When you’re a professional actor, you’re paid to look like your role. Acting is one of the few professions in which appearance discrimination is implicitly legal (link opens a PDF), and for good reason; to tell a story, directors need actors to look a certain way. If Tom Cruise were cast as the lead in Tomb Raider, you probably wouldn’t believe the story—although, if we’re being honest, we’d definitely pay to see that movie.
As an actor, you’re prepared to do what’s necessary to make the role work. Unfortunately, your body is painfully human. If you sustain an injury, get sick, or become pregnant during a shoot, you’ve got to work with it. That’s sometimes easier said than done, particularly when the physical change occurs several months into the production.
At that point, actors (and directors, producers, and occasionally, makeup artists) have to get creative.
That’s especially true when actors become pregnant during a shoot.
It’s incredibly tough to hide a pregnancy (or to fake a pregnancy, if you ask Beyoncé conspiracy theorists). When actors become pregnant, the obvious option is to make their character pregnant.
For example, the writers of Friends wrote Lisa Kudrow’s real-life pregnancy into the show’s fourth season, introducing a storyline in which Kudrow’s character (Phoebe Buffay, as if you really needed us to tell you that) acts as a surrogate for her brother. That allowed the show to address Kudrow’s growing waistline without permanently adding kids to the cast; when Phoebe gave birth, she gave the babies to their parents, at which point they basically disappeared.
But the writers might have been a little overzealous, since in the show, Phoebe gives birth to triplets. Kudrow was only pregnant with a single child, so according to IMDB, she was forced to wear extra padding to make the storyline work. As an actor, that has to feel somewhat flattering—”Hey, we know you’re pregnant, but we need to make you look like you weigh more.”
In The Office, Jenna Fischer’s pregnancy was actually convenient for the plot. Her character, Pam Beesly, finds out she was pregnant with her second baby during the previous season’s Valentine’s Day episode.
“The story is that they conceived this baby at that time and were keeping it a secret until we come back from the summer,” Fischer told People. The twist was already planned; when Fischer actually became pregnant, the plotline made even more sense.
“When we started shooting that episode, I thought to myself, ‘If everything goes well, this is going to be a very, very convenient coincidence,’” she told the magazine. “I think I found out I was pregnant when we were shooting that episode.”
Sometimes, adding a pregnancy into a script isn’t an option.
When Julia Louis-Dreyfus became pregnant during the third season of Seinfeld, showrunner Jerry Seinfeld suggested a simple solution: Her character, Elaine, would get fat.
Louis-Dreyfus promptly burst into tears, although in a recent episode of Seinfeld’s new show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, she referred to the abandoned storyline as “a great idea.”
Instead, Seinfeld did what most sitcoms do: They hid their star’s pregnancy. Elaine wore large coats and stood behind various objects to keep her baby bump from being noticeable. That’s far from unusual; Courtney Cox was subjected to the same treatment when she became pregnant while filming Friends, as, unlike her co-star Kudrow, Cox’s pregnancy couldn’t be written into the show’s storyline.
The writers of How I Met Your Mother mocked sitcom conventions by making Alyson Hannigan’s real-life pregnancy a running gag on the show’s fourth season. Hannigan “hid” her pregnancy by standing behind ridiculous objects—drawing attention to her rather than pushing the actor into the background.
“Why be subtle about it? Let’s make an extra joke out of it,” executive producer Craig Thomas said of Hannigan’s pregnancy.
The joke peaked when Hannigan’s character won a hot dog eating contest, then stood up to show she was “full.”
But while satirical sitcoms can get away with a tactic like that, in most cases, the easiest way to deal with an actor’s condition is to simply hide it. One of the most famous examples is silent film actor Harold Lloyd, who lost the thumb and forefinger on his right hand while posing for a photo shoot in 1919.
During said shoot, Lloyd held a “fake” bomb; he reportedly told the photographer the prop was giving off a tremendous amount of smoke for a fake.
The ensuing explosion blew the roof off the building and blinded Lloyd for eight months, but incredibly, it didn’t drive him out of the movie business. Lloyd would often wear a tight-fitting glove over prosthetic fingers, and wherever possible, he’d stage shots to favor his intact left hand. When a script called for a close-up shot, he’d bring in a hand double. When appearing in public, he’d tuck his right hand into his pocket.
In fact, Lloyd even hid his injury when leaving his handprints in the concrete of the Chinese Theater. Astute observers will note that the thumb and forefinger of the right hand aren’t as well-defined as the other digits.
In some cases, filmmakers can actually use the actor’s condition to enhance the realism.
When a leading actor gets injured during the shot, it can make for extremely visceral filmmaking. Take Leonardo DiCaprio’s famous monologue from Django Unchained (2012), for instance. As his villainous character rants on and on, he slams his fist onto a table to emphasize a point.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, DiCaprio performed take after take of the scene. His sixth time through, he accidentally brought his fist directly down onto a fragile glass.
“[The glass] disintegrated into his hand, and he never flinched,” co-producer Stacey Sher told the publication.
Anyone who’s seen the result can attest to its gory effectiveness. DiCaprio continued to bleed throughout the entire take. This being a Quentin Tarantino film, that was the take that made the final cut.
Leo should have gotten the Oscar for #DjangoUnchained
— Marion Ravenwood (@bookshopgirl212) November 10, 2016
“I’m glad Quentin kept it in,” DiCaprio reportedly said.
Of course, not all injuries are physical, and more than one director has used a real-life onscreen breakdown to achieve an effect. In the classic sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien (1979), director Ridley Scott purposefully refused to prepare his cast for the infamous chestburster scene. When the creature finally burst through John Hurt’s prosthetic chest, a gout of special-effects blood struck co-star Veronica Cartwright right in the face.
Favourite fact: none of the other actors knew about the chestburster before filming that scene in Alien.
— Duffy (@MotionRotation) January 28, 2017
She was so upset that she reportedly passed out, but not before reacting with a horror that has become legendary.
Upsetting your cast for effect is an old director’s trick. For example, there’s the iconic head-shaving scene from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The film’s breakout star, Renee Falconetti, came to the film from the stage; for reasons that will become clear, she never appeared in another motion picture. She begged Dreyer not to shave her head, as called for by the script. She would have preferred to use a wig.
Instead, Dreyer filmed her hair being hacked down to stubble. Falconetti wept—authentic tears that contribute to one of cinema’s most haunting moments of all time.
Of course, that can backfire if the actor’s condition isn’t as severe as it needs to appear on screen.
In Breaking Bad, RJ Mitte played Walter White Jr., the son of the protagonist. The character has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement, so the producers looked for an actor with the same condition. That was Mitte.
“I saw [acting] as an opportunity to change my life for the better, and I took it,” Mitte told LA Parent in 2015. “It turned into a career.”
When he learned about the Breaking Bad role, he knew it was perfect for him (and not because he had a penchant for violent crime).
“The [character] breakdown pretty much described me,” he told The Guardian. “Dark hair, big eyebrows, cerebral palsy … I was like, ‘I have this covered.'”
There was just one problem: Mitte’s cerebral palsy is mild compared to his character’s condition. Walter Jr. needs crutches to walk; Mitte, on the other hand, plays soccer and skateboards. That’s not to say his condition doesn’t affect his life profoundly, but he found himself in the unusual position of exaggerating his symptoms for the camera.
“It took a little bit of convincing, as at first, [director Vince Gilligan] thought I was actually too able-bodied,” Mitte told The Daily Mail.
Still, Mitte noted that his casting was an important moment in American television. He’s seen other actors with disabilities playing major roles over the last decade, and he encourages other people in his position to live “out in the open” rather than hiding what makes them different.
“I think it’s important that we have real stories on television that are having a real impact,” he said. “People are hungry for realism. They’re hungry to see characters like them.”