CLOSE
istock
istock

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie and TV Extras

istock
istock

Background actors are the unsung heroes of television. Without them, most movie and TV scenes would be empty and unrealistic. But while we’re obsessed with movie stars, we never hear much about the people moving around behind them because by design, we’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Here, a few insights on what it’s like to get paid to blend into the background.

1. THEY'RE NOT PROFESSIONALS.

The chances of using background acting as a foray into stardom are pretty slim. “You’re not gonna get your big break as an extra,” says Claire Beaudreault, who has been an extra on shows including Orange Is The New Black, GIRLS, and Law & Order: SVU

Most of the people you see in the background of a film or TV show have other jobs and are just doing extra work for fun. “I didn’t do it because I saw it as some backdoor into acting or anything,” says Jason Feifer, who was an extra in a scene of the 2004 film Jersey Girl. “But there are definitely people who do that.” And there are always a few of them on set trying desperately to stay in front of the camera. “It’s a silent vie for control,” says Dillon Francis, a Los Angeles-based actor who was an extra on the movie Easy A back in 2010. “It was kind of interesting to watch. These guys would learn where the camera was going and redo their vector so they walked in front of it.” That’s a quick way to get a slap on the wrist from the director or a production assistant.

2. THERE'S A LOT OF HURRY-UP-AND-WAIT ON SET.

Days on set can be excruciatingly long, sometimes lasting more than 15 hours and starting at odd times or ending at the crack of dawn. And a lot of that time is spent just sitting around waiting to be used in a scene, or repeating a single shot a dozen times. “There are days you get to set and you wait and wait and you never get used,” says Amy Rogers, a regular extra featured in TV shows including Homeland and Banshee, “or you work all day and the footage never gets used.”

Extras spend their down time in a designated “holding” area reading or playing card games. On the set of Easy A, which was set in a high school, extras had to wear backpacks stuffed with bubble wrap to make them seem full. “A fun way to distract yourself in downtime was to open up your backpack and pop bubbles,” Francis says. 

3. WHAT LOOKS LIKE BOOZE ON CAMERA ISN'T ACTUALLY ALCOHOL.

While posing as party-goers in bar scenes, extras need something to fill their cups. But film sets are no place for drunk actors, so the props team uses a number of tricks to fool the camera, some less appetizing than others. Apple juice is a good substitute for beer, according to Beaudreault: “Or it’ll be seltzer with a little food coloring in it. There will be bottles that have been cleaned out and their labels removed and fake labels put on.” 

Vinegar is sometimes used to approximate the texture and viscosity of booze,” Rogers says. “You’ll stand there with a glass of vinegar for eight hours.” And because filming can be a long and mind-numbingly repetitive process, nobody has time to replace melting ice cubes, so they’ll use gelatin ice cubes. Or, for the ultimate cheat, plastic wrap can be put in a cup filled with water to resemble crushed ice, according to Gale Nemec, who teaches a workshop for background actors. (This approach also apparently makes for festive centerpieces.) 

4. SMOKERS GET PAID EXTRA.

When actors smoke on set, they’re usually not sucking on real cigarettes. On Mad Men, for example, the actors smoked herbal cigarettes that didn’t contain nicotine or tar (which is great, considering Jon Hamm reportedly smoked 74 of them shooting the pilot alone). 

Non-union extras usually get paid minimum hourly wage, but according to Rogers, they get a small pay increase if they’re asked to smoke in a scene. “They call that a ‘bump’ in the business,” she says. The same rule applies if your car is featured in a scene. “They want boring cars that will never be noticed on screen,” says Steve D’Avria, an extra in The Hunger Games and Homeland. “My 2003 Toyota Camry has been in more TV shows than I have. You get a whole $20 for it.” 

5. THEY'VE BEEN WEARING THE SAME DUDS FOR DAYS ...

On a film or TV set, continuity is key. To create the illusion that a scene is happening in real-time, rather than over a series of hours or days, every little detail must remain the same in each shot and from every angle. Extras are meticulously examined for accidental inconsistencies in their wardrobes. “You’ve gotta wear the same clothes every day,” Rogers says. “The production assistant will take your picture for continuity to make sure you haven’t taken off a necklace or something. For the Homeland finale, I wore a pair of leggings and a raincoat for a solid week.”  

6. ... AND THEY USUALLY HAVE TO BRING THEIR OWN—THE BLANDER, THE BETTER.

Background actors are usually expected to bring their own clothes to set unless the production has a large wardrobe budget. And if you were to peek into the closet of a regular background actor, you’d see hangers upon hangers of grey and dark blue clothing items. Muted colors are preferred on set to make sure extras are as unremarkable as possible. Shirts can’t have any visible logos, and white clothes are discouraged because they “have a tendency to shine like a beacon on camera,” Francis says. 

If you resemble one of the principal actors, you’re probably not going to get much camera time. “On Homeland, you’ll never see them place anyone near Claire Danes who has the same hair color as her,” Rogers says.  

And pro tip: never look at the camera. “One guy in The Hunger Games kept staring at the camera and they finally just told him he had to sit down,” D’Avria says.

7. WARDROBES GET RECYCLED.

If an extra has to wear an elaborate costume, there’s a chance it’s been used before on another set. “One outfit I wore for Insurgent was worn on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Dawn McHargue, who has also appeared in The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3Nashville, and Necessary Roughness.  

8. THEY'RE GREAT MIMES.

Extras often need to make a scene appear alive and bustling while at the same time remaining totally silent on set so as not to interfere with the actors’ dialogue. This means pretending to conduct a conversation without actually making any noise, and every extra seems to have their own method. “I’m either pretending to flirt with someone or gossiping about something,” Beaudreault says. Also, dance scenes are often filmed in silence and the music is added in later. 

While filming a crowd scene for the movie Jersey Girl, Feifer says he spent hours pretending to applaud and cheer. “They would do entire takes where the audience would go through the whole motion but we wouldn’t clap. We would fake clap but not actually get our hands to meet.”

9. SEASONS ARE IRRELEVANT.

It’s amazing what a little fake snow can do to transform a summer day into a winter wonderland. “Sometimes when you’re shooting a winter scene, everyone is in heavy jackets and hats and gloves and it’s actually 100 degrees outside,” Nemec says. “You can gauge whether it’s actually cold or not if breath is coming out of the actor’s mouth. If not, it’s a good bet they’ve put snow on the ground and it’s hot as all get out and everyone is playing like it’s cold.” 

For indoor scenes, air conditioning has to be turned off to eliminate background noise, which makes for a sweaty situation. Between takes, overheating extras strip their layers off to cool down. 

10. THE MOVIE STARS ARE OFF LIMITS ...

“As a general rule, don’t speak to them unless they speak with you first,” advises casting director Tona B. Dahlquist. 

While filming on one movie, McHargue and her fellow extras were told to avoid looking the star in the eye. “They were very adamant that we were not to go near him or touch him or we would get kicked off set immediately,” she says. 

But occasionally extras get a candid glimpse of a movie star’s true personality. For example, while filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria saw Jennifer Lawrence chilling at a card table munching on M&Ms, and watched Josh Hutcherson (who played Peeta) ride around set on a BMX bike.

On the flip side, Francis was the victim of one star's on-set meltdown. “She sees me standing there and she freaks out, saying something about how she’s had a rash of stalkers lately and I’m within a 50-foot perimeter,” he says. “She’s glaring at me from the tent and a PA runs over, moves me a few feet away and says ‘sorry’ and runs away again.” 

11. ... AND SOCIAL MEDIA IS A GOOD WAY TO GET BLACKLISTED.

Phones aren’t allowed on set and photos are strictly forbidden. “While filming Insurgent, there was a girl who took a picture of the set and shared it,” says McHargue. “Lionsgate security came from California to Atlanta and they took her away. She will never work on a set again. She’s blacklisted.”  

If you’re sneaky you can swipe a harmless item from set as a keepsake. While filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria says there were signs in the bathroom that said, “Flush the toilet or you’ll be sent to the Hunger Games.” “I borrowed that sign as a souvenir,” he says. 

12. THE ON-SET CATERING IS PRETTY GOOD.

The quality of food on set varies depending on budget, but generally, extras eat some amazing grub brought in by professional caterers. “The food on Iron Man 3 was the best food I’ve ever had,” McHargue says. “We ate with the cast and crew and we had anything you could think of: the best steak, shrimp, lobster and crab. The buffet table, you couldn’t see the end of it.” 

The catch: You often don’t get to eat lunch until about 3 pm and dinner starts at 10 pm, according to D’Avria. Extras are advised to bring a few snacks to hold them over until feeding time. 

13. THEY CAN'T WATCH TV LIKE REGULAR PEOPLE.

Once you know how a movie is filmed, it’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes. “I can’t watch TV anymore without looking at the background actors and seeing who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong,” Nemec says. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Tullio M. Puglia, Getty Images
arrow
job secrets
11 Secrets of Bodyguards
Tullio M. Puglia, Getty Images
Tullio M. Puglia, Getty Images

When CEOs, celebrities, and the extremely wealthy need personal protection, they call in men and women with a particular set of skills. Bodyguards provide a physical barrier against anyone wishing their clients harm, but there’s a lot more to the job—and a lot that people misunderstand about the profession. To get a better idea of what it takes to protect others, Mental Floss spoke with several veteran security experts. Here’s what they told us about being in the business of guaranteeing safety.

1. BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER.

When working crowd control or trying to corral legions of screaming teenagers, having a massive physical presence comes in handy. But not all "close protection specialists" need to be the size of a professional wrestler. “It really depends on the client,” says Anton Kalaydjian, the founder of Guardian Professional Security in Florida and former head of security for 50 Cent. “It’s kind of like shopping for a car. Sometimes they want a big SUV and sometimes they want something that doesn’t stick out at all. There’s a need for a regular-looking guy in clothes without an earpiece, not a monster.”

2. GUNS (AND FISTS) ARE PRETTY MUCH USELESS.

An armed bodyguard pulls a gun out of a holster
iStock

Depending on the environment—protecting a musician at a concert is different from transporting the reviled CEO of a pharmaceutical company—bodyguards may or may not come armed. According to Kent Moyer, president and CEO of World Protection Group and a former bodyguard for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, resorting to gunplay means the security expert has pretty much already failed. “People don’t understand this is not a business where we fight or draw guns,” Moyer says. “We’re trained to cover and evacuate and get out of harm’s way. The goal is no use of force.” If a guard needs to draw a gun to respond to a gun, Moyer says he’s already behind. “If I fight, I failed. If I draw a gun, I failed.”

3. SOMETIMES THEY’RE HIRED TO PROTECT EMPLOYERS FROM EMPLOYEES.

A security guard stands by a door
iStock

Workplace violence has raised red flags for companies who fear retribution during layoffs. Alan Schissel, a former New York City police sergeant and founder of Integrated Security, says he dispatches guards for what he calls “hostile work termination” appointments. “We get a lot of requests to provide armed security in a discreet manner while somebody is being fired,” he says. “They want to be sure the individual doesn’t come back and retaliate.”

4. SOME OF THEM LOVE TMZ.

For protection specialists who take on celebrity clients, news and gossip site TMZ.com can prove to be a valuable resource. “I love TMZ,” Moyer says. “It’s a treasure trove for me to see who has problems with bodyguards or who got arrested.” Such news is great for client leads. Moyer also thinks the site’s highly organized squad of photographers can be a good training scenario for protection drills. “You can look at paparazzi as a threat, even though they’re not, and think about how you’d navigate it.” Plus, having cameras at a location before a celebrity shows up can sometimes highlight information leaks in their operation: If photographers have advance notice, Moyer says, then security needs to be tightened up.

5. THEY DON’T LIVE THE LIFE YOU THINK THEY DO.

A bodyguard stands next to a client
iStock

Because guards are often seen within arm’s reach of a celebrity, some think they must be having the same experiences. Not so. “A big misconception is that we’re living the same life as celebrities do,” Kalaydjian says. “Yes, we’re on a private jet sometimes, but we’re not enjoying the amenities. We might live in their house, but we’re not enjoying their pool. You stay to yourself, make your rounds.” Guards that get wrapped up in a fast-paced lifestyle don’t tend to last long, he says.

6. SOMETIMES THEY’RE JUST THERE FOR SHOW.

For some, being surrounded by a squad of serious-looking people isn’t a matter of necessity. It’s a measure of status on the level of an expensive watch or a fast car. Firms will sometimes get calls from people looking for a way to get noticed by hiring a fleet of guards when there's no threat involved. “It’s a luxury amenity,” Schissel says. “It’s more of a ‘Look at me, look at them’ thing,” agrees Moyer. “There’s no actual threat. It’s about the show. I turn those down. We do real protection.”

7. THEY CAN MAKE THEIR CLIENT'S DAY MORE EFFICIENT.

A bodyguard escorts a client through a group of photographers
iStock

Because guards will scope out destinations in advance, they often know exactly how to enter and exit locations without fumbling for directions or dealing with site security. That’s why, according to Moyer, CEOs and celebrities can actually get more done during a work day. “If I’m taking you to Warner Bros., I know which gate to go in, I’ve got credentials ahead of time, and I know where the bathrooms are.” Doing more in a day means more money—which means a return on the security investment.

8. “BUDDYGUARDS” ARE A PROBLEM.

When evaluating whether or not to take on a new employee, Kalaydjian weeds out anyone looking to share in a client’s fame. “I’ve seen guys doing things they shouldn’t,” he says. “They’re doing it to be seen.” Bodyguards posting pictures of themselves with clients on social media is a career-killer: No one in the industry will take a “buddyguard” seriously. Kalaydjian recalls the one time he smirked during a 12-year-stint guarding the same client, something so rare his employer commented on it. “It’s just not the side you portray on duty.”

9. SOCIAL MEDIA MAKES THEIR JOB HARDER.

A bodyguard stands next to a client
iStock

High-profile celebrities maintain their visibility by engaging their social media users, which often means posting about their travels and events. For fans, it can provide an interesting perspective into their routine. For someone wishing them harm, it’s a road map. “Sometimes they won’t even tell me, and I’ll see on Snapchat they’ll be at a mall at 2 p.m.,” Kalaydjian says. “I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

10. NOT EVERY CELEBRITY IS PAYING FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION.

The next time you see a performer surrounded by looming personal protection staff, don’t assume he or she is footing the bill. “A lot of celebrities can’t afford full-time protection,” Moyer says, referring to the around-the-clock supervision his agency and others provide. “Sometimes, it’s the movie or TV show they’re doing that’s paying for it. Once the show is over, they no longer have it, or start getting the minimum.”

11. THEY DON’T LIKE BEING CALLED “BODYGUARDS.”

A bodyguard puts his hand up to the camera
iStock

Few bodyguards will actually refer to themselves as bodyguards. Moyer prefers executive protection agents, because, he says, bodyguard tends to carry a negative connotation of big, unskilled men. “There is a big group of dysfunctional people with no formal training who should not be in the industry,” he says. Sometimes, a former childhood friend can become “security,” a role they’re not likely to be qualified for. Moyer and other firms have specialized training courses, with Moyer's taking cues from Secret Service protocols. But Moyer also cautions that agencies enlisting hyper-driven combat specialists like Navy SEALs or SWAT team members aren't the answer, either. “SEALs like to engage and fight, destroying the bad guy. Our goal is, we don’t want to be in the same room as the bad guy.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
job secrets
14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
iStock
iStock

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
iStock

Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios