crew members to the nearest hospital. The new DP brought in his own crew, which meant we were out too -- but I can honestly that I've never been so glad to be fired off a job in my life...
** I recently stumbled across a blog by a professional stand-in -- One Red Cent Trying to Make Sense -- who takes her readers on set to show them what it's like to work as a stand-in for television shows. It's not an easy job, by any means, but Penny is a terrific writer -- and her blog is a great read.