The first time I was murdered was in Tuxedo Park, New York. Once a prosperous resort town for wealthy New York elites, it seemed like a nice bourgeois place to die.
I got off the train and waited for the production van to pick me up. Much to my surprise, I was was approached by a 90s era Mercedes. The driver rolled down his window, it was a little old man with a Pomeranian dog on his lap.
“Are you the actress?”
“Ok, I have to get the sandwiches.”
We drove across the street to a small deli. I waited in the car as an inconsolable Pomeranian paced back and forth until finally, the man came back with several boxes of catered food he put in the trunk.
Taking a train to a strange town and hitching a ride from a strange old man isn’t exactly ok; however, I can think of at least five easier ways to kidnap a person if that’s your intention (well, maybe four). What can I say, acting takes you to weird places— sometimes psychologically, but mostly physically.
The old man told me his daughter was the screenwriter and asked what I thought of the script. I hadn’t actually read it. All I knew was that I had to be comfortable kissing another woman and that I would be stabbed.
We pulled up to a large house on an expansive wooded lot. Once inside, the Pomeranian immediately disappeared up the stairs. Everything was ornately decorated in a lavish style I once heard someone call Modern Mediterranean. I, being a Miami native, call it Hialeah-a-go-go.
The house was filled to the brim with baroque furniture, sculptures, and sconces (good lord, the sconces); however, the one obvious thing missing was a film crew.
“They’re still at the other place.”
Now, on paper, this has all the hallmarks of a real horror movie: old man picks up old girl who passes for young girl, drives her to a clandestine location, promises of opportunity etc. etc...As naive as it might sound, screen writer dad seemed like a good dude. He carried himself with a certain exhausted resign; the resign of a father who had forfeited his own comfort and cash to support his daughter’s dream, no matter how inane.
By now, I wasn’t worried about being held captive for my nicely lotioned skin but about the amateur production unfolding before me. I’ve worked on indie films, I’ve worked on student films. Both are fun in their own way; however, no good can come of a student film trying to be an indie film.
Seeking reprieve from awkward dad conversation, I excused myself to the bathroom. The corner of the bathroom started making a weird noise. I stared for a long time before my brain finally accepted what I was looking at: a pig.
Well, a piglet to be more accurate, a tiny pink piglet in a cage. I was still wrapping my head around it when the pig began screeching something awful, like Mariah Carey on bath salts.
“Did you see the pig?”
Yes, I saw the pig! How do you not warn someone about the pig in the bathroom? I later found out the pig had been rented for the movie. I didn’t know you could rent a pig but I guess it makes sense. Not everyone is ready for a full blown pig commitment.
The crew arrived shortly after we took rent-a-pig for a quick constitutional (she wore a pink harness and matching leash fyi). As the crew entered the building, she began to squeal, probably picking up on the thick wave of resentment about to make landfall. The crew seemed young but experienced; however, nearly each one wore a uniformed grimace across their face. Maybe it was the hunger, or the sleep deprivation, or, as I would soon find out, the total incompetence of their child prodigy director.
After a quiet lunch fraught with eye rolls, our aspiring Scorsese— the 19 year-old cousin of the screen writer, had an unexpected meltdown. The main actress was wearing the wrong color nail polish and he would have none of it. He screamed at the two women in the makeup department who then drove into town looking for the right color. While he had a keen eye for detail, he didn’t seem to understand basic film principles like wide, middle, and close-up shots.
My scene took place in a parked car with the killer. After a brief conversation, we had to make-out until the director yelled “knife” at which point she would stab me with a big plastic prop knife. The killer was a gorgeous young Russian model. Now, I’m not the straightest woman in the world but I definitely wasn’t attracted to her, cue: acting.
The first few takes we kissed for real but after about the third take, she swerved to the side of my neck and we only pretended to kiss. I felt like such a dork, nobody told me we could fake kiss! Even worse, I thought maybe I did something wrong. Is this how men feel about consent? Probably not.
The film lights beamed into the car, I couldn’t see the crew outside. Over a walk-talkie, an angry dismembered voice shouted, “THE KNIFE! THE KNIFE!”
In the throes of faked passion, my scene partner prominently held the knife over my head long enough for the audience to surmise what my unsuspecting character could not. Stabbed in the back by a Russian model, who would have figured?
After losing 45 minutes to the nail polish debacle, I got wrapped just in time to miss the last train back to Manhattan. There was one last bus but apparently the bus driver didn’t always see the waiting passengers and drove on past. Being two hours outside of the city, I took my chances.
As the bus approached, I waved my arms so franticly, you’d think I was being chased down by a knife-wielding Russian model... Thankfully, he stopped. I got on board and headed home, no longer a murder victim, but a murder survivor.
The second time I was murdered was by far the coolest. I was home eating a bowl of soggy cereal when my phone rang. It was a producer from a well-known network. She politely introduced herself and the production company then asked if I knew who H.H. Holmes is.
DO I KNOW WHO H.H. HOLMES IS?!
I once made my boyfriend drive me to a post office in the south side of Chicago because it was the former site of his murder castle.
“I think I’ve heard of him, yes.”
“Ok, great. We’d really like you to play one of his victims.”
Morbid as it may seem, portraying a murder victim of thee devil in Devil in the White City was a dream come true, like the macabre version of sleeping with your favorite rock star.
When the day finally arrived, I road the train about an hour upstate. A baby-faced production assistant picked me up in a van like a normal goddam production. We headed to a beautiful old mansion. Inside, several murder victims strutted about in antique gowns covered in fake blood, their skin painted to portray various stages of death from a pale white to puke green.
I took a seat next to the devil, Mr. Mudgett himself. He was charming and friendly with killer cheek bones (puns always intended). He told me his mustache was fake, not because he couldn’t grow it out, but because production had called him last minute for some additional shots. I had no doubt in his ability to grow facial hair.
We traded instagram accounts (aka millennial business cards) before the young Mudgett was rushed to set. Meanwhile, I was ushered over to wardrobe to try on various Victorian gowns.
The original idea was that Mudgett would bash my head in with a rock and I would get covered in fake blood, maybe even some brain spillage (fingers crossed). However, the director was so pleased with my performance he decided the blood wasn’t necessary. Apparently, the shear look of terror on my face was enough.
It’s true, while some women have resting bitch face, I have resting fear face. I think it’s from growing up a Latina immigrant who passes for white. At any moment, the white people around me may figure out I’m not one of them, like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, except instead of infiltrating the mob, I’m trying to infiltrate America.
All jokes aside, nearly every role I’ve booked has involved either being killed or chased or terrorized. I have to wonder what’s wrong with me? I’ve been told countless times that I don’t match. IE, I look like the sweet cheerleader at school but I have the energy of a nerdy goth girl. Inevitably, this causes a problem in the troupe riddled landscape of Hollywood...
I’m a human Tardis, my outside doesn’t match my inside and the industry doesn’t know what to do with me unless I’m dead. I remember one very illuminating conversation with a former manager who thought the only way to sell me to the masses was to make me into a caricature of human:
“From now on, you’ll be, like, the wacky stoner girl.”
“I don’t do drugs, David.”
“But you’re like weird and quirky.”
“Yeah, but I’m like that on my own. Can you imagine if I did drugs?”
“I’m not saying you should do drugs! Just... pretend you do drugs.”
I wonder where David is now... Probably repping a ventriloquist. Also, I don’t actually care.
Back at the murder castle, we went outside to film the scene in a small manicured garden. My part was easy enough, I’d be walking around at night in my Victorian undergarments (as one does) when H. H. Holmes aka Mudgett (aka his million other aliases) chases me down. Being a bad lady runner, I trip and fall on the gravel pathway, giving Holmes the opportunity to pick up a giant rock and bash in my little lady brains.
Prior to filming, I did a bit of research on the woman I was portraying, Rachel Ferguson. There wasn’t much information about her unsolved murder. The production did their best to tie it to H. H. Holmes; however, I don’t think H.H. Holmes murdered me (uh, her). It doesn’t fit his style. He preferred to gas or poison his victims and then enjoyed listening to them slowly die. Fun guy.
To be honest, I don’t understand how anyone solved anything prior to DNA evidence (or even fingerprinting). I guess just good old fashioned detective work... (tell that to the entire European population of Australia).
My most recent murder was definitely my most jarring. It was for another crime recreation show, one that explored various serial killers of the past (so many serial killers, so little time).
I was to play Frances Brown, the woman who gave the Lipstick Killer his namesake. Researching Brown, I developed quite an affinity for her. She was an independent woman, a 30-something divorcee living alone in the 1940s. A former Navy Reserve officer, she worked as a stenographer in the booming Windy City. Her life almost reads like the pitch of a fun tv sitcom. Almost.
In December of 1945, Brown’s body was discovered by a cleaning woman. She had been shot in the head and stabbed in the neck. Her body was left hunched over a bathtub with a towel wrapped around her face.
Her killer, William Heirens, left a large note written in lipstick on her bedroom wall:
For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself.
Heirens murdered one woman prior to Brown and a six-year-old girl shortly there after. He fell under the anomaly of hot serial killers (which, by the way, I don’t get the Ted Bundy thing. Just because a serial killer doesn’t look like Swamp Thing doesn’t mean he’s hot. Anyways...). Heirens was 17 when he committed the murders. He was very popular with the ladies in his ballroom dancing class.
The special effects makeup was quite an ordeal. It took nearly 2 hours to turn my body a putrid green. Additionally, there were several fake gunshot wounds and the coup de grace, a giant plastic knife cut in half and glued to my neck. One might think they had some fancy special movie glue for the knife but no, just plain old super glue.
While transforming into a dead girl has it’s charm, the scene soon became a bit overwhelming, even for a seasoned corpse like me. We filmed inside the tiny bathroom of an old Staten Island house. It must have been 100 degrees. The house had not been updated since the 1930s and it showed.
“It’s not bloody enough!” the director yelled.
The set department franticly covered the entire bathroom with thick red goop until it pulsed with malice.
I took my place hunched over a dirty antique bathtub, my arms gently hung over puddles of fake blood. People don’t realize the patience necessary to be a dead body, you have to lie very still, often in precarious poses. Your arms or legs might fall asleep or in this case, the rim of a bathtub might jab your rib cage.
For the next two hours, I laid there lifeless as the crew filmed various gruesome vignettes. First, the blood curdling scream of the cleaning lady who found my body, followed by several vintage police men. Finally, a procession of eight or nine newspaper reporters carrying big old-timey cameras all squeezed into the tiny space. The air grew stagnant, it became difficult to breath— but then again, I wasn’t supposed to be breathing. Very method.
Dripping in sweat and quietly gasping for air, I couldn’t help but think of Frances Brown. Who was she? What was she up to that evening? Was she happily single or a woman scorned? Did she suck down cigarettes while playing bridge? Did her mother nag her to have children? Did she hate her job or did she enjoy her independence? Was she sleeping with her boss? Her boss’s secretary? One thing was for certain, she didn’t deserve to die, definitely not in her own home, and definitely not at the hands of a teenage maniac.
As someone especially fascinated by serial killers, Frances Brown gave me pause. So often the victims of murder are simply extras, the salacious props of glorified violence. In a media landscape obsessed with winners, they are definitely the losers. However, we are fascinated by our murderers— I’m no exception— the darker, the grittier, the better.
Rather than ride the train home looking like Corpse Bride, a production assistant walked me over to a nice updated shower in the house next door. If horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that you should definitely shower in strange places. With only water and hand soap, I worked the plastic knife off my neck, gently at first before finally just ripping it off (weirdest hickie ever).
Maybe it was the heat exhaustion or the oxygen deprivation, but I left that set feeling somber. I had a painful new awareness for the real lives destroyed by the subjects of our morbid fascination, almost as painful as the plastic knife super glued to my neck.
People often ask me if playing dead somehow helps me to prepare for my actual death. Not really, though, I used to dread dying in a hospital. Now, having seen some of the alternatives, I can only hope for such a comfortable end.
I am acutely aware that eventually we will all meet the same fate; however, even with all the prosthetics and makeup, the long hours and questionable conditions, playing dead is fun. Don’t get me wrong, I know death will always get the last laugh, but until then, we might as well dance.