Pulling Off a Non-Pregnant Role When You Have a Bun in the Oven

May 11, 2014

actress-work-through-pregnancy-kerry-washington.jpgHappy Mother’s Day from Casting Frontier!

Working as an actress can be a real challenge for a woman who is trying to have a baby. After all, what happens when an actress becomes pregnant and the role she is playing specifically calls for a woman who is not expecting a child? While there have been cases when producers changed the storyline to include a character becoming pregnant and then having the baby, this certainly is not always practical or even possible. Sometimes a production needs to utilize optical illusions to conceal a pregnancy from the audience. Members of the crew can come together and make all the difference in making something that is visible and unmistakable into something that is often times overlooked altogether.

A recent case is Kerry Washington from ABC’s Scandal who attempted to hide her pregnancy while playing the role of Olivia Pope. “It’s been an awesome challenge for me as an actor because so much of how I access character is through my body,” Washington explained. She feels the experience helped her grow as an actress because the pregnancy forced her to find “other ways to access Olivia and be her.” Kerry is not alone in the challenges that accompany an expecting actress; other actresses have pulled off baby bumps in the past as well–and audiences may have never suspected a thing. Take Shelley Long, for instance, playing the waitress, Diane Chambers, who was trying to decide if she should pursue psychiatrist Frasier or the bartender Sam in the bar-room sitcom Cheers. And consider Patricia Heaton who was pregnant twice while playing Debra Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond–one of which was written into the show featuring pregnancy flashbacks before Debra had her daughter Ally, and the second time her pregnancy was concealed with optical illusions. Courtney Cox’s character, Monica Geller, on Friends in season ten hid her baby bump–which was especially important for the storyline considering it had previously been established that Monica and Chandler were unable to conceive. And who would have ever guessed Phylicia Rashad who played Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show was pregnant during season three?

In such cases, the crew can really come to the rescue:

Set designers and camera operators often have to work hand in hand. Simply sitting an actress behind a table, or if she stands behind a chair, a couch, or bar–you name it–a baby bump can be concealed. Couple this with strategic camera angles in which a fellow cast member’s shoulder or a lamp in the forefront of the shot covers a actress’s belly–and presto, the audience would often never notice anything out of the ordinary. Other camera angles include deliberately avoiding panning too far down; rather shooting from the waist–or even neck–upward. In Phylicia Rashad’s case during The Cosby Show, the producers even scooped out a hole from a mattress to hide her baby bump!

The wardrobe department can help too by fitting an expecting mom with loose clothing like oversized stylish coats as well as dark clothing in Kerry Washington’s case, and aprons did the trick for Shelley Long. The prop department can chip in to help camouflage a pregnant belly by providing relevant items for the character to carry; Washington’s Olivia Pope character often carried a large handbag or important documents whereas a laundry basket served the same purpose for Heaton’s role of Debra Barone on the set of Everybody Loves Raymond.

When the crew comes together to assist in an actress’s ability to play the role using any combination of these techniques, the result is an employed actress who is well-supported. Kerry Washington expressed her appreciation that the producers of Scandal worked around her situation, saying, “I feel very grateful that we have such an amazing team that was able to protect the character within the context of what the actress was going through.”

If you’re an actress who is interested in motherhood, but still want to pursue a career in film and television, you’ve got to prove how indispensable you are to the production because the money people and the producers will not risk their investment and their jobs for someone they don’t believe in. At the end of the day, this is a tough business, and tough business decisions have to be made. The good news is that if you prove to be a valuable commodity–if you’re on time, prepared, well-trained, and a true professional–then the folks in the industry will work with you as best they can. So go out there and prove the value of your talent to producers! Or keep on your mission to become indispensable. Hey, this is the 21st century. Who says you can’t have it all?!