Background actors Wes Trudell and James Blackburn can’t wait to the see The Lone Ranger, this summer’s expected blockbuster.
But instead of waiting in line at a local movie theater for the July 3 national release, they plan to pack their bags and attend a Hollywood premiere. It’s a small reward for their hard work as stand-ins for Johnny Depp (Tonto) and Armie Hammer (John Reid, aka The Lone Ranger) during the film’s production last year.
After being cast, Blackburn and Trudell worked closely with Academy Award-winning director Gore Verbinski on the seven-month shoot, starting with camera tests at Albuquerque Studios, and then on locations around the Southwest.
At first, everything went smoothly for Blackburn and Trudell. Each received compliments on his ability to replicate the dialogue and body movements of the stars, while production crews set up lighting, adjusted audio levels and picked camera angles.
Yet while Blackburn and Trudell had access to catering trucks and crew facilities, neither got a hotel room to sleep in or per diem payments to cover their travel expenses.
“I had to sleep in the back of my truck,” Blackburn says. “It was either that or pay for a hotel room myself.”
Stand-ins are lumped in with background actors: Since most of them don’t belong to a collective bargaining unit like the powerful Screen Actors Guild, they’re rarely eligible for the reimbursements that can make life on the road worthwhile.
New Mexico Film Office Director Nick Maniatis, himself a former member of the Directors Guild of America, routinely touts the film industry’s 180,000 worker days and $242 million average annual economic impact on New Mexico. But those numbers fail to take into account the out-of-pocket expenses non-union actors like Blackburn and Trudell shell out in order to keep working.
Jon Hendry, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 480 president, wants to fix that. In April, he plans to roll out a statewide ‘Respect’ campaign to ensure better treatment for non-union film workers.
“Everyone working on a film has to be treated the same way on the set—union members or not,” Hendry tells SFR. He notes that the state’s 25 percent refundable tax credit allows per diem reimbursements as a qualifying expense.
Trudell and Blackburn knew about the film incentives and say they asked for help getting reimbursements, but were told nothing could be done. Although each has received per diem payments while working on other films, they didn’t want to rock the boat and believed they would be replaced if they lodged a formal complaint.
That’s when Trudell decided to pull his personal RV to some locations. During monsoon season, he spent wet nights in a popup tent.
“It rained a lot, and everything in the tent was always damp,” he says. “It got rough sometimes.”
Casting agent Elizabeth Gabel says rooms aren’t budgeted for stand-ins and background actors.
“When we travel to a distant location, we always hire locally—first, to create goodwill in the local communities, and secondly, to help the local economies,” Gabel writes in an email to SFR. “It was always the intention of the production to hire local stand-ins in locations outside of Albuquerque. Both Blackburn and Trudell volunteered to travel on their own volition.”
Even so, Trudell says, “It was frustrating. On Fridays, when all the union crews were getting envelopes with their per diem, they would just bypass us.”
Hendry disputes Gabel’s suggestion that new stand-in actors can simply be hired in each new location.
Blackburn and Trudell aren’t novices. Each has a long list of movie credits, including working on most of the films and television series shot in New Mexico since the state started offering film incentives.
“Look, these guys have a certain skill set. You can’t just pull someone in off the street to be a stand-in on a film like this. Getting them rooms shouldn’t have been an issue,” Hendry says. “This movie’s budget was $275 million for a 100-day shoot. That’s $2.75 million a day,” he adds. “I can guarantee you the director doesn’t want to waste two hours looking for his stand-ins at some campground if the call times change. And Disney certainly doesn’t want the liability of these guys dying in the wilderness somewhere.”
Of course, they could join a union—but even Hendry says he doesn’t think background actors should have to pay expensive union dues.
“A lot of New Mexicans want to work in background one or two times,” he explains. “Then, if they don’t find a job in a key department, they go back to their lives and tell people they were in the movies once or twice…Even so, we think they should be treated just like the rest of our crew members.”
Hendry says the Respect campaign is meant to ensure that out-of-state production companies and crews respect not only background actors, but also local businesses and environs.
“We don’t want them putting cigarette butts out on the ground,” he says. “And we don’t want some new film school grad yelling at our members in a disrespectful way, either.”