THE WASHINGTON POST
An actor’s stand-in should be anonymous. But the job made me feel like myself.
After heartbreak, standing in helped me overcome grief.
By Lauren DePino
My first job as a stand-in was for M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening.” Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto directed me and a dozen other black-haired, pale-faced actresses to line up before a camera during the interview. I could hear Zooey Deschanel joking with Mark Wahlberg nearby. But I didn’t look; I minded my eye line, my point of focus. Tak swiftly waved the other Zooey-clones out of formation until I stood alone.
When I was trying to make it as an actress and singer in my 20s, I booked a slew of productions in Philadelphia. My job was odd: I mimicked the blocking (actions and motions) of the actresses I stood in for while the crew set up the lighting and cameras. I was a human utility, a necessary yet unheralded copy.
As Parker Posey’s stand-in, my lap was a warm throne for her sweet bichon-frise-poodle-Maltese mix, Gracie, while cameras rolled. On a Peter Jackson project, Rachel Weisz stole extra minutes with her wavy-haired toddler as I read her lines in rehearsal with Michael Imperioli and Susan Sarandon. When filming began, I receded to the oblivion of the wings.
I soon grew frustrated that I wasn’t on camera, and I decided not to stand in anymore. I had looked at the job as a steppingstone to becoming an actress — it was time to stand out, not stand in.
But then I was struck with a double loss. My grandmother died, and soon after, my partner broke up with me. “Something’s just missing,” he said. A furtive visit from his ex had confirmed she possessed that ineffable something I didn’t. Months earlier, when I felt him disengaging, I clung to him with all that I was — so much so that I fell away. I became unrecognizable to myself and those who knew me. I stopped calling my friends. I ceased working on my creative projects. I became uncharacteristically scarce to my beloved grandmother, never imagining it could be her final year. I didn’t understand it at the time, but this breakup throttled me into trauma because I had allowed myself to lose my identity in our relationship. In its aftermath, I held fast to my misery as if it were my boyfriend or my grandmother — because letting it go meant letting them go.
I needed a distraction from the intensity of my heartache. I also needed to remember who I was. So, when I got a call to stand in for Carla Gugino on the miniseries “Political Animals,” I said yes.
Every day, for 12 to 16 hours, I played a temporary proxy for a fake someone else. I sported tape across my chest that said “Susan,” the name of Gugino’s character. I did not need to cry on command as the star did, nor did I have to dredge up anger or feign joy so viewers would believe my character’s story line. I was someone acting as someone acting — which meant I could coast and show no emotion. It was the perfect departure from the frenzied desolation of heartbreak.
As the cinematographer instructed the crew to position a silk to soften a beam of light that shined in my eyes, I shelved my obsessive thoughts so I could stay present and still. I had to detect when to dart out of the way (which reminded me I was my own worst roadblock). At the same time, I had to know when to remain stationary, like a prop, while grips and electricians scurried around me. An observer might fear they’d knock me over if they grazed me with a light stand. But they were accustomed to building in a swirl of calculated chaos.
When my attention faded, the cinematographer noticed. “Look here,” he’d prompt, holding up his palm. As a stand-in, I fulfilled my purpose — even when I didn’t think I could.
“Susan” was a young Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for Washington’s daily newspaper who never let the men she dated or worked with disrupt her equilibrium or stifle her voice. During rehearsal, I’d move through her blocking, hovering over my male boss’s desk while he sat, instead of the other way around.
In the Oval Office, in the quarters of the secretary of state (played by Sigourney Weaver), on Air Force One, I served as an animated placeholder for an empowered female character. Meanwhile, my set friends interacted with me as if I were the person they knew pre-heartbreak — self-reliant, hopeful and strong.
But while Gugino occupied two people with depth and dimension — herself and her character — I was barely one. That vigilant stasis was exactly where I needed to reside to trudge ahead. When I sat motionless off-camera, suppressing coughs and sneezes so actors’ voices were the only sounds the microphones heard, my mind was quiet, concave. As a stand-in, I couldn’t dwell in the torment of any character’s psyche, including my own.
In a pivotal newsroom scene — the one I remember most — Susan stepped out of her office, and her peers surprised her with a standing ovation. She had captured the big story. “Start on the mark and come this way,” the cinematographer said, pointing. He led me through the newsroom. “This is where you stop.”
Extras filled the vacant spaces before the director called “Action!” I made my way out of my character’s office. When my feet touched the first mark, a handful of extras stood at their desks and clapped. By the second mark, more rose to their feet. By the time I reached the other side, dozens of people were standing and applauding me.
“Back to one!” I ducked into the office, relieved to escape the crowd. “And, action!” I followed the blocking again with my head down.
“Look here,” the cinematographer said. I raised my eyes; I’d memorized the lines in his palm by then. The shouts and claps of praise swelled. This time, with my head up, I looked at the set family I loved — camera crew, production assistants, costumers, medics and more. I saw people I had known for years genuinely smiling at me, both inside and outside the camera frame. Eventually, I had opened up to friends on set about what I’d been experiencing. While I retreated two degrees from sentience to stand in, I also felt my friends gently reeling me back toward myself.
Little by little, these encouraging conversations with them over the course of the job had sunk in. I was moving beyond the maelstrom of my pain. And in this scene I noticed: Some weren’t acting; they were cheering me on. In their faces, I saw who I was before I lost myself. “We were clapping for you,” a friend said.
I may not have won a Pulitzer, but for a moment I let myself feel again as I experienced love directed toward me.
In the years since, I have rewatched the series to search for that scene, but I can’t find it. It must have been cut. Still, I remember what it felt like to be seen when I was hardly there, what it felt like to reinhabit my body, like a hopeful ghost floating back to where it belonged.