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.