Though he’s not a household name, you’ve likely seen David Ury slink around your TV screen as Spooge, the addict who gets crushed by an ATM in “Breaking Bad,” or being stabbed, fatally shot or shaken to death on programs and movies like “CSI: New York," and "Shoot 'Em Up." So the character actor, who also performs stand-up comedy on the side, is perhaps uniquely qualified to write a lighthearted book about death. It’s an idea that Ury has been tinkering with for the past several years, well before his “Breaking Bad" fame hit. Now, in collaboration with Internet celebrity and his supposed long-lost twin Ken Tanaka, Ury is publishing “Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book For Grown-Ups.” Ury talked to Salon about his book, how surreal it is to make a living by dying, and, of course, the details of that gruesome “Breaking Bad” scene.
Nearly every character you've played on TV and in film has died. What's that like?
The creepiest thing is seeing myself on a gurney in the morgue. There’s the show “Touch,” and “CSI: New York.” In the morgue and they pulled me out and pulled the blanket off. That’s the most surreal part, to see myself dead on the gurney with celebrities looking over me. Those are also the most challenging parts of a role where you die: when you have to lie on the gurney and not breathe and not blink, for the whole time that actors playing the morticians are having their conversation over your dead body.
So you would think all that experience with dying onstage and -screen would make me less fearful, and having seen myself die so many times … but nope, it still scares the crap out of me.
What are you thinking when you’re actually on set, mid-death?
Dying on-screen is hard work because usually there’s some kind of terrible blow that you’re getting, and so, if you’re getting shot, you have to take the bullet typically or, if you’re getting crushed by an ATM, you have to … Well, for that ATM scene in “Breaking Bad” they had a big prop ATM on a pulley with a sandbag under it and so when I was supposed to die, it would actually fall. I was under it, and it would fall a little bit and then be stopped by the sandbag. It was quite terrifying, really.
I guess, when you’re actually in character playing the role and you die, I can’t say that there’s a huge surreal feeling of like, Oh, I’m being killed. It’s more when you see it. When I see that moment on-screen that it feels sort of surreal and mildly disturbing.
And now you've written a “a children’s book for grown-ups” on the subject.
Death is a very scary topic for all of us, especially grown-ups. A children’s book for grown-ups in this case presents death to grown-ups as if they were children, talks to them in the way you might talk to a child about something else, some other important issue, so that adults are able to accept and understand it.
So the best way an adult might get their hands on this book is by reading it to their kids?
Or having the kids read it to them, maybe the better way. I mean, from my experience, it’s never the kids who are afraid of the book or are afraid of death, it’s grown-ups who are afraid of death and talking about death. The idea is that the book might be best when children read it to their frightened parents to help soothe and comfort them.
I mean, I’m terrified of death. But I think it’s a conversation that we should be more willing to have.
Has dying on-screen repeatedly changed how you view death at all?
Having been in so many of those situations in TV shows where I die, it does make me think about it in real-life situations where I’m walking down the street at night and suddenly I’ll feel like, if this was a show, I would be about to die. “This guy right here would probably hold me up and shoot me,” or something.
I keep up a "look" generally that is the look that they cast me for, which is kind of a creepy-looking guy with mussed hair and a beard and slovenly, so I keep that look up. And so in real life I’m often stopped by the police or treated in a certain way based upon my physical appearance. The police stop me walking around my neighborhood and kind of ask me what I was doing around here, if I live here. And I get that kind of stuff a lot. So in my head I kind of play like, if a police officer goes by, I’ll sometimes have this scenario play out in my head about them questioning me as if I were in one of the crime dramas I’m cast in, and I imagine myself sitting in the room getting interrogated, or I imagine myself getting shot by the police because I look like whoever they’re looking for and then I take my hand out of my pocket and they see my cellphone and think it’s a gun and shoot me.
I do have sort of paranoid scenarios running through my head on occasion and I think that is a result of playing those characters probably.
How did you end up being the guy who dies?
It’s not that I aspired to play characters who die, it’s just part of being a character actor and looking the way I do, and the kind of roles that I get offered tend to be gritty characters who have a short life span. Or who are generally up to no good and are involved in dangerous situations, so they often find themselves dying, either meth addicts, homeless people, weird creepy guys. I played a carnival worker that got killed. A guy working security in an insane asylum, in a horror movie, that got killed. So it just happened that I play a lot of characters that die.
Does it bother you that Hollywood has typecast you as a guy with a short life span?
Well, you know, on the one hand there’s a lot of roles for that character, for the kinds of characters that I play. There’s no shortage of creepy, skuzzy guys, and those roles are usually fun to play, so I have no complaints about playing those roles. And I’m happy to play them again and again. And you know, I’m lucky just to be able to get work and so I don’t get too hung up about that. But there are certainly times when I’d like people to think of me also as someone who could play some of the more, psychiatrist, scientist … still kind of character-y goofy guys, but maybe not high on meth.
How did you end up on “Breaking Bad"?
When I auditioned for “Breaking Bad,” they had me read lines from a previous episode. It was not the character that I played. I think I read lines for Skinny Pete in one of the earlier episodes. So I had no idea what I was going to be doing on the show. And I was in two episodes. The first episode, they sent me the script and I didn’t have any dialogue. It was just: pulling out a knife, robbing Skinny Pete of a bag of meth. And that’s all I knew. I knew there was another episode but I hadn’t even gotten the script.
So I got over there to Albuquerque and got on the set, and everybody kept coming up to me, the crew guys and writers saying, have you read what they’re going to do to you in the next episode, and I was like, “Oh, no, what?” I had no idea. And I had no idea really what the character was except that I steal meth. So I don’t think I got that script until after shooting that first episode and getting home and then they sent me the script and then I was like, “Oh my god, wow.” So I was pretty excited about it.
There was a lot of makeup for that character because he’s really scummy, he’s got open sores on his face. So it took about two and a half hours for them to do the makeup, and the first day, we’re in a big parking lot, and I had my wardrobe on, they put all that makeup on me. I stepped out of the makeup trailer, I started walking over to my little trailer, and the parking security guy walked up and told me, “Sir, you can’t be here.” I was like, “Oh but …” He was like, “No, no, no you can’t.” And I was like, “No, but look, I have a mic on!” And then he was like, “Oh!”
And then we were at the little catering table, while we were shooting downtown and when I went up to try to get a snack, the guy’s like, “No, sir, this is just for people working on the show.” But with the roles that I play, that actually is kind of a recurring thing. Because I’m usually putting on clothes that make me look like I’m homeless or I’m a criminal of some kind.
So how was filming the ATM scene?
One of the most challenging things about the actual ATM crushing scene, was that I’m lying under there, right before I get crushed, when Dale Dickey, who plays my wife, is still talking to me, next to me, before she gets up and pushes [the ATM], I’m holding a drill. It’s a live drill, and I’m doing this whole monologue to her, yelling at her with the ATM over me and the drill in my hand. It was very intense. I was trying to focus, of course, on doing my monologue and keeping up the energy but at the same time making sure that I didn’t drill a hole into my co-star, which is frowned upon.
And then, the actual dropping of the ATM ... sitting under there and seeing it come toward you, it sure feels like it’s going to fall and crush your head. So I found that to be quite frightening, which probably helped the energy in the scene. It helped me keep up that manic energy. But I thought that was scary. But then for the real shot where it falls on my head, I get out, and the stunt double gets in there, and they hollowed out a floorboard so he actually thrust his neck and put his head down through the floorboard so the ATM can really fall. Obviously not enough to crush him. So that guy is really watching an ATM fall on his head, and if he doesn’t move his head into the floorboards fast enough then I guess he really does end up like Spooge. So I have a really great respect and admiration for stunt people.
Is that the worst way you’ve ever died on TV or film?
I would call that the best way.
On one hand you say we don’t talk about death enough, but on the other hand we see it constantly in the media and Hollywood. Does that discrepancy bother you?
Yeah. It’s sort of sanitized in our culture. I mean, I would imagine that 100 years ago or 200 years ago, you would see more real death around you. During the plague or something in England, death was everywhere. And now death, except in the rare accident, death is something that happens in a sanitized environment generally, in the hospital, or the hospice. So we’re less exposed to real death but way more exposed to fictionalized death.
So you're both fictionalizing it in movies, and now, helping us talk about it with your book.
I mean, death is how I make my living. I guess I’m in the death industry and so the book is part of that.
But it doesn’t come just from those roles. It comes from my own fear of death ...The fact that I always found it strange that it’s such a taboo to talk about death, and, you know, it’s odd to me that sex and death are the two kind of great taboos, sex being the creation of life, and death being the end of it. So you can’t talk about the beginning, you can’t talk about the end, you can only talk about what happens in the middle.
So can we expect a follow-up book, “Everybody Has Sex”?
I have thought that book through. I certainly have. I don’t know how comfortable the publisher would be with that one. But I would read it.
“Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book For Grown-Ups,” will be available by Harper Design on May 27.