14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Broadway Understudies

Lauren Spinelli
Lauren Spinelli

On Broadway, “the show must go on” isn’t just something people say; it’s a way of life. Even if a star is out because of vacation or illness, the show can't just close its doors. Instead, the star’s talented understudy steps in to make sure that audiences aren't disappointed—and that the production doesn't lose money. Mental Floss spoke with Broadway musical understudies past and present to bring you behind-the-scenes secrets of the job, which is harder than you might think.

1. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF UNDERSTUDY.

Actor Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Broadway's 'Come From Away.'
Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Come From Away.

The public tends to use understudy as a blanket term, but it has a more narrow meaning on Broadway. If you peruse a Playbill, you might see words like standby, alternate, and swing in addition to understudy; each fills in for an onstage performer, but in a specific way. “Standbys are off-stage, and cover only principal roles,” says Josh Breckenridge, a standby in Broadway’s Come From Away. “They literally stand by. They’re required to be at the theater, and in some cases, within a certain radius of the theater, to be on call if a principal role is unable to perform. Understudies are on-stage, every night, in a specific [ensemble] role, and they cover principal roles. Swings are off-stage and cover ensemble.”

There’s a certain chain of events that allows these actors to make it on stage: If a performer is out, her standby will go on; if the standby is also out, the understudy will step in, and a swing performer will “swing in” to cover the understudy’s typical "track," or role. Alternates, meanwhile, cover specific performances to give the principal actors a break. “They’re scheduled to go on every week, whereas a standby just goes on if there’s an emergency, if someone can’t do the show,” Breckinridge explains. Not every show will have all of these layers of redundancy, but according to the Actors' Equity Association Rulebook [PDF], all Broadway shows are obligated to have understudies.

2. ACTORS AUDITION SPECIFICALLY TO BE UNDERSTUDIES.

Usually, actors know they’re auditioning to be an understudy, standby, or swing. Occasionally, though, they’ll be auditioning for a principal part and be cast as the understudy instead. According to Asa Somers, who understudies for Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, “They audition you for the role and then they go, ‘You were great, but we’re going with someone else—but you’re good enough that we would like for you to understudy. Would you be willing to do that?’ So it does happen.”

3. THEY REHEARSE REGULARLY—BUT NOT USUALLY WITH THE MAIN CAST MEMBERS.

The understudies of 'Dear Evan Hansen.'
Dear Evan Hansen understudies Garrett Long, Colton Ryan, Olivia Puckett, and Michael Lee Brown. (Not pictured: Asa Somers.)
Jenny Anderson

Actors filling in for main characters have the opportunity to rehearse twice a week. Typically, they’ll rehearse with each other, with stage managers reading off-book to cover other parts, as an assistant director watches. There are very few of the bells and whistles that accompany a full show, which provides some challenges for the actors. For example, because there are only six standbys for the 12 cast members in Come From Away, Breckenridge says they have to rely on the crew to make up the difference during rehearsals: “There are moments where we have to pause for the crew to shift everything—there’s a little bit of hodge-podging and faking our way through.”

“I think one of the hardest things is how dark it is in rehearsal,” says Garrett Long, who understudies Heidi Hansen and Cynthia Murphy in Evan Hansen. “We just [use] work lights.” Somers says, “I feel like the stage is way bigger when just the work lights are on because you can see everything—the audience, the wings. It’s disconcerting.”

Colton Ryan and Michael Lee Brown both cover Evan Hansen’s three high school-aged male leads—Evan, Connor, and Jared—which means they sometimes play two of the parts they cover in the same scene during rehearsal. “The first scene is one of only two scenes where Connor and Jared are in the same space,” Ryan says. “Because Jared enters first and has more lines, Michael will play Jared or I’ll play Jared. We’ll get to the point where [Jared] goes, ‘Oh, you’re such a freak,’ and leaves. And instead of leaving, [whoever is playing Jared] mimes walking out and will just come back in as Connor. You just have to switch on a dime.”

4. THEY OFTEN COVER MULTIPLE TRACKS, AND HAVE VARIOUS METHODS FOR KEEPING THE CHARACTERS SEPARATE.

“I made a run sheet for each character,” Brown says. “I wrote down exactly, in every scene, their movements—which wing they exit, enter, and every move they make. Props you need to remember, costume changes backstage. When you go on, you keep a copy on each side of the stage, and it’s super helpful.”

Jay Douglas, who covered six characters in The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, had a similar strategy. “I sat out in the audience with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a tape recorder in the other hand, and I would follow each of my people around one person at a time,” he told Playbill. “I would speak every move that that character made into a microphone, and then I would go back and actually type it out in a Word document.” He reviewed his notes and corrected them until he had an accurate description of what every track did, then kept a printed copy in his bag so he could pull it out to reference it at a moment’s notice.

For Ryan, keeping the characters from bleeding into one another comes down to physicality. “They’re all seniors in high school, but they all lead from a very different place in the body: Their gut, their heart—where they keep their instinct,” he says. “I found that tapping into a specific physicality is what can trigger my brain to say, ‘OK, you’re on that track now.’ And then they don’t bleed at all.”

Come From Away includes 12 actors—six men and six women—playing 60 different characters; as a standby, Breckenridge covers five of those actors and their subroles. “You’re one character one moment, you put on a hat and you’re automatically another character, or you slip off a jacket and you become an additional character,” he says. “It’s a subtle change, and it’s typically done with a physicality, with an acting beat, with a register of where you use your voice, and also with accents. As crazy as learning multiple accents can be, it’s actually very helpful with character shifts because that, in itself, can help you change into a completely different character. Dialogue helps, too: I’m speaking Arabic at one point as Ali, but then I’m talking about kissing a cod as the local Newfoundlander. I think that helps you zero in and not jump from one dialect to the next inappropriately.”

5. THEY’RE NEVER FAR FROM THE THEATER DURING A PERFORMANCE.

Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Standbys and swings have to be in, or near, the theater when a show is happening. But when they’re not on, they have a lot of downtime, and they can decide how they spend it. “I shared a dressing room with Megan Hilty, who was the Glinda standby at the time,” says Shoshana Bean, who was the standby for Elphaba in Wicked from 2004 to 2005 (after which she took on the role herself). “We would rehearse sometimes, we would watch TV. I would go to the gym, write music. We were allowed to be within a five-block radius of the building and reachable on our cell phones, so I grabbed food with friends or ran errands.”

Breckenridge says he and the other standbys will often watch the show: “We’re either out in the house, up above in the lighting rig—there’s a seating area for us—or we’re watching backstage,” he says. If they’re not watching, “We go in our dressing room, close the door, turn up the monitor, and kind of do the show there. We can sing full out, say the lines, in the dialect, and not have to mute ourselves as we would in the audience or backstage.”

Depending on the day, the cast of Dear Evan Hansen will also rehearse together or watch the show (they also enjoy playing Bananagrams). One thing is for sure: No standby or swing is lazy. “There’s a misconception that we’re not working,” Breckenridge says. “But we’re working our butts off behind the scenes.”

Understudies, who have their own tracks in the show, obviously can't fully watch what the actor they’re covering is doing—but sometimes, the stage manager will arrange for them to watch the show from the audience, as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s did for Jared Bradshaw. Bradshaw plays a reporter and an Oompa Loompa in the show and understudies for Willy Wonka (as well as the other male leads), who is played by Christian Borle. “He had a swing go on for my role as Jerry Jubilee, the reporter, and he let me watch the show from 10th row center,” Bradshaw says. “It wasn’t for fun—it was to let me watch Christian and see from the front of house where he’s actually standing and what the lighting cues look like.”

6. EVERY TIME THEY GO ON IS BASICALLY LIKE THE FIRST TIME.

“The problem for us is every time we go on, it’s the first time, more or less, because so much time has passed,” Somers says.

And it can be hard to master a role when you don’t go on much. “It was hard to have a job as a performer but not technically get to perform that often,” Bean says. “Most standbys go on very infrequently and it can feel like being shot out of a cannon. Takes a second to get your groove and find your sea legs.”

Long agrees. “I did two and a half years at South Pacific, and I was still working on it at the end,” she says. “[A principal actor] is sometimes gone for a week and by the end of that week you’re like, ‘OK!’ But then you don’t touch it [for a while].”

7. THEY COULD GO ON AT LITERALLY ANY MOMENT …

Sometimes, understudies will know far in advance when they’re going on for a principal actor—like if that actor is going on vacation. But illnesses or other unforeseen emergencies might mean much less notice. Ryan got the first clue that he might have to take the stage for a Sunday matinee of Dear Evan Hansen when he found out, after the Saturday evening performance, that star Ben Platt was going to the doctor. “I had a feeling that the next morning I might get a call,” he says. “It was around 11 a.m. on Sunday when I finally got the text that said ‘Hey, this is it.’” Ryan, who made his Broadway debut that day, says he felt very zen about it all. “The timing was unbelievable,” he says. His classmates and teachers happened to be in town for a showcase—Ryan is in his senior year at Baldwin-Wallace University and is receiving internship credit for his time in Evan Hansen—and “they freaked out, and all got tickets somehow. I couldn’t believe the support I was lucky enough to have out there.”

Sometimes, the call comes even closer to the wire. “I got an hour and a half notice last time I went on, and then before that I almost went on in the first 10 minutes of the show because someone was, like, throwing up,” says Olivia Puckett, who covers the roles of Alana Beck and Zoe Murphy in Evan Hansen.

And in some situations, an understudy or standby will be called in during a show. Bean (who these days is focusing on her music; she released a new single, “One Way to Go,” in March) had to go on close to the end of a matinee of Wicked when star Idina Menzel fell and fractured her rib. “They got me ready in 7 minutes,” Bean recalls. “I was in shock that we were actually going through with it. I was worried about her because no one know what had actually happened when they took her to the hospital. I was determined to keep it together ... I didn't feel I had the right to indulge in my feelings at the time—I felt I needed to be focused and steady, for her, for the show, and to just do my job.”

8. … EVEN IF THEY HAVEN’T REHEARSED THE WHOLE SHOW.

A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory program with an understudy slip.
Chris Messina

Standbys and understudies for principal roles will sometimes get the chance to do what’s called a “put-in,” where they perform the entire show, in their costume, with the cast (in street clothes), the orchestra, and things like lighting cues and props. But it doesn’t always happen.

Ryan, for example, never had a put-in. The day of his first performance, he only ran a few essential scenes on the stage before he had to go deal with the things he doesn't normally have to do: warm up and run songs in the music department; get into costume and miked up; and put on makeup. When he had time, “Cast members would come up to my room and we would run lines,” he says. “We’d never done this at all together, so we were getting a feel of the pace in a 10-minute frame. We spent maybe half an hour on the stage just doing the dancing bits ... Other than that, it was like, ‘Alright, let’s see how you do.’”

Similarly, Bradshaw covered for Christian Borle without having fully rehearsed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Luckily, he got a text from Borle the morning of a regular four-hour understudy rehearsal session, so the stage manager gave him the opportunity to run through some of the things he'd never done before—like riding in the glass elevator and in a boat that sailed 20 feet above the stage (which Bradshaw says was “a little terrifying”). “There was only one thing we forgot to do—there’s a pushcart train that Willy rides out on stage, and we had not done that,” Bradshaw says. “I’m pushing the pushcart and singing this line that I’d never sung before with a Willy Wonka hat on and Augustus Gloop is going up the pipe, and I’m like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Those are the moments you pinch yourself. You’re like, ‘I’m not killing anybody and I’m not dead, so this is good.’”

He also got a little help from his costars: “After the number, Augustus goes up the pipe. I was supposed to be leading off Mrs. Gloop, who is played by Kathy Fitzgerald, but she was essentially leading me.” Their mics were off, and the music was very loud; under her breath, Fitzgerald was directing Bradshaw where to go. In another moment, the actor found himself in the way of Emma Pfaeffle, who plays Veruca Salt. “I was really in her way. In character, she took her hands and pushed me in the chest,” he recalls. “It was one of those perfect moments where she knew that I knew it was OK for her to push me, and her character totally would have pushed me. In a moment like that, when an understudy goes on for the first time, you shove with love.”

If worse comes to worse, an understudy will go on, script in hand—which is what happened during a 2016 performance of Falsettos, when star Stephanie Block and her understudy were both out sick. Stephanie Umoh—who covered the roles belonging to two other actors—went on for Block after doing just a 2.5-hour staging rehearsal. According to Playbill, “Umoh used the script for most of the show, but the audience cheered throughout.”

9. THEY GET PAID FOR EVERY TRACK THEY COVER …

According to Breckenridge, “Swings get paid more than understudies because swings have to, typically, cover multiple roles. As a standby, you can cover, I believe, three roles, and the second that you cover more than that, you have to be paid an additional amount, per week, for each role that you cover.”

Sometimes, moving from swing to understudy means taking a pay cut. Bradshaw, who swung into 10 roles during his eight years in Jersey Boys, had his pay decrease when he took an ensemble role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory even though he's on stage every night. “I was covering six different roles and getting paid for all those. I got paid for dance captain and fight captain,” he says. “Every six months you can get a little increase for pay for signing on for another six months. I was getting paid a lot more doing Jersey Boys. You’d think moving to a new show you’d get paid more, but when you’re in the ensemble every night and covering three roles you aren’t getting paid as much as being a swing and covering three lead roles and three ensemble roles.”

10. … AND A BONUS IF THEY COVER FOR A PRINCIPAL ACTOR.

Broadway performers get paid for eight shows a week—and if you cover for a principal actor and go on in their stead, you get a little pay bump. “Say you’re getting paid $300 a show. When you go on for a principal role, you get an extra $300 because that principal actor is not getting paid that night,” Bradshaw explains. “You get one-eighth of your salary extra.”

But as Douglas explained to Playbill, you only get that bump if you go on for a principal role. “If I go on for my ensemble track," he said, "that does not pay me any extra ... [but] even if I am not on once during the course of a week, I still make my full paycheck, [and] any principal performances that I have is additional money on top.”

Understudies can also expect to get paid more for things like extraordinary risk, “which is when you do something like riding in [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's] glass elevator,” Bradshaw explains. “There was a trap door in Jersey Boys. They let you know that it’s a pneumatic lift and if you stick your arm out your bones are going to snap in half. You have to say you know how it works, but you also get $20 a week to risk your life and ride it. There are all these little bumps you can get as an understudy, and it’s a wonderful thing.”

11. THEY HAVE OTHER ROLES, TOO.

One standby or swing will serve as a show’s dance captain; in Come From Away, Breckenridge fills that role. “It’s my job to maintain the cleanliness of the show, so to speak,” he says. “While a typical dance captain’s job is maintaining just the choreography, with this show, there’s also chairography and blocking and chair traffic. All that stuff that I have to maintain. So on a typical day I’ll watch the show and take notes. If I see something—a traffic issue, or dance moves that have gotten muddy, or blocking that's a little off—I’ll notate it. If it’s something that becomes consistent, I’ll give the actor a note before the half hour [call] the next day, just to make sure they can apply that note in the show.”

12. THEY HAVE A LOT TO THINK ABOUT WHILE STAYING IN CHARACTER ...

“We’re focusing on things that [principal actors] don’t have to focus on at all anymore,” Puckett says. “You walk on stage and you’re looking for your spike mark [a piece of tape that shows actors where to stand], and then you’re looking for where the light is hitting you, and then you’re figuring out if you’re in the right shirt, and then you’re on top of that remembering your lines, and then on top of that you’re in your character.” According to Bradshaw, that type of compartmentalization has a name: “swing brain.”

13. ... AND NEED TO BE CONSISTENT WITH WHAT A PRINCIPAL ACTOR HAS DONE IN THE ROLE.

It’s key that understudies and standbys are consistent with what a principal performer has done in the past, both so they don’t throw off the other actors’ rhythms or wander into a perilous situation. “As the standby, my only intention was to fit in like a cog in a wheel,” Bean says. “A show runs like a well-oiled machine, and it can be dangerous to you or to the other company members if you don't hit your marks and follow the track as it's laid out.”

That said, there is room for a little fun. In his debut as Willy Wonka, Bradshaw said a line in Spanish and threw in a Southern accent on one line. “Willy Wonka is supposed to be unpredictable and you don’t know if he’s telling the truth or lying or strike that, reverse it,” he says. “Any comedian is funnier if they’re doing their own stuff as opposed to doing a filtered version of someone else’s accent. Still, you have to be standing in the right place at the right time. There are holes that open up in the floor and entire ceiling comes down—it’s dangerous.”

14. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT THEY’RE NOT LESSER THAN THE PRINCIPAL PERFORMERS.

The performers Mental Floss spoke to all mentioned the disappointment audiences express when a principal actor is out and a standby or understudy is on. While that’s understandable, they want audience members to know that they’re just as talented and working just as hard as the principal performers.

“The term understudy has a connotation that you’re not as good,” Bradshaw says. “It’s tough understudying a star now instead of just an actor. I would want to see Christian Borle as Willy Wonka. I wouldn’t want to see Jared Bradshaw—I would be disappointed! But you get to exceed their expectations. It takes a special person to understudy and to hop in and play a lead in one of these Broadway shows.”

Breckenridge concurs. “The producers, directors, choreographers, they’re trusting us to do, technically, a harder job than what the onstage actors are doing,” he says. Swings and standbys need to be able to maintain and perform multiple roles, sometimes at the drop of a hat. “I think there’s a misconception that we are second best, when in fact, we’re hired because we have the talent to do a myriad of things, like different roles and voice types,” he says. “We’re just as talented and we are an equal piece of this family, of this cast.”

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie and TV Extras

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are the unsung heroes of television. Without them, most movie and TV scenes would be empty and unrealistic. But while we’re obsessed with movie stars, we never hear much about the people moving around behind them—because by design, we’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Here are a few insights on what it’s like to get paid to blend into the background.

1. Extras Are Not Professionals.

The chances of using background acting as a foray into stardom are pretty slim. “You’re not gonna get your big break as an extra,” says Claire Beaudreault, who has been an extra on shows including Orange Is The New Black, GIRLS, and Law & Order: SVU.

Most of the people you see in the background of a film or TV show have other jobs and are just doing extra work for fun. “I didn’t do it because I saw it as some backdoor into acting or anything,” says Jason Feifer, who was an extra in a scene of the 2004 film Jersey Girl. “But there are definitely people who do that.”

And there are always a few extras on set trying desperately to stay in front of the camera. “It’s a silent vie for control,” says Dillon Francis, a Los Angeles-based actor who was an extra on the movie Easy A back in 2010. “It was kind of interesting to watch. These guys would learn where the camera was going and redo their vector so they walked in front of it.” That’s a quick way to get a slap on the wrist from the director or a production assistant.

2. Extras Have to Do a Lot of Hurry-Up-and-Wait on Set.

Days on set can be excruciatingly long, sometimes lasting more than 15 hours and starting at odd times or ending at the crack of dawn. And a lot of that time is spent just sitting around waiting to be used in a scene, or repeating a single shot a dozen times. “There are days you get to set and you wait and wait and you never get used,” says Amy Rogers, a regular extra featured in TV shows including Homeland and Banshee, “or you work all day and the footage never gets used.”

Extras spend their down time in a designated “holding” area reading or playing card games. On the set of Easy A, which was set in a high school, extras had to wear backpacks stuffed with bubble wrap to make them seem full. “A fun way to distract yourself in downtime was to open up your backpack and pop bubbles,” Francis says.

3. What Looks Like Booze On Camera Isn't Actually Alcohol.

A glass of apple juice spritzer
stephanhartmann/iStock via Getty Images

While posing as party-goers in bar scenes, extras need something to fill their cups. But film sets are no place for drunk actors, so the props team uses a number of tricks to fool the camera, some less appetizing than others. Apple juice is a good substitute for beer, according to Beaudreault: “Or it’ll be seltzer with a little food coloring in it. There will be bottles that have been cleaned out and their labels removed and fake labels put on.”

“Vinegar is sometimes used to approximate the texture and viscosity of booze,” Rogers says. “You’ll stand there with a glass of vinegar for eight hours.” And because filming can be a long and mind-numbingly repetitive process, nobody has time to replace melting ice cubes, so they’ll use gelatin ice cubes. Or, for the ultimate cheat, plastic wrap can be put in a cup filled with water to resemble crushed ice, according to Gale Nemec, who teaches a workshop for background actors. (This approach also apparently makes for festive centerpieces.)

4. Smokers Get Paid More.

When actors smoke on set, they’re usually not sucking on real cigarettes. On Mad Men, for example, the actors smoked herbal cigarettes that didn’t contain nicotine or tar (which is great, considering Jon Hamm reportedly smoked 74 of them shooting the pilot alone).

Non-union extras usually get paid minimum hourly wage, but according to Rogers, they get a small pay increase if they’re asked to smoke in a scene. “They call that a ‘bump’ in the business,” she says. The same rule applies if your car is featured in a scene. “They want boring cars that will never be noticed on screen,” says Steve D’Avria, an extra in The Hunger Games and Homeland. “My 2003 Toyota Camry has been in more TV shows than I have. You get a whole $20 for it.”

5. Extras Have Been Wearing the Same Duds for Days ...

On a film or TV set, continuity is key. To create the illusion that a scene is happening in real-time, rather than over a series of hours or days, every little detail must remain the same in each shot and from every angle. Extras are meticulously examined for accidental inconsistencies in their wardrobes. “You’ve gotta wear the same clothes every day,” Rogers says. “The production assistant will take your picture for continuity to make sure you haven’t taken off a necklace or something. For the Homeland finale, I wore a pair of leggings and a raincoat for a solid week.”

6. ... And They Usually Have To Bring Their Own—The Blander, The Better.

Row of men's shirts in blue colors on hanger
Tatiana Dyuvbanova/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are usually expected to bring their own clothes to set unless the production has a large wardrobe budget. And if you were to peek into the closet of a regular background actor, you’d see hangers upon hangers of gray and dark blue clothing items. Muted colors are preferred on set to make sure extras are as unremarkable as possible. Shirts can’t have any visible logos, and white clothes are discouraged because they “have a tendency to shine like a beacon on camera,” Francis says.

If you resemble one of the principal actors, you’re probably not going to get much camera time. “On Homeland, you’ll never see them place anyone near Claire Danes who has the same hair color as her,” Rogers says.

And pro tip: never look at the camera. “One guy in The Hunger Games kept staring at the camera and they finally just told him he had to sit down,” D’Avria says.

7. Wardrobes for Extras Get Recycled.

If an extra has to wear an elaborate costume, there’s a chance it’s been used before on another set. “One outfit I wore for Insurgent was worn on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Dawn McHargue, who has also appeared in The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Nashville, and Necessary Roughness.

8. Extras Are Great Mimes.

Extras often need to make a scene appear alive and bustling while at the same time remaining totally silent on set so as not to interfere with the actors’ dialogue. This means pretending to conduct a conversation without actually making any noise, and every extra seems to have their own method. “I’m either pretending to flirt with someone or gossiping about something,” Beaudreault says. Also, dance scenes are often filmed in silence and the music is added in later.

While filming a crowd scene for the movie Jersey Girl, Feifer says he spent hours pretending to applaud and cheer. “They would do entire takes where the audience would go through the whole motion but we wouldn’t clap. We would fake clap but not actually get our hands to meet.”

9. For Actors, Seasons Are Irrelevant.

It’s amazing what a little fake snow can do to transform a summer day into a winter wonderland. “Sometimes when you’re shooting a winter scene, everyone is in heavy jackets and hats and gloves and it’s actually 100 degrees outside,” Nemec says. “You can gauge whether it’s actually cold or not if breath is coming out of the actor’s mouth. If not, it’s a good bet they’ve put snow on the ground and it’s hot as all get out and everyone is playing like it’s cold.”

For indoor scenes, air conditioning has to be turned off to eliminate background noise, which makes for a sweaty situation. Between takes, overheating extras strip their layers off to cool down.

10. The Movie Stars Are Off Limits for Extras ...

“As a general rule, don’t speak to them unless they speak with you first,” advises casting director Tona B. Dahlquist.

While filming on one movie, McHargue and her fellow extras were told to avoid looking the star in the eye. “They were very adamant that we were not to go near him or touch him or we would get kicked off set immediately,” she says.

But occasionally extras get a candid glimpse of a movie star’s true personality. For example, while filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria saw Jennifer Lawrence chilling at a card table munching on M&Ms, and watched Josh Hutcherson (who played Peeta) ride around set on a BMX bike.

On the flip side, Francis was the victim of one star's on-set meltdown. “She sees me standing there and she freaks out, saying something about how she’s had a rash of stalkers lately and I’m within a 50-foot perimeter,” he says. “She’s glaring at me from the tent and a PA runs over, moves me a few feet away and says ‘sorry’ and runs away again.”

11. ... And Social Media Is a Good Way for Extras to Get Blacklisted.

Young people taking photo with smartphone
YakobchukOlena/iStock via Getty Images

Phones aren’t allowed on set and photos are strictly forbidden. “While filming Insurgent, there was a girl who took a picture of the set and shared it,” McHargue says. “Lionsgate security came from California to Atlanta and they took her away. She will never work on a set again. She’s blacklisted.”

If you’re sneaky, you can swipe a harmless item from set as a keepsake. While filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria says there were signs in the bathroom that said, “Flush the toilet or you’ll be sent to the Hunger Games.” “I borrowed that sign as a souvenir,” he says.

12. The On-Set Catering Is Pretty Good.

Vats of catered food
kckate16/iStock via Getty Images

The quality of food on set varies depending on budget, but generally, extras eat some amazing grub brought in by professional caterers. “The food on Iron Man 3 was the best food I’ve ever had,” McHargue says. “We ate with the cast and crew and we had anything you could think of: the best steak, shrimp, lobster, and crab. The buffet table, you couldn’t see the end of it.”

The catch: You often don’t get to eat lunch until about 3 pm and dinner starts at 10 pm, according to D’Avria. Extras are advised to bring a few snacks to hold them over until feeding time.

13. Extras Can't Watch TV Like Regular People.

Once you know how a movie is filmed, it’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes. “I can’t watch TV anymore without looking at the background actors and seeing who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong,” Nemec says.

15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

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