“How would you like to be Brad Pitt’s stand-in on a movie called The Devil’s Own?” the casting director asked me.
I don’t see the resemblance but who am I to argue? As an aerospace engineer, this couldn’t be further from what I imagined my life would be like. The only stars I expected to deal with were ones with names like Alpha Centauri.
My first morning on the set I was fumbling with the coffeemaker when I heard the unmistakable voice of Indiana Jones ask, “Coffee ready?” I turned and tried to think of something witty and nonchalant to say, but what emerged sounded more like “duh uh um.” I had definitely blown my first meeting with Harrison Ford.
Next I was apprised of a stand-in’s duties. A stand-in does not appear in the film. All your work is done before the scene is shot. You go through hair, makeup and wardrobe and are made to look as much like the star as possible. You do the action and say the dialogue while the director and the cinematographer make final adjustments for lenses, lighting, sound and extras placement. You may rehearse the scene for hours while the star relaxes in his trailer drinking fruit smoothies. When the set is perfect, they send for the star.
What makes being a stand-in exciting is that you are in the spotlight. Crane-mounted Panaflex cameras zoom in on you, fastidious wardrobe supervisors pick lint off your shoulders and doting makeup artists blot away the sheen produced by 50,000 watts of blazing tungsten lights. You stare into that lens and get a small dose of what it’s like to be the star. You fantasize that the director will have an epiphany: “No sense disturbing Brad. Now that we’ve got it all lit and in focus, whaddaya say we lens a few reels with this chap?”
Another term for stand-ins, the “second team,” fuels this Stand-in Syndrome. It has a nice junior varsity ring, as if you might fill in for the “first team” should the need arise. “Excuse me, Mr. Scorsese, someone on the first team isn’t feeling well today. Shall I send for the second team?” In the theater, an understudy may be called to perform in place of a featured performer and get his big break. Alas, in movies there is no such luck. In the cast and crew food chain, a stand-in is ranked slightly above an extra but well below the honeywagon teamster (portable bathroom truck driver).
My first scene on The Devil’s Own was a 4 a.m. outdoor shoot in the quiet suburban neighborhood of Montclair, New Jersey. A horde of female admirers strained against police barricades on that insanely cold February morning, hoping for a glimpse of Brad. With Brad’s hairstyle, identical brown leather jacket and dark pants, I left the holding area for the set. I nearly drowned in the palpable hormonal gush from his mistaken fans. “Oh oh oh! There he is! It’s him!” I’d only seen such female frenzy in old Beatles footage. I tucked my head and shielded my face, as if from the cold, prolonging the masquerade. I sauntered; I swaggered; I savored the moment. “So this is what it’s like to be a sex symbol,” I thought. Then the crowd got a closer look at me, stopped squealing and grumbled, “Aw, it’s just the other guy.”
Such intense idolatry is scary. One day I wanted to see just how far a fan would go for a piece of BP. When Brad set his half-eaten bagel on the craft services table to dash to the set, I noticed a group of admirers spying the abandoned morsel from behind the rope line. I wandered over and asked if anyone was interested in a saliva-laced souvenir. They went bonkers and I tossed the treasure into the crowd. Now, with people paying $14,000 for Britney Spears’ chewing gum on eBay, I wish I’d kept it.
As the shoot drew to a close, a Washington Post columnist called. She was amused by how I got into acting: I was working for a government contractor when a modeling agent cast me as a German terrorist in Die Hard with a Vengeance. It was a crunch period, but I figured I could take a few days off for a one-shot deal. When people from 12 Monkeys called the next week, my boss gave me an ultimatum: “What’s it going to be, government work or Hollywood?” Well, when you put it like that…
So I quit my day job and began chasing work as an actor.
The day the Post ran their article on me, my answering machine received 28 provocative messages, most beginning with “I never do this, but…” or “I’m not a psycho, but…” Even the TV news magazine Extra was trying to reach me. They wanted to do a “rocket scientist turns Brad Pitt stand-in” segment and shoot me on set. Devil’s unit publicist had to say no. “Things are pretty tense up here. Lay off the publicity,” he told me.
“If Entertainment Tonight calls, this is going way too far,” I thought. It wasn’t a long wait. The next night the woman next to me at a restaurant turned out to be a stringer for ET. Earlier that day she had pitched the idea of profiling me, but without access to the set the idea was nixed.
My 15 minutes were up. Until Monday, that is, when Newsweek quoted the Post article and the publicist called again. “What are you doing? Holding press conferences? Cool it!”
Even Bop magazine interviewed me. Millennium watchers, take note: when a geeky 35 year old aerospace engineer like me is profiled in a teenybopper magazine, the apocalypse must be near.
That spring MIT invited me to join a panel discussion on “Alternative Career Paths for Engineers” with a handful of alumni who had majored in engineering but subsequently strayed from the nerd herd. I explained to the panel coordinator in advance what a stand-in is and is not. Yet somehow posters all over campus blazoned: “Meet Brad Pitt’s Body Double Tonight!” The crowd that night had an unusually high proportion of Wellesley coeds. I felt bad for the panelist who was a former U.S. congressman. Nobody seemed interested in his tales of genuine accomplishment in our nation’s capital.
Ironically, in 1991 I was the co-recipient of the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest award for technological innovation. Past recipients include Steve Jobs and Robert Noyce, inventor of the microprocessor. Did MIT ask me to speak to its student body then? No. But now with a Brad Pitt connection… In a way it makes sense: MIT grads usually go on to do important things. That’s expected. What I had done was something cool.
This whole stand-in experience taught me something most people probably figured out a long time ago: derivative fame is a shallow thrill. Better to accomplish something yourself, even if it is tiny, than to bask in the reflected glory of someone else.
But if you happen to see Leonardo DiCaprio’s stand-in, tell him if I got that much mileage out of being Brad’s stand-in, he should settle for nothing less than his own TV series and a book deal.
This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Salon magazine, the Washington Post, the Ottawa Citizen, and the Syracuse Hearld-Journal.