Bold, brazen and mistress of the mid-sex straight-to-camera quip, Billie Piper was feted for her role in Secret Diary Of A Call Girl.
But if you thought you were watching the celebrated actress writhe around in some of the raunchiest scenes on telly, think again.
By the 2008 second season of the ITV series, which follows up-market prostitute Belle, Piper was pregnant in real life. In her place was a 23-year-old girl from Sunderland in her first role as a body double.
‘I’d signed up to an extras agency because I wanted to go to drama school and I was contacted by the agency to say that my measurements fit the requirements for a job and could I send a few more photos for the casting directors.’ says Shoni Wilkinson, now 36.
UK-based women who’ve been body doubles for stars including Liz Hurley and Billie Piper speak candidly about their job. Pictured: Body double Shoni Wilkinson
Shoni said it was a ‘massive compliment’ to look like Billie Piper (pictured) enough to be her body double in Secret Diary Of A Call Girl
‘I don’t remember being asked if I was comfortable with full nudity — if I’d heard that, I would have thought the worst. Instead, they said that it was a very ‘specific’ job and did I want to be put forward?’
It was the fact she’d studied dance and could follow movement direction, plus felt ‘comfortable’ with her body, that led to her being cast for simulated sex scenes, she says.
‘I said yes to it because I could tell from the casting that it was a very professional production, a big production, but I don’t know if I was told before I was on set that I would be a “body double”, possibly because there’s quite high privacy around those roles.
‘When I realised, I thought it was a massive compliment, to look like Billie Piper, and I was excited, but it was nervous excitement. It’s a bizarre job.’
Being told you are the spitting image of a beautiful actress with a perfect figure and flawless skin, is the ‘flattering’ side of working as a so-called ‘body double’ on film and TV sets, agrees fellow British body double Kerri Parker.
The less fun bit involves, well, sticking tape to very intimate areas, wearing flesh-coloured thongs all day and little else, or taking your clothes off entirely in front of dozens of people.
Some women are very, very brave,’ says Kerri, 38, from Norwich, who has been hired as both a sex scene and a stunt double for actresses including Cate Blanchett, Megan Fox and Liz Hurley.
Actress Lily James is, it has been reported, using lookalike, 26-year-old Marissa Hoffman, for the more risque scenes in the forthcoming series Pam And Tommy,
Actress Lily James (pictured left) has been reported to be using lookalike, 26-year-old Marissa Hoffman (pictured right), for the more risque scenes in Pam And Tommy
It tells the story of Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson’s marriage to rock drummer Tommy Lee including what is the first ‘celebrity sex tape’, said to have been made on their honeymoon. A VHS copy was stolen by their electrician and widely distributed online.
Others who’ve admitted using body doubles include Keira Knightley, who chose her own body double for sex scenes in 2019’s tear-jerker The Aftermath and whose bare bottom in the 2007 film Atonement belonged to a double too.
In the wake of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s rape conviction last year and the #MeToo movement which shone a light on widespread sexual harassment in the movie industry, there have been significant changes in working practices in recent years.
While no hit drama is without a succession of steamy scenes, shows such as Normal People, Bridgerton and Sex Education have supposedly turned what was once a murky, exploitative and occasionally disturbing side of the TV and film industry into something of an art form, with ‘intimacy co-ordinators’ — professionals who choreograph sex scenes — employed to make the actor feel comfortable.
Before I got the job, I’d been asked to send photos of every inch of my body to casting directors
Nowadays, sets are often ‘closed’ when filming sex scenes, which means the number of people allowed behind the camera is limited.
For actresses, gone are the days when nude scenes were expected and refusal could risk a career.
When Emilia Clarke admitted to tears at the age of 23 before ‘terrifying’ nude scenes as Queen Daenerys Targaryen in Game Of Thrones, the industry sat up and listened, albeit reluctantly.
‘I’ve had fights on set before where I’m like, “No, the sheet stays up,” ’ said Clarke, ‘and they’re like, “You don’t wanna disappoint your Game Of Thrones fans.” And I’m like, “F*** you”,’ she’s said.
When actresses turned to body doubles, these women arguably had even less of a say — young and naïve, some were pressured to say yes to demanding scenes.
Kerri Parker, 38, (pictured) said an “intimacy cushion” was placed between private parts, just in case the actor couldn’t control himself while working as a body double for Jessica Raine
Kerri said she didn’t eat anything on set while standing in for Liz Hurley (pictured centre), as Queen Helena in The Royals because she’s so tiny
‘When you’re a young performer and it’s your first job on a set, you want to have your voice heard, but you also want not to be a problem because you want to be called back,’ says Shoni Wilkinson.
‘There’s a huge turnover in the industry — that’s the case with all roles on film sets — and it wasn’t always encouraged for people to speak up about long hours or inappropriate behaviour.’
A former member of the Territorial Army, Kerri decided to move to LA to try her luck as an actress after her modelling career took off.
After winning a small role in The Bourne Ultimatum, she became a body double for Jessica Raine in the Robin Hood franchise, which launched in 2010.
‘For Princess Isabel of Gloucester’s sex scenes, I had to lie in a bed covered in furs with the male body double I’d met just ten minutes before,’ she says. ‘Suddenly you’re in bed, joking that our relationship was moving fast for a first date.’ The filming of these scenes relies on taped-up privates, beige underwear and other ‘barriers’, she explains.
‘We had an “intimacy cushion” between our most private parts, just in case the actor couldn’t control himself. It can happen, so the cushion is a block for comfort and personal space.’
She wasn’t required to be totally naked on set, but did have to send very revealing naked pictures before casting. ‘Before I got the job, I’d been asked to send photos of every inch of my body to casting directors — shoulders, legs, everything.’
Body doubles must also watch their weight like a hawk — a large part of the job is to be as slim and fit as the actresses. When standing in for Liz Hurley, as Queen Helena in The Royals, Kerri says, ‘I didn’t eat anything on set at all because she’s so tiny’.
In the past I found it hard to have a relationship because insecure men didn’t like what I was doing
Like much about the film industry, there is a glamorous side — often body doubles have their own trailers and are paid hundreds of pounds a day for intimacy scenes. Yet by definition, they rarely receive public recognition and the work can even damage fledgling careers.
‘I’m careful about the kind of image I portray because I’m also an actor and a stuntwoman and it could affect what else I’m cast for,’ says Kerri. ‘I’ve been asked if I’ll be completely nude and I say, “not if there are extras on set”.
And if you’re wondering what it’s really like to be in bed with say Brad Pitt or George Clooney — which some might say are the plus sides of the jobas — body doubles sadly can’t share those details.
They are often required to sign extensive Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA), which prevent them talking about experiences on set.
Body-doubling is not easy work. A typical day involves a 3am start to arrive on a set outside of London by 5am for hair and make-up, Shoni explains.
‘On Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, when it was time to shoot, I’d be given a robe, a runner would come and fetch me and the scene would be blocked so only about ten or 15 people were watching it, rather than the 50 people who might usually be around.
Lucy Cork, 29, (pictured) a stuntwoman from Surrey, has been a stand-in for British actresses Vanessa Kirby, Rebecca Ferguson and Felicity Jones
Though some famous faces are cagey about admitting to the use of doubles — one reason for the NDAs — other actresses have publicly thanked their doubles for doing work they couldn’t do. Pictured: Mission Impossible actress Rebecca Ferguson
‘The aim is to match your movements exactly to the movements of the actress [in the scene before] so producers can merge them.
‘You really don’t sense, when you take the robe off, that every eye is on you. But then someone comes in and says you have a shiny bum, can I put some powder on that,’ she laughs.
‘Modesty garments didn’t exist 15 years ago so, depending on the scene, I would have my boobs exposed, or if I was nude below the waist, I’d be wearing a cheap, beige Primark thong that would have had the sides cut off and be stuck to you so you could be filmed from the side in a way that made it look like you weren’t wearing anything,’ she says.
In her experience, and those of other women I’ve spoken to, it’s often the male body doubles — rather than the crew — who make the female stand-ins feel most comfortable. Shoni, for example, found herself being talked through the scenes by her more experienced male counterpart.
‘In one scene, in which Billie’s character was with a client and reminiscing about their past experience, I was working with a guy I called the “sheet guy” because he kept offering to cover me with a sheet when we’d stopped filming.
‘It’s all very consenting, but they’re long scenes, shot many times over, and this was a full sex scene so the directors wanted to see foreplay; everything from the removing of the stockings to achieving orgasm. I had no experience, so this very chilled guy I was working with really helped.’
Though some famous faces are cagey about admitting to the use of doubles — one reason for the NDAs — other actresses have publicly thanked their doubles for doing work they couldn’t do.
Lena Headey, who played Cersei in Game Of Thrones, agreed that being a double was ‘not a natural thing to do’ when she openly praised Rebecca Van Cleave for standing in for a long, six-minute scene in season five, in which she walked completely naked through braying crowds. It was a scene that took three days to film.
‘I’ve done nudity,’ Headey said. ‘I’m not averse to it… But I know I’m a very emotional actor… Things really affect me. And the thought of being naked for three days and trying to contain [Cersei] in the way she would be, I think I would feel very angry. I didn’t want to be angry. And wonderful Rebecca was able to contain herself and be naked.’
However, her double still ‘found it very difficult, obviously,’ Headey added.
Lucy (pictured) said when she first met the Rock, her first stunt was to jump onto a chair, then onto a table and then wrap her legs around his neck
Action: Ariane Labed and Michael Fassbender as Maria and Callum in Assassin’s Creed
Rebecca herself described it as ‘one of the scariest, most wonderful, most gratifying experiences I could have imagined,’ but admitted crying with emotion after watching it back. It’s been reported that thousands of other actresses applied for the part.
The NDAs are often so tightly-worded, body doubles are unable even to discuss what they’re doing at work with friends.
‘I did tell my mum about the kind of work it was and she was really supportive,’ says Shoni about Diary Of A Call Girl. ‘Then after it came out, my grandad told me he’d taped it, but hadn’t watched it,’ she laughs. ‘They were proud of me and my boyfriend was supportive, too. He had total trust that it was just work.’
That’s not always the case, however, and sometimes the romantic relationships of the body doubles can suffer while filming.
‘In the past, I found it hard to have a relationship because insecure men didn’t like what I was doing,’ says Kerri Parker.
‘One boyfriend stopped me getting a part in the sequel to the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall because I was going to have to kiss Russell Brand and he thought I’d run away with him.’
Worse was being called en route to the set of the teen soap Hollyoaks to be told that she was going to have to kiss someone during a scene. ‘I was freaking out,’ she says. ‘I arrived and looked around and thought, please not him, please not him.’ Luckily, they changed the scene.
Intimacy of course extends into the stunt world, too, with up-close and personal fights being extremely hands on.
Lucy Cork, 29, a stuntwoman from Surrey who has been a stand-in for British actresses Vanessa Kirby, Rebecca Ferguson and Felicity Jones, says there can be awkward moments.
‘The first time I met The Rock (actor Dwayne Johnson), we got introduced and my first stunt was to jump onto a chair, then onto a table and then wrap my legs around his neck — face onto him — which was quite a shock to him, I think,’ she says.
‘I have less concern than [the stars] do. I’m most concerned that they’ll be alright with it. But everyone asks if everyone’s OK and I’m sure if there was any hesitation, it wouldn’t be done.’
Shoni Wilkinson’s experiences on sets inspired her to launch a company called Intimask which specialises in modesty garments to keep actors and body doubles more protected in sex scenes.
‘Previously costume departments were given five minutes to pull something together that would conceal an actor, or they’d forget to do it,’ she explains.
Since its launch last year, sales have surged by 170 per cent and been worn on screen in productions filmed by Netflix, the BBC, Sky and Amazon. ‘It’s about making a responsible choice,’ she says. ‘With everything.’