In the lead up to the 95th Academy Awards, this week on VinePair we’re celebrating the starring role drinks have played in the most iconic movies in history. Read more about Drinking On Screen here.
Deep into Season 4 on my umpteenth rewatch of “Parks and Recreation,” I suddenly became fixated on a scene at a French restaurant. Main characters Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) were awaiting the arrival of Knope’s ex, Dave Sanderson (Louis C.K.), and the impending drama of Sanderson attempting to win her back. But all I could focus on was the “wine” in Knope and Wyatt’s bulbous glasses: pale orange, the hue of diluted Gatorade.
This episode aired in 2012, years before the orange wine takeover, I reasoned to no one. How could anybody be expected to believe this watered-down Gatorade lookalike is white wine?!
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Films and television offer means of escape largely through suspended disbelief. But we can’t occasionally help but wonder what those actors are drinking instead of wine, beer, or Scotch on the rocks — and overreact when said liquid looks less than convincing. Of course, persuasion doesn’t solely depend on the look of the consumable props, but on the actors endowing them with the qualities that make us believe that, say, Lucy Arnaz is too drunk on Vitameatavegamin to pronounce it on “I Love Lucy,” or that James Bond is indeed gulping down whiskey as a salve because he briefly, technically, died several minutes earlier due to poisoning.
Even if alcohol is merely tertiary to the story, a million small factors may determine what goes into that glass of faux booze. How close up or featured is the drink, and how central is it to the scene — enough so to bring in a food stylist or actual bartender, for instance? What time period is the scene taking place in? What glassware, garnishes, and flourishes do the prop team have access to? Does the actor sipping it have dietary restrictions or unwavering opinions about what their character might drink in this particular situation?
“It’s not uncommon for the script to change because of an actor’s preference,” says Carolina Barros, assistant prop master at Atlanta-based studio Eleven. “‘I want my character to be drinking Scotch’ because that’s what they think their character would actually be drinking.” That, or perhaps the actor can’t have sugar or caffeine, refuses to drink a certain brand of soda, or prefers organic beverages. Indeed, actors more than anyone in a given production determine the liquid in the glass.
Making it Work
“I can usually get a good sense of what I’ll need or if I need to bring in [a food stylist or bartender] by reading a script,” says Philip Schneider, Eleven’s prop master and a 40-year industry veteran. He and Barros have lately worked on such films as “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
“But sometimes we’re just throwing shit against the wall,” Schneider adds. “Directors have so much to think about, so things often happen in the moment or at the very last minute. A lot of what we do is like I say on almost a daily basis, ‘Had you told me this yesterday, this would look so much better today.’”
Still, the industry favors the overly prepared. Schneider has amassed plenty of tricks and maintains a sizable collection of iconic glassware and vintage liquor bottles. (It doesn’t hurt to stock extra acrylic bottles, either. “There’s a lot of throwing of beer and liquor bottles,” he says.)
A cocktail can easily be made into a mocktail and zhuzhed up with fruit wedges and a little faux “frost” spray painted on the glass. Water convincingly passes for vodka, gin, and Martinis; diluted black tea for whiskey, Scotch, and Manhattans. Non-melting ice cube options include acrylic, glass, rubber, and silicone. The soil-extending starch derivative known as Polisorb perfectly mimics the tiny crushed ice particles in a Margarita. (Amazon and 24-hour Walmarts have done wonders for prop masters, by the way.) In the past, prop masters relied more on diluted juice and caramel-colored water for wine. Diluted Welch’s grape juice “tended to bubble when poured and you had to get just the right mixture,” Schneider recalls. Thanks to the influx of non-alcoholic alternatives, actors are able to pop, pour, and sip booze-free Champagne without the need for swap-ins or clever cutting.
But all the preparation in the world can’t prevent actor Woody Harrelson from deciding that his character would more likely pass out shots of bourbon than toast Champagne in a scene in which Barros and Schneider have already distributed flutes of faux bubbly to everyone on set. These kinds of changes usually occur somewhere between 30 minutes and a “very skinny” hour before filming begins. “Then it just becomes all about running around trying to find shot glasses,” Barros sighs.
Then again, prop masters are in the business of keeping actors happy. After all, the drinks they’re sipping contribute to the overall believability of the fictional person they’ve assembled before the viewer’s eyes. Whether booze is providing a meaningless buzz or is as central to the story as a supporting actor, we must believe.
“An actor is not really going to drink poison, burn themselves, or take drugs,” says Howard Fine, acting coach and artistic director of the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Los Angeles. “They’re not really going to drink alcohol” — unless maybe they’re Matthew McConaughey in the 2019 film “Beach Bum” about a heavy-drinking poet, Schneider quips. “But they’ve gotta know how alcohol hits your lips,” Fine adds, “how it feels going down, and what it does to your cognitive ability.”
Fine teaches this technique, known as endowment, to all of his students, including Academy Award nominee for best actor, Austin Butler, who portrayed the singer Elvis Presley and his famous opiate addiction in the 2022 biopic “Elvis.”
The most common mistake actors at all levels make when it comes to intoxication is “trying to be drunk when they’re acting drunk on film,” Fine says. Instead, he instructs them to locate the specific sensory conditions that come with intoxication — like slurred speech and loss of balance — then try to overcome them.
“So if I locate thickness in the tongue, for example, that causes me to slur my words,” he says, demonstrating this in the last half of the sentence. “Or for equilibrium, imagine standing on the deck of a ship that’s moving,” Fine says. “From there you try not to have those conditions. So you’re trying not to slur; you’re trying not to lose your balance.”
Even if actors have never picked up an alcoholic drink, they have to constantly collect experiences and observe their own sensations and behaviors and those of others, Fine says. Where does congestion sit when they have a cold? How chatty and flushed might someone get after their first Cosmo at a bar?
“Acting is not about how you say lines,” Fine notes. “The words are clues to the life that would surround it. From their lines, the best actors start to think about behavior: What would a typical day in that person’s life be like? How much do they rely on alcohol to cope? I know a costume designer who designs clothing not based on what she thinks the character will wear, but rather what they do with the clothes when they come home. Do they hang them up, or throw them around, for example?”
Indeed, like clothing and furniture, sometimes alcohol is just an accessory — if not always a convincing one — to this fabricated world in which drinking remains culturally important. But other times it’s the twinkle in a scene when friends gather over cocktails to lament their romantic troubles, or a symptom of the devastating turn a main character’s life takes, or perhaps a source of timeless, silly comedy.
Lucille Ball’s virtuoso endowment of a bottle of apple pectin is largely why we still laugh at the Vitameatavegamin scene on “I Love Lucy.” In the scene in which Ball is starring in a commercial for a liquid supplement, the director repeatedly orders her to choke down the unpleasant-tasting product — containing 23 percent alcohol, unbeknownst to her — until she can convincingly tell viewers it’s “just like candy!” in the ad. As Ball’s character gets tipsy, she starts slurring, drunkenly ad libbing, and struggling to say the product name: “Mita-vama-meaty-man! Remember that name!” she exclaims.
“What I loved about her in this scene is that she’s playing into the stakes of the scene,” Fine says. “She never ‘wink, wink’ plays comedy for the audience. It’s such a great example of she’s trying to overcome this problem, but she’s getting loopier and loopier.”
Of course, from a prop standpoint, it doesn’t hurt that the scene was shot on pre-high-definition, black-and-white film.