Sunday 26 January 2020

Natalie Portman's bottom and other stories - meet the men and women who act as stand-ins and body doubles for Hollywood stars in Ireland

Laura Harold was a body double for Saoirse Ronan
Laura Harold was a body double for Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan and Laura Harold with fellow cast members on the set of 'How I live now'.
Marlon Brando
Darragh McCann
Phil English
Josh Harnett
Saoirse Ronan filming
Caroline Davis

Tanya Sweeney

Michael Caine once famously intoned: "I act for free. It's the sitting and waiting around that I get paid for."

Sure, your typical Hollywood set has lights, cameras and plenty of action… but what's less known about the glamorous world of moviemaking is that shooting happens at a glacial pace. Stand-ins are hired to save a Hollywood star from the humdrum of filming, while body doubles are also on hand for the scenes that a star - for a number of reasons - can't, won't or hasn't got time to do. And for unsung heroes of the industry, the sky is potentially the limit (Keira Knightley famously got her big break as Natalie Portman's double in 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace'). We've long known that Hollywood is made up of smoke and mirrors, but as these Irish stand-ins and body doubles attest, things on-screen are often not what they seem.

Model-turned-actress CAROLINE DAVIS from Belfast acted as Natalie Portman's body double on the set of 'Your Highness'. She was reportedly paid £250 to act as the actress' 'bum double'.

"I went along to one of those castings where they invite everyone from every agency, modelling and acting. It was the body they were most interested in: if you looked the same as Natalie Portman, who is quite petite, and your skin tone and measurements matched, that was the important thing.

"It got boiled down to a few of us and we were videotaped diving into a swimming pool. That footage then got sent to the actress and casting director. Of course, I was very flattered when I got the part, but I was more excited to see what I would be needed for. In the film, Natalie's character dives into a river so I was going to get trained up on how to do that properly for the cameras. I was never formally introduced to Natalie, but I'd have seen her on set. She was very stunning; well mannered and quite normal. The stunt doubles and body doubles were kept in a different area, and I had my own little room in a trailer where I could go for respite.

"I don't think I was hired because Natalie was shy about her body or anything like that: she spent most of the role wearing the same revealing costume. Basically, they had run over with shooting and she couldn't film in two places at the same time. It's quite common for producers to hire doubles to get the 'from behind' shots so that the actor can progress with the main part of filming. Wearing such a skimpy costume didn't register on me whatsoever, but when I went into the fitting it was very loose and I was worried it would come off. But on set, they stitch you into everything. It was just like wearing a bikini.

"[After getting some press coverage at the time], it was nice to be acknowledged for the hard work. I was on set here and there, but you put in plenty of hours off-set: eating healthily and making sure you're fit and in good shape.

"I've since worked on a film funded by NI Screen called 'On the Road Home'. It's about young people and their sexuality, and I'm sure it'll make a few ripples when it comes out. Parts of me are nude in the film, but it's not nudity for the sake of it. It was fine to do… but anyone who does sex scenes on camera knows that it's anything but sexy in real life."

Tour guide PHIL ENGLISH, originally from Cashel, works regularly as an extra, and appeared as Josh Hartnett's stand-in for the shooting of the first season of 'Penny Dreadful'.

"I was working as a driver for Paddywagon tours when I did a part-time course at the Gaiety School of Acting and that opened up a whole new world to me. I was put in touch with Movie Extras, who sent me to the 'Penny Dreadful' set. I think because we looked a little similar and my hair was shoulder length, I got the job (as Hartnett's double).

"He's a bit taller, but let's face it, I'm way better looking! Seriously, though, it was quite flattering to be cast in that role: a great boost to the ego, it must be said.

"It was a really cool shoot. My job was to wear his clothes and stand on set until they got the lighting and camera angles right. Sometimes I had to hold up a pair of guns to the camera for about an hour. To be honest, it can get a little bit boring, all the waiting around. You have to make sure to bring a good book.

"But the cast was really cool: Eva Green and Timothy Dalton were great. They all hung around together. But often a minder brings them to and from their trailers, so you don't really get to interact with them. I really valued the experience and I'd love to do some more acting. Getting a bigger role would be the dream; then I'd maybe get my own stand-in. Perhaps Josh Hartnett can stand in for me!"

LAURA HAROLD, originally from Swords but now living in Wales, is a model, singer and mum-of-two who acted as SAOIRSE RONAN's double on 'How I Live Now'.

"I was working in film and theatre, making sets, when an actress friend of mine went for the part but she wasn't the right measurements for it. She then put me forward for it, and next thing I knew I was there on the set. I was given my own bodyguard and a chauffeur came to my door to drive me to the shoot. There was even someone on hand to hold my coat or 
umbrella. I was 32 at the time and Saoirse was about 17 or 18. I was like, 'okay, now I know I look young… '

"Everyone was so great: I hung out a lot with Saoirse's mum and dad, who were really down to earth. Saoirse was a real laugh, but she was more happy to be playing cards with the younger kids on set.

"During my downtime on the job I was making costumes for another production I was involved in. It was a fair bit of hard work, though: there was a lot of running up hills and running through brambles involved. It was so hot as I had skins on underneath my costume, and you'd get scratched and bruised.

"I was slim and toned and I was used to carrying heavy things around as part of the set design work, but having to run and pretend to fall wasn't easy. There was this octocopter camera following me getting a bird's eye view of what was going on. Even though I have friends in film, I didn't know what to expect. I'm in quite a few of the scenes, but you can't really tell it's me because of the wigs and costumes.

"I got pregnant quite soon after the shoot, and I'm really enjoying family life right now. I certainly wouldn't say no [to being Saoirse's double again], but I'm pregnant again so I'd probably have to wait until I got my body back in shape."

DARRAGH MCGANN, now a singer, acted as MARLON BRANDO'S stand-in during the filming of the ill-fated Irish movie 'Divine Rapture'

"I'd been told that a big film was shooting in Ballycotton (Cork), so I put my name down to be an extra. On July 10th, 1995, I got a call asking if I could be on set for 7am, and that I'd be doing something very simple: standing in for Marlon Brando. It was odd, as Brando was playing an Irish priest and I was training to be a priest at the time.

"The role involved being in close proximity to Marlon, and focusing on what he was doing. When he went to costume or make-up, I stood in front of the cameras so that when he came back they'd be ready for action.

"The shoot only went on for two weeks, but for that time I had to be there from 7am-7pm. It gave me plenty of opportunity to meet other actors and actresses. I had a special encounter with Brando too: he heard me singing one time when I didn't realise anyone was listening, and he told me later that he thought I should do something with my singing.

"To me, he was a consummate professional. Johnny Depp was on set too and he's one of the nicest people I've ever met. We hit it off: he's great craic. He was playing a Dublin reporter so I gave him a few accent pointers. On the set everyone mucked in, and it was mad to be asked by crew members if I was okay; if I needed tea or coffee or anything. I was really disappointed when the shoot ended abruptly, not because I wasn't going to have my name in bright lights, but because the friendships I'd built up over the two weeks were pretty much over.

"I'd have loved to have done some proper acting. I do regret not doing more of it after that shoot… but who knows what will happen in the future?"

Irish Independent

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