This is what it feels like when you learn that creator Shonda Rhimes is going to have your character be brutally murdered and finally come to terms with what happened.
Dan Bucatinsky won the 2013 Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as James Novak on ABC’s Scandal. After James was killed off in the March 20 episode of Scandal, BuzzFeed asked Bucatinsky to share his experiences.
1. Wear man Spanx.
If you’re going to be lying on the ground for long periods of time on camera — and they will see your whole body in close up — it doesn’t hurt to look trim, young, and cute. Even if you’re all dead and everything.
2. Fake blood can stain said man Spanx.
I had no idea when we set out to shoot the, well, shooting scenes of my last episode, how much fake blood we’d actually need. Take after take, they poured fake blood onto my coat, shirt, and into my mouth. And as that cold, rainy night on the streets of Hollywood pushed into early morning — I had no idea how those pesky blood stains would settle in under my nails, on my lips — and yes, into my reliable men’s Spanx tank. After several washings, I still see a yellowish round stain on my tank — a not-so-gentle reminder of that dramatic final scene between me and Scott Foley — and a fateful night for James Novak.
3. Grief is grief.
Dr. Kubler-Ross’ famous stages of grief really come in handy when faced with your character’s death off a show you love. Upon hearing the news that James would not survive after Episode 314, I made an almost textbook transition through the five stages:
DENIAL. Surely, this couldn’t really be happening. Why am I getting calls about fitting me for FIVE different trench coats because of the blood stains? What blood stains? Oh. I know! I’m getting Josh Malina’s calls by mistake!
Then I transitioned into ANGER. How could they do this to me?! We all love one another. We’re a family! And since when do family members hurt one another? OK, bad example. How will I pay for my Botox? Oh wait. I won’t need Botox. I’m not on TV anymore. I soon moved into BARGAINING…with a series of emails to Shonda and the writers: “What if James was just injured? Kidnapped by aliens and dropped in the woods, left to gnaw on his restraints and drink his own urine till he claws his way back to the White House on hands and knees? Too much? Oh! James could have a twin! Yes?? Hello?”
After that, I sunk into DEPRESSION. I was just sad. Sure, I had to say good-bye to this extraordinary family of actors, crew, and writers. But what about the clothes? Good-bye, Paul Smith. I love you…so much. Soon came the requisite bowls of cereal that help to stuff those pesky sad feelings… and then, of course, I remembered I still had to appear on camera?! (See item No. 1)
And at long last — I managed my way to ACCEPTANCE. After all, Stages 1–4 didn’t really work. I was still dead. And my drive-on at Sunset Gower Studios was revoked and those frantic waves from the street had lost their charm.
4. It’s hard to keep your eyes open in the rain.
Lying on the cold, wet pavement for that first scene in “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang” when the police and CSI team peel back the sheet where I, the corpse of James Novak, had supposedly been lying for 12 hours on a giant stain of dried blood. I forced my eyes into a blank, open stare, take after take. But then the rain started to fall. Giant drops landing on my face. Plink. Plunk. It took every drop of self control not to twitch or blink or wipe the water away. This, I thought to myself, is as close as I will ever get to an AWARENESS of being inside my own cold, lifeless body. An interesting existential exercise. But not one I care to repeat.
5. Enjoy the kumbaya moments with castmates.
Joe Scarnici / Getty Images for Variety
Michael Buckner / Getty Images for LOGO
They are there for you — truly a family of generous, supportive and talented artists. Try not to think they all should’ve been killed off instead of you. This one’s not so easy.
6. Get ER’s Dr. Robert Romano to direct your death scene.
Warner Bros. Television
Not only was Paul McCrane — having been killed off ER himself — sensitive and intuitive as he directed the episode, but he knew so much about how to play the actual physiological symptoms of James’ final moments. “Your lungs have bullet holes in them,” he said. Blink. Blink. I stared at him.
“Imagine trying to fill a bag with a hole in it — no matter how hard you try to fill it with air — it doesn’t fill.” And so it went. Trying different gasping sounds. Wheezing. Coughing. This wasn’t something I had a sense memory for, nor something I’d rehearsed in any acting class. A llama, I had to be once — also a cucumber. But I was really bad.
7. When Shonda calls, you answer.
Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly
“Hold for Shonda.” I remember clearly how loudly I could feel my heart pound in my chest as I pulled over to the side of the road. I knew what this call was about. The previous episode had left all of us in the dark, figuratively and literally, about the fate of James and David at the end of Episode 313. Which of us would be shot — if it all? Maybe it was a misdirect. Maybe it would be a surface wound.
Everyone had theories — the actors, crew, hair, and makeup — everyone. And from what we were told, even the writers were uncertain of which path they would take. So now I’m on hold. And my heart is pounding in my chest.
“Hi,” said Shonda as she came on. And then I heard the words: “James has to die.” And there it was. She explained how it was the only organic path for the story to take. “We have to stay true to the story.” She promised to let me read the script before the next table read and she thanked me for taking it so well. That was before I stopped taking it so well.
8. Read your death episode ALONE first.
I took Shonda up on her offer to allow me to read the script before we all congregated for the table read. And I am glad I did. I sat in my friend and Scandal writer Pete Nowalk’s empty office and read through the episode. I should have backed a Kleenex truck into the room. Instead, I used the bottom of my sweatshirt — as I’d told my 6-year old son NEVER to do (“Wipe on a tissue! Wipe on a tissue!”) — but I didn’t really have a choice. So I ate every single thing in the mini-fridge… and then I lied about it.
9. Don’t do your own stunts.
The same rainy night of my death scene, we also filmed the actual shooting. The director wanted me to run as fast as I could and then, when the shots were fired, squat to the ground. I told him I would be happy to do the drop to the ground but he wasn’t having it. I had to prove to myself that I could do it. Josh Malina was filming it. He encouraged me. I ran. Scott yelled “BANG,” and I fell to the hard, wet pavement. I got up, proudly, and smiled my best “that’s how it’s done, people” smile.
I refused to let on that I had skinned my knee, possibly broken my arm, and twisted my ankle. Moments later, a young man of about my height, wearing the same trenchcoat and scarf as me — and glasses like mine — stepped onto the street. This was Curt, my stunt double. Did I mention he was young? Like 26. And thin. And well… I didn’t like it. Who wants to come face to face with the younger, cuter, thinner, and more stunt-a-licious version of yourself?
They lay down a giant mattress where the camera was stationed, and for this take, they let me run, hit my mark when the gun fired (and it was loud!), and leap face-first onto the mattress and out of frame. I did it. Three times. I also pulled my neck out and possibly caused the dislocation of several of my internal organs. What was I doing? I still had a lot of acting to do that night — and Curt was trained in leaps and falls. I limped back to my chair and suggested Curt finish the heavy lifting.
10. Use a PASSWORD on your phone.
Michael Buckner / Getty Images Entertainment
Don’t let them take pictures of you in your bloody dead makeup on your phone and then give it to your kid to play Candy Crush. They’ll find the picture. And then they’ll ask, “What happened to Daddy?” And have bad dreams. Awkward!
11. Don’t tell your Mom they’re killing you off your show by saying, “Mom, I have bad news. I’m dying.”
For obvious reasons.