That's Not Real Cocaine! 6 Drugs and the Fakes Movie Prop Masters Use to Imitate Them
Jonah Hill recently recounted a tale of drug-inspired woe from his days on the set of the 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street. It didn't involve real drugs, however; instead, it was the fake prop drugs that sent the Oscar-nominated actor in search of medical treatment.
"I did so much fake cocaine in Wolf of Wall Street I got bronchitis for three weeks and had to be hospitalized," Hill explained. "It’s vitamin powder, but it doesn’t matter, because if you ingest that much matter into your lungs, you’ll get very sick, and we were just literally doing fake coke for, like, seven months, every day. I never had more vitamin D in my entire life. I could have lifted a car over my f**king head!"
The experience must have stuck with Hill because he's referenced it before, saying it was worth it. "My lungs were filled with powder and I got really sick for a month and a half. But, I mean, I’d do it again in a second," he said in 2014.
With drug use increasingly common in movies and TV, Hill isn't the only actor doing fake drugs, and cocaine isn't the only drug getting the fake drug treatment. While actors may have to deal with the effects of ingesting the prop drugs, coming up with suitable replacements for the real thing is a technical issue for film crews.
So, what drugs are used in movies and TV shows and what are the real substances movie prop departments use? Through experimentation and folk wisdom, they've come up with solutions. Here are some of the most common.
Is it cocaine that's going to be snorted or is just going to sit on a table? If it's just for display or being cut into lines, a combination of powders will work.
"It’s usually cornstarch, but you have to put a bit of baby powder into it, because starch is too sticky and heavy," Gillian Albinski, the prop master on "Homeland," told the New York Post.
It's a bit different if the powder is actually going up somebody's nose.
"I always use powdered lactose," says longtime prop master Mychael Bates, who worked on 2011’s Horrible Bosses, which included scenes of cocaine use. "You can snort it for real, and it doesn’t affect you. It’s just a milk product."
For the lactose-intolerant, something like a vitamin B powder might be used.
Unlike Hill, Colin Farrell, who played one of the horrible bosses in the flick, didn't seem to mind it, according to Bates. He even snorted the stuff off-camera to stay in character, Bates said.
But Hill isn't the only actor to have a problem with snorting fake powders over multiple takes, and prop masters have a fix for that, too. They can coat the inside of the coke straw with Vaseline, so when the powder is snorted, most of it sticks to the straw.
Another white powder, fake heroin is produced similarly to fake coke. A common solution is a blend of milk powder and the vitamin powder Inusitol. That will work just fine if the fake heroin is just sitting there.
But if it needs to be "cooked" in preparation for injection, Inusitol doesn't heat well, so prop masters will substitute sugar and baking soda, which thickens like heroin. Another solution is to use gelatin or even bouillon.
And that fake heroin can go into a fake needle. Prop needles with blunt ends retract when the end comes into contact with the actor's skin, providing the illusion that the needle is going into the vein.
With weed, the problem is not so much coming up with suitable fakes, but persuading the actors not to use their own stashes.
"I’ve worked on shows where actors have wanted to smoke the real thing, and I was constantly fighting to take away their real bags," Albinski said. "Oregano smells so much like the real thing, you have to check carefully to make sure they haven’t switched it out."
Prop masters can also go to sites like legalbuds.com and buy herbal preparations that look and burn like pot, but don't get anyone high.
And then there's the paraphernalia. Good prop masters don't overlook details like dirtying the bong water for authenticity. Add some Coca-Cola to darken it and a crushed bit of cigarette to add some flecks, and voila!
"You have to make it believable," Albinski says. "There’s probably going to be someone smoking bong hits while watching the movie, and they’ll say, 'Why did they do it like that? That’s not believable.'"
If it's MDMA in powdered form, or Molly, well, that's just another powder.
But if it's a tablet, prop masters begin with sugar placebos bought from a prop house. They are then marked with a small rubber stamp dipped in food coloring to make a logo, just like real Ecstasy.
5. Crack rocks
Crack rocks are created by dropping globs of Krazy Glue into a pile of baking soda.
6. Magic mushrooms
Simply substitute with freeze-dried fungus. In New York, prop masters just head for Chinatown, home of all sorts of fakeries.