The life of a film and TV stand-in

Tim Wilson has served as a stand-in and background actor for 30 years – yet he still struggles to make enough to cover his medical insurance each year

Tim Wilson, screenshot

“There are no small roles, only small paychecks.”

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Thus reads the Twitter bio of Tim Wilson, a former actor turned professional stand-in, who has spent thirty years as part of the film and television industry’s unheralded “second team”.

Over the course of his career, Wilson has stood-in for Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John Hurt, Steve Coogan and Albert Finney. In his current gig, which he says is one of the best of his career, he shadows Brian Cox on the brilliant HBO drama Succession.

“I treat it as a privilege,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be on these sets. Stand-in work is both extremely tedious and extremely interesting.”

We spoke to Wilson to understand exactly what it is a stand-in does, and how his career path led him to this point…

What does a stand-in do?

A stand-in’s job is to work with the camera and lighting departments in setting up each individual shot in each scene. We take the place of the principal actors for blocking [working out an actors move in relation to the camera] and lighting set-ups.

Everything a stand-in does is off-screen. When anyone’s head (or another part of the body!) is used to “cheat” an actual actor it’s known as photo double work. I’ve often been a photo double for the back of an actor’s head but most of the time it’s hand doubling for when the character is on the phone or opening/closing a door and switching off lights.

Tim Wilson on the set of Law & Order
Tim Wilson on the set of Law & Order

How much does a stand-in earn?

Stand-ins get $199 (£157) per day with overtime earned after 8 hours of work. It’s all about the overtime!

How did you become a TV and film stand-in?

I was a child actor. I joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1972 when I was 12, and my first jobs were actually dubbing foreign films into English. My very first job was a Godzilla film.

I did commercials, I did daytime, I did theatre, and I was on Broadway for two weeks in a production in 1975 with Glenn Close – her very first job out of college. It was called the Member of the Wedding, we were on Broadway for two weeks and then did a five-month tour.

I was with a manager who was friends with a casting director who worked films, who provided background for films, so my manager would send some of her clients to go and work on these things. So I started doing [background work] at 15, 16 on things like the remake of King Kong, the one with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.

I found myself contacting the casting directors I worked with only occasionally when I was a teenager, and they started using me a lot for background work, but there was not a lot. 

What is your longest-running role?

Linus Roche and Tim Wilson on the set of Law & Order
Linus Roche and Tim Wilson on the set of Law & Order

I was on Law and Order for the first seven seasons as background. This is funny: I was originally the mail boy in the Assistant District Attorneys Office. I went from being a mail boy to a law clerk to an intern to a fully-fledged lawyer within seven years on that show. And then there was a gap and I ended up standing in for Linus Roche for a full season. 

When did you realise your acting career was not going to pan out as you had hoped?

Well, I had an agent for a two-year period in the early ’90s, but I always looked a lot younger than I actually was, and casting directors knew that and it became a real problem. They want to cast the real thing, which is fair enough. So after a few years… I left my agent.

Tim Wilson in Madoff
Tim Wilson in Madoff

Have you ever worked outside of the film and TV industry?

I did have a day job for two years, between 2000 and 2002. I worked as a photo cataloguer, and I didn’t do anything else during that time period. But we all got laid off. And I was really happy, I had two solid years where I had a day job, and it was a 9-5 job and I was really happy. And that ended, and I went, look, I don’t have a résumé that will get me into agents’ doors.

I was very realistic. I realised my résumé was not good enough to compete against actors who have been working steadily, so I thought, ok, I’m quite well known among the assistant directors and casting people so I’m just going to be doing this full time, and I’ve been able to do it full time and not have to do any other jobs like waiting tables, which I was awful at. 

I’ve been able to just make a decent living, and most importantly of all get my medical insurance. Because we have to make a certain amount to be eligible for medical insurance* under my union. So you make a choice.

*Members of the Screen Actors Guild are offered free medical insurance once they reach one of several targets. For full coverage, members must earn over $34,330 (£27,134) per year. For the secondary plan, which Tim is currently on, they must earn $17,690 (£13,982) and work a minimum of 82 days. Actors over 40 with over 10 years on a SAG plan (Tim included) can qualify for the secondary plan with just $13,000 (£10,275) in earnings. 

Have you ever missed out on medical insurance?

Yes I have. About ten years ago it was really bad, because there was  a time period where a lot of things were done in Canada, in Toronto [Tim lives and works in New York]. Things would shoot here for four days, just outside stuff, and then they would shoot the rest of interior stuff on sound stages in Canada because of the tax breaks. It was cheaper to shoot up there. So it was really grim. It was hard, I’d say there were five or six years actually where I didn’t make my medical insurance, and I was just really lucky that I didn’t get sick.

But luckily in the last few years I’ve made it every single year.

I know people who aren’t in the business who are paying $800 a month for medical insurance. And god forbid you need a major surgery or you need to be in the hospital for any period of time, it’s tragic, and it’s horrific. It just makes it more important that you make that amount.

Tim Wilson in The Big Short (2015)
Tim Wilson in The Big Short (2015)

What do you do for money when you’re out of TV and film work?

There is no work for a full month in December, January, and May-June are pretty much the slowest time of the year, because it’s in between seasons in terms of TV shows they’re shooting, and so I just go on unemployment.

What are your best memories from your years in the industry?

I’ve worked on some really amazing sets. I’ve worked on two [Steven] Spielberg sets, I stood in for Mark Rylance on Bridge of Spies, and then I did The Post, and I worked as background on that in the newspaper office. [They’re] totally different from other sets because it’s Steven Spielberg, so everyone, all these crew people that you know from other jobs, who are really thorough professionals, they’re bringing their A-game because they’re very aware that they have to because it’s Steven Spielberg.

And Martin Scorsese, same thing. I worked on The Departed a lot. I was in the squad room, and you could hear a pin drop on that set because Scorsese was at work, and the respect for him was so enormous that it’s something else entirely.

Do you like your job?

It’s a privilege to be on these sets. Stand-in work in particular, it’s both extremely tedious and extremely interesting. It depends on the show, but even Succession, which is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, it’s tedious because they’re long days and one scene can take four hours because they’re doing all the different camera coverage and there’s often more than three people in a scene. So it’s tedious, but I’m fortunate in that people always interest me and sets are always fascinating to me.

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I love the variety. I’ve been on hundreds and hundreds of sets by now, and it’s just, the chemistry and the atmosphere of each set is so different because of the nature of what it is. I don’t think of it as just a job, I always remind myself how privileged I am.