Abra-Cadaver

As a background actor, I’ve been trying to get work on the CBS show Blue Bloods for many years now.  The show stars Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg as members of a family of cops living a cop’s life in New York City.  After submitting for roles on that show for the past several years to no avail, I finally got my big break portraying a cadaver in a medical examiner’s room.  But this was not an ordinary dead guy casting call: they wanted experience.  Oh boy, did I have experience playing dead!  Several years ago, I played the featured dead body on an episode of Law & Order: SVU.  You can read all about it here.  When the casting agent from Central Casting called me, he told me that a lot of other actors they hired in the past didn’t know how to play dead people well.  I explained to him how effectively I played a dead guy before and he was impressed with my mad death skilz.  I was hired!

Dead Body Experience

The required wardrobe I needed to bring for this role was a bathrobe and a pair of warm-up pants.  This was in preparation for playing a cadaver who was pretty much lying naked on top of a medical examiner’s table.  Another actress and I were both to play dead and we were brought outside the studio to an awaiting makeup truck.  The truck was a large 18-wheeler, but designed inside with a fully-functional makeup room.  It took about an hour for the makeup people to apply the “Cadaver Grey” and “Dead Flesh” colors (you won’t find those in a box of Crayolas) to the upper half of my body as well as to my legs and feet.  I wasn’t going to be completely naked in the scene; this was network TV after all.  My nether-region would be covered with a sheet because dead people on these shows are never completely naked.  Underneath, I was actually wearing my warm-up pants.  The transformation from living to dead was unsettling even to me, especially once I closed my eyes to take a dead guy selfie before I was escorted off to set.

Once on set, I hopped up on the stainless steel medical examiner’s table and was told by a crew member to lie down while they adjusted various items that would support my comfort during the scene.  They expected me to be lying half-naked on that table for the next few hours, so my comfort was their top priority.

After lying down for awhile, a very pretty-looking actress who was to portray the chief medical examiner approached me.  We shook eachother’s hands to introduce ourselves and then engaged in some small talk.  Another beautiful woman came by and stood next to her.  That woman was a real medical examiner.  Her job was to show the actress how to make the role look real.  One of the actions was for the actress was to lift up my limp arm, study it, then drop it back down.  During rehearsal, she man-handled it like it was a piece of dead meat.  The real M.E. showed her how to study it more thoughtfully and with more care.  Lying there with two hot women playing with my right arm is a memory that I will always keep.

Once all the actors were in their first positions, rehearsal of the scene began.  Actor Steve Shirripa of Sopranos fame portrays a police officer coming into the medical examiner’s room with his partner.  They’re discussing a woman’s death.  As they are approaching the M.E. to talk to her about it, she’s in the middle of examining a cadaver and that would be me.  In the scene, my body is awkwardly turned on it’s side while the M.E. is  examining my back.  After she says a few lines to the other actors who approach her, she topples my lifeless body back onto the table with a thud.  Being the consummate actor that I am, I just let gravity take it’s course and let it fall onto the table.  She then picks up my right arm, carefully examines it, gets irritated due to the topic of the conversation, then drops it down onto the table.

steve-schirripa-bridget-moynihan-blue-bloods-cbs

Actors Steve Shirripa and Bridget Moynahan.

During the entire scene which lasted for about three to four minutes, I had several challenges to contend with.  One was not moving, breathing, or even letting my chest move up and down.  As you can imagine, playing a dead person is not an easy thing to do.  As the camera began rolling during each take, I inhaled a bunch of breaths and then held my breath during the entirety of the scene.  Once the camera moved away from me did I catch my breath again.  Another challenge was to let the actress treat my body like a limp piece of dead meat.  I had to let my body flop down with a thud after she examined my back, then let my right arm flop down as well.  Running hard for seven miles a few hours before this gig helped to put me in a physically tired state which made my deadness look more believable.

In between takes, the site of me looking dead to the cast and crew was the butt of many jokes.  One of the crew members shouted out, “Is he really dead?!”.   Even Steve Shirripa made a comment about me.  From his angle, he saw the M.E. with her hands behind my back, but couldn’t see exactly what she was doing with those hands.  He said, “It really looks like she’s giving him a proctology exam”.  I cracked up which made everyone else crack up seeing the dead guy in stitches.

I worked this gig for about four hours.  When the scene was over, the crew began to break everything down to call it a day.  A toe tag was removed from my big toe.  I kept it as a souvenir.  According to the tag, my name was Tony Hernandez.  Sounds about right.

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 12.00.19 AM

The money I made from this cadaver role will help to pay for my daughter’s college tuition.  I hope that she knows how much her daddy has to kill himself for her education.

Post Script

A few months later, the episode aired on national TV and my scene came on as shown in the screenshots below.  I never had so much fun or made so much money laying down on the job.

This’ll be the day that I die

In the world of background acting, there are many scenes where background is hired to play nondescript characters.  Those who play these roles are barely recognizable on screen if at all.  A higher level that many actors working background strive for is the featured background role.  For these roles, the background actor may play the featured doorman, limo driver, hot dog stand guy, police officer, and an assortment of other characters that may stand out in a scene.  On any given episode of a crime drama like Law & Order: SVU, there is always the dead guy role.  He’s the guy who gets murdered somewhere near the beginning of the show.  The cops then have to spend the rest of the show trying to solve the mystery of who killed him.  Many actors die trying to get this role.  I was the one who actually got it.  Here’s my story…

Last December, I submitted a headshot of myself for the dead guy role through a popular actors website called castingnetworks.com.  Not reading the fine print, I sent them a regular clothed photo of myself.  Later on in the day, I received an email from them stating that they needed me to send them two specific photos; one frontside of me topless and the other one of my backside exposing exactly one inch of my butt crack.  Such a weird request, but that’s often the nature of show business, and there’s always a valid reason for these requests no matter how crazy they sound.  I realized that if I act fast and give them the photos they asked for, I would increase my chances of getting this role, for how many actors can send half-naked back and frontside photos of themselves so quickly?  My daughter was home, so I had her take the photos of me.  When I turned around to have my backside shot, I pulled my pants down  just enough to expose approximately one inch of my butt crack.  My daughter was surprised and immediately asked me why I just did that, with which I replied, “Because it’s for a TV show and they wanted me to show them one inch of my butt crack”.  She responded, “Okay, but when this show goes on the air, do not tell ANY of my friends that you will be on it, okay!?”.  I told her not to worry.

After the pics were taken and emailed to the casting director, not five minutes go by and I get a call from them telling me that I am going to play the dead guy on the show.  I got the role and I had my daughter to thank!

On the day of the shoot, I was sent to the wardrobe trailer.  Since I was hired specifically to play a victim of a murder-rape, they wanted me to appear naked in the scene, so the wardrobe people gave me nude-colored underwear they referred to as “modesty wear”.  In the scene, I was to wear only that to make it seem as though I was completely naked.  The scene was in a seedy hotel room in Midtown Manhattan.  The assistants bound my left wrist with a man’s necktie tied to the bedpost while my right wrist was bound by a belt to the right bedpost.  A rag was jammed into my mouth to really dramatize the brutality of the scene.  A technician came in with what looked like three pools of blood of different sizes.  The pools were made out of solidified acrylic; they were hard and flat as pancakes, but they still appeared wet.  The technician put one of the pools on the carpet beneath where my head would hang down over the edge of the bed to make it appear that blood dripped out of my head to the floor below.

Due to the network censors, a man’s ass cheeks cannot be shown on network TV, but they do allow for exactly one inch of his crack to show on screen (And two inches if you are a woman.  Don’t ask me why).  Because of this rule, the set dresser had to cover my naked ass with a bedsheet.  Interestingly, he took pains to make sure to expose only one inch of my crack.

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 12.22.42 AM

Here I am waiting for the cops to come to my rescue. Oh wait, it’s too late.

The actress starring on the show, Mariska Hargitay, came in with her co-star to prepare for the scene with me.  Mariska came to me and said, “So you’re the murder of the day, huh?  Nice to meet you”.  I responded with an awkward smile.

My character was Mr. Dunleavy, a corporate big-wig with a nasty secret: he liked to visit gay clubs and discreetly have kinky sex with men. Only the guy who picked him up had a thing against closeted men masquerading as straight guys.  He ended up killing me during our sexcapade on the hotel room bed with blood dripping down my head (it’s really a mixture of corn syrup and other stuff).

In the scene, Mariska knocks on the door of my hotel room.  When there was no answer, the hotel manager opens the door where she comes rushing in with her gun pointed towards me.  Only I’m lying face-down lifeless at the edge of the bed.  She then reaches down towards me to check my pulse, and after a moment or two, replies to her partner, “He’s gone!”.

What many of you don’t know is that Mariska is a very funny lady.  After one of the takes was done, she continued to improvise her role by whispering in my ear, “I always loved you!”.  She continued to engage in other on-set shenanigans to break up the tension and monotony of the shoot.

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 12.23.57 AM

Actress Mariska Hargitay checking my pulse and declaring me dead.

The above scene was filmed in several takes.  During the filming, as soon as the director yelled “Action!”, I took a deep breath of air and held my breath for the duration of the scene which lasted for a good 60-90 seconds.  The reason I did this is that since I was playing dead, I did not want my lungs to move during the scene.  I had to lie completely motionless in every sense of the word.  Keeping this in mind, I literally felt like I was going for a long underwater swim and not coming up until the director cut action of the scene.  As soon as he cut the scene, I gasped for air again.  The further challenge for me was that I had to breathe through a rag that was jammed in my mouth.

During one of the takes, I could clearly hear the director ask the cameraman, “Make sure you get the crack!”  I knew exactly what he meant and repeatedly pondered why I am here to begin with.

When all the takes were done with and the cameraman went to “check the gates”, I was relieved to know that my scene was done.  The rag was gently taken out of my mouth and the belt and tie were removed from my wrists.  I was able to put on a workout outfit to keep me warm until I got back to holding where my real clothes were.  The makeup guy removed the fake blood that was caked on my forehead.

I went home with the satisfaction in knowing that the character I played was a key element to the plot of the episode.  I think I killed that role!