Working as a stand-in is one of the stranger jobs an actor can have. It requires patience in the face of chaos, stamina and the ability to take direction well. While those stand-ins lucky enough to be the same height, weight and coloring as a major actor or actress may get weeks or months of stand-in work a year, many stand-ins are hired as second team players or short contract roles. Sometimes, an actor won’t even find out they are standing in on a given day until they arrive on set, and while that’s fine if you’ve been a stand-in before, the first time it happens can be unnerving or confusing. Here’s some of what you can expect as an actor working as a stand-in.
First, let’s talk about why stand-ins are used. Film is an incredibly technical medium. Sometimes it can take hours (or more) to set-up a single shot, especially if there are effects involved. Expecting an actor to have the stamina to walk through a piece of blocking dozens of times while the set dressers worry about where to place a fire hydrant, and then provide a fresh, emotional performance just isn’t reasonable. This is where a stand-in comes in. A stand-in is a unique bridge between the world of the crew on a movie set and the world of the actor. Being a stand-in is not about being discovered (although it is a good opportunity to show that you’re easy to work with), nor does the work exist because name or successful actors are lazy.
If you are working as a stand-in, you will be told what you’re doing either when you are booked for the job, or when you check in on set. The first thing you will do is visit wardrobe to get “color cover” so that you match the actor you are standing-in for. Be sure to bring your voucher with you. Ladies may have their hair styled in a similar manner to the actress they are standing in for, and may be made-up similarly as well.
You will then be taken to set where you will probably be introduced to many PAs and ADs in a very short amount of time. I know it’s hard, but try to remember their names; you’ll find that they’re very good at remembering yours. Expect to be on-set for a long time; “hurry up and wait” takes on a different meaning when you are not reading a book in holding.
If the actor you are standing in for has lines, you will probably be given a copy of the scene. Often, you will not have to recite the lines (although sometimes you will if they are a blocking cue), but this is a good place to understand what is happening in the scene and to make any blocking notes you need to. Your job will be to walk through the scene and stand where you are placed as the shot is composed. This can sometimes be a very short process, or, in a trickier, more technical shot, can take a very long time.
Eventually, the “second team,” that is, the stand-ins will be asked to step out so that the scene can be rehearsed with “the first team,” or the actors playing the roles. Sometimes you will be asked to convey the blocking to the actor you are standing in for; sometimes the director will do this. It is important you wait to see what the director says to do in this regard. Some actors never interact with their stand-ins, while others work with them closely – this is not about snobbishness and elitism but about various actors’ strategy for delivering a performance. It can also be helpful to introduce yourself to the other stand-ins in a scene, and if they’ve been working on the film for some time, ask any questions you may have.
While the first team is working it is important not to wander off to holding or craft services (talk to a PA if you really need to go somewhere for a moment), as you might be asked to step in again at any time as the shot is adjusted. This is particularly true of technical and special effects shots. Similarly, it’s very easy to “zone out” when working as a stand-in, as you are more a body than an actor while doing this sort of work. Even so, try to be alert, so that you don’t have to be asked twice to return to your mark or rehearse the scene.
When standing in for a day-player, you should also be prepared for the possibility that once your work as a stand-in is done, you may be asked to do regular background work later that day. This is fine, but remember that you should be paid at the stand-in rate, and should make sure your voucher is filled out accordingly (at the time of this writing the basic SAG rate for background is $122 and for stand-in work is $137).
Working as a stand-in is a valuable way for actors to learn more about the technical aspects of film making as well as a way to get a better sense of the demands of life on-set. Certainly, the scrutiny of the camera, hair, make-up, lighting and crew is useful in learning how to be a force on the big (or small) screen.