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Stand In for BradBy Steve Altes
Special to The Washington Post
March 26, 1997
"How would you like to be Brad Pitt's stand-in on a movie shooting in New York called 'The Devil's Own'?" the casting director asked me.
When Hollywood needs you because somebody thinks you resemble People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, what do you say? "Naah, I really should rotate my tires this week." Try, "I can be there in three hours!" As an MIT grad trained in aerospace engineering and public policy, this couldn't be further from what I imagined my life would be like. The only stars I expected to deal with were ones with names like Alpha Centauri.
My first morning on the set I hadn't even figured out how to work the coffee maker when I heard the holding room door open behind me and the unmistakable voice of Indiana Jones ask, "Coffee ready?" As I turned I tried to think of something witty and nonchalant to say, but what emerged sounded more like "duuuh uh." I had definitely blown my first meeting with Harrison Ford.
Soon I was apprised of a stand-in's duties. A stand-in does not appear in the film. All your work is done before the scene is shot. You go through hair, makeup and wardrobe and are made to look as much like the star as possible. You do the action and say the dialogue while the director and the cinematographer make final adjustments for lenses, lighting, sound and extras placement.
You may rehearse the scene for hours while the star relaxes in his trailer drinking fruit smoothies. When the set is perfect, they send for the star. On some films, star and stand-in develop a rapport; on others they just pass silently on the set.
What makes being a stand-in exciting is that you are in the spotlight. Crane-mounted Panaflex cameras zoom in on you, fastidious wardrobe supervisors pick lint off your shoulders and doting makeup artists blot away the sheen produced by 30,000 watts of blazing tungsten lights.
You stare into that lens and get a small dose of what it's like to be the star. You fantasize that the director will have an epiphany: "No sense disturbing Brad. Now that we've got it all lit and in focus, whaddaya say we lens a few reels with this chap?"
Another industry term for stand-ins, the "second team," fuels this Stand-in Syndrome. It has a nice junior varsity ring, as if you might fill in for the "first team" should the need arise. "Excuse me, Mr. Scorsese, someone on the first team isn't feeling well today. Shall I send for the second team?" On a theater stage, an understudy may be called to perform in place of a feature performer and get his big break. Alas, in movies there is no such luck. In the cast and crew food chain, a stand-in is ranked slightly above an extra but well below the honey wagon (portable bathroom truck) driver.
One of my first scenes on "The Devil's Own" was a 4 a.m. outdoor shoot in the quiet suburban neighborhood of Montclair, N.J. A horde of female admirers strained against police barricades on that insanely cold February morning, hoping for a glimpse of Brad. With Brad's hairstyle, identical brown leather jacket and dark pants, I left the holding area for the set. I nearly drowned in the palpable hormonal gush from his mistaken fans.
"Oh, oh, oh! There he is! It's him!" I'd only seen such female frenzy in old Beatles footage. I tucked my head and shielded my face, as if from the cold, prolonging the masquerade. I sauntered; I swaggered; I savored the moment. "So this is what it's like to be a sex symbol," I thought. "Yeaaah mama!"
Then the crowd got a closer look at me, stopped squealing and grumbled, "Aww, it's just the other guy." Thankfully, one girl murmured, "Well, he's kinda cute, too," making me feel somewhat less of a leper.
Such intense idolatry is scary. One day a fit of mischief spurred me to explore just how far a fan would go for a piece of the Great Blond One. When Brad set his half-eaten bagel on the craft services table to dash to the set, I noticed a group of admirers spying the abandoned morsel from behind the rope line. I wandered over and asked if anyone was interested in a saliva-laced souvenir. The crowd became a many-limbed, undulating creature with offers that would make Howard Stern blush. My curiosity sated, I left the treasure undisturbed.
As the shoot drew to a close, a Washington Post Reliable Source columnist called. A friend had faxed her some information on my stand-in gig. The morning the item ran, I woke up to a call from MIX 107.3 (WRQX-FM) funnymen Jack Diamond and Bert Weiss, and groggily stumbled through their on-air repartee. They were amused by how I got into the business: I was working for a high-tech company when a modeling agent cast me as a German terrorist in "Die Hard With a Vengeance." It was a crunch period, but I figured I could take a few days off for a one-shot deal. When people from "12 Monkeys" called the next week, my boss gave me an ultimatum: "What's it going to be, high-tech and government or show biz and Hollywood?"
Well, when you put it like that . . . So I quit my day job and began a year-long odyssey as a full-time "actor."
The evening of the Source item, my answering machine had a tape full of "I never do this, but . . . " and "I'm not a psycho, but . . . " A TV news magazine was trying to reach me. Brad Fever was spreading. "Extra" wanted to run a "rocket scientist turns actor/model/Brad Pitt stand-in" segment. The next day "Extra" was prepared to shoot footage of me modeling for Details magazine, but when they wanted to shoot Brad and me on the set, "Devil's" unit publicist, Rob Harris, had to say no. "Things are pretty tense up here. Lay off the publicity," he told me.
My 15 minutes were up. Until Monday, that is, when Newsweek quoted the Post item and an irate Rob Harris called again. "What the hell are you doing down there? Holding press conferences? I said 'cool it!' "
"But I'm not doing anything," I insisted lamely. Harris was understandably tense; last-minute script rewrites, contract squabbling and threatened walkouts made "Devil's" the most strained shoot I ever saw.
The Newsweek mention prompted MIT to invite me to join a panel discussion on "Alternative Career Paths for Engineers" with a handful of alumni who had majored in engineering but subsequently strayed from the nerd herd. I explained to the panel coordinator in advance what a stand-in is and is not. Yet somehow posters all over campus screamed: "MEET BRAD PITT'S BODY DOUBLE TONIGHT!" The crowd that night had an unusually high proportion of Wellesley coeds. I felt bad for the panelist who was a former U.S. congressman. Nobody seemed interested in his tales of genuine accomplishment in our nation's capital.
Ironically, six years ago I was the co-recipient of the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest award for technological innovation. Past recipients include Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs and Robert Noyce, inventor of the microprocessor. Did MIT ask me to speak to its student body then? No. But now with a Brad Pitt connection . . . in a way it makes sense: MIT grads usually go on to do important things. That is expected. What I had done was something cool.
The whole stand-in experience taught me something important: Derivative fame is a heady but shallow thrill. By "derivative fame" I mean recognition not of your accomplishments, but of your proximity to someone famous. Many Washingtonians succumb to this malady. I've realized that sometimes it is better to do something yourself, even if it is tiny, than to bask in the reflected glory of someone else.
As for me, I've returned to rocket science. For now. At least until the next time someone calls and says, "How would you like to . . . "
Steve Altes, who resides in Centreville, is author of "The Little Book of Bad Business Advice" (St. Martin's Press), which is due out in May. "The Devil's Own" opens nationwide tomorrow.
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