Kyle Humphrey didn't move to Los Angeles to become a stand-in. In fact, she had decided to leave the entertainment business altogether until one phone call changed everything. Now she's making quite a name for herself as the go-to stand-in for such A-listers as Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. I recently interviewed Kyle when she had a break from set to find out what exactly her job entails and how she built this career for herself.
First off, could you explain exactly what it is a stand-in does?
Stand-ins are really important on set because we help the DP (Director of Photography) and camera department light the actors and set up the shots. It is also usually our job to let the actors know if anything changes in their scene. What happens initially is that the actors will come in to rehearse their scene. Stand-ins will have a script and take notes on everything that their respective actor does (i.e. when they walk across the room, what hand they pick up their cup with, on what word they sit down, etc.). After the rehearsal the actors will go get ready (hair/makeup/wardrobe) and the crew will then use stand-ins in place of the actors. It is your responsibility to know exactly what your actor does in that scene! If the Director or DP changes something they might ask you to tell the actor about the change. For example: "I don't want your actor to cross across the room at this point, instead do it here.” It's also helpful (and sometimes required) that the stand-in look similar to the actor they are standing in for in terms of height, weight and hair color.
How did you become a stand-in?
Weirdly, I became a stand-in when I was looking to get out of the entertainment business. When I moved to LA I started booking infomercials, hosting gigs, a few commercials and a role in a movie. [Acting jobs] were few and far between though and I was working three other jobs at the same time, so I was hustling like crazy. I partnered with a friend of mine to start a casting/management company. Sadly, shortly after we teamed up he passed away. I decided then that I was done with the entertainment industry and began a new job as General Manager of a restaurant. After about a year I got a phone call from Bill Dance of Bill Dance Casting. I'll always remember his message... "Hey Kyle, this is Bill Dance. I'm not sure if you live in LA anymore or if you are still in the business at all, but Matthew Weiner, from The Sopranos, is creating a new show called Mad Men. One of the leads is Talia Balsam and you look exactly like her (which I do, ha!). We were wondering if you'd like to stand in for her on his new show?” I had just paid off all my bills as the GM of the restaurant, I was tired of working 80 hours a week and I had come to terms with the loss of my friend enough to possibly get back into the business, but I seriously had no clue what a stand-in did on set. I figured I'd go to the wardrobe fitting and see what it was all about (on Mad Men stand-ins also did background, so we were fitted with 1960s costumes). It was one of the best decisions of my life and Mad Men remains one of the best shows that I've ever worked on to this day.
What are some things standing in has taught you about TV/film and being on set that you didn’t know before?
Wow, this is a great question! I actually learn something new about TV/film every single day that I stand in. I've been standing in non-stop now for 13-14 years and it has been better than any acting class that I've ever taken. You are on set every day, you are a valuable part of the crew, you see the show from beginning to end...the opportunities to learn are endless.
Has standing in ever led to acting jobs for you?
I've been written into a film (Cat City) just by standing in on it, gotten a role on a TV sitcom (Young & Hungry) by standing in on it and gotten three voice-over gigs (Young & Hungry, Fuller House and Hot in Cleveland) all by standing in on the shows. This isn't typical, but it's not unusual either. Directors, writers, and producers all get to see you act, they get to see your level of professionalism and maturity...it's a great opportunity to shine! But, you also need to stay in your own lane. Don't overstep your bounds and try to become “BFFs” with your actor or any of the “higher-ups.” Just do your job and do it well! Many stand-ins will wander off, fall asleep on set, not pay attention...trust me, that is ALL noticed. This is a job just like an office job and you should always, always treat it as one. I think one thing that I learned as a stand-in is that acting really is hard work. It's very long hours and not always in the best conditions. I've worked in pouring rain, in hail, in sleet/snow, in 120 degree heat...I've done 15-hour days five days a week for seven months, and more Fraturdays than I can ever count (a Fraturday is when you go to set on Friday but you don't stop shooting until Saturday morning). Acting is a commitment. It's not all the glitz & glamour shown about Hollywood. You have to know your lines, hit your marks, be dedicated and BE GOOD.
Can a person make a career out of standing in?
Yes, you can absolutely make a career out of standing in. I did! It'll take a while to make the connections you need to make, but once you gain experience and trust from higher-ups you'll get called in repeatedly from the same people. When I was doing only multi-cam stand-in work I had three different ADs (Assistant Directors) who basically took me to every show with them. If they didn't have a show at the time they would pass my name on to other ADs who were looking for an excellent stand-in. When I got into single-cam shows the same thing happened...I was requested by a few ADs continuously, as well as recommended by the head of Casting from various casting companies. As I stated before, professionalism, maturity and experience will always shine. Don't be late, don’t cause drama, stay in your lane and you'll work a ton. Once you become a recurring stand-in you also become eligible for SAG Health Insurance and SAG Pension. This year I became vested in my pension which means I'll have it when I retire.
Do you have to be SAG to be a stand-in?
I know that in LA you don't have to be SAG to be a stand-in, but I’m not sure about the New York, Atlanta, Chicago or Canada markets. It's actually an excellent way to get a SAG voucher (note: not all markets operate on the voucher system). If you're non-union and you happen to be on set doing background work it's always possible (and happens frequently) that an AD will need an additional stand-in. They'll scan the people who are there and see who looks like a good match for the actor. If that happens to be you and you're non-union, you are usually given a SAG voucher for the upgrade, and you can tell casting companies that hire stand-ins that you now have experience. Again, this is just another reason for you to always, always be professional on set. If you're there as a background artist but you're sleeping/late/goofing off, you’re the last person they'll think about upgrading to a stand-in position.
What steps should a person take if they want to become a stand-in?
I would say that if you want to become a stand-in you should get on set as much as possible. Doing background work gets you seen by a lot of people, attending any classes at casting companies will get you noticed and networking helps a lot as well. I'm an avid networker! Go to social events that are being held by your local theaters (once it's Covid-safe, of course), go to meet & greets for fellow actors, attend workshops, etc. - anything to learn more about the craft and also be seen and network. Central Casting, the largest background/stand-in casting company in all of CA, holds monthly stand-in classes where they teach actors how to stand-in. I think Backstage magazine might hold a few too. We all create our own opportunities, so go out and create yours!
What are some memorable experiences, positive or negative, you’ve had while working as a stand-in?
Memorable experiences, wow! So many...both good and bad. Mad Men will always be dear to my heart because it was my first full-time stand-in gig. I got close to a core group of ladies who were also stand-ins on the show and I've remained friends with them to this day. Standing in for Meryl Streep was a huge moment for me too. I covered Meryl for the entire run of Big Little Lies-Season 2. Working with and around Meryl, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and the fabulous Nicole Kidman was a dream come true.
Wow! Standing in for Meryl Streep - that sounds amazing!
It was incredible! We shot in Monterey and Carmel for three to four months. We were put up in a nice hotel, paid a per diem each day and were carried for the entire run of the show (being 'carried' means that you are paid for the entire run of the show whether you work or not. You are basically on-call though, so if the schedule changes at the last minute and your actor ends up working, you have to be available, too). After we wrapped on that show, Meryl requested me to stand in for her yet again when she shot the film The Laundromat with Director Steven Soderbergh. We shot all over LA, flew to Vegas for two days to shoot, took a bus to Arrowhead for a few days to shoot and then wrapped back in LA. I ended up standing in for Meryl, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure!
Are there any other celebrities you've worked with that stand out to you?
I spent five seasons standing in for Wendie Malick on Hot in Cleveland and we became fast friends. Now I hike with her, go to her house and she frequently requests me to stand in for her on her national commercials, pilots, TV shows and films. She is an incredible person with a true heart - totally down-to-earth, passionate about animal rights and just an all-around lovely person. And yes, I did work with Betty White for five seasons, too! Although I wasn't her stand-in I spent many, many hours on set with her talking and joking around. She is a true gem.
Those sound like some pretty incredible experiences.
Yes, for sure. Other positive experiences are, of course, what I mentioned above about being upgraded to day-player or voice-over roles while on set. I worked with the same director, Andy Cadiff, on a number of sitcoms. He upgraded me three different times to principal roles. As far as negative experiences, well, there will always be those in this business. You come across challenging actors, difficult stand-ins that you may have to work with for a long time, unpleasant location shoots and then the (almost always) young PA (Production Assistant) who thinks it's his job to treat you like crap. However, now that the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have come about, those experiences are fewer and far between.
This has been great! Anything else you'd like to add?
As far as becoming a stand-in, it's not something I ever sought out or thought I'd do for a living, but it's been quite a ride! I've worked with the best-of-the-best and I'll have stories to tell for the rest of my life. I have a SAG pension, I have continuous health coverage, I make a decent living financially and I've met some wonderful people on set who are now my best friends. I'm currently standing in for Julia Roberts on her new show with Sean Penn, and I never would have been considered for this opportunity without the professionalism and experience I've gathered through the course of these years.