Playing Dead is Lionsgate Sound's original new podcast that examines famous death scenes in film and television, including Star Wars, Stranger Things, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Suicide Squad premieres this week. The series is hosted by actor Michael Nathanson, best known for his role as Sam Stein, the violently-murdered agent in Netflix's Marvel's The Punisher, who will be interviewing the actors and creators who brought life, and, subsequently death, to these quintessential pop culture icons.
Michael, congratulations on launching a unique podcast. What made you come up with the idea of Playing Dead, a podcast where actors talk about their famous death scenes?
Thank you so much! So excited for audiences to get an inside look at these iconic moments in film history.
I initially came up with the idea while on set on Marvel's The Punisher. I always knew from the start that my character, Sam Stein, was going to die towards the end of the first season, and in a pretty epic way. I kept thinking to myself, how can I remain a part of this world, this universe? I'm a lifelong fan of all things geek, and being a part of a show like that was a dream come true, and I didn't want it to end.
So I thought, wouldn't it be cool to interview other folks who have had similar experiences and left their mark, so to speak, within these different franchises? And then expand that idea out to talk about the whole concept of an actor's death on screen and what that means as part of their legacy, their career, and their own personal lives. It's unique to have someone with actual experience interviewing other people with the same experience in this industry, and I think audiences will be getting a more intimate look at some of their favorite performers and creators in a way they never have before.
How did guests react when you approached them to talk about their death scenes?
It's an interesting thing to talk about one's mortality as it relates to the characters they've played, and I think in this day and age when the world is so topsy-turvy, and death seems to be constantly all around us, all the folks we interviewed were already thinking of it on a pretty deep, emotional level, and it felt almost therapeutic for both me and anyone I interviewed to revisit these moments and think about how it relates to what we are experiencing as a society.
For many of those I interviewed, they have a deep respect for how much those iconic deaths and moments affected audiences around the world and how the trauma can stay with us all and make us examine our own mortality, hopefully in a way that allows us to process death and grief just a little bit easier when it happens in real life. As the web-slinger once said, with great power comes great responsibility.
Do you wonder if actors who have played multiple death scenes in their filmographies think about it? For example, the late Klaus Kinski played the bad guy in at least 40% of the more than 100 movies he was in and always died in them except for one. The late Christopher Lee may hold the record for the most death scenes in his movie career – he died in every Dracula movie he was in and apparently played over 70 death scenes. Or do you suppose they think, "Ahh, it's part of the job?"
I have to imagine Kinski channeled his own thoughts of death and destruction every single time, he certainly was as method as they come. If you watch his performances, he takes himself to the edge and then jumps right off. That seemed to fuel his artistry. And, of course, having Herzog whispering in your ear, pushing you to dig deeper— that's a collaboration, always looking to see what was on the other side.
My guess is someone like Christopher Lee became an expert in imagining what death must feel like and then putting it on rinse and repeat, adjusting for whatever creature or baddie he was playing. Not to say his performances aren't legendary, but in his case, more fantastical and more in the realm of the creative imagination. And probably easier to walk away from once the work was finished.
I'd say a horror death is probably more "fun" than playing an actual, living, breathing human being whose death creates consequences for himself and those around him. The sadness that I felt as the character Sam Stein in my moment of death in The Punisher, leaving behind my partner, an unfinished life, feeling a deep love for Madani, and not wanting to lose the opportunity to ever even express my feelings for her, it's a pretty torturous way to go since it all feels so real. But at the end of the day, it is all play. It's what we do as kids when we play cops and robbers or good guys versus bad guys and let our imaginations run wild.
I've never been killed in a horror movie, but that is definitely on my wish list. I hope I go out in the hardest way possible (lol).
Do you sometimes think you haven't made it as an actor unless you've been killed on screen? It seems the majority of actors can have a long career without ever getting a death scene.
I don't know if anyone ever seeks that out as something on your bucket list as an actor, but I do think it's a badge of honor to say you've been killed or experienced that moment of death on film. It's The Great Unknown for all humanity. What happens in that moment? What happens next? It's an intense place to go in your imagination and in your psyche, and it's certainly not a comfortable place to be. There's that expression, "dying is easy, comedy is hard." That's all about context. I'd say it depends on how and why you get taken out.
The first time I ever died in anything was at the end of Hamlet playing the title character. The poetry of those moments at the end of that play, the words, and the symphony of death Shakespeare created for God's lonely man was an extremely profound experience for me as an actor and as a human being. I think that once an actor does experience something like that in their artistic life, it allows them to dig deeper and process a more profound level of human emotion in their work.
Do you look forward to getting more death scenes in your career?
Well, let's just say I look forward to working as much as possible, and if it involves death, well, then bring it on. I definitely would love to go out in a blaze of glory, Tarantino style, or be hacked to death by some crazed killer in an iconic horror franchise, both would be a dream come true. Of course, the caveat being death likely ends that particular contract, so if it's a TV series, I hope to survive as long as possible next time :)