Oscars 2016: Awards shows are the role of a lifetime for these rehearsal actors
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.
Scenic artist Rick Roberts touches up the Oscar statue props that are slated for placement on the red carpet and at the Dolby Theatre amid preparations for Sunday’s Academy Awards in Hollywood.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Virginia Belloni puts the finishing touches on Oscar statues that will be placed on the red carpet and at the Dolby Theatre for Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Arrivals team Frank Roach, right, hoists an Oscar statue while Kevin Crowley spots him during preparations for Sunday’s Oscars in Hollywood.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Dena D’ Angelo, right, and Virginia Belloni touch up a giant Oscar statue on the Oscars red carpet in Hollywood on Tuesday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Pedestrians walk past crews working on the Oscars red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Dolby Theatre.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Derek Medevic gets one of the many Oscar statue props in top condition ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Scenic artist Dena D’ Angelo, right, and Virginia Belloni work on a giant Oscar statue at the entrance to the Dolby Theatre amid preparations for Sunday’s Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The Dolby Theatre is the site of the 88th Academy Awards coming up Sunday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Workers install signs in preparation for the Oscars in Hollywood.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Workers set up the red carpet along Hollywood Boulevard in preparation for the Oscars in Hollywood.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Oscars red carpet is rolled out Wednesday morning in Hollywood as preparations continue for the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
“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.
When Sean Penn opened the envelope to announce the best picture at the 87th Academy Awards, he asked, “Who gave this son of a ... his green card?” before revealing “Birdman” as the winner. In a year when the Oscars were being scrutinized for the lack of diversity among the nominees in the top categories, some felt Penn’s joke about director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s nationality fell flat.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
After hosting the Emmys and the Tonys, jack-of-all-trades Neil Patrick Harris took over Oscar duties in 2015 with mixed results. In addition to butchering actors’ names and making an ill-advised joke about Edward Snowden’s absence, Harris strained the patience of even the most faithful viewers with a running gag involving a magic box holding his winners predictions.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
During a red carpet interview actress Melanie Griffith admitted she had not yet seen daughter Dakota Johnson’s performance in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” implying she was uncomfortable with some of the scenes she would see. When Griffith continued to refuse even the possibility of watching the film, a flustered Johnson responded “All right! You don’t have to see it!”(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
John Travolta was tasked with introducing Idina Menzel to perform the Oscar-nominated (and later Oscar-winning) song “Let It Go” from “Frozen” at the 86th Academy Awards. Unfortunately, he ended up introducing “Adele Dazeem” in what would become the flub of the night. Ever the professional, Menzel still nailed her performance.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Jennifer Lawrence proved she is just as human as the rest of us when she tripped on the stairs on the way to accept her best actress Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. After making it to the stage to a standing ovation, she confronted the situation head-on by saying, “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell and that’s really embarrassing, but thank you.”(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
In 1995, David Letterman was tapped to host the Oscars, but his irreverent humor failed to mesh with the grand tone of the event. Most awkward was a bizarre gag in which he jokingly introduced Oprah Winfrey to Uma Thurman from the stage (say it with us: “Oprah...Uma... Uma...Oprah”).(Christopher Little / ABC)
To open the 1989 Academy Awards, an off-key Rob Lowe sang a duet with actress Eileen Bowman as Snow White as part of an elaborately hokey musical medley that lasted more than 10 minutes and left seated stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr. and Sigourney Weaver scratching their heads in confusion. How bad was it? Disney filed a lawsuit against the academy for unauthorized use of its character.(Randy Leffingwell / Los Angeles Times)
Toward the end of the 1974 telecast, co-host David Niven was joined onstage by a male streaker (later revealed as artist-activist Robert Opel) flashing a lot more than just a peace sign. The British thespian expertly turned the disruption into a laugh, saying, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen... But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”(Associated Press)
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.”
See what goes into catering the 2016 Oscars Governors Ball with Wolfgang Puck.
“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.
Highlights from the Oscars -- Hollywood’s most prestigious night -- through the years.(Los Angeles Times)
Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki hold their Oscars as they embrace after winning for supporting actor and supporting actress for their roles in “Sayonara.”(Los Angeles Times)
A large crowd waits at the Pantages for the arrival of celebrities attending the 32nd Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Burt Lancaster and Elizabeth Taylor hold their lead actor and actress Oscars -- he for “Elmer Gantry,” she for “Butterfield 8,” at the Academy Awards in 1961.(Los Angeles Times)
Barbra Streisand holds her Oscar at the Academy Awards Governors Ball in 1969. With her is then-husband Elliott Gould.(Los Angeles Times)
Academy Award winners George Roy Hill, left, and David S. Ward with their Oscars -- and Elizabeth Taylor -- in 1974.(Los Angeles Times)
Lead actress winner Sally Field and lead actor winner Dustin Hoffman.(Los Angeles Times)
Sissy Spacek wins for lead actress in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”(Los Angeles Times)
James L. Brooks, director of “Terms of Endearment,” left, and two of the film’s stars, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, with their Oscars at the 1984 Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Robin Williams with his supporting actor Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” and Jack Nicholson with his lead actor award for “As Good as It Gets” backstage at the 70th Academy Awards.(Los Angeles Times)
Björk on the red carpet at the 73rd Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Adrien Brody surprises presenter Halle Berry with a kiss after he wins lead actor for “The Pianist” at the 75th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Presenter Julia Roberts wipes her lipstick kiss off Clint Eastwood’s face as he accepts his Oscar for director for “Million Dollar Baby,” during the 77th Academy Awards.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Actors Will Ferrell, left and Steve Carell present the Oscar for makeup during the 78th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Reese Witherspoon kisses her then-husband, Ryan Phillippe, after hearing her name announced as the lead actress winner for “Walk the Line,” during the 78th Academy Awards.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Steven Spielberg snaps a photo of Ellen DeGeneres and Clint Eastwood while Beyoncé looks on during the 79th Academy Awards.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Forest Whitaker escorts Marion Cotillard off the stage after presenting her the Oscar for lead actress at the 80th Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Legendary actor Sidney Poitier and actress Angelina Jolie chat backstage. Jolie was the recipient of the 2014 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Actors Liam Neeson and J.K. Simmons, right, chat backstage at the 87th Academy Awards after Simmons won a supporting actor prize for “Whiplash” in 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
With “Star Wars” reintroduced to a new generation by “The Force Awakens” film, it seemed only fitting to have droids R2D2 and C3PO grace the Academy Awards stage once again.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Brie Larson is ecstatic as she walks off the stage with the lead actress Oscar for her role in “Room.”(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
In a “Titanic” meetup, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet kiss backstage at the Oscars. DiCaprio won the lead actor Oscar for his role in “The Revenant.”(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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.
A few of the nominees for the top awards -- picture, director, actor and actress -- and other selected categories at this year’s Academy Awards.()
Winner: Picture | Original screenplay. Nominations: Supporting Actor - Mark Ruffalo | Supporting Actress - Rachel McAdams | Director - Tom McCarthy(Kerry Hayes)
Winner: Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio | Cinematography | Director - Alejandro González Iñárritu. Nominations: Picture(Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox)
Winner: Actress - Brie Larson. Nominations: Director - Lenny Abrahamson | Adapted screenplay(Ruth Hurl / Element Pictures)
Winner: Original score. Nomination: Supporting actress - Jennifer Jason Leigh(Weinstein Company / TNS)
Winner: Supporting actor - Mark Rylance. Nominations: Picture | Original Screenplay(Jaap Buitendijk / DreamWorks)
Winner: Animated feature. Nominations: Original screenplay.(Handout )
Winner: Visual effects. Nominations: Original screenplay.(AP)
Winner: Sound mixing | Sound editing | Film editing | Costume design | Production design | Make-up and hairstyling. Nominations: Picture | Director - George Miller(Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)
Winner: Supporting actress - Alicia Vikander. Nomination: Actor - Eddie Redmayne(Agatha A. Nitecka / Focus Features)
Winner: Adapted screenplay. Nominations: Picture | Supporting actor - Christian Bale | Director - Adam McKay(Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)
Nominations: Picture | Actor - Matt Damon(Giles Keyte / Twentieth Century Fox)
Nominations: Supporting actor - Sylvester Stallone(Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.)
Nominations: Picture | Actress - Saoirse Ronan(Kerry Brown / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corpo)
Nominations: Actor - Bryan Cranston(Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Bleecker Street)
Nominations: Original screenplay(Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures)
Nominations: Actor - Michael Fassbender | Supporting actress - Kate Winslet(Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures)
Nominations: Actress - Jennifer Lawrence(Twentieth Century Fox)
Nominations: Actress - Cate Blanchett | Supporting actress - Rooney Mara(Wilson Webb / Weinstein Co.)
Nomination: Animated film(Paramount Pictures)
Nomination: Actress - Charlotte Rampling(Agatha A. Nitecka / Sundance Selects)
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.”
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