Growing up in South Central, Joanne Tomita often dreamed of being a star. As a young girl, she was once cast on "Kids Say the Darndest Things," and a limousine came to whisk her away from the home she shared with six siblings to the glitzy CBS studio lot.
The experience made her feel special, and she started imagining what it would be like to be famous.
Four decades later, her fantasy has become reality — well, in a way.
OSCARS 2016: Full coverage
This week, Tomita will stand onstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and accept an Academy Award. Except the actress has never appeared in an Oscar-nominated film. For more than 20 years, she's worked as a professional rehearsal actor, standing in for awards show presenters and nominees as the program's producers plot out the telecast.
"There's no other situation where you could be this close to A-list actors. I feel so lucky to have this job," said Tomita, who on Wednesday portrayed Kate Winslet, Jennifer Lawrence, a sound mixer on "The Martian" and a "Star Wars" android.
Tomita is part of a community of a few dozen working actors who make their living as stand-ins, partaking in rehearsals for everything from the Emmys to the Grammy's to "American Idol." On Tuesday, she and four of her colleagues gathered at Hollywood & Highland — where Oscar preparations are well underway for Sunday's big event — to share war stories and behind-the-scenes tidbits from their years in the business.
Veteran stage managers and awards show producers like Debbie Williams, Gary Natoli and Louis J. Horvitz know which stand-ins they like, and they'll give a list of names to a show's script department for hiring purposes. Typically, awards show gigs last three days, except for the Oscars, which rehearse for five days. (And come Oscar night, the stand-ins watch just like the rest of us plebes: At home, on the couch, with a big bowl o' popcorn).
The five rehearsal actors — Larry Blum, Renee Gentry, Nicholas Shaffer, Mindy Brandt and Tomita — have worked on at least 10 Academy Awards. It's not an especially high-paying job: Rehearsal actors make $25 per hour and are guaranteed five hours of work per day.
It can also be quite stressful. It's only when they show up for Oscar rehearsals that they learn whom they are standing in for. And because the film academy is so worried about spoilers leaking out from the rehearsals, no one is allowed to use a phone inside the Dolby.
Which means that during breaks, the majority of the 31 stand-ins will rush outside to start googling information about the people they're playing.
Let's take Tomita, for example. She might know enough about Winslet or Lawrence to give a believable fake acceptance speech, but that sound mixer from "The Martian"? He'll likely require a bit of rushed research.
"If we have an assignment to win an award, it's always better if we can thank the actual production company, or what have you, because it's more believable," says Brandt, the only one of the five who also does nonacting work, running a property tax consulting business. "They love when we refer to the others who were nominated in the category, so the cameramen can cut to them."
"The director will call out from the booth, 'Great job, stand-in!'" added Blum, who is working on his 26th Oscars telecast this month.
"I'll often write down notes, but I don't read them," said Tomita, who added that she is sometimes asked to drag out her speeches so the producers can practice playing off verbose winners with music.
"You can take inspiration from the introduction too. If they say 'This is your 10th nomination and first win,' you're like, 'I'm gonna talk about that. Do you know how many dresses I had to buy? All for nothing?' You pull that information in."
While there's room for play, the stand-ins know never to take it too far. Once, they saw a colleague pretend to be overcome with emotion and fall down on the floor while accepting a faux prize; she was promptly fired. And accents? Those are a no-no. Keep your Alejandro G. Iñárritu impressions to yourself, thank you very much.
Still, the actors say, the perks are plentiful. All of those nerve-racking auditions and callbacks? Not a necessity once you're a trusted stand-in. And in
an industry where everyone's fighting for their next gig, a steady paycheck carries with it serious peace of mind.
"At first, this was almost like supplementary money," admitted Shaffer, an Indiana native. "But when I got into it, it was so enjoyable, and it was steady work — so I started to let the other work go. I see the young'uns coming in and I tell them, 'Don't get trapped doing this if you really have another dream just because it's constant work.' To be honest, I've given up my dream — but I still feel so blessed to do this."
Despite their proximity to Hollywood's biggest names, all five actors still get giddy recounting their brushes with celebrity. While none would dare walk up to a star — or, shudder, ask for a selfie — they all love engaging in conversations with presenters and nominees if they're approached.
Once, Blum got to play with Suri Cruise backstage as her famous father cradled her in his arms. Dustin Hoffman insisted on tying Gentry's shoelace. And Brandt got a "great hug" from Brad Pitt.
"During the 75th anniversary of the Oscars, they brought out 59 past winners," recalled Shaffer. "I was playing Cliff Robertson, and in front of me were Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland, who had done 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' together but hadn't seen
one another in years. And when their eyes met, he started reciting the lines from the movie. They hugged and there were tears in their eyes, and for me as a movie buff, getting to see these legends? It was overwhelming."
These kinds of stories, not surprisingly, mean the rehearsal actors are often popular guests at Oscar viewing parties. They often possess juicy, behind-the-scenes gossip. Like when John Travolta infamously mispronounced Idina Menzel's name as "Adele Dazeem" on the Oscars in 2014? Blum, who'd served as his stand-in during early rehearsals, wasn't altogether surprised.
Blum recalled that when he went onstage to read from the teleprompter, he was distracted by a light shining on the screen. Blum said he told the stage managers about the problem, but still wonders if the bright light caused Travolta's gaffe during the telecast.
So, yes, while being a stand-in means you get to avoid the public humiliation that Travolta experienced, you also don't get to bask in the actual glory of being on television. Privately, all five stand-ins said, they wonder what it would be like to really win an award — to do more than just pretend.
"But, you know, when you're up there pretending to win and you hold a real Emmy or SAG Award — it's got some energy in that thing," said Brandt. "It kind of heightens your feeling. It puts you into the place."
"I would like to win one of each — I want an Oscar, I want a SAG Award, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a People's Choice Award," Gentry said with a laugh.
"But we know how wonderful it is," said Brandt. "Just holding that thing is amazing."