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Grand Forks native stands in with the stars

This is a corrected version of the original article. For more than a decade, Grand Forks native Pam Larson has worked in the entertainment industry as an actress, stand-in, photo double, extra and stunt woman in Hawaii. Among her work: The Jennif...

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Pam Larson, who grew up in Grand Forks, and Alexander Payne, the director of the movie "the Descendants," in which Larson was the stand-in for the actress who played George Clooney's wife.

This is a corrected version of the original article.

For more than a decade, Grand Forks native Pam Larson has worked in the entertainment industry as an actress, stand-in, photo double, extra and stunt woman in Hawaii.

Among her work: The Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler movie, "Just Go For It." An episode of "Cougar Town" with Courtney Cox. And six seasons on hit television show "Lost" as a stand-in for Yungjim Kim and Emilie de Ravin and others.

Her ability to change her look (in part thanks to a personal wig collection) and her finesse with death and danger scenes have kept her in demand.

"I've died in a mud puddle, crawled through the shattered windshield of a running but totaled car and many others," she said. "So I have developed a specialty in difficult or death and dying scenes."

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Most recently, her television and film career had her working with George Clooney in "The Descendants," directed by Alexander Payne, in which Clooney plays a father struggling to take care of his two daughters after a boat accident puts his wife into a coma. The critically acclaimed movie has given Clooney some of the best reviews of his career. It just won him a Golden Globe award for best actor, and has put him on the short list to win as Oscar this year.

Larson's work with Clooney included rehearsing with him on one of the movie's pivotal scenes, as well as getting to know him as charming and generous at play with her and other crew members, and as a professional at work. It was the best experience so far in her career in movies, she said.

Grand Forks born

Born Pamela Sidie, Larson graduated from Red River High School in 1971 and attended UND. In the late 1990s, she was working with the non-profit "America's Promise" program in Grand Forks, a national mentoring program for young people headed by Colin Powell. During a job-related trip to Washington, D.C., in 1998, Larson landed a small part in a crowd scene in "Enemy of the State," a Gene Hackman/Will Smith movie that was being filmed there at the time. After that, she moved to California and soon had a job on "Diagnosis Murder" starring Dick Van Dyke.

"I have lived in Hawaii for the last 10 years and have worked for every casting person on the island," Larson said in an email interview. Since she was trained in Los Angeles and worked in television and feature films there, she is considered a key stand-in based on her experience.

A stand-is someone who can physically appear as the actor he or she represents, who knows the actor's lines and who can be used to set the scene before the actor arrives on set, Larson explained. A stand-in must become the actor in all aspects so that the crew and director can rehearse the scene and perfect the lighting, sound and blocking (how and where the actor will move) to get the best shot. The stand-in also must rehearse the scene for safety issues for their actor, Larson said, because if an actor is injured, filming has to stop.

"If a stand-in is brought in locally with no previous experience, I'm asked to train them," she said. "So I am established here in the industry as well as serving on the Screen Actors Guild of Hawaii as a board member."

Dying isn't easy

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A death scene or a coma scene sounds easy, Larson said, but it's not.You have to lower your pulse rate, breathing, eye and facial movements for long periods of time as well as remaining motionless when chaos is all around you, she said.

Larson said her death and dying-scene experience was a plus when it came to the role of George Clooney's wife in "The Descendants," since the wife was in a coma for much of the movie. Larson was told she was being considered for that part, but it went to Patricia Hastie.

"The Descendents" director, Alexander Payne, whom Larson had met during casting, requested Larson as the stand-in for Hastie.

"I was thrilled to get it," Larson said. "So Pattie and I called ourselves 'the two wives of George Clooney.' I also stood in for other characters in the film when we were not doing the hospital scenes. So I spent a lot of time with George."

About George

Every time a crew starts a new production, it has to assess how the actors and directors want to be treated, Larson said. For instance, on the film "Hereafter," a Clint Eastwood film starring Matt Damon, Eastwood was a quiet, serious but kind and supportive director, Larson said.

"He was all business," she said. "Our crew followed his lead and brought their A-game to the set. Alexander Payne is also a quiet and serious director, but if you're going to work with George Clooney, he's going to make sure you have a good time. He is like the class clown you just want to be around. Even though this film had serious subject matter, when he wasn't being filmed, he was either smiling, laughing or playing basketball with the crew with the hoops he had set up inside and outside our studio. He was also a great athlete and mopped the floor in games with our crew. I even got in a couple of shots myself."

At first, Larson said, she and other crew members were quiet around Clooney, reading or listening to their iPods during breaks.

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"But then George said, 'Why is everyone so quiet? Doesn't anyone have anything to talk about?' That broke the ice and from then on we had fun with George," she said. "I told him abut my brother Jay who tormented my sister and me with his practical jokes. He thought they were very clever jokes and he got a good laugh."

One particular incident on the set, however, was not so funny. One night after a wrap, Clooney and his assistant and Larson and another stand-in got into the ancient elevator of the old hospital in which the movie was shooting.

"I was always afraid of that elevator," Larson said. "The other stand-in, thinking that George liked practical jokes so much, starting jumping up and down in this old elevator, trying to make it jam."

First there was a loud clank and then the elevator started lurching back and forth nearly knocking everyone off their feet. The other stand-was laughing, Larson said.

"We all just stared at her in disbelief," Larson said. "But on the up side, I thought, 'Well, if it's my time to go, I guess dying in an elevator with George Clooney isn't a bad way to go.' But we landed safely and raced out of that elevator. I didn't see much of that stand-in after that."

Best experience

Larson said her best experience with Clooney came during rehearsal of a pivotal scene in the hospital room, a serious and dramatic scene where Clooney's character rages at his comatose wife.

"I took my place in the hospital bed and he asked the crew for a private rehearsal. He knew how important this scene was. So it was just him and me in the room," Larson said. "I was ready to go and George came over to me, bent down to my head as I laid in the bed and asked me, 'Do you mind if I go all out on you?' Which meant, could he scream full out in my face in the scene. I said, 'Of course. That's what I'm here for.' And he did just that.

"I can tell you from experience, that that kind of courtesy from an actor of that caliber is extremely rare. Not only did he charm us as a person, he won everyone's respect as a professional. I think that was the highlight of my career," Larson said.

At the wrap party, Clooney gave the cast and crew an extravagant party at the Yacht Harbor, she said. "We danced the night away."

"The Descendants" has yet to open in Grand Forks or East Grand Forks.

Correction

Pam Larson is a graduate of Red River High School. The school's identity was incorrect in the original story.

Hastie Larson
Larson with Patricia Hastie (left), the actress who plays Clooney's wife.

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