Down the rabbit hole of online message boards, few topics are ranked and debated with the same intensity as the Greatest Onscreen Deaths (e.g., “Best Film Deaths,” “Best Movie Deaths,” “50 Best Movie Deaths,” “Greatest Movie Deaths of All Time,” and that’s before we even start talking about the “Best Deaths By ___” categories). The criteria for ranking these scenes vary; some are judged by degree of violence, others by such particulars as the songs accompanying the scenes. But there’s one aspect of onscreen death these lists leave out: What’s it like on the other side of the camera?
It seems like these scenes would be creepy for an actor. How do they do those glassy eyes? What does fake blood feel like? What special effects are involved? What do they think about when they’re lying on the coroner’s table? And apparently, corpse acting’s on the rise. In February, a Wall Street Journal article about playing dead onscreen credited the “CSI”/”NCIS”/crime-procedural juggernaut with a proliferation of dead body gigs. Curious about the mechanics behind some of our favorite death scenes, we called up eight actors from such shows and movies as “True Blood,” “The Wire,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and American History X, and got them to break it down for us. Below, tips and tricks on playing dead, straight from them.
JOHN BURKE—”TRUE BLOOD”
One of season three’s most memorable, delicious, game-changing moments came when Denis O’Hare’s King Russell Edgington snapped and gorily murdered a newscaster on national TV. Burke is that newscaster.
I went twice to a special effects house in L.A., and they’re actually not as busy as they used to be because everything’s so CGI these days. They made a plaster cast around my chest, and they put a bladder in there that was filled with blood, and on the front of the chest was a little fist that would protrude when a mechanism was triggered, and they also of course made a fake spine for my back. So we put all that on, put on a shirt, cut a hole in the shirt, put my tie covering the hole, and then had a piece of fishing line attached to the tie, so that on a specific word the tie flipped up and then the fist came out and then the chest exploded with the blood. It was heavily choreographed, which added to the stress of the acting. There were three people to make the whole mechanism work: A guy to my left who hit the blood bladder to make the chest explode, a guy under the news desk with the fishing line that would flip up the tie and release the fist and one other person.
I think we did the scene about seven times, and it was just filled with blood. The whole camera crew, everybody was covered with plastic, and the thing would explode and they would descend on me with shaving cream, because apparently shaving cream gets the fake blood out of your skin, and then we’d reload and do it again. The blood itself is pretty much what you get on Halloween in any typical shop, and the consistency is kind of thin, but there’s a lot of it.
The hardest part was when [Denis/Russell] swept me off the desk. It was weird, I had to be dead and move, which was a somewhat complicated maneuver. The first time or two I didn’t get it right, and they came over and said ‘Listen, you’re dead now; you can’t lift your head; you can’t look up.’ So I kept my head down and tried to draw the least amount of attention to myself.
First we toyed with the idea that the fist would come out of my chest and I would still be somewhat conscious, so I would look down and go, oh my god I’ve got a fist coming out of my chest, but it didn’t play in the rehearsals, so I just went with what was natural, or what you would do if somebody punched you really hard in the back
It’s all about not anticipating—if I anticipated it, the scene wouldn’t have worked. After he swept me off the desk, I landed on a big foam pad and just lay there in all that blood while he ranted. I was listening to him go on and on, thinking, I don’t know if I could do what he does. Denis was just amazing; I gave him the key to the kingdom and he took it and ran with it.
AZURA SKYE—”BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”
In season seven of “Buffy,” Skye plays Cassie Newton, who escapes a murderous cult only to die in Buffy’s arms from a heart attack. “It’s kind of a joke,” Skye says, “whenever I tell my mom that I’m working on something, her first question is always, ‘Oh, do you die?’ because I die on screen so much. I don’t know why, maybe I have some sort of tragic quality.” In addition to her “Buffy” stint, Skye’s overdosed on the bathroom floor in 28 Days and fallen off a bridge and gotten hit by a train in One Missed Call.
It’s always kind of an exciting day when you get to go to work and play dead, because everything is centered around you, yet you’re a very passive part of the scene. I kind of go into another place, like a type of meditation. You don’t want your chest going up and down, so you try to get your heart rate slow and get really comfortable. The most challenging part is there’s usually a big light source just off the side of the camera, so it’s hard to keep your eyes from fluttering. I kind of imagine myself to be like a doll with glass eyeballs. As for falling gracefully, I have a lot of ballet training and I’m a fairly physical person, so I think that probably helps. It’s definitely a skill. I think I’m just good at turning into a ragdoll and collapsing.
In One Missed Call I have a vision of myself dead, and I was very cadaverous looking in that scene, so I had about three hours of special effects makeup. And then they tried putting contact lenses in and I hadn’t been fitted for them before, and as soon as they put them in my eyes started tearing like crazy and it washed off all their hours of makeup, and we had to start all over.
When I was doing 28 Days and I overdosed on the bathroom floor, Sandra Bullock’s character keeps slapping my face to get me to try and wake-up. She’s a very experienced and gentle slapper, and she did it with a limp wrist, but the next day, the right side of my jaw was very sore, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my face, and then I realized, ‘Oh, I was slapped about 30 times yesterday. That probably had something to do with it.’
BRIAN BLESSED—“I, CLAUDIUS”
In his role as the poisoned Augustus for this 1976 mini-series, Blessed remains dead on screen, camera firmly on his face, for four-and-a-half minutes—a feat that has been called out on those aforementioned message boards as one of the greatest. “Usually in films, it’s 7 to 15 seconds maximum that the cameras stay on the face, and they usually freeze frame, but for that scene we decided to do something that had never been done,” says Blessed. “We wanted to see the Roman Empire dying in that face.”
Herbert Wise directed it, and it was quite a shock that day, because Herbie came up to me and said, ‘Brian, we’re going to do something a little different. You’re going to die on camera very quickly, and then remain on camera for four and a half minutes. It’s never been done.’
During that scene, I had a strange feeling I was almost dying. I seemed to go into a kind of strange coma, you might say meditation but that would be the wrong word, it was such an ordeal. I started to not be aware of where I was—my brain stopped thinking. My eyes started watering, but it doesn’t matter because in a dead body they would water, and it looks like the eyes are decomposing.
After about a minute, I was really concerned that I would make noises with my throat or with my stomach. My mouth filled up with saliva, my chest seemed to fill up with saliva. But I kept my face as still as I could, focused on a point near the camera with my eyes and breathed from my diaphragm using my Shakespearean training. And pulled it off.
There was a curse about “Claudius.” People had never completed a project about it; they died or got broken arms or legs. So there was a great deal of concern about tempting the curse with my scene.
I saw it in a theater the other week, and after fifty seconds [the audience] went, ‘No, it can’t be.’ Then after two minutes they’re all shouting, ‘No, no, it’s impossible,’ three minutes, ‘No no no!’ and after four minutes they just stood up and cheered. These days it’s all done technically, with special effects and things. It’s almost cheating, instead of relying on the human being to do it.
CYRUS FARMER—”THE WIRE”
Farmer played season four’s Devar Manigault, Michael’s stepfather and a child molester. After three episodes, Chris Partlow (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) beat him to a pulp in a scene memorable enough for Flicksided to name it seventh in a list of “The 10 Greatest Death Scenes from HBO’s “The Wire.”
Death scenes, really, are very fun to shoot. My mindset going in is, I want to accomplish two things. First, that my portrayal looks as accurate as possible, the actual mechanics of my fall. Second, figuring out how much I can make my character say indirectly before I’m killed. There are some things you can do contextually, non-verbal things that can function like last words—ways to ask for forgiveness with your eyes, or make a motion that shows that your character might not be so repentant.
When we got on set we worked out all of the choreography the night before shooting, to figure out how much would be fist, how much kicking, how much stomping. Chris got a rubber gun; I got padded up with knee pads, chest pads. Since it’s a lot of punching, you decide if you’re going to use upper cuts or left hooks or what, and the actor throwing the punches is just as important as the actor receiving them, so that I know which way to turn.
I had a head cast made here in L.A., and then we shipped that to Baltimore. They put you in a chair and put a few straws in your nose, and then pour a substance on your face—could be latex, maybe silicone. It takes 15-20 minutes to dry, and when they peel it off it has an impression of your face that they then turn into a mold and add hair, skin paint, that stuff.
A lot of the blood is planted, so if you’re bleeding from the nose, you plant that right before you shoot. Depending on what the dialogue looks like you can plant loose blood in the mouth or you can sometimes use capsules. And since very little of that is one long take, you can apply and enhance the makeup as you go along—when you’re cutting away to Chris and then back to my character, we’ve applied more makeup to me between takes.
When I first got started as an actor I was very concerned with making everything as realistic as possible, and tried to hold my breath the entire scene. As you can imagine, that doesn’t work very well. As I moved along the process, I learned how to change my breathing, to make it slow and steady enough that the camera can’t see my chest rise and fall. In most instances they’re going to shoot you prone, or zoomed-in on your face, and very rarely in profile on your back or stomach in a way where you can see the rib cage rise and fall.
DON CASTRO—THE HAPPENING
As a cop in the M. Night Shyamalan thriller, Castro’s the first Philadelphia-area victim of a mysterious virus.Castro can be seen in the trailer alive at :21 and dead at :31
Two weeks before shooting, they fit a prosthetic forehead, just a plastic mold around my head, and there’s a reservoir of fake blood on my temple, and from there, an attached tube that ran down my back and clipped onto my belt. It was remote controlled, so the special effects people would work the effect right when my head hit the ground, to get that squished-grape look. That was the most time-consuming aspect of shooting, trying to get that coordinated. It would either splat too much, just oozing blood and taking over the scene, or it would sort of malfunction and not splat at all.
For me, it’s imagining collapsing from the bottom up. In Philadelphia, the stunt coordinator laid out a pad on the concrete, to absorb my fall, so I had trust in letting go of my muscles. I fell as I fell, without any sort of idea about where I was going to land, but I think my body naturally landed in a safe way. It’s relaxation—relaxing into a position and not thinking about things too much.
The shoot was pretty secretive, and none of us knew exactly what was happening as far as what the story was. We didn’t get much information before we shot, just the day of, M. Night gave us very specific directions for our scene.
GERARD ENDER—”THE WIRE”
Ender’s Sailor Sam was tortured and killed by the Greeks in season two—the series’ second onscreen death and, at that point, by far its bloodiest (the first: D’Angelo strangled in jail).
That was actually a very hard scene. We were in a 40 degree warehouse in Baltimore, during the winter, and I was nearly naked—it was cold and pretty uncomfortable, and the scene took about six or seven hours to shoot. At the end, when I’m completely dead—it wasn’t hard to be still and empty, to sit there and be a dead weight, because I was really exhausted.
We had a tube coming up my back down my left arm, and a guy behind me on the chair with a big syringe full of fake blood, so that when I put my hand up the blood released. We weren’t too high-tech.
I was arguing with the stunt coordinator, because I wanted to fall out of my chair and he didn’t want me to hurt myself. And there’s this man who’s been lurking around on set, and I walk up to him and say, ‘You’re [series co-creator] Ed Burns, aren’t you?’ He says ‘Yes.’ And I say, ‘If I was that beat up and somebody hooked me like that, would I fall or would I stay in my chair?” and he said, “It could go either way.” So I went back and told the stunt coordinator I was going to take a dive. Later, at one of the parties, [series co-creator] David Simon came up to me and he said, ‘You know, once we killed you then it took the show in a different direction because it just showed the Greeks weren’t messing around.’
EDWARD FURLONG—AMERICAN HISTORY X
After breaking into Hollywood as John Connor in Terminator 2, Furlong took the role of neo-Nazi Danny Vinyard, the younger brother to the reformed skinhead played by Edward Norton. By the movie’s end—spoiler!—Danny reaches the conclusion that hate’s “not worth it,” but, as he explains his epiphany in voice over, one of his enemies shoots him in the high school bathroom.
Doing that scene took a long time—I was laying dead in a urinal for a whole day, and playing dead is terrible for me. Maybe I’m a little ADD, but it’s very hard for me to be still, not blink, hold my breath.
I remember the director, Tony Kaye, saying that he wanted the bathroom to be covered in blood. So the whole day everything was covered in this food coloring mixture, and it’s very very sticky, like you put pancake syrup all over something and left it there in the heat. It took about 30 minutes between each take to clean and set up again.
They tied a few squibs to me, which are kind of like firecrackers attached to little blood bags, so that when I got “shot” the squibs would explode out and splatter. When you watch the scene, what you’re seeing on my face is real dread, because I’m anticipating the squib going off, and it feels like a little punch.
For the fall, the punch from the squib going off gave me extra force and made me fall back anyway. I don’t remember what exactly the situation was for this scene, but usually there’s a pad or a person behind you so that you feel comfortable and you’re not worried about hurting yourself.
CHUCK LAMB—”DEAD BODY GUY”
In 2006, Lamb decided he wanted to be in a TV show or movie as a dead guy, made the website deadbodyguy.com and six weeks later was on “The Today Show,” CNN and the front page of the Times. Not long after, he got a part playing dead in the series finale of “What I Like About You,” and today has had five uncredited ‘body’ roles and five full-on speaking parts.
You just go as slow as you can, you slow everything down almost to a sleep. It’s a lot easier to keep your eyes halfway open and not move them than to keep them totally closed. When your eyes are really closed, your involuntary muscles will move if light goes by, just as a body response. If you have your eyes halfway open, you can concentrate on something and just leave them at that point.
There’s actually a ‘wheel of death’ makeup palette, and makeup artists take different shades and go around your eyes and then around your lips. I didn’t know that, and when the makeup lady said, “let me get my death wheel,” I said, “what?” So she brings it out and she shows me, and it’s all the colors of a corpse. I learned that in the movie Stiff where I’m a corpse that’s been dead for about eight hours, and I’m dragged down stairs in a body bag. I actually got to keep that body bag, got the whole cast and crew to sign it, and now I have it hanging up in my den. Not many people have an autographed body bag as the main piece in their den.
I’m doing speaking roles now, but I can still do dead things. I just did a promotional thing for a horror show the other day, they needed a dead body, so they called me up and out I went and laid down and got blood all over me, and had these fake guts coming out of me, and these zombies ate me, and I got up washed off said thank you, and left.
I think the greatest thing would be, because this is what I do, if that’s the way I passed away. You’re just lying there, and all of a sudden you have a heart attack, and they take you and go, “Good job, good, hey, oh!” And then on my tombstone, it would say, I’ve got it ready: “Go ahead and bury me, I’m not kidding now.”
Olivia LaVecchia is an Awl summer reporter.