Did you know actors playing corpses get cut into with real knives? We find out the morbid details about playing dead in movies

Warning: this article has spoilers for The Autopsy of Jane Doe! 

“It was quite a jovial, friendly atmosphere”. Not exactly what you’d expect from a movie set in a morgue and named The Autopsy of Jane Doe - but I’m not one to doubt the testimony of the woman at the centre of it all. Centred on a mysterious corpse played by Olwen Kelly, she lies on a cold autopsy slab after being found in chilling circumstances (ahem, and around a ton of recently-dead bodies…) exuding an eerie aura. No, she doesn’t get up and move around. She doesn’t blink. She doesn’t even take a single jump-scare breath either. Yet Jane Doe is captivating, somehow transitioning between victim and aggressor without moving a muscle. I had a chat with Olwen to find out just what it’s like to play dead, and precisely how she pulled off looking so convincing without the aid of embalming fluid. 

Thankfully Olwen’s audition didn’t involve anything morbid, but getting made up each day was a different case. Getting that undead look takes a while; according to her each morning began with “two hours of makeup usually, if I wasn’t doing any prosthetics”. It was on set that the real grisly fun started. Multiple scenes show the corpse being cut into with scalpels to figure out what might have happened to her - some even coming perilously close to Olwen’s skin. “When it’s open and there’s a cavity, most of that was on the doll. But me, when I’m being sliced open, that’s a prosthetic with all the blood and everything and make up”. Broken limbs are semi-realistic too: instead of being applied to a doll they take the form of prosthetics moulded onto Olwen’s limbs. They even came close to fooling Olwen, who mentions that “prosthetics are amazing because you wouldn’t have known - it just looked like I had a second skin on. I believe they didn’t have to do much retouching on that kind of stuff, so they did an amazing job”. 

Rather than giving her some eerie premonition about what it must be like to be, well, dead, Olwen says that scenes involving prosthetics being poked and prodded (especially the one when Jane Doe’s cut-out tongue is revealed) were her favourite. “On a technical level those were my favourite scenes to film, especially [...] with the tongue piece, because that’s another prosthetic, the tongue. You have a day where you’re wearing a mouthpiece and it’s sitting on the top of my tongue so it has to come out. You have to break quite a bit when you’re doing it”. So you can still enjoy playing dead, which is good to know.  

DIY (Deadify It Yourself)

Want to act dead yourself? There are two things you have to master to pull off that lifeless look according to Olwen: “patience and shallow breathing!”. The meditation technique came in exceptionally handy when Olwen was lying on the autopsy table. Tentatively thinking I might be able to pull it off myself, she says that “you’re not breathing right into your stomach, you’re just breathing into your throat and lungs. There were moments where I had to hold my breath, but [people] always think of when you’re a kid and you suck in all the breath and you hold it for as long as you can. Actually if you expel all of the air out (and that’s something that’s used in meditation and yoga) then once you’ve expelled it, you can actually hold it out for much longer than you can hold it in”. It results in your chest looking like it’s barely moving, attaining that corpse-like appearance and unnerving your fellow actors to boot. So there you go - if you want to startle someone, master shallow breathing (but please sit up afterwards and assure them everything is fine). 

While lying still is undeniably the main part of convincing the actors surrounding you that your soul has departed from your body, I was curious about whether you can still act. Jane Doe is an ominous woman, who sways between exuding menace and inviting intense pity. When I asked her whether she changed anything to appear more threatening, Olwen says that “I may not be technically doing anything but you’re sort of aware of the script and you have to know everything, so... just thinking about what is going on – I’m a very expressive person, so I think that it’s quite difficult for me not to express what I’m thinking!”. Later on, in the parts where all the camera does is focus on her unmoving face and the morticians begin to suspect that she’s angry, Olwen agrees that she felt the change happen. “You can definitely feel that it [the movie] gets darker as she gets darker”, she mentions. 

Regardless of how Olwen felt, her acting was good enough to convince her co-stars that she belonged on the autopsy table. Brian Cox described her in an interview as appearing “de-human”, which she entirely understands. “For them, they would have been very much in the moment, in the script”, she says, “and then I would’ve been… almost like a prop really. And then to stop and suddenly for me to sit up and start chatting, I’m sure was an odd experience!” Not that this creepy sensation lasted long, though, as before she knew it jokes were being fired around on-set about whether she was feeling very well. “There were a lot of jokes like Emile asking me if I was feeling OK or I was looking a little pale”, Olwen says. Well, you can’t blame them for trying to lift the mood. It is set in a morgue, after all. 

So, does the woman who played her have a special insight into whether this girl was just angry, or genuinely evil at heart? The character is so enigmatic that the answer is ‘not really’. However, Olwen has “a lot of sympathy [for Jane Doe] and [thinks there’s] a lot that still has not been told”. If you want to decide for yourself whether this corpse is good or bad, or have a look at Olwen’s acting first-hand, you can rent it or buy it on Amazon - and I definitely recommend doing do (because it’s bloody brilliant).

Want more horror? No problem! Be afraid. Here's your ultimate guide to the horror movies and TV of 2017 or take a look at our 25 best horror movies to scare you senseless.