For years, I have described my job thusly: I am a moving piece of furniture. I am a crash test dummy with a working mouth. I am the understudy that never overtakes. I am the cheat sheet. The technical term for my job is “stand-in.”
I am not a body double. I am not a stunt double. Before I got the gig as Amy Poehler’s stand-in on Parks and Recreation, I didn’t know the difference either.
I was chosen solely because I am about her height, and have blond hair and similarly impish facial features. Every TV show and movie has several of these “fake” folks who are permanent members of the crew. Officially, we are known as the “second team.”
I spent four seasons on the set of Parks and Recreation. Often, I stood in for actors other than Amy. Pull my hair back and place me on a large apple crate, and voila: I’m an adequate stand-in for Chris Pratt. When Christie Brinkley appeared for her occasional cameos on the show, I stood in for her too. That was kind of intimidating.
I continue to be a stand-in, and my days on set are very formulaic. I arrive in my normal street clothes and pick up “sides,” which are extra-small scripts, with all the scenes being shot that day. Regulars almost always stand in for more than one actor, so these “sides” tell you who you will be covering that day. Occasionally, I am thrown a T-shirt or sweater that is the same color the actor I am covering is wearing, or my hair is styled to approximate a distinctive hairdo.
When the assistant director (AD) calls “we’re in” or “rehearsal’s up,” I go to the set and watch the actors rehearse the scene. The actor I am covering leaves to get her make-up done and costume on, and I take her place and stand in the exact same place she will later.
The director of photography (DP) and head gaffer light my face and body. This means staying very still while a man repeatedly waves his hand near my face to test the light. If you don’t like being stared at or prodded, standing in is not the job for you. Every stand-in should know how to meditate.
Next, we run through the scene at half-speed or full-speed so that the camera department can practice shooting it, the sound department can practice recording it, and props and set dressing can make sure everything is where it should be. The AD, DP, and gaffer watch from monitors.
“Second team rehearsals” like this are often hilariously bad, but they are enormously helpful to the crew. The stand-in basically does everything her actor does: sit in a bathtub, jump in a pool, lie in bed with a romantic partner, play piano, hold a fake baby, skate on ice rinks, get lifted up in chairs to “Hava Nagila”, and get covered in soapy suds. The purpose of this is so that once the actor is ready and back on set, the shooting can proceed with no hiccups.
Anything remotely dangerous is done by crews of stunt men and women, who can generally be identified by their ripped bodies and ill-fitting wigs. Body doubles, who are much closer physical matches than stand-ins, are occasionally brought in to double for the leads. But sometimes, if no one else is available on set, the stand-in gets to substitute on film, too. My hand once doubled as Amy Poehler’s, and (most amazingly) my torso was used for Lucy Lawless’s!
Sometimes, stand-ins get pulled out of our comfy camping chairs to be test dummies in other ways. For the last episode of Parks and Recreation, I spent six hours in a make-up chair so that they could test out aging makeup for Amy. My skin was stretched and sprayed with a glue that created wrinkles, and a bald cap was placed over my head and painstakingly painted my exact skin color. This was so that my hair would not show through the old lady wig they pulled on over it.
Prosthetic jowls were glued to my cheeks to give me the sagging skin of an 80-year-old. Occasionally, if a character is supposed to be having a conversation on the phone, they have us read lines off-camera, crouching out of the actor’s sight line. Try keeping a straight face while reading lines with people who are paid to be funny–it’s nearly impossible.
The funniest thing that ever happened to me on set occurred during my first season on Parks and Recreation. We were shooting outside on what was supposed to be Andy and April’s (Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza’s) front lawn. First team was already shooting, and I was sitting in my chair with the other stand-ins under a large tree. Just then, I realized I needed to go to the bathroom, which was annoying, since the porta-potties are always placed as far down the street from the set as possible.
I got up and started walking on the lawn, positive that I was safely out of camera view, when I noticed that Chris Pratt was staring at me, looking very confused. “Why on earth is he looking at me?” I thought, “shouldn’t he be focusing on acting?” But slowly Amy turned to stare at me, then Rob Lowe, then Jim O’Heir. What was going on?
Then I heard the second assistant director hiss, “Hadley, Hadley get out of the shot.” I looked over, and everyone was motioning for me to move. I panicked and ran to hide under a bush on the side of the house, utterly mortified. The director yelled cut, and everyone started laughing. Not only had I walked right through the shot, I was completely visible on-camera as I crouched under the bush!
The trickery of set life can make you feel like a glorified carny. Streets are watered down between takes to give shots greater depth and contrast. For night shoots, moonlight is supplied by a large balloon of light which flies high overhead. On shows like Parks and Recreation, the scenes where the character appears to be speaking with another person off-camera, are done by having the actor speak to a tiny cut-out of a person or cartoon character Velcro’d onto the side of a camera lens.
Background actors mime talking during scenes, and dance scenes are also often silent, with actors having to pretend to dance to what is often no more than a “click track” that taps out the beat of a song that will be added later, in post-production. Post production is where all the pieces are put together to form the show–where order comes out of chaos, and where short actors don’t appear to be standing on apple crates.
Being a stand-in is not glamorous. The days can be as long as 16 hours, and the work can be tedious. But I hit the jackpot on Parks and Recreation. Thanks to my four seasons on the show, I’m now confident that I’ll be good looking as an old lady. Oh, and did I mention I was on set twice with the great Bill Murray? Once he was a dead body, but don’t worry–he was just pretending.