What Actors Should Know About Playing a Corpse on Film

One of the more amusing and common roles for a film actor to play as a background performer or as part of a principle role is that of a corpse. Playing dead, however, is harder for actors than for dogs. Here are a few things actors should know about playing dead.

Actors should be prepared to have significant and possibly full body makeup. Depending on the cause of death and condition of the corpse, actors may also have significant special effects work done. This means actors should be prepared to spend a long time in the make-up chair and prepared to be careful of the work done there.

Depending, again, on the plot of the production and condition and location of the corpse may also necessitate than an actor be prepared to work with animals. This may mean a dog that first locates the corpse (a popular trope on Law & Order) or cockroaches and other insects (handled by an animal wrangler) toat may be placed on or near the actor. As much as you might expect an actor to have advance notice about this – don’t count on it. Also, it is important to remember that animals no matter how well-trained or handled are not predictable, but that professionals are on set to make sure you and the animals get through the process just fine. I know this can be tough for even the most professional actor to remember the first time they have to work with something that frightens them – such as rats or insects.

Dead bodies don’t move. This should be obvious, but it’s harder than one might imagine to play dead, especially if the corpse is being examined in any way. The actor playing the corpse must remember not to give the appearance of helping or of moving with living grave when the corpse is moved, prodded or otherwise examined. Sometimes, if only part of the actor is seen on camera, the actor will need to move the portions of their body that are off camera to help similar a certain effect (a corpse being pushed by a door, for example).

Actors also need to remember that their comfort as a corpse can only help improve their believability as a corpse. If you are very cold on set, do let a PA know, since the dead don’t have goosebumps or a tendency to shiver. Actors should also try to keep their mouths closed when playing corpses (unless told otherwise by the AD and/or makeup) as the inside of the actor’s mouth will, without very deliberate treatment, look far too much like the living tissue it is.

Playing dead is one of the most fun, low-glamour jobs an actor can have on a film. And while it can often be relaxing, it can also be very hard work because of holding still, holding one’s breath and working in conditions that the actor might find difficult. Crews are always vry kind and understanding about this, however, and I find they are often the most gracious to actors playing corpses.

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