What are Actors Really Eating On-Screen?
Ever wonder if the food on television shows are real and how actors keep food out of their teeth while filming? Jeffrey Johnson, property master for NBC's Parenthood, shares his insights.
"In [just about every episode of] Parenthood, somebody's eating, somebody's at a restaurant, [or] somebody's creating food in the kitchen," explains Jeffrey Johnson, prop master of the show, now in its fourth season. "Food is a great deal of my responsibility."
Johnson, who also oversees all hand props for the cast such as documents and medical gear, gets creative with food to meet the demands of the show and its cast members which include Joy Bryant, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard and Erika Christensen. He spends a great deal of his time at the grocery store, selecting items for filming and in an off-stage kitchen where he and his team prepare the edibles and keep them warm. Here, Johnson's team creates everything from cups of coffee to sandwiches to whole turkeys which are enjoyed on-screen.
"The most difficult [food to stage] are turkeys," Johnson admits. "Making a turkey [takes] hours of preparation" while dishes like mashed potatoes are easy to prepare in bulk. The time and effort needed to make these dishes is multiplied for his team who often have to prepare up to 15 versions of the same entree.
In designing the dishes, Johnson relies heavily on color to beautify plates. "It needs to look beautiful; we will surround their plates with beautiful carrots, celery, cilantro and colorful items," he says. These colorful sides are not always actually eaten but, then again, neither are the main dishes. Especially during scenes with large family dinners, "everybody has a specific thing they will eat on their plate." Some will fork the mash potatoes while others will enjoy ham and still others will nibble on a roll.
Johnson is also cognizant of how the actors interact with their food on-camera. If something is too chewy, hard, or stringy, the actors may have trouble eating it easily and smoothly continuing on with their lines. "The actors also don't like to have things caught in their mouths," says the prop master. "We cut things into small portions for them so [they don't get] broccoli [or] lettuce stuck in their teeth."
Still, perhaps the greatest challenge the prop master faces is in creating cuisine that feels right in the show while also making sure all the actors have something that fits within their dietary restrictions. "Each of the actors have very specific dietary needs: some are vegan, some are gluten-free, some of the actors just don't like things too sweet [and] some like tea instead of coffee," he explains.
While all the food on the show is real, it isn't always what it appears to be on-screen. Johnson works with a food stylist to meet actors' needs while producing what the show requires. For instance, when the characters are having a steak dinner on-camera, often an actor or actress will need a vegan version. Similarly, if the characters are eating cookie dough in a scene, Johnson and his team create dough without raw eggs so the actors and actresses don't get sick while filming many takes. "There is a great deal of artistry that goes into making them look like they are eating something that's not healthy and make it be something that is healthy for the actor."
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