I was new to the set. I was new to the director. We had not met.
While standing in one afternoon on a television production, on my mark amid a swirl of crew members setting up a shot, very suddenly, a large man grabbed my arms from behind me and jerked me a few steps to my left.
This was the director. He was talking to the director of photography. They seemed to be discussing a shot. The director seemed to be moving me to a different spot to show the DP a better position for the actor for whom I was standing in.
The director did not introduce himself. He did not ask me my name. He did not ask permission to touch me. He just physically moved me. Unexpectedly, from behind, without announcing his intentions. He did not say anything to me. He was engaged in conversation with the DP.
And then they moved on.
If you saw that incident, and if you saw me the seconds after they left, you might not have noticed anything off about me.
Maybe you would have seen my skin flushed. Maybe you would have seen my gaze somewhat astray. Maybe you would have seen a disturbance in my facial expression. But probably not, unless maybe you knew me.
But if you were inside my head after the incident, you would have noticed a completely transformed emotional environment.
I felt humiliated. I went from fully concentrating on standing in and listening to my environment, to being thoroughly distracted when standing on my mark.
I was not in the present moment, but reliving and rehashing the shocking and embarrassing moments before. I was less in tune with the dynamic and potentially dangerous environs of moving equipment around me. I was suddenly somewhere else, compromised through no fault of my own in my ability to concentrate on my stand-in job.
I felt as if I had been attacked at work.
I felt as if I had been assaulted and victimized by one of the most powerful people on set.
I felt as if I had been violated.
And then I felt vulnerable on set.
After that quick affront to my well-being at work, I felt on guard and paranoid about someone coming from behind and grabbing me and moving me. A stand-in is supposed to be forward-facing, not constantly turning around to watch his back. I couldn’t pay as much attention to what was in front of me. I was now hyper-vigilant about what was behind me. I was scared it would happen again. And I had evidence now, and concrete experience, that it could happen again.
This director laid hands on me and moved me as if I were not a human being, but instead an inanimate object. A prop. A piece of property that he had automatic permission to move, without any need to acknowledge my humanity or any need to ask for my permission to touch me. As if I was not a worker or fellow employee on this job. As if I was a mannequin, or a furnishing, or a thing.
I had been handled.
What Is Handling?
“Handling” is the term to describe the physical act of moving stand-ins to new marks and positions, rather than giving them verbal instructions and directions on where to move and where to be.
Handling means that someone else touches a stand-in, then pushes or pulls the stand-in to a new position. In the process, the stand-in loses control of his or her own movement and is under the control of the person doing the handling.
Handling a stand-in might occur with the stand-in’s permission. The person who wants to handle the stand-in might approach the stand-in with the desire to move the stand-in, ask, “Do you mind if I move you?,” then lay hands on the stand-in and move the stand-in from one place to another, sometimes just a foot or so.
Frequently, this interaction happens surprisingly quickly. The stand-in may thoughtlessly agree to being handled, not feel in a position to refuse being handled, or may already be being handled before the stand-in can genuinely grant permission — as if the person asking for permission was going to handle the stand-in anyway, no matter if the stand-in refused. We’re talking an interaction that might happen in 1 second, because of the production time demands in setting up a shot with stand-ins.
However, as was the case in my anecdote, all too often handling occurs without asking for the stand-in’s permission. As it seems to go, another crew member seems to think he or she has permission or authority to lay hands on a stand-in and move that stand-in around like a chess piece while setting up a shot.
Handling, Power Dynamics, and Economic Calculations
Most of the time, the crew person doing the handling is in a more powerful position on set than the stand-in: a camera operator, a DP, an assistant director, a director.
It’s usually one of those four positions.
If the crew person is a celebrity, or highly respected or experienced, the perception of power is amplified.
Because of these power dynamics, and because of how low on the production totem pole a stand-in may feel, the stand-in may feel in no position to do anything about being handled on set, and just “deal with” the practice.
Some stand-ins might accept being handled as “part of the job.” As if there is no other way to set up a shot with stand-ins, than to lay hands on them and move them around.
Plus, it may seem to the stand-in that he or she could be more easily replaced than a celebrated, respected, or experienced crew person who has already worked on the production for some time. It may seem that one complaint about being handled will be the end of that stand-in’s job rather than that crew person’s. Usually, a stand-in will perceive his or her complaint in the starkest of terms: “That’ll be the end of me,” rather than “I’ll get an apology from the crew member and the production, and we’ll move on with an understanding.”
And given economic realities — that stand-ins’ job opportunities are often variable and inconsistent, and that stand-ins can make so little money to begin with, especially compared to what many other workers make on set — tolerating unwanted handling may be an economic calculation for the stand-in. That it may be better to tolerate or “tough out” unwanted handling than tough out life without the income from a stand-in job where there is handling.
Each stand-in’s economic reality is different. A union stand-in might reject a job after being handled, while a non-union stand-in making minimum wage might tough out the experience in order to keep the job.
Of course, the opposite could be the case: The union stand-in might stay on the job despite being handled; a non-union stand-in might seek other, better paying, and safer work. Which stand-in is having trouble paying bills, and which stand-in is funded? No blanket statement can be made about all stand-ins’ economic realities.
Furthermore, given the unique and relatively misunderstood job of stand-ins, outsiders who are not familiar with stand-in work may think that tolerating handling is ridiculous and one must leave the job if ever handled.
That, however, is a “Monday-morning quarterback” perspective of stand-in work, and it’s also a perspective that does not appreciate the stand-in’s particular situation on a job and in life.
If you’ve never stood a day in a particular stand-in’s shoes, you probably don’t know all of the decisions he or she must make, nor do you have that stand-in’s responsibilities. So it is easy to say a stand-in should not tolerate handling and leave a job. But the choice is not that simple or easy for most stand-ins. Take for instance when you are on location and were driven to set …
Others might think that stand-in work necessarily involves being handled. So, because of that misguided belief, a stand-in should tolerate the inappropriateness of handling, the abuse, etc., because (as they wrongly see it) it’s actually appropriate to handle stand-ins because of the nature of the job, or it’s not abusive because of the nature of the job.
Outsiders come to these ideas based on their own common sense, not appreciating the common sense of stand-ins — common sense developed from working as a stand-in in many different situations among many different types of crew members.
My Economic Calculations after Being Handled
In my story above, as I said, I was new to the set. It was several days into production. And the director seemed to have been a long-time director of considerable experience and respect. And it was this director who handled me.
I didn’t do anything about it at the time. I was stunned by the act, plus I measured his power and my relatively anonymous and small place on this job. But I was upset. I was lost in a flood of new thoughts about What should I do? Were I to say anything, what would happen next? Was I being a baby? If I said anything, would additional days and income as a stand-in on this job be lost?
This flood of thoughts overtook my concentration on the scene I was working on, on the other stand-in I was facing, on listening for instruction and direction, and on the equipment moving around me as I stood vulnerable on my mark. All, the result of being handled.
I stepped away some minutes later, fortunately without any apparent failures to do my job. But I immediately started to document all of the facts and emotions of the handling that I could remember, because I had finally become “done” with the practice of being handled when standing in.
Handling Doesn’t Have to Be
In the year prior to the above incident, I was standing in on the second year of a production, and that production was wonderful for stand-ins in terms of handling.
It was wonderful for us because of the lack of handling. Stand-ins were expertly directed with words and instructions by the camera operators, the DPs, and the ADs.
Most directors were like that, too. Directors are a bit unpredictable in terms of whether they’ll handle stand-ins, because oftentimes they job in for an episode and aren’t familiar with a particular crew’s dynamics or politics. (Not that that is an excuse in light of HR training they might receive upon starting a job, but it is possibly an explanation.) Aside from a few times being handled by maybe two directors that second year, I could count the handling incidents from my experience on that long job probably on one hand.
On this particular production, the stand-ins noticed the lack of handling from the first few days on set. In fact, we were noticeably not handled in cases when a stand-in might usually brace for being handled. And we stand-ins appreciated and discussed the lack of handling. Toward the end of the job, I told the DP how much we appreciated that we stand-ins weren’t handled. He seemed confused. It seemed to him it was obvious that you don’t touch stand-ins.
You see: No one really likes coming to work and being handled. Not even stand-ins. And nowhere in your job description or collective bargaining agreement does it say you have to be handled when you report to work as a stand-in.
And arguably, there could be human resource policies on some productions that would find the practice of handling stand-ins problematic, especially in the case of when a stand-in does not freely grant permission to be handled.
In that second year of production, the stand-ins noticed the lack of handling because in the first year of that production, the stand-ins, myself included, had a distinctively different experience on the production, wherein we were regularly handled and did not like it one bit.
Notably, in that first year on the production, I was eyewitness to a disturbing and public handling incident on set for which a grievance was filed with SAG-AFTRA. While my name was submitted as a witness to the event, SAG-AFTRA did not contact me for my account.
It was apparent to us that SAG-AFTRA’s investigation of that handling grievance was dissatisfactory and incomplete. Because of the lack of attention SAG-AFTRA seemed to pay to the handling grievance in the first year of that production, I eventually emailed the president of SAG-AFTRA for her assistance with the grievance.
The SAG-AFTRA president neither replied to my email for assistance nor took apparent action.
What is interesting about the SAG-AFTRA president’s lack of response to my email was that, in 2018, less than a year before this handling incident, she had actually emailed me expressing her appreciation of my advocacy around the topic of the physical handling of stand-ins …
SAG-AFTRA’s Lack of Protection from Handling
Thank you for reaching out, we received your note and will share it with the appropriate Sexual Harassment Work Group internally.We appreciate your advocacy and feedback.
That is what the president of SAG-AFTRA wrote in an email to me in early 2018, before I sought her assistance with a handling incident occurring later in the year.
You see, in early 2018, SAG-AFTRA had publicly solicited input on the development of a code of conduct for SAG-AFTRA members as part of its “Four Pillars of Change” initiative.
Pursuant to that early 2018 solicitation, I mailed the SAG-AFTRA president a letter* requesting that the code of conduct in development contain “specific and explicit guidelines for the handling of stand-ins under SAG-AFTRA contracts, in order to protect them from harassment to which they are regularly subject in the workplace.”
I also mailed the SAG-AFTRA executive director a letter* with much the same content.
The SAG-AFTRA executive director never replied to my letter, but the SAG-AFTRA president sent me the above email.
The code of conduct in development was hurriedly published as SAG-AFTRA’s Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment. I say “hurriedly” because SAG-AFTRA published the original version very soon after the solicitation of input, and the original document was poorly proofread, containing bad links and hyperlink code exposed in the text. It was evidently rushed and sloppy.
That, and it contained no reference to handling stand-ins.
SAG-AFTRA Ignoring Issues Specific to Stand-Ins
That was the first straw. The second straw was when SAG-AFTRA failed to write about stand-ins in the development of standards for intimacy coordinators that it published with much publicity in January 2020.
Intimacy coordinators are a relatively new class of worker on set, whose chief task is to act as an intermediary between production and on-camera talent in sexual or other intimate and hyper-exposed scenework, in order to ensure safety for those performers involved.
The intimacy coordinator standards that SAG-AFTRA published speak mostly about protecting “performers.” The intimacy coordinator standards do not include a single reference to stand-ins and the intimacy involved in their work.
One might think that these standards “naturally” include protections for stand-ins. But, the SAG-AFTRA TV/Theatrical Agreement, the contract under which many union stand-ins work, classifies stand-ins as “background actors,” and the first paragraph of the agreement draws the bright line about who is a “performer” and who is not a “performer.” It clearly states: “Background actors are not considered ‘performers.'”
So the message to stand-ins reading these intimacy coordinator standards was that the union has no standards to protect stand-ins doing sexual, intimate, and hyper-exposed work, because stand-ins under a major union contract are not performers.
Given that the term “stand-in” did not show up in the intimacy coordinator standards document, it was not clear that SAG-AFTRA ever considered anyone other than on-camera performers doing this kind of intimate work and whether they would be under the consideration and attention of intimacy coordinators.
If stand-ins were mentioned in these standards, along with the unique considerations of their work on set, then stand-ins would have ended up with a clear understanding of the standards around their work in intimate scenes and what they could expect to hear from intimacy coordinators when they are standing in in intimate scenes.
When Stand-In Central pointed out this confusion to SAG-AFTRA on Twitter during the publicity campaign about the intimacy coordinator standards, SAG-AFTRA’s chief communications and marketing officer (suggestive of just how much these standards were a communication and marketing initiative for the union, and less of a true protection for workers like stand-ins), replied, “[…] the [Intimacy Coordinator] Standards and Protocols apply to all performers including background and stand-ins.”
But, as I mentioned above, the TV/Theatrical Agreement explicitly states that stand-ins are background actors, and that background actors are not performers.
So when push comes to shove: Do these intimacy coordinator standards truly apply to stand-ins?
Let’s ask this differently: If a stand-in reads the intimacy coordinator standards document, does he or she believe, or disbelieve, the standards apply to stand-in work?
Stand-ins’ answers would be informative.
What Contract Language against Handling Might Look Like
It is unclear whether the SAG-AFTRA communications and marketing officer’s tweet has any power when it comes to enforcing intimacy protections for stand-ins, who may have to stand in in a sex scene close to or touching another stand-in, whom he or she may or may not know or have worked with before. Try being on set and pulling up that tweet and see how much influence it has over intimacy standards enforcement …
To wit, these intimacy coordinator standards are not part of any SAG-AFTRA collective bargaining agreement to date, so presumably they are not grievable or enforceable. They appear to be essentially some rough ideas and recommendations, and, given the amount of publicity these standards generated, a lot of feel-good publicity for SAG-AFTRA.
SAG-AFTRA could negotiate very simply to ban the handling of stand-ins. For instance, the TV/Theatrical Agreement contains this line with respect to stunt performers and the offensive practice of applying makeup to usually white stunt performers to double for a non-white actor:
The practice known as “painting down” is presumptively improper; the Producers will continue their dialogue with SAG-AFTRA and the stunt community on this issue.
While no compensation is guaranteed by a violation of this collectively bargained contract language, the identification that painting down is “improper” pushes in the direction toward ending the practice. While I do not know the history of getting this language into the contract, given that there are no fines associated with it, and that continued dialogue is part of the language, I would imagine it was relatively easy for the union to ask for this language and for its bargaining opponents (ahem, “partners”) to agree to it.
Something similar and easy could help to end the handling of stand-ins. For example, how about this language?:
The practice of moving stand-ins known as “handling” is improper. The Producers will ensure that crew members do not lay hands on, touch, or otherwise physically move stand-ins, and instead will ensure that stand-ins are directed with words and gestures.
A damage compensation could be attached to such language in the event that a stand-in is still handled, which in all likelihood would make it harder to negotiate to include it in a collective bargaining agreement. But attaching a monetary amount would help to make sure producers create safe sets for stand-ins that are free of handling or else face economic consequences.
Not Just SAG-AFTRA
SAG-AFTRA isn’t the only industry organization with an opportunity to protect stand-ins that has whiffed.
The Hollywood Commission for Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality, chaired by Anita Hill, released in November 2019 a survey of entertainment industry professionals about their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. The survey was titled The Hollywood Survey.
As is the familiar refrain now, stand-ins received no mention in the survey, despite notoriously being a prime subject of physical harassment in the workplace, through handling or other on-set work that at times might be sexual in nature. This lack of coverage for stand-ins in the survey means that the results of the survey, which will potentially be skewed because of participation biases and other problems, will leave out a category of entertainment worker who frequently enough is touched, grabbed, or otherwise handled.
The survey asked the participants to best describe their “primary category of work in the past 12 months.” “Stand-in” was a category that was not included in a wide range of job categories. The closest category for a stand-in to put was maybe “Background performer,” but since stand-ins don’t appear on camera or generally do background acting, it does not characterize the kind of work they primarily do. Plus, the problems unique to background actors are distinctly different from those that stand-ins face.
The results of The Hollywood Survey are not yet out as of this publication, so it’s hard to know for sure whether The Hollywood Commission will be able to report on the harassment of stand-ins (as different from the harassment of “Background performers”). But it would seem that it’s a real missed opportunity for stand-ins, and another example of how they might be the focus of a camera, but somehow repeatedly forgotten.
Why Stand-Ins Need Protections Specific to Their Job Class
Some stand-ins are also actors when they are not working as a stand-in. Some stand-ins are definitely not actors. (Just ask them!)
Whichever is the reality, someone working as a stand-in almost never has to bring the same amount of commitment to their work as the actor for whom he or she is standing in must bring.
But, while stand-ins might not have to fully commit to sexual scenes when standing in, they may be required based on the events of a particular scene to be close physically with another stand-in. A stand-in might need to touch another stand-in in the course of setting up a shot.
But not all intimacy in stand-in work is sexual in nature. Stand-ins regularly stand in in scenes that portray familial kisses, loving hugs, caring touches, and general physical interplay between characters. While some stand-ins might be okay with these kinds of interactions, not all stand-ins are, nor are all stand-ins comfortable with all other stand-ins doing these kinds of things.
Stand-ins may also be in more aggressive scenes of a non-intimate variety, in which the characters might assault, carry, throw, or otherwise violently interact. Some stand-ins may think they need to physically commit to these actions. Some stand-ins may have invisible injuries and would be injured if another stand-in attempted the actions.
Stand-ins hired for a day may have no history working together, but may feel the threat of having to be touched by another stand-in when working on a scene. To wit, stand-ins who have worked together may have no interest in being touched by another stand-in. Some stand-ins have good reputations and handle themselves professionally. Some stand-ins have bad reputations. For some stand-ins, you have no idea what their reputation might be.
All in all, you will have trouble unearthing any standards or protocols for how stand-ins should approach these kinds of situations — or how productions and crew members should approach these situations with stand-ins.
There are no professional or SAG-AFTRA guidelines on securing consent from another stand-in with whom you have to physically interact, whether it be holding hands or hugging, standing nearly nose to nose or touching the other’s body parts, lying in bed with another stand-in, or portraying a sex scene with one stand-in on top and one stand-in on bottom — or one stand-in behind another — or one stand-in’s groin near the face of another stand-in.
All in the presence of a crew, a camera, set dressers and props people taking continuity photos in which the stand-ins might appear in these awkward or sexual situations, and on a presumptively open set.
(Oh, and often without advance notice of these scenes and positions before accepting the stand-in job.)
And that’s kinda my point. Because there are no guidelines and no collective bargaining agreement language that explicitly state how stand-ins should interact with each other and how production and crew members should interact with and notify stand-ins, still in 2020, stand-ins are left vulnerable when they accept and perform stand-in work.
So instances like handling, a physical action with which I am done as a stand-in, will continue unless things can be done about it.
Not All Handling Feels the Same
Not but a few days after the handling incident I described at the beginning of this post, I was handled again on a different set.
The more recent experience of the handling was different, but the wrongness of it still was apparent.
The more recent handling had a different start. In the more recent case, it was the director of photography, and this DP first introduced himself to me. He didn’t handle me just then. Later, though, he did. And on another occasion. Then on another occasion, after which handling I heard him say to me, “I’m sorry.”
This expression of “I’m sorry” is a clue that the DP knew there was something wrong in laying hands on me and physically moving me, as opposed to doing something else to get me to stand in a different place. (Like pointing to me where to be, or instructing me with words.)
That said, these experiences of being handled were not nearly as affronting as the incident mentioned earlier. The main difference was that in the earlier incident, the director never introduced himself to me, and in the latter incidents, at least the DP introduced himself to me.
That early introduction made the handling incidents no more appropriate. Instead, it may them somewhat less hostile, because a level of professionalism had been established early in our working relationship, which served to blunt the pain and humiliation of being handled by just a little.
But just a little.
The Perception of Handling Is Different for the Victim than the Production Personnel
There is something more to be said about the earlier handling incident.
As I continued to stand in on that job, I was around the director more. While he never introduced himself to me, he did (oddly) air-punch me in the face. I don’t really know what that was about: Was it aggressive? Was it cute and friendly? I have no clue. But my sense of this director over the course of working with him was that he was generally liked on set, was not particularly controversial or upsetting, and was not as much of a pervasive threat to me as when he handled me earlier.
The thing is, that later determination was not a factor in the actual handling incident. I did not know this director or his intentions when he handled me. Plus, the handling was done without my permission, and it was done without even introducing himself to me. It was a wham-bam, without even a thank-you ma’am.
There lay the wrongness of the situation. Had this stranger first introduced himself to me, then asked for my permission to lay his hands on me to move me, then let me thoughtfully grant or refuse him permission to do so, I would likely not have become the victim of a handling incident.
And were it assumed upfront because of accepted standards or guidelines or collectively bargained language that it was never appropriate to touch stand-ins, and only appropriate to direct them with words and gestures, then handling would almost never happen. Or if it did, its maloccurrence would be legitimated, grievable, and/or subject to SAG-AFTRA investigation.
This is to say that there is an added danger for stand-ins when reporting incidents of handling to production, especially if you are new to a production that has been working for some time before you have.
That danger might be that the production personnel hearing your handling complaint might filter the handling injury you experienced through their own historic experience of the attacker, and explain that the attacker did not mean the handling as offensively as the stand-in experienced it.
In much the same way that I found this director less of a threat over time (in contrast to my initial experience of him when he handled me), production personnel hearing a handling complaint may bias themselves to think their director is not a threat because of having worked with him or her longer than with the stand-in. So if a new stand-in were upset when a director handled him or her, to production personnel it might seem that it’s the stand-in who “misunderstood,” rather than the director having done something wrong.
“Don’t Fucking Touch Me.”
When talking about being handled on set with another stand-in, that other stand-in, a female, made her thoughts clear to me about her expectations when standing in:
“Don’t Fucking Touch Me.”
Her summary statement seemed to make it demonstrably clear just how inappropriate and how much of an offense being touched by another crew member is when you are standing in.
I’m male, and her statement feels about right for me, too.
So, if you are handled on set, it might simply take a quick and well-placed statement of “Don’t fucking touch me” to communicate just how inappropriate it is for another crew member to touch you when you are standing in.
Of course, diplomacy is also an option, and being more polite about it is, too.
But there’s no obligation to be diplomatic or polite about being touched at work while on the job, for fear that the seriousness of the offense of being handled is not understood by the camera operator, the DP, the assistant director, the director. Or in case they trivialize the gravity of handling stand-ins.
It may help to be proactive to protect yourself from handling when you are standing in. And you probably have to figure out what that means to you.
It may mean that you remain vigilant on a job, to see which crew members are inclined to grab stand-ins and physically move them, so if they come for you, you can preemptively redirect them to instruct you with their words rather than lay hands on you.
Maybe it means talking to an AD about safety on set and that the stand-ins believe that handling stand-ins is unacceptable and unsafe. (You are physically under the control of another person when you are handled and that much less out of your own control.)
Maybe it means talking to a union rep to see what can be done about handling on your job.
Maybe it means calling the production’s or union’s safety hotline, or getting in touch with production’s human resources, or some other similar measure.
Maybe it means having explanations and insights on the ready on what it is like to be handled, how other professionals on set are not handled, how crew members don’t handle the actors (“So why the stand-ins?”), that you are a person (“Hi! What’s your name?”), and that handling is a form of harassment.
In other words, it may help you when you are standing in to be ready to educate others about handling and its effects on stand-ins.
Final Thoughts … ?
It might not be generally understood that handling stand-ins is a bad thing. SAG-AFTRA doesn’t seem to appreciate just how bad of an offense it is, because the union never seems to explicitly address the physical vulnerabilities that stand-ins uniquely face when it publishes standards or has an opportunity to write about the issue.
So, this long blog post on Stand-In Central exists to help explain that handling is bad, what it is like to be handled, and what things you can do in the event you are handled.
There is more I will be saying about handling on Stand-In Central in the future. Subscribe for email updates.
And stay tuned.
What has been your experience with handling? How have you addressed handling incidents on set? What do you recommend to other stand-ins in the event they are handled? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
*Update 2/12/2020: I refer to these letters as certified letters. They may have been Priority Mail letters.