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Stars and Stand-Ins: Hollywood’s Unsung Heroes Step Into the Spotlight

Stars Sterling K. Brown, Ed Harris, Jeff Bridges and more introduce their stand-ins.

“Coatimundi!” shout Jeff Bridges and Loyd Catlett when asked about their favorite workplace story. A coatimundi is a type of tropical raccoon native to South and Central America, and, for one afternoon after leaving the set of 1984’s Against All Odds in Mexico, it was a hazard for the Oscar-winning actor and his longtime stand-in.

Along with the rest of the cast and crew, the duo found themselves in standstill traffic. “Loyd opens the door and goes to the head of the line, and there’s a rabid coatimundi stopping all these cars,” recalls Bridges, 69. Adds Catlett, 65: “It takes off after me. I flip the goddamn thing. It does a somersault and lands. It comes running right at me.”

After some action movie-esque choreography, Catlett evaded the coatimundi thanks to the production designer and a passing public bus (and little to no help from Bridges, who laughs about this).

The story is one of many that Bridges and Catlett have amassed from working together for five decades on nearly 70 films, ranging from Westerns to Marvel movies to awards contenders. They first met in Texas during the ’70s, when Peter Bogdanovich tapped a then-rodeo cowboy Catlett for a role in The Last Picture Show, where one of the born-in-Lubbock teen’s jobs was to teach “the California kids how to be Texans,” says Bridges.

After the movie wrapped, Catlett made his way to Los Angeles, where, strapped for cash, he would call on his actor friend to see whether he knew of any parts for him. One day, Catlett remembers, “[Bridges] said that he was leaving for Germany next week and he could get me a job standing in for him.” He packed his bags for what would turn out to be a lifelong career.

Starting with 8 Million Ways to Die in 1986, Bridges had it worked into his contract on every production that Catlett would be his stand-in. It’s impossible to ignore the resemblance between the two, from their flowing gray hair and laid-back demeanor to charming twangs and a penchant for casual button-down shirts.

Bridges describes their relationship as a marriage: “We’ve been doing it so long that it would feel odd not to have my partner with me, you know.” Heading into productions, the two rehearse and run lines together. Bridges is quick to praise his longtime collaborator’s acting prowess. Notes Catlett: “This town has a tendency to put people in a box. If you’re a stand-in, that’s all they see you as. ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a stand-in; we’ll just throw him a line.’ They don’t take you seriously no matter how hard you try. But we’re not done with them yet.” (Stand-ins are SAG-AFTRA members and have a starting rate of $199 per day.)

Off set, the two spend time together, playing guitar and seeing bands at local bars. “We grew up together,” says Catlett, whose son, Jeffrey Cole, is named after Bridges. (“His mother had another name picked out, and then I went, ‘You know what? Jeff’s got three girls, maybe we oughta switch that around'” — in other words, “Let’s give him this.”)

While accepting the Oscar for Crazy Heart, Bridges thanked Catlett in his speech. “That one made me cry. I hear it and I go, ‘I can’t believe he just did that,'” says Catlett, who got another shout-out during Bridges’ Cecil B. DeMille Award acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes. “The second time it’s like, ‘Yeah, you better fucking do that.'”

Adds Bridges, “I imagine I’ve probably spent, over the years, more time with this guy than I have with my own family.” Catlett deadpans, “Gosh, you’re lucky.” And then they both laugh, in unison. — MIA GALUPPO


Ed Harris and Scott Pierce

Scott Pierce started working with Ed Harris in 1995, when he went to the Sunset Gower Studios to audition to play the actor’s stand-in for psychological thriller An Eye for an Eye. He spotted Harris and his co-star Sally Field doing their own camera tests across the soundstage.

“He kind of looked back at me and the other guys,” recalls Pierce, 60. “I could have been wrong, but it seemed that he nodded to me, and I’m like, ‘That’s kind of cool. Maybe that’s a good sign.'” Sure enough, Pierce got the stand-in job and has worked with Harris on a number of projects since, including Nixon, The Rock and, most recently, two seasons of HBO’s Westworld, on which the star plays the Man in Black.

Pierce’s No. 1 rule: “You can’t distract them with little chitchat. If they are going to perform at this level, you’ve got to give them their space.” Pierce originally moved from San Jose to Los Angeles as a production assistant and was working as an extra when he was pulled from the crowd to be a stand-in. Since then, he has stood in for more than 100 actors, but Harris has been one of his most consistent partnerships.

Both men are soft-spoken and thoughtful, their personalities seeming to match in a way that has created a bond. “It’s not an easy job because you are standing in and you are also just standing around a lot,” says Harris of Pierce. “But he’s always got a good attitude. He’s never bitching about anything.” Neither men are big on small talk while working. “I’m pretty isolated on the sets. I don’t talk that much,” says Harris, 68. “Scott’s incredibly attentive. He’s great because he’s always right there.”

Pierce, an actor himself and a bartender on the side, says paying attention is critical. “You have to keep your distance but at the same time watch, especially rehearsals and when they are filming, because they do make changes and you do want to be able to step in. You have to be able to note those changes.”

Pierce’s stand-in travels have taken him from prisons in California to the Wild West and even, in a way, to space. Although he wasn’t Harris’ stand-in on Apollo 13, it turns out Pierce wasn’t far away — working as an extra on that film. And yes, extras do research: “I learned this years ago, that if you are going to play a fireman, you are going to learn about being a fireman. If you are going to play a cowboy, you are going to learn about that,” he says. “It’s educational and helps makes it interesting.”

Though raised on a ranch and comfortable on horses, Pierce hasn’t done any of the riding work on Westworld (due to insurance issues on set, these scenes are mostly left to Harris and his stunt doubles). But Pierce has had plenty of time in the signature black ensemble worn by Harris’ character — although there have been some issues with the hat.

“They gave me this Marlboro Man hat that goes up, and his hat is flat,” says Pierce. “The DP was really unhappy with the hat because for close-ups with a campfire, the lighting didn’t hit my face the same.”

Harris is surprised to hear this bit of news. “They never gave you the same kind of hat?” the star exclaims. “Well, if we get back into it, we’ll make sure you get one — I don’t know if I’ll ever be wearing that hat again. I don’t know what’s going on with this third season!” — REBECCA FORD

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Sterling K. Brown and Miriam Crawford Grant

When Sterling K. Brown landed his first series-regular role on Lifetime’s Army Wives, he was surprised to learn that his stand-in wasn’t a guy but a woman named Miriam Crawford Grant. “I was like, I didn’t know we did women stand-ins for men!” says Brown, 42. “But I thought, ‘Cool. She’s tall, she’s black. Let’s do it.'”

Turns out, being the same gender isn’t all that essential to the job. Sure, Grant sometimes has to wear high heels or step on an apple box — but no matter, because to the 35-year-old actress, the job was so much more than helping make sure the lighting was just right for Brown. “I thought I was getting paid to go to acting school,” says Grant.

While mopping hotel floors to make ends meet after deciding not to continue working toward medical school, Grant saw an ad for Army Wives extras. “Could you imagine living in Charleston, South Carolina, growing up with goats and dirt roads and all of a sudden Hollywood’s coming to town?” she says, adding that days later she found herself in a line of 300-plus people when local casting director Richard Futch recognized her from acting classes she’d been taking on the side. He promised to put in a word for her.

Brown saw something special in Grant immediately. “She wasn’t just collecting a paycheck; she was eager to absorb as much as possible,” he says. The two developed a friendship, and when Brown’s actress wife, Ryan Michelle Bathe, nabbed a recurring role, Grant stepped in as babysitter for their first child. “I remember being like, ‘Who do we trust to take care of this baby?'” says Brown. “My wife was instantly at ease” and became a mentor to Grant. “As another black woman who’s an actress, she schooled me,” says Grant, noting: “When I’m working with Sterling, I’m a part of his career, and he’s a part of mine.”

Grant eventually did get a chance to make an appearance on the show. She snuck over to audition for a guest spot and landed it. There was only one hiccup: She didn’t have a stand-in. When Brown found out, he came into work on his day off, and the two reversed roles. “Sterling showed up for me,” she says. “Our DP said that in all his years in the business, that has never happened, ever, that an actor stood in for their stand-in. I mean, folks were teary-eyed.” — BRYN ELISE SANDBERG


Téa Leoni and Sara DeRosa

When veteran stand-in Sara DeRosa walked onto the set of CBS’ Madam Secretary for the first time in 2014, series star and executive producer Téa Leoni immediately shook her hand. “She was warm,” recalls DeRosa, 33. “The memory is vivid because that never happens. I was delightfully shocked.”

There was an “instant connection and mutual respect,” Leoni, 52, tells THR. The actress admits that now, five seasons and countless scenes later, she is “dependent on Sara more than anybody else” on the New York set of the political drama. Adds Madam Secretary executive producer Lori McCreary, “Sara’s attention to the nuances of the changes in scenes, as she passes along this information to Téa, is an example of a true partnership.”

Not only can DeRosa anticipate Leoni’s every movement (“She knows exactly what I’m going to do in front of the camera,” says Leoni), but she helps the star learn her lines during their twice-daily commute between Manhattan and Long Island City’s Silvercup Studios. “Those car rides are my favorite,” Leoni says, beaming. Even after a grueling 15-hour day on set, she sometimes doles out dating advice. “I try to insert myself into Sara’s personal life. I’m like, ‘Listen, that guy is just an asshole!'” the actress says with a laugh. “At this point, I don’t know whether we’re like sisters or an old married couple. But we just get each other.”

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Leoni says that filming a recent episode depicting the U.S.-Mexico border crisis left her and DeRosa emotionally drained. “We stood on a mark looking at a group of children in a cage. We were both very quiet that ride home,” says Leoni. “To see kids appear like that — even though it’s a TV set — is still very difficult.” Adds DeRosa, “It’s tough, but it’s nice to have each other in those heavier moments.” DeRosa — who has stood in for Blake Lively, Emma Stone and Jennifer Aniston, among others — says, simply: “She is the best person I’ve ever worked with.”

They hope to continue working together once Madam Secretary eventually takes its final bow. As they put the finishing touches on a “secret project” they can’t yet discuss, the pair envision a powerful partnership for years to come. “If I open a business, Sara will be my damn near first phone call,” Leoni says. “It might be establishing assisted-living homes in shipping containers. Sara has sat through some of my more outrageous suggestions.”

But, as DeRosa says, “That’s all part of the fun!” — EVAN REAL


Natasha Lyonne and Tawny Sorensen

Even though she’s been mirroring Natasha Lyonne move-for-move over the past seven years, stand-in Tawny Sorensen admits that she couldn’t be more different from the boisterous actress. “I am very, very quiet,” says Sorensen, 38, who first met Lyonne, 39, in 2012 on the set of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. “Natasha’s very intense, and her mind is always working. She’s a one-woman show. We couldn’t be more polar opposite, but I think I counter her energy in the best of ways.”

Though Sorensen, a self-proclaimed “perfectionist,” silently observed her boss for the first few years of filming OITNB, their working relationship hit a breakthrough when Lyonne realized that “Tawny just doesn’t fuck around — she’s always on the ball,” says Lyonne. “A production is such a tight ship. It’s all about timing, and you want a stand-in who’s going to help you get your shot correctly. If that person is text messaging, or disappearing to the bathroom, or trying to get side jobs and being like, ‘Hey, come check out my ceramics show this weekend,’ that can be distracting. We’re so syncopated that she can predict exactly how I’m going to move in a scene.”

Adds the star, “I even defer to Tawny sometimes for advice. I’m a ragamuffin latchkey kid. She’s a trained, real-deal actor. I trust her completely.”

Which is why Lyonne — who has played inmate Nicky Nichols on OITNB for five years — knew there was no other choice but to hire Sorensen to help breathe life into her latest character, Nadia Vulvokov, from Netflix’s Russian Doll. As Lyonne explains, filming season one of the dramedy — which she co-created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland as well as having written and directed for it — strengthened her already tight bond with Sorensen. “We had this new shorthand that was so specific to having just spent four months in the real trenches,” says Lyonne, referring to the seventh and final season of Orange Is the New Black.

On Doll — which centers on Nadia, a software engineer who finds herself reliving her 36th birthday party in an ongoing time loop wherein she repeatedly dies — the pair worked together in a different capacity, as Lyonne helped Sorensen score screen time.

“When Natasha first interviewed me for this job, she asked me, ‘Who are you and what do you want to do?'” recounts Sorensen, who plays the bartender in episodes four and six of the series. “I told her I act and also write. It wasn’t long before casting reached out for my reel and then told me I got the part. I can’t thank Natasha enough.”

And Lyonne couldn’t sing Sorensen’s praises any louder. “She knows how personal these roles are to me,” she says of her OITNB character, Nicky, a reformed addict with whom she has closely identified, and of her new Russian Doll persona, Nadia. “She puts her heart and soul into this gig. I know she’s got my back and I’ve always got hers.” — E.R.

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This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.