Playing dead

What it's like to be cast as a corpse on TV

23rd March 2018

They appear somewhere in virtually every crime drama on Netflix — but how many times have you stopped to think about what’s going on in the heads of the corpses you see on TV or film?

It’s intriguing really — what’s the actor thinking about while they’re laid on a cold mortuary table? How much are they struggling not to breathe? How do they cope if they desperately need to scratch their nose mid-scene? They may be at the centre of the action, but the deceased are all too often forgotten about.

So, with an abundance of questions, I gathered a plethora of actors and grilled them on their experiences playing dead. I’ve collected their stories, divided their responses into four categories and accidentally formed a step-by-step guide – a sort of Being Dead for Dummies, if you will. Feel free to take notes.

Every breath you take

The first thing that springs to mind is the breathing, or lack thereof. As soon as there’s a close-up on a dead body, I watch the screen intently, crowing my neck forward and trying to catch the corpse inhale… and the actors are far too aware of this. Previously corpse-d 56-year-old Iain Stuart Robertson understands that viewers will always be trying to catch the actors out.

“To be honest the only major worry was trying to breathe as shallowly as possible from the chest so as not to let the diaphragm move whilst in long shot. You know that people will be looking trying to see if they can catch you breathing. The director and crew were great and… between takes they kept me informed so that I could breathe properly as long as I held the same position,” he says.

In Meaghan Martin’s first experience playing a dead character, she “just focused on really slow, low breath”. This then made it easier for the 26-year-old in her second deceased role, resorting back to “the slow and low mantra”.

For closer shots, however, actors often choose to hold their breath completely. Martin explained: “During close-ups, I held my breath because I knew they would be fast and I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.” (I’ve realised, since typing this paragraph, that I, too, have stopped breathing. Interesting. Was I was born to play a dead person? Any casting directors reading this, please feel free to email me. I am very available.)

Taking direction from beyond the grave

Actors aren’t often given direction if their character is not alive, making their role an unintentionally improvised one: Lie down, don’t move, be mourned. The rest is up to you.

Chris Millington-Woods could breathe normally when the camera wasn’t on him

If you have a natural tendency to ‘resting bitch face’ without noticing, you should probably try to ignore your instincts here. If that’s what your face likes doing when you’re completely relaxed, it may attempt to emerge while you’re being dead.

But you must resist – nobody wants a judgemental corpse on set. If given any instruction, you may be advised to keep your face as blank as possible. Channel blank thoughts. Don’t think about dinner — or anything else interesting. And the same could be said for your body – although your level of limpness or stiffness may be dependent on how far into death your character is, rigor-mortis-wise, and if you’re being moved about.

For 63-year-old actor Chris Millington-Woods, his body-positioning was decided for him and he couldn’t move if he tried. “In one show I had to be in a coffin, where the trainee undertaker had mixed up the bodies. The director told me to go for shallow breathing, but that I would be given a signal when I was in shot. I was instructed to have a completely blank face; the body didn’t matter as much as I was in a coffin and couldn’t move.”

He adds: “It was strange when the lid came down on top of me!” – N.B. Screaming in this situation is not advised.

Dolling down and seeing yourself dead

It can be fun to have your makeup done; whether you’re an actor being made up before a scene, or a savvy shopper at one of the brand counters in Boots – pretending you’re interested in buying a whole new bag of slap as the beautician-stroke-salesperson applies stuff to your face and tells you how great this foundation matches the subtle flecks of hazel in your eyes that you didn’t even realise were there, when, in fact, you are just a sly devil and want to look extra fancy for your date tonight (don’t lie, we’ve all been there).

It’s a slightly different matter, however, if your face is being drained of all its colour and you’re beginning to see how you’ll look when you’re dead as the makeup artist asks you about your weekend. For Robertson, seeing himself with this heavy makeup was a strange experience, however for Martin it wasn’t as odd as what followed.

It was a bit weird to be on set the day they filmed my funeral

“Seeing a dead version of myself on screen wasn’t weird for me at all,” she says. “It was a bit weird to be on set the day they filmed my funeral as they had all of these framed photos of me with flowers around them. Sort of like attending your own funeral.”

It’s quite difficult to imagine how that must feel – might you cry? Do you feel like a ghost, haunting the fake-mourners and standing, silently, ominously behind the camera crew and watching your fake relatives weeping?

For Millington-Woods, seeing himself in the mirror was interesting, but not off-putting enough to stop him going for drinks in full make-up with his fellow corpse after a day of shooting. I would love to have seen the reactions of the innocent punters who went down the pub that day, clocking two dead-looking guys ordering pints from the other side of the bar.

Staying alert while playing dead

I’ve never been dead myself, but I have been very still and bored to death whilst having a PET scan. Not moving an inch for forty-five minutes was bad enough, but enduring Phil Collins’ greatest hits and not being able to shove my fingers in my ears and scream? That is torture. No one should have to go through that, NHS. I demand compensation.

They made sure that two members of the crew helped me up as you can feel a little light-headed and safety is one of their major concerns

For our professional performers, however, this level of stillness isn’t necessarily torturous. Martin tells me: “I didn’t feel challenged to stay focused or awake, but it does get slightly uncomfortable lying in a hospital bed all day taped up to machines etc. It can sort of mess with your head, cause anxieties to surface.”

In order to stay alert, and also to prevent himself from falling asleep, putting himself in a trance-like state was essential for Robertson. After laying on the slab in the on-set morgue for an hour, “they made sure that two members of the crew helped me up as you can feel a little light-headed and safety is one of their major concerns”.

And sometimes, there’s no amount of preparation that can set you up for what will happen on set.

For one of his roles, actor Toni Ash was part of a pile of dead bodies. Bodies which were not only dead, but bald… and naked. “I was on top of the pile and had a woman dropped onto me,” he says.

“It needed several takes as each time she was dropped it caused someone a lot of pain and everyone would move. We didn’t have to keep still because we were covered in blood and it was expected that we would slide around a little.”

Toni Ash
Toni Ash with an awkward crew member

I take it back. I’d rather have been a fly on the wall on this set than at the pub when the corpses rocked up. I’m sure it was much spookier in the flesh, but all I’m imagining is a kind of naked Slip ’N Slide – with the bodies in a big pile instead of on a plastic mat and using blood instead of water.

After reading this, I hope you feel a little more prepared for either your next starring role, or for the real day itself. There’s always room for improvement in acting deceased, as Martin perfectly puts it: “Practice makes perfect, even with death.”

And for Millington-Woods, the only way is up. “I quite fancy the idea of being a corpse on a slab in something like Silent Witness; the make-up on that, including innards, looks impressive.”

For every actor – and, in fact, for every human being – death is just a part of life. You’re born, you live your life, you slide down a mountain of bloody, naked corpses. C’est la vie.

Main image: Meaghan Martin plays a corpse

23rd March 2018