What Do You DoI play the scumbags on true crime shows
In the latest installment of Hopes&Fears’ anonymous interview series, we spoke to an actor who plays criminals and detectives in dramatic reenactment segments of "true crime" shows.
I started doing dramatic reenactments three years ago, as a way of getting some more experience in the field and making a little bit of money on the side. I have a day job and still do them. Every actor does.
Matthew McConaughey's first role was on Unsolved Mysteries. I remember seeing it as a kid. He’s mowing the lawn and wearing a cutoff, and ends up getting gunned down by this fat dude in a pickup truck. After he won an Oscar, the story went viral, which was kind of a nostalgic moment for me. I remember not wanting him to die because he looked like a pro-wrestler. He had long blonde hair and big muscles and seemed like an all-around cool dude.
A double scumbag
If you're trying to make it as an actor, there are a handful of websites you can go on to find listings for bottom-of-the-barrel gigs like this.
There's Mandy, Backstage, Actors Access and Actors Connection. And there's Craiglist, of course. The shows are mostly historical documentary or true crime and all have these awful, cheesy names. You apply like you would to a regular job and if you fit the description, they’ll call you in for an audition. It's all done over the internet.
Investigation Discovery is the biggest producer in the genre. The other major ones are Court TV and TruTV. I've done at least a dozen dramatic reenactments for a variety of clients like Mysteries at the Museum, a Travel Channel show about the mysterious origins of artworks and artifacts, and Scorned, an ID show about crimes of passion.
I've played a chief investigator, a sociopathic murderer, a gambler on a riverboat, a cowboy who blows his brains out. You name it. There were some others, where I was just playing a cop or a bystander, but those are the ones I can recall for certain.
Frenemies, which is another ID show, is the most ridiculous because it's about friendships gone wrong. I played an actual guy named Ricky Smyrnes who was having an affair with this fifteen-year-old-girl while also trying to seduce this thirty-year-old woman who had the mind of a twelve-to-fourteen-year-old. He's kind of a double scumbag because he's both a pedophile and a man who takes sexual advantage of mentally disabled women. So that was interesting. The main scene called for the guy and the teen to torture and kill the woman. They make her drink bleach, beat her with an assortment of household objects and stab her to death. In real life, Smyrnes wound up getting the death penalty for his involvement in the murder. I remember filming the scene and being really into it. I’m literally crying as we’re doing the takes, like, "Oh my God! I’m going to be on TV!" But in the end, it was a major disappointment. The whole thing looks like it was shot on a GameBoy camera. Pathetic.
I’ve played a chief investigator, a sociopathic murderer,
a gambler on a riverboat, a cowboy who blows his brains out. You name it.
The way they cast these things is by posting a photograph of a real-life criminal or historical figure and putting out a call for actors that resemble him or her. That’s literally the only parameter.
A lot of times you have people applying to these things because they see it as a stepping stone to more serious gigs or greater visibility. I can't count the number of times I’ve been sitting around a table in the holding area of casting with a bunch of people who have MFAs from Yale or Tisch worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and are still doing this crap.
I don't have an agent. I find out about the roles myself. I'll hear about an audition online or from a friend, or I’ll just show up and lurk around. I've beaten out people with agents for roles because I had the right combination of features.
What's kind of messed up is they don't give a shit if you're an experienced actor or some random guy off the street. All that matters is that you look the part, but even that can be up for interpretation. Once, they were looking for someone to play a Persian character. There was another guy there who looked way more ethnically Persian than I did but I got the part because I have a Muslim name. Go figure.
The economics of the industry are pretty brutal. About two months before production, they'll advertise the gig as "food and transportation provided." Then about a month in, it goes up to $60 a day. They try to hire people for nothing but usually you end up getting paid somewhere between $100 and $150 a day. It can go up to $200 a day, depending on how soon they need someone. Occasionally there's a bidding war, but a lot of the time they'll film entire episodes without paying any of the cast. It's theoretically in your best interest to hold out until the last minute but that's hard to do in practice because you're competing with all these thirsty people.
I've personally never done it for free. The best thing I can say about the job is that it's a quick buck.
What's kind of messed up is they don't give a shit if you're an experienced actor or some random guy off the street. All that matters is that you look the part.
Glorified extra work
A lot of dramatic reenactments are shot in Westchester and other places immediately outside of New York City, where it’s cheaper and less logistically complicated to film. They'll charter production vans and drive everyone out there. If you're getting a ride, the call time is ridiculously early, like 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, so you're looking at a twelve-, sometimes fourteen-hour-day. I was lucky because I had my own car.
You have to know who to talk to, but realistically they're not going to roll camera until noon. I got there when I got there; it's never been a big deal. I would spend maybe six or seven hours on location since I didn't have to wait for production to set up or pack up like everyone else. As with any job, you get pretty good at automating the process.
Dramatic reenactments are basically glorified extra work. For the most part, there are no lines to memorize, you're just performing a series of actions. Maybe 20% of the day is actually spent shooting. Most of the time you're just sitting around and waiting for them to frame the shots.
There's really nothing to fuck up since they're usually not recording for sound. They typically get everything in two takes or less.
Hit or miss
On a lot of these assignments, there's no hair and makeup, though they typically have some fake blood lying around. When there is a makeup artist or hair stylist on set, it's always some bored beauty school dropout. That's the number one thing I started noticing right away.
The catering is hit or miss too. You can get a sense for the production companies you want to work with based on catering alone, because it’s generally a good indicator of how they'll treat you and what kind of amenities they provide. Optium Productions is always a safe bet because they have hands down the best spreads. We’re talking hot lunch, animal proteins, fresh produce, vegan and gluten-free options, Greek yogurt, soy milk, the works. Anyone else, and I’m immediately skeptical.
People who do dramatic reenactments are usually these starving artists from Brooklyn, so as soon as they see the craft services table, there's a stampede. If you don't get to the food in the first ten minutes, you might not eat for the rest of the day. I once witnessed someone arrive with six Tupperware containers, fill them up and hide the bag they were in. It’s always the same guy. He's notorious for it. I saw him on two separate shoots and both times he came prepared.
Fake murder, real vomit
A lot of gross and gnarly stuff happens on set, and sometimes it actually works in our favor. Once, during the Frenemies shoot, we were trying to film the main torture and murder sequence, but we were losing daylight rapidly and the cameraman kept falling out of focus. It was so muggy that day that the actress playing my underage accomplice potentially got heat stoke and ended up puking all over the place. But because we were working against the clock, we didn't have time to clean it up. So, we're all in the bathroom doing this grisly, gruesome scene, but the reason our reactions look so authentic was because the bathroom reeked of vomit.
Another time, for Mysteries at the Museum, we had to shoot it in this remote, rundown location in upstate New York. It was a closed set with very little in the way of bathroom facilities, so you had a bunch of people crapping for hours in the same toilet that didn't flush because there was no running water. The smell was wafting up through the entire building because there were these boilers in the basement that turned on automatically after dark. We had to pretend we were evacuating a burning riverboat but, again, the real reason we're coughing and choking was because of the oppressive stench, not the smoke machine they had set up.
The crew is all union, so they get paid the same rate no matter what. But the actors, a lot of them don’t have a clue. They’re still holding out hope that they're going to be discovered and their whole lives are going to change. It's kind of depressing, actually.
A weird world
I've always thought of myself a professional actor. I have a demo reel. I studied acting in school. I’ve acted in Off-Broadway productions, stuff like that. I did a triple major in college: English, journalism and theater.
Acting and writing for the stage or the screen, it's what I do. I recently wrote a play, the first play I’ve ever written, me and four other dudes. It ended up winning an award at this theater festival. It came with a cash prize of a couple thousand dollars, so we're going to adapt it into a short film. That's always been the goal.
It's weird world to be a part of. The production assistants, the cameramen, the directors all know it's just a paycheck.
It's one of the few mediums where the crew gets paid way more than the actors. Typically, in things like theater and film, it's the other way around. The crew is all union, so they get paid the same rate no matter what. But the actors, a lot of them don't have a clue. They're still holding out hope that they're going to be discovered and their whole lives are going to change. It's kind of depressing, actually.
The funniest thing that ever happened to me on the job was when I played a detective on Scorned. I had to take pictures of a fake dead body as part of a simulated crime scene. As it turned out, it was great shoot—I was only there for an hour and a half. It was one of those crisp, desolate March mornings. We were taking a break for a moment, everybody except for the guy playing the murder victim, who just stayed where he was, lying in the grass. A jogger who was running by saw him and thought it was an actual body, so he called the actual cops. They showed up and we had to spend the better part of the day convincing them that, no, this was fiction.
We’re all in the bathroom doing this grisly, gruesome scene, but the reason our reactions look so authentic was because the bathroom reeked of vomit.
Pros, hunks, freaks
The job attracts all different types of people. It's a carnival of freaks. On one hand, you have these theater people who hold such strong opinions on which one of Shakespeare's plays is the best or why Martin McDonagh sucks as a playwright. Then you have the trained professionals who do this for a living. They'll show up with a pillow and a blanket and just camp out. There are the SAG people, who are usually the professional hot girls or hunks for the scene. And there are the first-timers, who don't have union representation and are working thirteen-hour shifts for seventy-five bucks. They're standing outside in the rain and they're just so gosh darn happy to be in a movie.
If you've ever hung out with actors, you know they're either the coolest people in the world or, literally, the worst.
The thing with actors is that they really, really like talking about themselves. Where they studied. Where they trained. What they’ve been in. Who they know. So, one day, I'm sitting at this table surrounded by MFA types. One guy is boasting, "I was doing my MFA in London, and I got so good at the accent that people thought I was a local." And the girl next to him cuts in to brag about how she was in the Globe Theater program.
Then, one of the production assistants walks in and interrupts their conversation: "Alright guys, bad news. Since you're just going to be sitting in the restaurant I can only give you $50 for the day."
And they just accept it, what can they do? It's a weird tension where people have to act like they're above this shitty kind of thing but they really just want to work. In the world of extras, it doesn't matter.
There's really nothing to really fuck up since they're not recording for sound. They usually get everything in two takes or less.