Smoking in films: light up, camera, action

Smoking on screen is sexy again, but even fake cigarettes have side effects for the actors, finds Gerard Gilbert

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The Independent Culture

I’ve just smoked my first cigarette this century. It wasn’t a real ciggie, a proper tobacco-nicotine death stick, but a relatively harmless herbal one donated by the props man while visiting the Budapest set of a new biopic of Ian Fleming due out later this year. Dominic Cooper (The History Boys) plays the Bond creator, and over the course of a day’s filming I watched Cooper and his co-star Anna Chancellor inhale countless of these herbal gaspers, allowing the plume to snake up from their lips to their nostrils before swallowing it again with seasoned aplomb. And then they’d have to do it again. And again and again and again and again – not so much “lights, camera, action!” as “light up, camera, action!”

“Like any cigarette you get used to it, and then strangely you begin to slightly yearn for it,” says Chancellor, an ex-smoker who also had to puff away while filming The Hour. Does she actually inhale, or is there a clever way of faking it? “I don’t think you can fake inhaling,” she says. “I don’t know how you actually act smoking because if you’ve never smoked, it’s quite a hard thing to fake.”

Actors not used to the filthy habit – and hearteningly that includes a growing number of younger thespians – are apparently noticeable by their inexperience. There’s too much attention to the sorts of actions that smokers have performed thousands of times, while non-smoking actors also tend to drag too frequently, taking a puff between each line of dialogue.  “I used to be a heavy smoker,” says Chancellor, “so it all comes very naturally.”

Auditions will state whether smoking is required, and health-conscious actors should avoid period dramas set between the 1930s and, say, the 1970s. Indeed, as smoking in public places has become unacceptable in most developed countries, so the sight of men and women happily sucking away at work and in pubs and restaurants has come to denote “period drama”. ITV’s Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour, which is set in 1965, has become just the latest primetime TV drama to require its actors blow smoke, although, of course, this shorthand for more tobacco-tolerant eras was begun in  earnest by Mad Men. Californian state law (the show is filmed in LA and, not as it may appear, in New York) doesn’t allow for smoking tobacco inside buildings, so Hamm has to go herbal.

“They taste like a mix of pot and soap,” he says. “Somebody actually watched the pilot and counted the amount of cigarettes I smoked in the pilot – it was 74 or some ridiculous number like that. But you have to remember that shooting a scene is not shooting one take of a scene – it’s four or five set-ups, and three or four takes on each set-up. So every time you see me light a cigarette, I do it five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 times. You can hear from my voice that it’s a debilitating endeavour.”

The visible on-screen effect of consuming so many cigarettes, herbal or otherwise (Hamm/Draper does often look like he’s  wincing with the effort), should in theory please the Entertainment Industries Council, the American non-profit organisation set up in 1983 to promote the accurate depiction of health and social issues in film and television. The EIC urges film-makers to consider whether smoking is really important to the story or just part of the scenery, pushing for more realistic  portrayals of smoking. Movies that feature cigarettes should also feature stained teeth and nagging coughs, they argue.

With Mad Men, smoking is both part of the story and part of the scenery, which didn’t  prevent Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television from fining two that country’s  networks $33,000 each for failing to blur out the smoking when it aired the show. Stations in Turkey must pixelate out cigarettes, though one board member argued that that simply attracts more attention.

Such heavy-handed censorship doesn’t wash in the UK or the US, despite decades’ worth of evidence that on-screen depictions of smoking encourage children and young people to take up the habit. I recall during freshers’ week at my university, a new friend taking up smoking because he said he enjoyed watching me do it. I felt vaguely guilty about this until I visited his room and saw a giant black and white poster of Humphrey Bogart with a cigarette clamped between his lips.

In the 1980s, Hollywood responded to  no-smoking campaigns by cutting the rate at which its stars lit up on-screen to 4.9 times  per hour, less than half the 1950s rate of 10.7. But in a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the on-screen smoking rate has shot back up to 10.9. Lighting-up rates on television are lower than on the big screen – and heavily skewed by the likes of Mad Men – not a drama with a large vulnerable youth demographic, one might assume. Perhaps the danger here is to older, ex-smokers.

Herbal cigarettes are apparently made with variously innocuous substances, including  clover, marshmallow leaves and rose petals, suffused with ginseng, vanilla or menthol.  But although they lack nicotine’s powerfully addictive qualities, “ herbal” cigarettes also produce tar, carbon monoxide and other  carcinogenic toxins.

So what do they taste like? The one I brought home from Budapest turned out – disappointingly in terms of this experiment, but also somewhat to my relief – to be menthol  flavoured (the props department, I noticed, had even gone to the trouble of inscribing each filter with a monogram – “IF” for Ian Fleming). It was rather like smoking a Polo mint, not unpleasant but giving me a slightly nauseous head-rush. “The menthol ones are milder but it can completely knock you out,” agrees  Chancellor, before heading back out set for another marathon session with her mint- flavoured fags. But, as Jon Hamm says, if the actors smoked real cigarettes to the extent they smoked the herbal varieties: “Well, we’d all be dead”.

With the 1950s and 1960s currently so fashionable in television drama, some of the best acting gigs – from American series like Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire to British dramas such as the aptly titled Breathless might well require cigarette consumption. Even BBC1’s Call the Midwife has the young nurses  smoking, while Dr Turner (Stephen McGann) puffs away cheerily during consultations. “The BBC was keen for the period authenticity to have the characters smoke,” says the drama’s  producer Hugh Warren. Those actors determined to avoid gaspers should also avoid period drama – or go work in Wales or for Disney.

Unlike in England, the 2007 ban on smoking in public places was drafted in Wales to include actors smoking in front of TV and film camera, while the Disney company has a blanket ban on smoking in its productions, this despite its founder, Walt Disney, being a chain-smoker whose habit led to the lung cancer that killed him (like Don Draper, Disney preferred Lucky Strike). In 1955 he even opened a tobacconist on Disneyland’s Main Street, but in the recent Disney movie about Uncle Walt’s relationship with Mary Poppins creator PL Travers, Saving Mr Banks, Tom Hanks’ Disney did not light up once – not so much airbrushing history as  giving it a long blast of air freshener.