The Hollywood boulevard of broken dreams: Ben Affleck and I

John Wight
affleck getty 300x225 The Hollywood boulevard of broken dreams: Ben Affleck and I

Ben Affleck at this year's Oscars (Getty Images)

Watching this year’s Oscars ceremony brought back memories of when I used to live in a tiny studio apartment not five minutes walk away from the Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where the annual Academy Awards ceremony is held. It was on a street just off Hollywood called Sycamore Avenue, home then to a transient population of Hollywood wannabes, international students studying at the local music college, and others in need of cheap accommodation.

The studio apartment I was in was so small you could be forgiven for expecting the toilet to flush whenever somebody pushed the door buzzer outside. I’d arrived in Hollywood from Scotland in early 2000 to embark on a mission to establish a career as a screenwriter. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.

The Kodak Theater was just being built when I arrived, and I recall the first year when the Oscars were moved there from their previous home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown LA. My friend Kenny and I got together to make a night of it – first watching the ceremony on TV with a few beers, and then heading down to the boulevard to stand with the hundreds of other fans to try and catch a glimpse of the stars as they emerged to be whisked off to some swanky after-party somewhere. What we were thinking, I don’t know. The beers had clearly gone to our heads.

Kenny lived in the same building. He was a struggling film director from Chicago who’d been based in Hollywood for over 10 years by this point. His one and only attempt at making his own movie, an independent vampire comedy, had bombed despite managing to get Michael Madsen to appear in it. A lot of hacked off investors and little else was all he had to show for his efforts. In the aftermath he’d gone back to his day job of working as a Second AD on various TV shows, such as Diagnosis Murder starring Dick Van Dyke. He hated it with a passion. But that’s the thing – in Hollywood most people hate what they do and ache to be doing something else, usually the thing they’d originally upped sticks and moved all the way out there for.

I couldn’t help but evince a wry smile as I watched Ben Affleck pick up the Oscar for best picture for his movie, Argo. I was his stand-in back in 2003 on the movie Surviving Christmas. It was one of those hideous Christmas comedies which duly bombed at the box office. It also starred James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, and Christina Applegate. I recall being called by my agent while working as a stand-in on a TV show at the time, which I remember was Dragnet, an attempted reprise of the cult fifties show of the same name.

Anyway, I was called to an interview to stand-in on a movie. Here I should explain. A stand-in replaces the principal actor on a set when it comes to setting up the shot. As the stand-in you are present at the rehearsal with the stars or principals, as they go over the scene in question and their marks are set. Once this is done, they retreat to their trailers or to make-up to prepare to shoot the scene for real, while you and the other stand-ins go through the choreography of the scene for the director of photography and the director. This is when the scene is lit, the camera or cameras are set up, and there is a quick run through so that the director and DP can see how the scene will look when shot with the principals. It’s a key role on any production, many established Hollywood actors even keep the same stand-in over many years and have them on personal contracts.

So in this regard to be selected to stand-in for a major star was viewed among the huge community of extras in Hollywood as a glittering prize. Even though the standard Screen Actors Guild rate for a stand-in was not much more than that for a union extra role, and the fact that it meant much more responsibility, pressure, and all of the attendant hassle that went with it.

I recall that none of us present at the interview knew who we were meant to be standing-in for. It was all very hush-hush for some reason. I was the only one there who did not have a stand-in resume or pictures with me. I just wasn’t that bothered if I got the gig or not. I much preferred working as an extra anyway, that way you could blend into anonymity and hide. Not so when you were a stand in, where you had to stay close to the action and make sure you were on your mark at the double quick as soon as you were called to the set. Anything less than perfect timekeeping and a flawless performance and you were toast.

I think I got the gig in the end only because out of all of the guys who were interviewed for it, I was the one who physically resembled Ben Affleck the most. When I was informed I’d been hired I was supposed to whoop in delight, instead my stomach hit the floor with disappointment and dread. I knew full well what it meant. For the next 10 weeks my life would be on hold. I would have to be out of bed every morning at an ungodly hour to make an early morning call time, and would not get home until well after dark. In other words, I was in for a horrendous experience as a movie star’s appendage.

The next time you watch an actor collect an Oscar and regale the world with his or her luminous presence in the process, spare a thought for the poor stand-in who’s had to endure their whims and mood swings for weeks and weeks on a movie set somewhere. It might help to put things in their proper perspective.

John’s memoir of his years in Hollywood –Dreams That Die’ – is now available from Amazon

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  • Ines

    “But that’s the thing – in Hollywood most people hate what they do and
    ache to be doing something else, the thing is they upped sticks and went
    all the way out there to do in the first place.”

    As a wannabe screenwriter, perhaps your problem was poor sentence construction.

  • startraveler

    Surely the title should read “Ben Affleck and Me” (not “I”). (Objectival form.)

  • startraveler

    Absolutely agree with you, Ines, for a puff-piece, whose objective is – presumably – to promote the writer’s book, it is rather poorly written.

  • saloulou

    Whiny and envious?

  • Hyaphilo

    Thanks for letting the world know what a stand-in does as opposed to an extra. I don’t think you piece has come off as whiny, or a puff-piece, but as informative.

  • Jack

    Whatever the merits of the article, the book itself must
    be really good. So good in fact that in the short month since publication it
    has gathered 6 glowing reviews and has a five-star rating on Amazon. Indeed,
    five of the reviewers, despite never ever having written a review for anything
    else on Amazon, were so moved by the qualities of the book that they felt compelled
    to write their first ever splendid reviews for this one.

  • Scott

    Thats what you get paid for. Or in my case, don’t.

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