When Angelina Jolie arrived at Oscar rehearsals Thursday morning, she had some wisdom to share with a group of film students clustered backstage at the Dolby Theatre. The actress and director spoke to the students not of the demands of a Hollywood career, however, but of the challenges of its footwear.
"I didn't fall in the hole," said Jolie, gesturing to an open spot on the stage and towering over the young adults in a pair of spike heels. "I used to wear flip-flops, but you do this a few times and you learn to wear the shoes you're going to present in."
Jolie was on hand to practice for her role in the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night, joining 45 other presenters who would stream through the Hollywood and Highland Center over a three-day period before the show, including Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, Bill Murray, Brad Pitt, Sidney Poitier, Channing Tatum and Emma Watson.
On the telecast, it may not always seem well practiced, but the rehearsals are a chance for stars to perfect the highly specific skills of awards show presenting in front of a forgiving audience of crew members and stand-ins. They run through their stage walking, teleprompter reading and pronunciation of the evening's trickier potential winners' names (Chiwetel Ejiofor, anyone?).
It wasn't just the actors working out their pre-show jitters. As the aroma of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and coffee hung in the air, the Oscars crew practiced their lighting cues, camera moves and set changes.
With multiple musical numbers planned for the show, including performances by Idina Menzel, Bette Midler, Karen O, Pink, U2 and Pharrell Williams, an area off stage right was crowded with guitars and drum sets. When a familiar rhythmic jangle rose over the backstage din, it was a roadie for U2 tuning up the Edge's guitar.
An escort led a decidedly casual Samuel L. Jackson through the labyrinthine backstage area to the Architectural Digest greenroom designed by David Rockwell, who designed the Dolby Theatre. There presenters can calm their nerves (or soak up some brand names) in a space outfitted with a bar, contemporary sofas and an art installation made of Samsung TV, phone and tablet screens.
"You know how I am in front of people," Jackson said sardonically to the young woman charged with delivering him down the hall to the office of Oscar telecast producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan.
"Yeah, you seem really shy," she said.
In an office a few feet from the stage, Meron and Zadan conferred with their head writer, Kristin Gore, daughter of Al Gore and comedy writer for such TV shows as "Saturday Night Live" and "Futurama."
Meron and Zadan have said host Ellen DeGeneres, whose rehearsals are closed to reporters, will set a warm tone for this year's show. A nameplate for the talk-show host adorns the door of modest dressing room 3, which is outfitted with a mini fridge, microwave and little else.
After Charlize Theron furrowed her brow while delivering a line on stage, a stage manager said, "If you have any questions you can sit with Craig and Neil."
"No, I'm good," Theron said. "I'm so good."
In the wings, stage manager John Esposito trained six film students on how to present the Oscar trophies Sunday night; last year Meron and Zadan replaced the models who had traditionally performed that role with the aspiring young filmmakers.
Out in the theater, the seats, marked with placards displaying the faces of the stars who will occupy them Sunday, were filled by 31 stand-ins, also known as rehearsal actors, many of whom had researched their "roles" for the week. Most of actors have been performing the union job — for which they just won overtime pay last year — for years. They're selected for their professionalism, reliability and, sometimes, resemblance to stars' body types.
After a few turns at the teleprompter, Poitier pivoted on his heel. "Is that it?"