he first time I died, I was shot and left for dead in a frigid night exterior scene in a park for Darkness at Noon, the show within a show on The Good Wife. I learned very quickly how difficult it is to keep yourself from shivering under these circumstances.
“You don’t want to be dead in a park. Or a beach. Or anywhere along the Hudson River. You also don’t want a night exterior. Or a scene that’s very long,” says Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Showrunner Warren Leight, offering advice for people who want to play a dead body on the show. Of which, it turns out, there are many.
So what is the quintessential scenario in which to die on a TV show?
“Ideally, you’re the guy who died having sex and now you’re just in the morgue,” Leight explains. Lying in the morgue means no extreme temperatures, no bugs crawling on you, no cold water to contend with, and producers can provide a breast plate of sorts under the sheet to absorb some of your chest movement while you breathe, and post-production can deal with removing the carotid artery so the audience won’t see evidence of a beating heart. You don’t want to be the guy who once had to be a dead body in a dumpster when a newbie PA tossed in some actual garbage, from half-empty coffee cups to remnants of the crew’s breakfast, not realizing they just compromised the set dressing as well as the hapless guy lying inert inside who now had cold eggs in his hair.
All of this sage wisdom might have been helpful to me before I, a longtime stand-in for TV and film, agreed to play a corpse a few years back.
The second time I died was in a Brooklyn cemetery for the show Dietland where my lifeless lingerie clad body was arranged on a grand funeral pyre which would later be set on fire like I was a dead Viking queen being sent off to Valhalla.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re really good at looking dead,” a camera PA said, standing over me to set up the shot.
“I am?” I asked, feeling weirdly proud.
“Yeah, I don’t know. You’re smiling one minute and then your eyes just go lifeless on camera. It looks really good. Creepy as hell, but really good.”
I was good at fake dying, something Leight says he’s often inundated on Twitter by people saying they’d kill for the chance to do.
Occasionally that includes actors with more IMDb credits than years I’ve been alive. In 2011 I too tweeted at him saying it would be a dream to be dead on his show and he tweeted back, “aim higher.” He finds it confounding that so many people want to be a corpse on television, but in a way I think it’s a layperson’s version of six degrees of Kevin Bacon. So many esteemed actors have guest starred on the show, and spending a few minutes onscreen — even lifeless ones — gives you a small connection to a world that includes the likes of Robin Williams, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana and a story to share at cocktail parties and family gatherings forever.
“It’s bizarre how everyone wants to play a dead body. Everyone! People really want to do it and it’s non-actors who want to the most,” says Heather Comer, casting director and owner of Comer Casting who currently books background performers for shows like Evil and The Good Fight, but started out working on Law & Order: SVU.
Questlove and Z100’s Elvis Duran are among the celebrities who’ve been granted their wish to be murdered on episodes of SVU. Taylor Swift even lived out a version of this fantasy role when she played a runaway teen who gets killed on CSI back in 2009. If you’re not a celebrity, it’s not as simple as asking your publicist to hook it up or tweeting your dream to lie on a slab in the SVU morgue, although plenty of people certainly do try.
How do you get the attention of a casting director to snag a cadaver gig? These roles tend to be featured background, so submitting starts with signing up for casting notices like Casting Networks.
From there it becomes luck of the draw, or more specifically the luck of your looks, because in the script, the corpse will be described with specific physical characteristics. Maybe tall and muscular, maybe waiflike or portly; perhaps they want someone with blonde hair or no hair at all. And who exactly is dying? Is it a young college student, a middle-aged construction foreman, a 30-something sex worker?
Getting the look right is what Comer focuses on first. Then, she drills down on what the scene is going to entail. Is this person comfortable holding their breath? Do they have a latex allergy if prosthetics are needed? Can they lie completely still, possibly in an uncomfortable position in mud, dirt, wet grass or sand for long stretches of time? An affinity for yoga or the breath control of a swimmer might even come in handy in these cases.
The second time I was dead, we had to hold up filming because it was so cold outside, an involuntary facial twitch began happening by my right eye, ruining the required necrotic vibe. I once asked an actor who had been killed off of several shows in his career if he had any advice to offer and he said, “whatever you do, always try to die with your eyes closed if they let you.” I’ve died with eyes closed and eyes gaping up at the blue sky and can confirm that eyes open is certainly a choice that looks beautifully ominous and cinematic when it airs. But during shooting? It feels akin to sitting at the salon waiting for your nails to dry while unable to blink or move for five hours while periodically holding your breath for long stretches, as lots of people talk around you and about you. So, kind of tough.
Matt Mason, who was the 1st AD (aka the assistant director who really runs the set) on SVU for four seasons actually refutes the idea that holding your breath is the most difficult part of the process, and I’m inclined to agree. “Keeping that steady eyeline — that lifeless, steady eyeline — is much harder than people think it is.”
Curious just how often this comes up online, I searched Twitter for “SVU playing a dead body” and found Deanna McDonald, a comedy writer who had tweeted at Warren Leight about her lifelong dream to play a dead body on the show. She was among dozens of people making the same request over the years, so I DMed her and we talked about how, in the beginning, most SVU episodes opened with a murder — all eyes on the victim before we piece together how they got that way.
Comer agrees this is part of the draw. “There’s a whole story that revolves around this dead body, the episode is built around it, so essentially for a moment that person is a star.” And yet I can attest that while it may seem like an easy way to be on television, it is usually an uncomfortable, grueling day between the makeup, prosthetics, fake blood, freezing temperatures — and if you’re a background actor versus a principal performer, there are no residuals to be had no matter how many times your episode airs.
My first death was considered a stunt due to handling a gun and having to react to a gunshot, so that job paid the standard union rate which was close to $1,000 at the outset. And I will get random checks for a few dollars (or cents!) here and there for as long as it’s airing somewhere. For featured background, a casting director like Comer will inform you of the rate the production has offered and it’s up to the performer to decide whether to accept it or negotiate a higher rate based on what they’re being asked to do. In my experience, I’ve seen those rates range from $450 to $1,500 but they are a one-time fee. I negotiated $850 for my second demise.
Mason jokes that he thinks this curious aspiration might stem from people wanting to live out what they’ll never get to see in real life when they die: the “Huck Finn” moment or the one in a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm where Albert Brooks throws himself a faux funeral to enjoy all the ways his friends would eulogize him. If you’re dying on an episode of SVU, you’re immortalized. Those marathons on the USA network will still be running long after climate change forces us all to move to Mars.
But if you’re going to take Leight’s advice to “aim higher,” when you tweet at him that you want to be on the show? He suggests having enough faith in your acting ability to ask to play someone who at least starts out alive. That way you get to say some lines (you’ll get the IMDb credit and residuals, too). And with SVU, Organized Crime and the rebirth of the original Law & Order going into production, that’s three possible places to die.