This post is part of Stand-In Central’s deep-dive series into the coronavirus pandemic as it relates to stand-in work in TV and film. For more posts in the long-running series, visit https://standincentral.com/coronavirus.
— The Editor
The following piece may incite anxiety in the reader. While that is not the intent, that emotion may be the result of reading.
In light of the value of mental health maintenance during the COVID-19 pandemic, please read at your own risk if you are vulnerable to such topics.
That said, avoid hiring background actors or stand-ins without considering their EEOC rights, the rights guaranteed to them by their collective bargaining agreements, and the logistics of their jobs as detailed herein.
— The Editor
Hey. Let’s try to work this out.
So dramatic television series and feature films presumably will get back to work at some point.
Great! What will that look like?
At Stand-In Central, there is no delusion. We are not studios, producers, casting directors, union officials, or assistant directors.
We don’t profess to know what should be done. We don’t have the same responsibilities.
We’re stand-ins. Fundamentally (depending on the collective bargaining agreement), we’re background actors.
We’re not crew members (though some people like to say we are, which puts at us in potential danger, as we’ve recently explained).
And we’re not background actors really — because we never appear on camera in the background or the foreground.
We’re hired usually by the same casting directors who hire background actors.
Only we’re not always hired in the same way as background actors, or even given the same information background actors are given. (Again, which puts us in potential danger, as we’ve also recently explained.)
So, as stand-ins, we’re in a weird place, and let’s face it: Sometimes productions forget about us.
They forget to give us the callsheet, even though every other person on set has it.
Or they forget about us in the credits.
Or they forget about us when it comes to crew gifts.
We’re not bitter — I don’t speak for everyone — but we’ve gotten used to the notion that productions don’t always think of us because we fall through the cracks a bit.
Not that we accept being forgotten.
Why do I say stand-ins fall through the cracks a bit?
Because as dramatic television series and feature films get back to work, stand-ins being forgotten may be a frightening issue for those stand-ins. That might end up being a problem — for productions, assistant directors, and the like.
So, to help guard against not being thought of, let’s tease through what film and television work will be like when we actually presumably come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And let’s look at it from the perspective of a background actor, and ultimately look at it from the perspective of a stand-in.
Not that anyone will ever read this.
Or if they read it, not that they will do anything about it.
Or if they do anything about it, not that they’ll ever credit Stand-In Central.
C’est la vie …
Alright, let’s dig in.
First off, say that a television production in the New York Zone wants to order stand-ins and background actors.
So they call in an order to a casting director.
That casting director now has to screen candidates.
What will that be like?
Well, that depends possibly on a number of things.
If there is a vaccine that is effective, you would think that would dramatically change our society for the better, presumably bringing people together again, to hug, love, and work together.
But if a vaccine does come, it may be more than a year off.
And given the number of anti-vaxers I’ve met on sets (it truly frightens me), who is to say they’ll take it?
So, as I was saying, the casting director now has to screen candidates.
Can they ask if you have COVID-19?
Can they ask if you’ve ever had COVID-19?
Can they ask if you’ve been around someone with COVID-19?
Employers may ask all employees who physically enter the workplace if they:
(i) have COVID-19;
(ii) have been tested for COVID-19; or
(iii) are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19.
So there’s that.
So, here we have some indication that your employer may ask you questions related to COVID-19 if you physically enter the workplace.
Casting directors aren’t usually at your workplace. They are like temp agents, who call you with temp work, and tell you where to go for your assignment.
But, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), casting directors qualify as agents of the employer, and by way of being agents, they qualify as the employer. Here’s what Section 2(2) of the NLRA says:
The term “employer” includes any person acting as an agent of an employer, directly or indirectly, but shall not include the United States or any wholly owned Government corporation, or any Federal Reserve Bank, or any State or political subdivision thereof, or any person subject to the Railway Labor Act, as amended from time to time, or any labor organization (other than when acting as an employer), or anyone acting in the capacity of officer or agent of such labor organization.
So, if casting directors are employers under the NLRA, may casting directors ask you if you have COVID-19, have been tested for COVID-19, or are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19?
And may they do that even if they are not physically at your workplace, seeing you physically enter it?
In other words, is this something they can ask you over the phone before offering you a job?
There is a bigger question this brings up.
Say that a casting director calls you for work the next day, and you find out that you must take a van to set from a pickup point.
Let’s say this location to which you are going is out of the zone, meaning, you are on the clock at the time your van is supposed to depart.
When you arrive at the van, may you lawfully be asked if you have COVID-19? Have been tested for COVID-19? Are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19?
And who at that van pickup point is authorized to ask?
Who “counts” as your employer?
Can the van driver ask you?
I assume not.
I assume it’s someone like a PA gaffing the van, or a background PA.
But I’m not entirely sure.
Which brings us to another interesting question.
The EEOC webinar, as mentioned above, said that employers may check employee temperatures when they enter the workplace.
Sheppard Mullin reported it this way:
Employers may also check the temperatures of employees entering the workplace. If an employee refuses to answer or refuses to submit to a temperature check, the employer may refuse to permit him or her to enter the workplace.
Does that mean the employer can test employee temperatures when they enter the van?
Or does that mean when they arrive at the location where they are working?
Note that not all crew members taking a van to a distant location are on the clock when they are in the van.
Arguably, for those who are not on the clock yet, they are not at their workplace.
But for those who are on the clock when they are in the van — like background actors and stand-ins — are they at their workplace?
So, can an employer lawfully require background actors and stand-ins to do temperature checks when they show up at the van, but not require it of other crew who don’t get travel time to the location, because those other crew members have not yet “physically” entered the workplace?
And what about the result of having a mix of employees who were temperature-checked and employees who were not temperature-checked in the same 15-passenger van?
(Scrunched together, mind you.)
Do productions need to provide double or triple the amount of vans to give each passenger in the van appropriate space in light of social distancing guidelines?
And in light of safety concerns?
In other words, do you have to spread 15 passengers in one van to 15 passengers over two or three 15-passenger vans?
What would the Teamsters think about this?
We’re only just trying to start the freakin’ day of work with these questions.
Let’s move on.
Let’s move on to holding.
Most of the time, when background actors report to work, they report to holding spaces.
Some holding spaces are quite large. However, as many background actors will note, the holding space will also double as the lunch space, wherein the crew will be dining.
So while holding may have lots of tables and chairs, it is not uncommon for a background PA to order the background actors to consolidate themselves into a defined area of tables and chairs, wherein there often is no spare chair and background actors are seated side by side.
In spite of all the room that holding may have for catering later.
What of that?
Will productions need to provide bigger holding spaces to allow for social distancing?
Of the people who report to a distant location, who didn’t take a van but self-reported, will someone be there to check their temperature?
That would make sense, because presumably that’s the workplace.
But if the background actors who arrived in a van didn’t have to take their temperature before arriving, were packed into a van with others whose temperatures were not checked, then arrived and found they had a “suspect” temperature …
… what happens next?
Does the van have to take the background actor with the suspect temperature back in another van?
Does that driver have to tolerate taking back someone with a suspect temperature?
And if there are multiple background actors with suspect temperatures, do they go in the same van or separate vans?
And what if the background actors do have a temperature?
Do we know they have COVID-19?
Of course not.
They may be sick, but not have COVID-19.
So maybe they’re not so dangerously contagious.
Should they be working? It’s tough to say.
Medically, maybe not.
From a SAG-AFTRA collective bargaining agreement standpoint, they probably should show up to work in order to collect a paycheck (or at least try).
Because the alternative is that the background actor doesn’t get paid sick days, so it is not economically rational not to show up and try to collect credit for work that day.
They are on paper.
Paper is touched by other people.
A backgroud PA distributes vouchers to different people.
Should we still be using paper to fill out vouchers?
Then, usually, background actors have to check in with wardrobe.
This process often involves the background actors stepping up to a table, with the wardrobe people on the other side of the table.
Yeah, decently close. Maybe far enough away.
To these wardrobe people, the background actors show their clothing options.
If a wardrobe person doesn’t like some option the background actor brought, the wardrobe person may pull a piece from wardrobe and give it to the background actor.
So the wardrobe person handles an article of clothing from stock, and hands it to the background actor.
Then, the background actor puts it on.
Then, the background actor goes back to the wardrobe person to show the item.
Let’s say that the wardrobe person doesn’t like how the item looks on the background actor.
So the background actor has to take it off, then turn it in.
What then comes of the item this background actor just wore?
Does it go back into stock?
Does it go immediately into the laundry?
Or does it possibly get put on by another background actor?
Or did this background actor wear something that another background actor also tried on?
Now let’s say wardrobe finally settles on an item the background actor should wear.
An item from stock.
This means that the background actor has to give the paper voucher to the wardrobe person.
So, the voucher the background PA handled, that the background actor also handled, is now being handled by someone in wardrobe.
Now, probably much of this interaction could be done at a distance.
But then designers may want to see a lineup of the background actors.
And those designers may not be in holding.
So the designers have their assistants in holding take photos of the background actors.
And so the background actors form a long line for photographs.
So that the designer, who is not in the holding space, can be sent this photograph for approval or rejection of certain background actor looks.
These background actors stand side by side.
Often, they are encouraged to get really close to one another — so they can fit in the photo.
Mind you, this photo is required by the designer, who is not in the room.
But if the designer was in the room, would squeezing together for a photo be necessary?
So next for the background actors might be a visit to props.
At this point, background actors exchange identification or a union card or some such item with someone in the props department.
The person in the props department collects that ID and puts it in some kind of folder. This folder has slots in it usually, and IDs have been slid in and out of those slots many a time.
There is no doubt in my mind these slots have never been cleaned.
And there is no doubt in my mind that most IDs have never been cleaned.
But they have been handled. And they are handled that day.
By a background actor and by a props person.
So then comes the handing of props to the background actor.
Many of these things are hand props. So, they have been handled before.
They are handled by the props person, who then gives the props to the background actors.
What transfer of coronavirus might happen then?
Back to holding, and the background actors wait to go to set.
Say that a background actor, who did not have a temperature before, does not feel well.
By the TV/Theatrical Agreement, there should be a cot for background actors to lie on.
Is there a cot?
And if more than one background actor does not feel well, and wants to lie down, is there more than one cot?
The Agreement does not mandate more than one cot.
The Agreement only mandates “a cot.”
For New York background actors, in the TV/Theatrical Agreement, the passage about a cot is in Schedule X, Part II, Section 46, “Sanitary Provisions.” Subsection B reads:
Seats and Cots
Every Producer shall provide an adequate number of suitable seats on sets or locations for all background actors. On every set or location, a stretcher or a cot of a type suitable for use as a stretcher shall be provided.
I suppose if there’s not a cot on set, you could ask, “Is there a stretcher?”
You know, in case a background actor feels sick and needs to be taken away.
So if a background actor starts to feel sick, does that mean the other background actors have been potentially exposed to a contagion?
And does this mean those background actors should not go to set, to risk spreading the contagion?
Does this also mean the background PA should not go to set for the same reason?
And now the prop person not go to set?
And the wardrobe people?
And anyone who might have been in the van with the background actor, if the actor did not self-report?
You see, these are the kinds of things that could happen when we go back to work.
But let’s say all is well and no one is sick as far as we can tell.
And let’s say the CDC is still recommending social distancing.
And let’s backtrack a little bit and follow the stand-ins from when they arrive on location.
These stand-ins collect their vouchers. Paper.
These stand-ins also collect their sides. Paper.
They might be given tape with their name written on it. Paper. Or tape. Or papertape. (Whatever the case, handled.)
Then the stand-ins may have to go to the wardrobe truck to get color cover.
These stand-ins are handed an article of clothing that someone in wardrobe touched. Maybe something even worn, God forbid.
These stand-ins may have to exchange their voucher for that clothing. More paper-touching.
And now the stand-ins are on set.
The principal actors are rehearsing.
What will scenes be like now?
Will all scenes be between characters who are more than six feet away from each other?
Will two-shots of actors reflect a distance between the actors?
I mean, will they be wide shots?
Will singles be the new norm, where it makes actors look as if they’re closely talking to someone off camera (when in fact the off-camera actor is far away)?
What about scenes with hugs and kisses? Scenes with handshakes? Scenes where the actors need to be very close to each other?
How will those go?
So the actors rehearse the first scene of the day.
And let’s say two actors are sitting on a sofa.
And for sake of simplicity, let’s say they are talking to each other from distant ends of the sofa.
The scene is marked. The principal actors go to hair, makeup, wardrobe.
Wherein their own nightmare of proximity issues unfolds …
… with hair people and makeup people in really close to the faces of principal actors.
With wardrobe people tugging and pulling at principal actors’ clothes to make them look just right.
But this is Stand-In Central, not Principal Actor Central.
The principal actors have gone away. The stand-ins step in.
And sit right in the same spots where the principal actors were sitting for quite some time.
The stand-ins might need to be concerned.
They are sitting in the same spots where the principal actors sat for all of rehearsal.
And the principal actors might need to be concerned later.
Because they will be sitting in the same spots where the stand-ins sat for all of camera setup and lighting.
But wait. There’s more.
Because there are more camera setups in this scene. More lighting.
And more camera setups. And more lighting.
And maybe another camera setup. And more lighting.
So the stand-ins and the principal actors by now have been sitting in each other’s “ness.”
Are any of these people’s “nesses” contagious?
Who really knows.
But what is probably obvious is that in most of these situations, the principal actors will be less expendable than the stand-ins.
Meaning, the thinking may be that it’s more important to keep the principal actors healthy, and work without stand-ins.
I mean, if the production hires stand-ins but doesn’t use them, that’s one thing. The stand-ins are still getting paid.
But if the production doesn’t hire stand-ins because it doesn’t want to risk the health of principal actors …
… well, that’s a damn whole other thing.
But with respect to stand-ins, the principal actors aren’t the only concern.
There is the crew.
The crew that moves in and out of set.
That tapes marks down at their feet.
That puts a handheld light meter inches from their faces.
(Click that link to understand why stand-ins hate that.)
(In light of COVID-19, guess why they’ll hate being handled even more.)
A camera may be close to a stand-in.
Which means the camera operator may be close to the stand-in.
Or camera operators.
And other crew.
And when the stand-ins step off, out of this crowded set of crew focused on them …
… is there a six-foot berth through which to pass?
And where can the stand-ins go?
Is there a village for stand-ins to sit?
Can stand-ins watch the monitors?
You know, the small monitors on the sound cart, perhaps?
Where you have to get in somewhat close to see what happens on the screen, to see what your actors are doing?
Would crew members shoo you away for being too close?
If so, should stand-ins have their own monitor to watch?
How close do they need to be to see this monitor, but how far apart do they need to be for distancing sake?
And then nature calls.
It’s time to scoot away to the bathroom.
There’s a door handle.
Inside, there are more door handles.
And there are knobs on the sink sometimes.
And handles to dispense towels sometimes.
And another door handle for exiting.
And maybe it’s one of those days where there are a lot of background actors and/or crew, and not enough bathrooms to really handle the load of people using them.
So the discarded paper towels mount up, and the sink gets wet, and the inside gets dirty.
What’s a stand-in to do?
When “Cut!” is called on the last take and you must rush back to set?
To stand in again?
In a new scene?
With the actors now close on the sofa?
And your head within a foot of the other stand-in’s head?
Where you’re not noticeably, but you are practically, breathing on the other stand-in?
Are your hands adequately clean after handling that last door knob in the bathroom?
And after handling all the other things you had to handle in getting to set?
And this setup seems to take forever.
As you get breathed on, or theoretically breathed on.
And the other stand-in the same, from you.
And at one point, a camera operator asks to see the kiss the principal actors did in the scene.
You’re not asked to kiss.
Just put your heads in about the same area as the kiss.
At this point, do you remember?
That people died from COVID-19?
That you showed up to work, without advance knowledge that you would have to …
… approximate a kiss …
… with another stand-in …
… whose health you don’t know …
… who may have shown up to work because the TV/Theatrical Agreement doesn’t provide sick days …
… and deal with the potential fallout of such an interaction?
You would think this is being dramatic.
You would think.
But what of it?
When we come back to dramatic television productions and feature films to work …
… how much will be thought of the stand-ins?
Will the camera operators and focus pullers and set decorators all be decked out in face masks …
… and can the stand-ins have that, too?
And what about the background actors working closely together?
Can they work on camera with face masks?
Is it automatically a risk, a hazard, a danger, to work on camera without a mask?
Does working in dramatic television and feature films as a background actor or stand-in mean that if at any time you have to remove your safety equipment and become vulnerable, you qualify for hazard pay?
How is hazard pay negotiated?
Is this something SAG-AFTRA can hammer out before work resumes?
Or is this something SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP won’t hammer out before work resumes?
And thus leave it to the individual background actors and individual stand-ins to try to plead for?
Plead for a hazard adjustment for working without a safety mask while on camera or standing in?
Oh, did you hear that’s lunch?
Yes, that’s lunch.
So now the crew amasses in the holding space.
Where most of the background actors had been holding closely for some hours.
And maybe someone was on the cot, not sure what he or she was feeling.
This holding space probably has only enough remaining chairs for as many crew working that day.
Which means, more crew, in tight quarters.
Maybe it means the background actors and the crew will eat in different spaces.
With a lot of space for each group.
And encouraged not to sit on top of each other.
And we’re back in.
More stand-in work. More background work.
More interaction. More touching things.
(How many times has production stopped everything and cleaned everything by this point?)
And that’s a wrap.
The scramble ensues.
Everyone wants to get out as soon as possible.
So the distancing between people goes a bit out the window.
People “quickly” go through others’ six-foot personal spaces, in order to “quickly” get somewhere else.
(As if the coronavirus gives a pass as long as someone moves “quickly.”)
The poor props person, who has to handle the much handled props, and return the much handled IDs that were bathing in uncleaned card slots.
The poor wardrobe people, who have to receive the worn garments from background actors and stand-ins, thus subjecting themselves to whatever sweat and sneezed-on sleeves and coughed-on shoulders the background actors give back in exchange for their vouchers.
And when those vouchers are returned, they are touched again by the wardrobe person, then the background actor, and then amassed by the background PA.
The poor background PA. Now handling and marking germed-up paper vouchers, and keeping a stack of them nearby.
Amid a line of background actors and stand-ins crowding (maybe) to get signed out and gone.
Hopefully people will maintain adequate space apart at this time, too.
At this point, let’s hope people are feeling well.
Maybe someone developed a temperature?
Can the employer check the temperature now?
And if the employee has a “suspect” temperature now, now what?
And can hazard pay kick in after you’ve been signed up, if the hazard is being brought back to New York City in a 15-passenger van with a person who might have COVID-19?
I’m exhausted even thinking about this.
If I were king for a day, what would I do?
I might say this:
From now on, write me scripts with as few actors as possible.
Don’t include any background actors in the scenes.
We will shoot with minimal crews.
So no stand-ins, either.
Maybe SAG-AFTRA won’t notice, or won’t care.
Or better yet: Maybe SAG-AFTRA will give us a waiver so we don’t have to use stand-ins “for COVID-19 reasons.”
(Which would not be very pro-worker, or pro-stand-in.)
In fact, let’s try to pull a lot of shit, and say it’s “for COVID-19 reasons,” and see what we can get away with.
(It will surely sound reasonable.)
(Even better if SAG-AFTRA finds it reasonable.)
We’ll do it this way for as long as our storylines can support minimal crews and minimal cast.
We’ll test things out.
Over time, we’ll get more confident.
Maybe with more confidence, we’ll add some background actors and see how that goes.
If it goes well, we’ll push a little more to see if we can do more actors, bigger scenes, etc.
Damnit, it better go well, because if we end up with a COVID-19 outbreak on our production, what are we going to do?
Wait. That’s right. We plan.
We plan in case there is a COVID-19 outbreak, to transition to a different crew, different scenes, different actors.
We don’t owe the background actors or stand-ins any cancellations unless, Oops!, we told casting to book them.
(Maybe we tell casting never to book them, because there are tons of actors starving to work right now.)
This won’t be so bad.
You know, when we get back to work.
Back to work after COVID-19 becomes less of a threat.
We’ll deeeeeeeal with it.
We can jerk people around to keep the boat afloat.
Because that’s most important ultimately.
I mean, this past spring, we cared about the workers.
And we do.
But this next time, we cared enough about the workers. It’s now time to care about the employers.
No more being a baby.
What did you say, stand-ins? Your actors kissed in the scene?
And you weren’t told?
Casting didn’t tell you?
Don’t you get the callsheets?
”Too late now.”
Sit close on the sofa.
Lean in your heads like in the kiss.
And stay there.
Thoughts on this post? Comment below.