"So Weird": Kevin Bacon, Awkwafina and More Stars Describe Working on Set Amid COVID-19 Protocols

Awkwafina, Kevin Bacon, Gabrielle Union and Ted Danson describe on-set life while practicing COVID-19 protocols, from fewer touch-ups to alcohol spritzing after scenes.
Mask, Sanitizer, Camera: Adobe. Awkwafina: Michael Kovac/Getty Images. Bacon: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images. Union: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images. Danson: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images.

From left: Awkwafina, Kevin Bacon, Gabrielle Union and Ted Danson describe on-set life while practicing COVID-19 protocols, from fewer touch-ups to alcohol spritzing after scenes.

Hollywood is back to work, and if further proof was needed to show just how different set life is these days with COVID-19 protocols, a paparazzo captured Chris Evans sticking a long nasal swab up his nose Dec. 10 upon arriving on the set of Adam McKay’s Netflix film Don’t Look Up. While it may seem atypical to see a major Marvel movie star self-administering a rapid test, it was just another sign that filming these days is exactly that — not normal.

Appearing during a recent Zoom Q&A alongside castmembers of the upcoming NBC comedy Mr. Mayor, Ted Danson – starring as a billionaire-type businessman who winds up mayor of Los Angeles — offered a play-by-play to moderator Seth Meyers. He said he arrives to set in a large “people-mover van” to accommodate social distancing. After getting dropped off, a COVID-19 test is administered. He then waits in a trailer for a negative result, which gives a thumbs-up to head to the makeup trailer. Then it’s time to roll cameras.

“The only time you take off your protective gear is when you’re filming your scene,” Danson said during the NBC-hosted event for SAG's nominating committee. (Due to COVID-19-affected timelines, the sitcom is now eligible for SAG Awards consideration.) Then when the director yells cut, a crewmember dashes over to squirt an alcohol-based spritzer around the actors, and it’s on to the next take.

“We are so blessed to get to be able to work,” Danson explained. “Those moments between action and cut are when it’s fun. It’s a very different time.”

Different is one word for it. During an appearance opposite Stephen Colbert on his Late Show, Meryl Streep said “the whole thing’s so eerie and odd and disconcerting.” Some of that is likely due to all the new protocols, which include rapid testing, socially distant crews, use of PPE, regular sanitation and COVID-19 compliance officers on set, among other measures.

Per a recent report, filming in L.A. declined in November for the first time since the production engine revved back up. Permit volume dropped from 880 permits in October to 813. Analysts cited the Thanksgiving holiday, the election and spiking COVID-19 numbers for the dip. Still, many notable TV productions are filming as of November including Hulu’s Love Victor, ABC’s Triage, FX’s Dave and American Crime Story: Impeachment, and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Kevin Bacon is back at work, filming Showtime’s City on a Hill. “Was there a little bit of fear among people stepping back out of our houses? Yeah, there was,” he tells THR. “We’re handling it as well as we could. It requires a lot of testing and a lot of responsibility among people to stay very, very tightly in their PPE, and we're broken down into zones. We check in every day, have temperature checks, and I get tested three or four times a week.”

Awkwafina, who has filmed a series of high-profile projects in 2020 including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, also leaned on the concept of responsibility and said protocols have boosted the “we’re all in this together” concept.

“If you've been on a film set, you know it becomes family, in a sense. Everyone has to do their part and look out for each other. That’s definitely the vibe on set right now,” explained the actress in a phone interview during a quarantine period in Vancouver, where she’s due to start filming the Apple TV+ drama Swan Song. “The restrictions put in place are designed to make you feel safe. The most important thing a film set should offer its crew is safety. The cool thing about it, I think, also, is that it's not so much everyone policing each other. It's a lot of self-policing, which is like, ‘I want to make sure that I'm not doing anything to put my crewmembers, my castmates, in danger.’”

Speaking of the crew, Bacon said that a few surprising things have surfaced for him while navigating a set on which crewmembers’ faces are covered in masks, shields and other forms of PPE. “You get to work and you go, ‘Oh man, this is so weird. There are new people on this crew, I don't even know what they look like. I've never seen their faces.’”

For him, he gets to remove his when it’s time for the director to call action, and that experience, too, has revealed something surprising about the process.

“Here I am, I'm rehearsing, I'm supposed to be in some kind of an argument or a love scene or whatever it is, and I'm wearing a shield and a mask. Then you get to that moment where you take the mask off, and it's almost metaphorical, really, for what good acting is,” explains Bacon, who is also back at work by co-hosting the Play On music fundraiser for CBS. “Once that happens and someone says, ‘Action,’ first off, it feels great to be working. Second, it feels like, ‘OK, here I am and I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing.’ A dolly grip is meant to be doing what he's doing. The boom operator's meant to be doing what he's doing, and it feels strangely normal. It's the buildup to the actual moment where you're shooting that is very, very bizarre, but the actual process is something we're all blessed to be able to do.”

Like Streep, actor Devon Sawa called the entire experience “eerie.” He’s in Providence, Rhode Island, where he’s filming horror-thriller Black Friday for director Casey Tebo. “I'm not adjusting too well. The reason — and it might be selfish: I miss seeing people's faces. When a director yells cut, you can gauge how you did by looking at your crew, especially the people that you trust to see their reactions. You can see whether they're laughing, whether they look bored. I miss that as far as the performance,” says the veteran actor.

He acknowledges how fortunate he is to be working even if he misses seeing the expressions of his colleagues, as well. “You get to see the drive on their faces all day long. You can see the excitement of setting up a shot or a grip in the electrical department that has set up some interesting lighting effect," he explains. "I didn't really appreciate that until I did this movie, because you don't see it anymore. You see blankness all day."

Gabrielle Union filmed her first gig this fall, a collaboration with longtime friend Snoop Dogg for delivery service Shipt. Like many actors, she hadn’t worked since April after wrapping up the Spectrum series LA’s Finest. Producers for the holiday campaign kept things moving, which she said was a huge benefit of the new reality. “They got us in and out — a lot less wasted time,” she said. “There was no physical closeness. I wish I knew the name of the lens they used, but I can tell you that they used a lens to appear closer than it was. Everyone on set wore a mask on mask on mask. Some wore two with a visor. Other than that, there wasn’t a lot of [makeup] touch-ups, so if I look shiny that’s just what I’m going to look like because they wanted to limit the number of people coming on set and being in contact with you. If this is the future, as an aging actress, I’m OK with not having close-ups of my nose.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.