Justin Schenck, CSI Corpse, on What It's Like to Play Dead
The corpse was a video gamer tasered to death by rogue cops. It lay
on the autopsy table, trying very hard not to breathe. "There wasn't
much time to rehearse," says Justin Schenck, the actor cast in the role
of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation cadaver.
company had sent Schenck to be part of a crowd scene in a recent episode
of the enduringly popular TV show, but his enthusiastic cheering caught
the production team's eye. They plucked him from the crowd and cast him
as a dead body.
It was a dubious honor. Like the many corpses who
have come before him -- the show is now in its 12th year -- Schenck
wrestled with his dignity, his mortality and his lung capacity.
tougher than it looks. I laid facedown on a table just like this," he
says, rapping his knuckles on a wobbly aluminum table. He's at a Subway
sandwich shop in a Westwood mini-mall, downstairs from the Risa Sheppard
Pilates Studio. He works there as an office assistant, one of two
part-time jobs he juggles between auditions.
There's no twitching.
No scratching. No blinking. Definitely no breathing. Schenck practiced
holding his breath for 30 seconds at a time, then realized he could arch
his back to create a small space between the table surface and his
ribs. So if he absolutely needed air, at least his whole body wouldn't
move up and down. He is sure there are real techniques other actors use
to play dead -- meditation or whatnot -- but he does not know them.
There's nothing worse than a wiggly corpse, Schenck thinks. Call him a
stickler for verisimilitude, but he always checks to see if the dead
bodies in films are breathing. (They usually are.)
physiological responses are uncontrollable. Goose bumps, for instance.
The autopsy table was cold, and he hoped his body wouldn't betray him.
Schenck, 31, is fit and trim, blessed with quintessential all-American,
boyishly handsome good looks. The makeup people applied burns to his
neck and shaved his back. "I was naked from the waist up. It's the only
time I ever took my shirt off for a part," he grins.
there isn't much to do as a corpse. They tell you where to put your arms
and how to tilt your chin. He mostly lay there listening to the visual
effects crew debate the accuracy of his Taser burn marks -- are they
supposed to be three centimeters apart, or four?
He believes he
was convincing as a dead guy. Perhaps too convincing. At one point, the
visual effects crew forgot he was there and left. There he lay, by
himself, facedown on the slab until a crew member remembered he was
still there. "I'm so sorry, man," he told him. "You can get up and go
get some snacks."
"It's OK," Schenck said. "I think I'll just lie here and pretend to be dead a little longer."
The money's not bad. It's not good, but it's not bad. Just to play the body, he received $125 for an eight-hour day.
it was, Schenck concludes, boring. There was a lot of waiting. A lot of
standing around, staring at Laurence Fishburne (who has since left the
series), trying not to make an ass of himself by saying something stupid
like, "Excuse me, Mr. Fishburne, but I really loved you in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3."
Being a CSI extra was Schenck's first TV role, though not his first as a corpse. Before that, he played, yes, a dead body in the film F.D.R.: American Badass!,
in which the nation's 32nd president fights the forces of evil with
machine guns strapped to his wheelchair. It was a more complex role than
CSI: He actually got to act before he was killed.
Schenck's scene, the Mob, run by werewolves, is importing poisoned
liquor into the country. Roosevelt shows up in his wheelchair of death
and mows the werewolves down in a hail of bullets. Schenck, portraying a
werewolf, shudders, falls to his knees and tries not to screw up the
three-hour makeup job -- prosthetics are expensive.
"Good-natured ribbing" is how he characterizes the reaction of friends and family to his knack for getting cast as a corpse.
"Wow. You've found a niche, Justin," they said. "As long as you don't speak or move, you'll be working."
so cynical," he says, scowling. Everyone except his mother. "Are you
going to put it on your reel?" she asked of the CSI role.
"No, mom. That is not something you put on a reel."
sighs. "It's not quite acting, and it's not quite being a production
assistant," Schenck says. "Because those people are busy." It's more
like being a piece of scenery. It's also a double-edged sword: You want
to show your face, but if you do, they can't ever use you again.
Schenck does not consider himself one of those "If I couldn't act, I'd
die" types. He came to Los Angeles from Denver 12 years ago to write and
That said, playing dead is "not demeaning," Schenck says. "You do it by choice. It's a good notch to have."
things considered, Schenck is grateful to have been on such a popular
show. He's in good company: Early in his career, Kevin Costner played a
corpse in The Big Chill.
Alas, much like Costner's speaking scenes in The Big Chill, Schenck's dead body scene in CSI
Season 11, Episode 18, ultimately wound up on the cutting room floor.
When the scene featuring the dead man aired recently, Schenck was
nowhere to be seen. They'd chucked him in favor of a fatter corpse.
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