In planning his Russian spy thriller Red Sparrow, director Francis Lawrence was pretty certain the star, Jennifer Lawrence, could dance the grand ballet scene that opens the film.
“I sort of thought, ‘We’ll get a choreographer and a trainer. We’ll have Jen whipped into shape,’” said Lawrence. “Four months? She’ll be able to do most of it, right?”
But after connecting with a choreographer, watching his first full-length ballet and observing New York City Ballet in rehearsals and company class, reality set in. “Then it became very clear there was no way in hell Jen was going to be able to pull off most of the dancing,” said Lawrence, who arranged to hire a full-on dance double for the six-minute sequence.
The film is better for it. Without dance doubles, films from Red Sparrow to Flashdance to Black Swan would utterly fail to be convincing: a story about a star dancer needs star-level dancing.
But after the controversy of Black Swan, in which star Natalie Portman’s level of dancing was questioned, issues of authenticity are now scrutinized: No artist who spends two decades training wants to go uncredited—and audiences don’t want to be duped.
To some degree, body doubles are just part of Hollywood’s bag of tricks. But stand-ins for sex or nude scenes don’t create controversy: They’re the stuff of celebrity trivia and clickbait slideshows. Did you know Vera Farmiga was pregnant during Up In The Air, so director Jason Reitman used a double for her sex scene with George Clooney?
Janet Leigh famously had a body double, a Playboy cover girl in fact, for the body close-ups in Psycho. Director Lars von Trier openly disclosed that for Nymphomaniac, a Danish actress stood in for Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg during the sexy scenes.
Movie posters have often employed leg doubles. Julia Roberts has long legs, but the ones on the poster of Pretty Woman aren’t hers. And the ads for The Graduate feature Dustin Hoffman gazing at one lithe leg that belongs not to Anne Bancroft but Linda Gray, whose nipple also makes an appearance in the film.
Then there’s Keira Knightley, who admitted on a British TV show that she asked for a butt-double for a striptease scene in Domino. Kevin Costner wanted a double for his skinny-dipping scenes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (fear of catching hypothermia, according to the DVD commentary).
Action shots often require actors who have the right range of motion. In Battle of the Sexes, tennis players were brought in for Emma Stone and Steve Carell, and the doubles had to replicate the style of tennis played in the 1970s. When Penelope Cruz was pregnant during Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, her sister stood in for her sword fighting scenes.
These sleights of hand are minor compared to the practice of subbing in highly skilled artists that has happened for decades, often unbeknownst to audiences.
Producers of classic movie musicals routinely used vocal doubles: The soprano Marni Nixon was the unheralded star who provided a charming singing voice for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Deborah Kerr in The King and I.
In dance, perhaps the most famous—and egregious—case was Flashdance in 1983. Actress Jennifer Beals not only had an uncredited dance double, Marine Jahan, but two additional performers for the wow-factor tricks in the famous audition scene: A gymnast flew through the air in that perfect leap, and a young male dancer dressed up in tights, leotard, and wig for the breakdance spin on the floor.
Things had changed by 2000, when Center Stage lodged itself in the hearts of dance fans. New York City Ballet dancer Aesha Ash was named for her work doubling for actress Zoe Saldana (who had ballet training) during a short classical ballet scene.
The Black Swan controversy, though, was not just about insufficient credit. Portman’s double, Sarah Lane of American Ballet Theatre, sought greater recognition for how much work it takes to become a ballerina, after Portman was lauded for transforming herself into a nearly professional quality dancer in about a year.
By contrast, Red Sparrow took a transparent approach. “Jen is not going to pretend that she was able to do this,” said the director, who notes that dance double Isabella Boylston is listed in the credits twice, once as the double and again as the dancer in the film’s brief ballet finale.
Red Sparrow centers on Dominika Egorova, a star Russian ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury onstage, the likes of which is more plausible in the NFL than ballet. Her uncle recruits her into Russian intelligence, then it’s all sex, spies, and double-crossing until she gets to watch a ballet again.
For it, Lawrence had to learn all the professional-level choreography, by New York City’s Ballet’s Justin Peck—and be filmed doing it, so that her head and shoulders could be paired perfectly with Boylston’s body and legs. “You still sort of hope there are going to be some moments, even if it is a close up, where it is not going to be an effect,” said the director.
Lawrence worked four hours every day, for three-and-half months just to portray the head and shoulders of a dancer for about six minutes on film, said her coach Kurt Froman, a former New York City Ballet dancer who has prepared film and Broadway actors for dance.
To train Lawrence for balletic placement of head, shoulders, and hands, he started daily exercises with shoulder rolls and shrugs that improved her posture. There was no attempt to have Lawrence dance on pointe, he said, as the audience would never see her feet.
But her head had to rise or turn as choreographed, and the proper use of her arms would affect her head and shoulders. “Your hands have to be paintbrushes,” Froman recalls telling her. “They’re not garnish.”
From an acting perspective, the dance work helped her study to be a disciplined, focused dance-turned-spy, said Francis Lawrence. “The pain, the exercise, the athleticism. It was all good for her from a character stand point.”
Within the ballet world, the film won some respect for going the extra mile. “It’s honoring the art form,” said Froman. “To say ‘She can wing it, and we’ll just indicate that she’s a dancer,’ that would have sold her and the characters short.” And maybe viewers too, added Froman: “Audiences, even TV audiences, are tuned into better quality dancing today.”