Juneau-Douglas High School (JDHS) inspired Katrina Rice to head full steam for the world of props and into the successful position as property master for many well-known movies like “Dumb and Dumber To” and “Love, Simon.”
She attributes her desire to pursue creative art to the unique and dedicated instruction of many Juneau educators.
“Even Auke Bay Elementary and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School,” Rice said. “I still think about them and how valuable they were to me… Juneau was such a great place to grow up.”
Rice was born in Fairbanks but spent her formative years in Juneau. From kindergarten through high school Rice remembers her education as being supportive from the get-go in whatever it is she was inspired to focus on. Her final two years at JDHS, Rice devoted much of her time to stage crew. Auditorium Manager Toby Clark played an important role in encouraging Rice’s interest in theater.
“Toby let me get really involved in stage crew,” Rice said. “The learning was a little bit unconventional but it worked really well for me.”
Rice also had the honor of studying under the tutelage of Bethany Bereman who was the drama teacher at JDHS.
Summers spent at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and hours spent with Clark’s wife Anita Maynard-losh at the Perseverance Theatre fueled her desire to pursue theater, specifically working with props.
Leading up to graduation, Rice applied for a scholarship through the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. Although ultimately she wasn’t chosen for that particular award, her project inspired the Board of Directors to pool their own money to create a scholarship specifically for Rice due to their belief that she had a future in the arts.
“That was very, very encouraging,” Rice said. “Juneau is such an isolating place… To have those adults take a look at my portfolio and say ‘we feel personally that we know you are going to do something in the arts’ really motivated me.”
After a family trip to Savannah, Georgia, Rice was introduced to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and it “enchanted” her. Rice’s determination to attend an art school as well as SCAD’s European feel and bright sunny environment were factors that led to her only applying for one school. Once accepted she went into production design for theater but soon realized she’d rather focus on design for film because of its lucrativeness.
She graduated in 2006 with a Bachelors in Production Design.
“I graduated from Savannah and was unclear how to get into the film industry,” Rice said. “At the time I thought that the only film I’d be able to end up working in would be for Home Network commercials or something.”
In an effort to find her place in the world of film she moved to Atlanta and began working for an event planner. Although in the same zone of what she wanted to be in, this wasn’t the position of her dreams.
During this time, Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne” was filming in Atlanta and Rice knew this was the shot she needed to get in the film industry. After a quick phone call to mom for a little financial support, Rice began interning for the show in the area of costume design. Again, close to the position she craved but still not the one. She decided to work with costumes until she could meet the prop manager Dwight Benjamin-Creel. Benjamin-Creel’s 20 years of experience made him a veteran in the film industry’s prop world and the perfect character to help Rice achieve her dream. The two of them hit it off and he hired her for the remainder of her three-month internship, an action that led into a six-year working relationship between the two and a lifelong friendship.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Rice said. “There were no gals trying to do props at that time. It’s a very male-dominated department. You know? It’s always been the “Prop Guy” who can fix things and do the dirty work. It’s a boys’ club I’ve been infiltrating for the last decade. But (Benjamin-Creel) didn’t care about that. Our personalities just clicked and when you spend 80 hours a week together you really have to have the right temperament. He sponsored me into getting in the union and totally has been a mentor to me since.”
This connection between Rice and Benjamin-Creel occurred around the same time that the tax incentive hit Georgia in 2008, which quickly brought waves of filmmakers to the area. Rice worked alongside Benjamin-Creel on movies such as “Zombieland” and “The Blind Side” but was soon pushed to take the lead when Benjamin-Creel “semi-retired.” Rice has since worked as Property Master in films like “The Last of Robin Hood,” “Dumb and Dumber” to “Love, Simon” as well as TV shows “Hap and Leonard,” “Rectify,” “Zoe Ever After,” and “Devious Maids.” Currently, Rice is Property Master for a film set to be released Oct. 12 of this year: “Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween.”
Rice said working with props for film has its ups and downs. Her responsibilities are endless. A prop is anything an actor touches; they can be very specific and used for exposition and as a guide for the action of the film.
“In film the props being used are not just in the background,” Rice said. “We see it very close. While I worked on props for theater I learned that you can sort of fudge it and it’ll be ok, but when it’s for a movie on a however-massive theater screen, it really has to look just right.”
She begins her work on a project by prepping, working with those who design the sets to assure her props match with them perfectly. She’ll search for or create what she needs for cohesiveness and authenticity.
For example, when she first began prepping for “Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween” around January of this year, it was understood pumpkins would be needed during the shooting of the movie. Shooting just happened to fall in the month of May. After researching (another huge aspect of her job) she discovered that pumpkins are seasonal so she collected 100 as soon as she could. A pumpkin cooling room was constructed at her office to try and keep as many of them alive and healthy looking for as long as possible. When shooting finally took place she was down to a dozen pumpkins.
“Every Monday we’d come into the office and access how many had gone rotten,” Rice said. “It was literally the wrong time in the world to do a pumpkin scene. (Working with props) is always a challenge and it’s always interesting. One of my favorite parts of this job is learning new things and solving problems I’ve never had to solve before.”
Being ready to handle whatever surprises the director or actor throw her way is just part of the fun for Rice.
Her first real claim to fame was after actor Woody Harrelson, who played Tallahassee in “Zombieland,” mentioned the vegan Twinkies Rice had made specifically for him during a press tour. Rice had spent the entire night previous the shooting of the Twinkie eating scene in the kitchen of the Hampton Hotel baking 45 vegan Twinkies and repackaging them so Harrelson would handle the gooey treats. Working closely with the actors to assure they are comfortable is also on her list of job to-dos. Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Robin Williams are just a few stars Rice has worked alongside to assure they feel good about the props they are using.
Rice takes the time out of her insanely busy life to make her way back up to Alaska every other year for her childhood memories and to take solace in the small town vibe.
“There’s nothing quite like coming home though is there?” Rice said. “Just being there is the most special feeling.”
Simply getting a call from this writer’s 907 number for her interview was what Rice called “electronic fry-bread.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct that Rice worked on “Dumb and Dumber To” not “Dumb and Dumber.”
• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer living in Juneau.