True-crime TV rampant in Washington
“Okay, now evil. Hold those eyes. Keep that evil face. Evil, evil, evil, evil and ... smile!”
The eyes narrow, brows converge, the mouth hardens, before a jarring, toothy grin breaks out. Creepy.
The director, Cara Walters, is eking all possible menace out of her actor in this Germantown house. Mark D. Dailey, a retired businessman, has come down from New Jersey to play polygamist pedophile Arvin Shreeve for an episode of “Who the (Bleep),” one of the true-crime shows multiplying like goose bumps on the Silver Spring-based Investigation Discovery channel. Dailey got the part because he looks like Shreeve, a self-proclaimed prophet convicted in 1991 in Utah.
Dailey has already been directed through seemingly benign wedding-day scenes, the gathering of bridesmaids in matching dresses on the porch, an indoor social scene, an unnerving touch on the arm to the young victim.
Now he’s channeling all his evil into this one close-up, a shot so in-your-face it might be of a villain from silent pictures, though Walters says she borrowed it from “Dexter.”
“Okay, super evil, then creepy,” coaches Walters, coaxing the look that says, “I’m gonna kill you, and I’m gonna rape you.”
None of that particular violence will be seen when the episode airs Aug. 31. In most Investigation Discovery shows, the crime story is told largely by police, witnesses, family members and victims. The reenactors fill in the rest.
Dailey, who tried acting after he retired from the Social Security Administration, has found more work in Washington than in New York and New Jersey lately. And it comes not in soundstages, but in houses and offices volunteered for about as much (or as little) as the actors are paid: about $150 a day. Production crews invade, rearrange furniture and install lighting. Smoke machines create that hazy, re-created-memory look.
A sheet provides the backdrop of this menacing close-up here in Gina Grinkemeyer’s family room. It’s the fourth time in seven months that the homemaker has let producers use her house. She herself has appeared in several true-crime shows. “I love the chaos,” says Grinkemeyer, who makes caramel corn for the crew. “I’m used to it. I have three boys.”
Crime may be down, but true-crime reenactments are way up in the area. Investigation Discovery is churning out shows with titles such as “Cuff Me if You Can” and “Swamp Murders.” Sirens Media is the largest of a handful of area production companies that help illustrate the endless march of murder, molestation and mayhem that rivets a largely female daytime audience you may have thought was watching soaps.
The vast majority of faces in these homegrown shows are plucked from local stages or at auditions, or sought out because they look like the people whose stories they’re telling.
Just as every New York actor has a credit from one of the “Law & Order” shows — as a dead body or Prosecutor No. 2 — many local actors have credits for Sirens’ “Deadly Affairs,” “Nightmare Next Door,” “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry” and offshoot “Who the (Bleep),” “Evil Twins” and spinoff “Evil Kin,” and the new “Southern Fried Homicide.”
Why, you are surely asking, has Washington — home to the august National Geographic and PBS channels — become a hub for blood?
Because of those networks, says Sirens co-founder Valerie Haselton. “When we came here, this was the place to be,” says Haselton, who moved from Los Angeles eight years ago. “This was where nonfiction programming was.”
Don’t forget that “America’s Most Wanted” was shot for years at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Chinatown.
“Every time I meet someone at a party, they’re like, ‘Oh, is there TV in D.C.? I didn’t know that,’ ” Haselton says. “They think we’re all politicians and lawyers. But there’s actually quite a bustling creative community.”
Investigation Discovery began life in 1996 as Discovery Civilization, an offshoot of the main Discovery channel. Struggling, Civilization was turned into a current-events collaboration with the New York Times called Discovery Times, which fizzled as well.
When Court TV became truTV in 2008, Discovery filled cable’s crime-story void with the renamed Investigation Discovery. In place of current affairs, suddenly, was “Deadly Affairs.”
Since then, the network has experienced double-digit increases in its age 25-to-54 female audience every night of the week every year, according to Nielsen. Available in 83 million homes, Investigation Discovery was watched by 52 million people in the first quarter this year.
Twice as many women as men watch. “They’re very interested in figuring out the crimes and trying to solve them,” Haselton says.
Sirens Media employs 200 full-time writers, producers, directors and editors. The company is behind a dozen shows on various channels, including “Strange Sex” on TLC, “Panic 9-1-1” on A&E and its marquee production for Bravo, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” But more than half of what Sirens produces are crime reenactments.
There’s hardly a day when a team isn’t out at one of a hundred locations they’ve scouted in the region re-creating crimes with nonunion actors. Cast members usually do their own makeup, bring their own wardrobe and even compile their own research on the real-life people they portray.
“We have to be one of the biggest employers in the area for actors,” Haselton says. “And if they’re good actors, we use them over again. We have one guy who played a villain in one and played a victim in another and did nicely in both.”
The effervescent Grinkemeyer began her Sirens career last year at age 43 in “Who the (Bleep),” playing Mayumi Heene, mother of Colorado’s “Balloon Boy.” The country was captivated in terror one afternoon in 2009 because his parents said he was trapped in an escaped Mylar balloon. Turns out the 50-mile drama was a hoax.
Grinkemeyer then played a 54-year-old crack addict named Vivian Irizarry in the first episode of “Evil Twins.” She was a bank teller on the first “Deadly Affairs” and was in two installments of “Nightmare Next Door,” one as a lead, another as a bar patron. She was a jogger in “Southern Fried Homicide” and posed with her family for the opening credits of “Evil Kin.”
Grinkemeyer caught the acting bug when she was asked to be an extra in 1993’s “The Pelican Brief” when it was being shot at Georgetown University Law Center, where she worked. Since then, Grinkemeyer has landed prized roles for local extras on the HBO movie “Game Change,” the HBO series “Veep” and Netflix’s “House of Cards,” and she’s like family with the Sirens crew.
“A lot of actors work multiple times for them because they can’t have enough actors. There are just so many roles to fill,” Grinkemeyer says. Proving it, she is hired that day to play a social worker on the “Who the (Bleep)” episode being shot at her house.
She’ll get $75 for the day; leads get twice that. Days often go 12 hours, and there’s no overtime. It’s not always an easy job, even when you’re just lying on the floor playing a dead body.
“You try not to move. You gotta hold your breath,” Grinkemeyer says. “You wait until they start the camera. And it’s hard. It’s not so much the [not] breathing as the eyes. You think you can keep your eyes still, but if you have to and you’re thinking about it, it’s so hard.”
Katie Zitz, a 24-year-old Gaithersburg actress, had a bit of trouble when she played dead in “Southern Fried Homicide.”
“It was a really cold day,” she says. “I was lying there with my pant legs rolled up, and you could see goose bumps on me. Lying there was fine — I can lay there and be still. But apparently corpses don’t have goose bumps, so I had to sit there with a blanket and put a heat lamp on me, or they were rubbing my legs so they could get the shot.”
It’s a little creepy to appear dead, Grinkemeyer says, “but it kind of bothers me that it’s not as creepy as it should be. Because as you’re doing it, you kind of forget that these were real people that died in horrible ways.”
Sirens keeps that in mind, as well.