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What actors really use when taking drugs in movies

A good actor will make the drugs they take onscreen appear real, but the substances you see being consumed in Hollywood movies are almost always fake. Just as stunt coordinators have mastered the art of the high-speed car chase, prop masters have learned how to replicate recreational drugs, often using ingenious concoctions to make bogus narcotics look legitimate. Of course, it won't come as much of a shock to learn than Ewan McGregor wasn't actually shooting heroin in Trainspotting, but what is surprising is how they made it look so convincing. If you don't want to know how they make the magic happen, then click away now, because we're about to narc on all the fake drugs you see on the silver screen. 

Fake cocaine - Horrible Bosses (2011)

Colin Farrell is no stranger to doing fake cocaine in front of the camera. The Irishman was required to snort multiple lines for Martin McDonagh's 2008 indie hit In Bruges, and Farrell (having admitted to using real cocaine along with other hard stuff on a weekly basis when he first arrived in Hollywood) was certainly convincing in the scene. He was asked to get back into the habit for 2011's Horrible Bosses.

His character Bobby is an intolerable cokehead who only cares about stripping the assets of his late father's business to feed his lifestyle. According to the film's prop master Mychael Bates, Farrell was so intent on staying in character that he would snort the fake cocaine between takes, but what exactly was in it? "I always use powdered lactose," Bates revealed. "You can snort it for real, and it doesn't affect you. It's just a milk product."

Fake cocaine - The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The ultimate ode to excess, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street contains a lot of drug use. The most memorable drug-related scene has to be the eponymous wolf of the film, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), attempting to drive his sports car home after a Quaalude binge, but there was also a ton of cocaine being passed around in the movie. Instead of the real deal, the actors were given a vitamin D powder to snort, which is harmless to the body when ingested in small doses. Unfortunately, these were not small doses.

"I did so much fake cocaine in Wolf of Wall Street I got bronchitis for three weeks and had to be hospitalized," DiCaprio's co-star Jonah Hill revealed on HBO's Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons (via Yahoo! Movies). "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***ing head!"

Fake marijuana - Pineapple Express (2008)

The most surprising thing about Pineapple Express was that stars Seth Rogen and James Franco weren't actually smoking real weed. Rogen is an outspoken marijuana advocate and is known to enjoy a joint on set. Joseph Gordon-Levitt admitted on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (via UPI) that there was "definitely a joint being passed around the room early in the day" during the shoot of their 2015 stoner holiday comedy The Night Before, and Rogen smoked so much during Zak and Miri Make a Porno that director Kevin Smith ended up taking his first toke at the age of 38. "That dude gave me the greatest gift I've had in the last five years," Smith told MTV.

When it came to Pineapple Express, however, the smoking was staged. The killer weed that the film is named after is actually a "high-grade, low-priced legal bud," according to prop master Jeff Butcher, who was in charge of procuring the copious amounts of the stuff for the flick. Butcher said he purchased the lot from International Oddities, a company that specializes in bud with no THC, the part that gets you high. Smoking it will apparently give you "a natural high," but nothing strong enough to send actors to sleep.

Fake heroin - Trainspotting (1996)

Pot movies are usually lighthearted by nature, but heroin movies are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Feature-length anti-heroin commercial Requiem for a Dream regularly places high in lists of the most depressing films of all time, though Danny Boyle's Trainspotting managed to find several moments of humor in its bleak subject matter. The British filmmaker put himself on Hollywood's radar with his gritty and unapologetic look at heroin use among Scotland's lower classes, and the man that made it all so real was Gordon Fitzgerald.

The film's prop master revealed that rather than using more standard methods (such as spring-loaded syringes or simply implying the actual injection of the drug), they decided to take things a step further with a real syringe filled with dyed water. "[We] injected a colored liquid into a prosthetic arm," Fitzgerald told The Daily Beast. "You can draw the plunger up and down and it looks as if the blood is mixing with the liquid."

Fake heroin - American Gangster (2007)

Now that you know the secrets of fake liquid heroin, you're probably wondering what they use to imitate the drug in its powder form. They needed plenty of the stuff for Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007), a film based on the life of career criminal Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who leapfrogged the Italian mafia to become the most dangerous man in 1960s New York City after smuggling in a fortune in heroin on military planes returning from the Vietnam war.

Some of the more daring prop masters—like Jeff Butcher, who was the man in charge of heroin for Requiem for a Dream—have admitted to going out and actually buying some from the street just to get a closer look at it. American Gangster's prop wizard Eric Cheripka told Refinery 29 that H is the most difficult drug to accurately recreate on screen, though he favors a substance called Mannitol. While it's used to treat kidney conditions, reduce brain swelling and treat eye pressure in the medical profession, it's also used to cut real heroin on the streets, which is why it looks so convincing.

Fake crack - Half Nelson (2006)

Ryan Gosling was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work as crack addict Dan Dunne in 2006's Half Nelson. To prepare for the role, he moved to New York a month before shooting started and lived in a small Brooklyn apartment while shadowing a real eighth grade teacher. "There's a million ways to get there, but it's a challenge when there's no real reference for the people you play," Gosling told In Contention.

Co-writer Anna Boden revealed that the leading man went to meetings and interacted with people in the throes of crack addiction in that time, though she refused to confirm whether Gosling's realistic reaction to the drug came from experience. "I don't know if he actually has ever smoked crack," she told The Evening Class. "You'd have to ask him." His convincing performance would have been wasted if his crack had looked wack, however, and prop master Jeremy Balon had the answer.

"What ended up working was an off-white coffee mug that I broke up into about a million little pieces, then dyed in coffee," Balon told The Daily Beast. "During the scenes I would use a piece of the broken porcelain that most resembled a 'rock' and then set a small ball of tobacco behind it, so that when lit, a very small amount of smoke would come out. Movie magic."

Nuke - Robocop 2 (1990)

The history of sci-fi cinema is littered with weird and wonderful fictional drugs, from the Spice Melange mined on the planet Arrakis in Dune to the Neuroin that Tom Cruise can't stop inhaling in Minority Report. Perhaps the craziest of the lot is the drug Nuke from Robocop 2, dubbed "the most addictive narcotic in history" by worried government officials. What made it so dangerous? It was being manufactured by the leader of a cult calling himself Cain.

"There's a Nuke for every mood," Cain claimed, and the entrepreneurial villain really wasn't kidding. With the help of hire-a-scientist Frank (played by co-writer and comic book legend Frank Miller) he was able to roll out several varieties of the mind-altering drug. White Noise, Blue Velvet and Black Thunder are all name-dropped, but the most memorable variety is Red Ramrod. When we see it distributed on the streets in little plastic pipettes, what we're really looking at is a saline solution used by contact lens wearers mixed with a red dye.

HFS - 21 Jump Street (2012)

Crazy fictional drugs aren't exclusive to the sci-fi genre. Action comedy 21 Jump Street centers around a new synthetic substance going under the street name HFS (Holy F—ing S—), a designer drug which has taken one particular high school by storm. To stop the threat from spreading to other schools, reject rookie cops Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are sent in undercover. They end up having to take the drug themselves to keep their cover.

HFS takes inspiration from the rise of MDMA and experimental chemical drugs among younger users. It's administered by dissolving a wafer on the tongue, similar to the way a tab of acid is taken. These were, of course, just plain communion-style dissolving wafers, colored yellow as opposed to the traditional white. You can actually buy the fake drug online from prop auctioneers, complete with the poop-halo baggie.

Fake marijuana - The Breakfast Club (1985)

The Breakfast Club is an undeniable teen classic, but this Brat Pack flick is most definitely a product of its time and place. In 1980s Hollywood, marijuana wasn't viewed as a social, harmless drug like it is in most movies today, and depictions of its effects were often way off the mark. According to MTV, the cast of The Breakfast Club were given oregano joints to smoke in place of real marijuana, a replacement that was common before people figured out how to do THC-free grows. The result was a weed scene that is often ranked among the most unrealistic in Hollywood history. 

Things get off to a fine start with Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall acting suitably baked as they pass a joint around in the school library, but things go crazy when Emilio Estevez enters smoking one of his own. His oregano must have been laced with HFS, because he literally starts somersaulting around the room.

Fake marijuana - Zombieland (2009)

THC-free herb isn't the only option when it comes to faking real weed on screen. One of the funniest marijuana movie moments in recent memory came during 2009's Zombieland, in which apocalypse survivors Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone take refuge in the Hollywood mansion of Bill Murray, who makes a hilarious cameo as himself. The Ghostbusters star offers his guests a hit on his hookah and they reenact a scene from the 1984 paranormal comedy, but what are they actually smoking? The Daily Beast took the question to the film's prop master, Katrina Rice.

"For the hookah scene in Zombieland we used herbal cigarettes as pot," Rice revealed. "Whenever actors are actually smoking in a scene, we break apart and use the contents from herbal cigarettes to either roll in joints or use in situations like the hookah one. They are tobacco and nicotine free so they make an excellent stand-in."

Fake cocaine - The Wrestler (2008)

Jonah Hill isn't the only actor to have a bad experience with fake cocaine. Mickey Rourke was required to snort a replacement powder while filming Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Prop master Jeff Butcher told Upvoted that while powdered milk and baking soda have been used in the past, he favors a product called Inositol, a vitamin-like substance that can be found naturally in various plants and animals or created from scratch in a lab.

While the effects are obviously minimal compared to actual cocaine, Inositol will apparently give you a little kick when it hits your system, something that took Rourke completely by surprise. After experiencing a "slight energy boost," the star started to "freak out," according to Butcher. "He was like, 'I have anxiety issues—now you tell me?' He was truly upset. But he was okay a couple minutes later."

Fake cocaine - Scarface (1983)

Al Pacino might still be suffering the effects of the mountain of powder he hoovered up in Brian De Palma's seminal 1983 gangster flick Scarface. Cuban immigrant turned drug lord Tony Montana goes through a hell of a lot of cocaine over the course of the movie, but what Pacino is actually ingesting is powdered baby laxative, according to real-life Cuban immigrant Steven Bauer, who played Manny Ribera in the movie.

The actor revealed during an interview with The Age that the effects of the laxative mixture were undesirable, "so much so that no one would want to put it up their nose." Pacino didn't have much choice, however. The leading man told Fox 5 during the promotional tour for 2015's Danny Collins that the laxative was mixed with other substances that caused permanent damage to his nasal passage. "For years after I have had something stuck in there, I dunno what's happened to my nose, but it's changed," he said. "My breathing apparatus has been sort of altered a little."

Fake cigarettes - Non-Stop (2014)

Before people came to the realization that cigarettes can kill you, many of the biggest actors were smokers, and when they smoked onscreen they were smoking for real. "You used to be able to call up a company and say, 'I'm doing a movie and need cigarettes,' and they would send you a case," Jeff Butcher told Upvoted. "For the movie Mystery Train, I remember getting a giant case of Silk Cut cigarettes and we all smoked them."

Today, when you see an actor puffing away on a cigarette, it's likely a herbal mixture of some kind. Even if they smoke in real life, they could literally be inhaling cigarette smoke all day long if a scene is particularly long or they just can't seem to nail it for whatever reason. During his work on 2014's Non-Stop, Butcher decided to use tea leaves to keep star Liam Neeson happy.

"A couple years ago, I worked on Non-Stop with Liam Neeson, who is a former smoker and didn't want to be smoking cigarettes" Butcher said. "So I got vape cigarettes, which I think we ended up not using. And we made cigarettes, hand-rolled them with a machine using chamomile tea. So he smoked tea."

Real marijuana - American Beauty (1999)

Of course, sometimes the drugs we see being taken on screen aren't actually fake at all, and numerous actors have admitted to being high in front of the camera over the years. One of the most obvious examples (in that he is clearly legitimately stoned) is Kevin Spacey as a father going through a midlife crisis in Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999).

"There's a scene in American Beauty where he and another character are getting stoned outside a real estate convention and there may or may not have been real pot available on that particular movie, I couldn't possibly comment," Mendes told The Times (via Pearl and Dean). He revealed that at one point Spacey even looks at the camera after descending into giggles, expecting Mendes to yell cut, which he didn't. "I felt it was absolutely magic and he kept going and that was absolutely the movie."

Real alcohol - Bad Santa (2003)

There are a number of alternatives to real alcoholic beverages in the movies, and most of them are easy enough to pull off. According to Business Insiderlow-strength beers are often used so actors can toss back a few and get the taste without worrying about slurred lines, but carbonated ice tea is also an option. Tea is also regularly used for darker spirits, whereas simple water will suffice for vodka. Of course, making the booze look real is only half the battle—the actor still has to appear realistically drunk.

For Billy Bob Thornton, the best way to achieve that was to actually be drunk. The Bad Santa star took Method acting to a whole new level while making the black comedy, filming scenes totally trashed when the script called for it. "I've traditionally played really extreme characters," he told Film4 (via IBTimes), "and even in a comedy, if you're going to play a guy like this, you can't be sort-of drunk, you know? And I wasn't sort-of drunk. You have to go completely into it."