Milo Ventimiglia, Michelle Yeoh and more TV stars break down their devastating death scenes
Death scenes on TV are universally emotional, but once a beloved (or even loathed) character goes down for the final count, what’s actually going through that actor’s mind? We spoke with five whose final character exits were both draining and surprisingly filled with fluids.
Michelle Yeoh (Capt. Philippa Georgiou, “Star Trek: Discovery”)
Death comes: While battling with Klingon T’Kuvma, Georgiou is impaled by his mek’leth weapon.
Final thoughts: “That blade through the heart — when you die for a scene, it’s interesting how much research has to go into it,” says Yeoh. “I always have to weigh, ‘Do I die with my eyes open or shut?’ It’s so beautiful when you see the last minute of breath, and the eyes glaze over — but it’s difficult not to flicker. The actor above me had this mask on, and there was a lot of [sweat and saliva] coming out of the holes, and when he tipped his head, it all came gushing out. Thank God there was a rehearsal first.”
Post-mortem: “Something I always look out for are ‘loose digits’ — when it’s dark and your costar is coming running at you, you have to think about ‘Are your hands or fingers out in the open, giving them things to trip over or step on?’”
Milo Ventimiglia (Jack Pearson, “This Is Us”)
Death comes: Jack rescues his entire family (and dog) from a house fire, but ultimately dies in the hospital from smoke inhalation.
Final thoughts: “What I understood in my scene is it’s very much not about me,” says Ventimiglia. “It’s about what Mandy [Moore, playing Jack’s wife, Rebecca] has to experience in finding that ultimate low. It’s a lot of breathing, a lot of calming down. Hearing my friend completely break, it almost felt like an out-of-body experience. It hurt; it was painful. But it’s about remaining still. There are tricks that can be done in post that will stop the involuntary flutter of eyes or the rise and fall of breathing — but I just focus on a spot on the ceiling and relax the muscles in my face.”
Post-mortem: “Poor Mandy had about four weeks where she was crying every day,” he says. “I just waited until she came and knocked on my trailer door [once filming was done]. We had a big hug and there was laughter and even a, ‘Thank God that’s over.’”
Paula Malcomson (Abby Donovan, “Ray Donovan”)
Death comes: Abby forgoes further cancer treatments and takes pills that let her end her life in bed.
Final thoughts: “I’d already had my [death] scene prior to [Liev Schreiber, playing her husband, Ray] coming in, which was nice to do chronologically,” says Malcomson. “There was something lovely about being able to let go like that, and hand the action over to Liev. I was delirious, because I’d been starving myself to look gravely ill, so at that point, I was exhausted. I had to be a bit of a prop. If he wants to pick me up or shake me or kiss me or cry on top of me, I have to be there for him and available.”
Post-mortem: “All your energy is directed toward whatever he’s doing,” she says. “He’s crying and has snot running down his face, and now it’s on you. It’s not very glamorous, but it’s exactly what is necessary, you know?”
Sean Astin (Bob Newby, “Stranger Things”)
Death comes: Bob is about to reunite with girlfriend Joyce (Winona Ryder) after a harrowing escape from otherworldly creatures, but is attacked in the dark by demon dogs.
Final thoughts: “On the day we shot it, there was a pad for me to land on — they put a rope around me and yanked me out of the frame, onto the pad,” recalls Astin, whose killer was a computer-generated animal. “Then they needed someone to climb up on me, so there was this 4-foot-11 writer in a black tank top and she jumped on me and thrashed around with her elbows on my guts and arm and head, clawing at my shirt. They painted her out, or imposed the dog image on her and matched the deadly dog’s claws to her hands. I loaded my mouth with as much red Karo [syrup, to simulate blood] and went, ‘Bleah!’ and in playback it was awesome.”
Post-mortem: “It took two nights to perform, and was absolutely exhausting,” he says. “It’s one thing to have someone grabbing on to you, but hour after hour, falling down is more tiring than you think.”
Tobias Menzies (James Fitzjames, “The Terror”)
Death comes: Knowing he’ll die soon from scurvy, Fitzjames agrees to allow his body to be cannibalized by his fellow starving sailors.
Final thoughts: In the scene, Menzies writes in an email, “I’m thinking about the bloodshot lenses I have in my eyes and how they feel and whether they are reading on camera. I have prosthetics in my mouth too, to simulate gingivitis of the gums, which are uncomfortable and impede my speech slightly, but look fantastic.”
Post-mortem: “The challenge of this screen death was not about how to keep still while the scene carries on without you, but how to portray dying in [the Arctic], in that temperature, that far from everything you know and hold dear, while suffering from one of the most degrading conditions imaginable,” writes Menzies.
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