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.
The casting 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.
"It's 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.)
Certain 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.
Granted, 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.
But 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.
In 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."
"Everyone's 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."
He 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.
Luckily, 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 direct.
That said, playing dead is "not demeaning," Schenck says. "You do it by choice. It's a good notch to have."
All 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.Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.