Faking It: What Do Actors Actually Smoke Onscreen?

Photo: Design by Bella DiMarzio.
Welcome to Faking It, our new bimonthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.

In the old days, you knew a character was going to be cool when they pulled out a smoke. Those little tobacco sticks have been the hallmark of glamour and grit since the silent film era. Think Marlene Dietrich, inhaling thick smoke through dark lips, (Fun fact: She reportedly smoked up to 50 cigarettes a day, IRL), Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, or James Dean in his Rebel Without a Cause leather jacket. Cigarettes were as sexy as they are deadly. But that was then.

Smoking onscreen used to be ubiquitous because, well, everybody smoked. There was no need for props because tobacco companies lined up to sponsor TV shows (The Flintstones' first season on ABC was sponsored by Winston cigarettes), and paid hefty sums for strategic movie placement and celebrity endorsements.

The 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, an accord which set restrictions on the advertising of cigarettes, put an end to all that. Since 2007, the Motion Picture Association of America has taken smoking into account when issuing film ratings. As Paste Magazine points out, Fantastic Mr. Fox, a wholesome family film about what I assume is a fantastic fox (okay, I’ve never seen it), received a PG rating because the main character is a smoker.

Today, it’s either a cue that a character doesn’t quite have his or her shit together, or a way to set the scene for a historical period. Can you even imagine Betty Draper without her long, lithe fingers wrapped around a cigarette?

The same feeling goes for Zelda Fitzgerald, subject of the new Amazon series, Z: The Beginning of Everything. The wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and original flapper, played by Christina Ricci, is alluring and glitzy — a force in her own right. But she’s also deeply thoughtful, artistic and psychologically troubled. Her magnetic charm is a shield that she deploys to hide her vulnerabilities — and one link in that chain mail of illusion is the way she drags from her sultry cigarette holder.

So, smoking hasn’t quite disappeared from our screens. But how does it work? We spoke to Z Executive Producers Nicole Yorkin, Dawn Prestwich, and Pam Koffler, David Hoflin, who played F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Christina Ricci herself, about what it takes to recreate a Jazz Age speakeasy, grey fog of ash and all.

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Photo: Design by Bella DiMarzio.
1) The Rules

The Screen Actor’s Guild has very strict guidelines about smoke in the workplace, so the cigarettes you see onscreen are usually fake. (Jon Hamm once said he had to smoke 74 cigarettes in the pilot of Mad Men alone, so you can imagine how damaging that would have been to his health. I love Jon Hamm — he doesn’t need to go through that.)

In Z, “the smoky environment was prop smoke,” Pam Koffler explained. “It’s called atmosphere, so we really pushed it — it was not so fun because you just feel a little icky and dirty, but it’s safe. It’s just not pleasant and the cigarettes are fake. They’re herbal cigarettes but they do create smoke and our [director of photography] just loved misting up his interiors.”
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Photo: Design by Bella DiMarzio.
2) What They Smoke

So, if actors can’t smoke actual cigarettes on set, what do they smoke?

“I will tell you they are made out of some kind of thing that’s just not tobacco,” Christina Ricci said.

She's right. "Herbal cigarettes" is a pretty vague term, but it basically means that the cigarettes in question don't contain tobacco or nicotine. Instead, they can be filled with anything from rose petals and clover leaves to licorice, and even lavender. And while little research has actually been done on how bad they are for your health, experts believe that smoking — even if it's just marshmallow leaf — is still smoking. (Translation: It's not as bad as a real cigarettes, but you probably shouldn't be smoking two packs a day.)

Regardless of their composition, Ricci says that the fake cigarettes are gross ("They give you the worst headache."), a fact that David Hoflin confirms: “I’m not a smoker and when we first got there I was like, ‘I’d like to have an herbal cigarette,’ but they were worse than actual real cigarettes. The biggest problem that you have when you smoke herbal cigarettes is the smoke — I don’t know why but it always gets in your eye."

Hoflin continued, "So, you’re smoking, and then you blow it out and the smoke just comes in your eye and then you can’t see anything, and obviously it’s on camera so you’re trying not to blink. I don’t know why that happens but real cigarettes didn’t do that. F. Scott was a very big drinker and so [I was ] like, ‘You know what instead of having a cigarette I’ll have a drink in my hand,’ because I was getting tired of not being able to see.”
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Photo: Design by Bella DiMarzio.
3) How To Inhale

You can always tell when someone’s never smoked before. They gesture a lot, inhale briefly, and then puff out more smoke than they take in. It’s a routine embraced by countless high school kids desperate to impress, not to mention Rachel Green.

Needless to say, this wasn’t the case in the Roaring Twenties. “There was so much smoking in the era you know, smoking wasn’t bad for you and it just made you look cool,” Dawn Prestwich said. “It was like all those young people smoke like crazy, and the biggest challenge we had was making people who didn’t naturally smoke look like real smokers.”

So, how do actors pull it off? “Someone who really needed help was David,’ Nicole Yorkin explained. “He was not a smoker — I think Christina has been a smoker in her life, and she knew how to smoke. I think she gave him a few hints about, you know ‘You need to inhale a little more deeply,’ and how to hold it.”
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Photo: Design by Bella DiMarzio.
4) Details, Details, Details

In the end though, it all comes down to attitude — you’ve either got it or you don’t. In Ricci’s case, it’s the former. “You can tell Christina’s a total natural smoker,” Prestwich laughed.

“Smoking’s very glamourous,” Ricci admitted. “Let’s just be honest, smoking is the coolest thing that you can do, but it is fucking terrible for you. Being cool is not worth dying over.”

I don’t know if Zelda would agree, but it sounds like sound advice to me.
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