‘I want my work to be invisible’: Hollywood’s prosthetic maestros share their secrets | film industry

AAt the start of last year’s biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a makeup artist is shocked to learn that the televangelist has her lip liner and eyeliner permanently tattooed. She offers to soften them, but Faye objects: “It’s my trademark. If I take that off, it’s not me. This is who I am.”

It is the frontispiece of the film, about the appearance, the truth and the nature of the performance to mediate between them. One that’s especially relevant given that the actor playing Faye, Jessica Chastain, is herself covered in layers of silicone prosthetics to represent the preacher.

Prosthetics are all the rage for the A-list. On-set footage recently emerged of Bradley Cooper embalmed in silicone to become a Leonard Bernstein lookalike for his next biopic. Brendan Fraser received a standing ovation at the Venice film festival this month for making the fatsuit more than just a joke in the obesity drama The Whale.

Brendan Fraser in The Whale. Photography: Courtesy of A24

Colin Farrell likewise swaddled his beauty to play the penguin in The Batman. Modern-day Dorian Gray’s Jared Leto finally got to grips with middle age by turning into a paunchy, bald Paolo Gucci in Ridley Scott’s Gucci house. And Gary Oldman won the Best Actor Oscar, despite his mouth being Oldman’s only recognizable feature, along with a cigar, for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour.

Amid the inevitable articles about my-incredible-transformation, there has been some skepticism about this excess of prostheses. Was it so hard to find real pasty middle-aged actors to play pasty middle-aged characters? There’s definitely something showy about the stars’ desire for erasure – you could call it the Mrs. Doubtfire paradox. Makeup artist Goran Lundstrom was surprised when Leto approached him and asked to be unrecognizable as Paolo Gucci: “I had never asked anyone that before – usually you always wanted to see the actor there – inside. The novelty is that people are impressed that you can’t recognize them.

Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin in The Batman (2022).
Swaddling his splendor… Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin in The Batman (2022). Photography: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

But Kazuhiro Tsuji, the prosthetic specialist responsible for the Cooper and Oldman makeovers, believes that focusing solely on the act of transformation is a mistake. “I hate to see this article: ‘This actor is unrecognizable.’ Because it’s so easy to make someone unrecognizable. The point is how the makeup represents that character or that story. What we do is part of the storytelling.

Like Tammy Faye’s slap, externals express internal truths: who this person is. Actors are increasingly realizing how today’s prosthetic technology can be a gateway to authenticity — and they’re often the ones driving these transformations, according to Lundström. He says he saw Leto and Farrell visibly changing in the makeup chair, as the silicone pieces were applied. “Once the makeup starts to look like a face, their voice, their whole behavior changes,” says Lundström. “It’s really fascinating, because that’s what you want as a makeup artist – you want the actor to identify with his new look.”

After Leto’s approach, Lundström was given just three weeks, working seven days a week, to make the parts needed to change his face to Gucci’s; getting the right level of makeup was a trial and error process. Lundström was almost scared by the totality of Leto’s request: “There is always this fear of covering too much. It may seem masked and [create] a distance between the public and the actor. One concern is that the prosthetics become so physically constraining that the actors can no longer act. In particular, Leto pushed Lundström to transform his nose.

Lundström says what they’ve achieved isn’t a Paolo Gucci facsimile, but rather a Leto/Gucci hybrid that conveys what needs to be conveyed dramatically: the dynastic fashionista jester. And it pays off: unlike a number of recent performances that have been completely out of step with the surrounding film, Leto in his outfit has a kind of lightly accented camp that fits right in, flavored with that outrageous Florentine accent.

Makeup artist Göran Lundstrom, who turned Colin Farrell into Penguin and Jared Leto into Paolo Gucci.
Makeup artist Göran Lundstrom, who turned Colin Farrell into Penguin and Jared Leto into Paolo Gucci. Photography: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF

Silicone – more durable than latex prostheses – has been used for about 20 years now. But Lundström thinks there is an ongoing prosthetic arms race, driven by ever more dramatic applications of the contraption.

Tsuji coming out of retirement to help fill Oldman with Winston seems to have upped the ante. Known to everyone in the industry as Kazu, he is a silicone pioneer who in the mid-2000s solved a key technical problem with the material: how to apply paint to it. He had originally been inspired to become a prosthetic makeup artist by Dick Smith’s transformation from Hal Holbrook as Abraham Lincoln for the 1985 miniseries North and South But he became disillusioned with the way his prosthetic work was increasingly diverted to science fiction and horror, rather than the mimetic realism that fascinated him, and he dropped out to focus on fine art.

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021).
Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021). Photo: Searchlight Pictures/Allstar

For Tsuji, the truth is truly written on our faces: “It’s a person’s diary or life story. They are born with a face, but at the same time life leaves a mark on it. Sometimes in the photographs you see a particular wrinkle. When I study a character, I try to understand why he looks like that: what kind of mentality he has and what he went through.

The process is no different from the internal digs undertaken by actors – and Tsuji says he sometimes shares his insights with them in the makeup chair. Recently, he has metamorphosed Charlize Theron as journalist Megyn Kelly for the Bombshell Sexual Harassment Brief. He says he’s a kind of advisor, helping actors feel confident in the authenticity of their performance, but points out that a perfect likeness isn’t the end goal, but rather a functional dramatic construct. For example, Churchill had a prominent scar on his forehead from a collision with a New York taxi; Tsuji omitted it because the incident was not in the Darkest Hour script and had no bearing on the events depicted.

Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017).
Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017). Photography: Working Title Films/Allstar

Under ideal circumstances, with astute technicians such as Tsuji and Lundström working with conscientious actors, prosthetics are a shortcut to method acting, allowing performers to inhabit a character’s physical form without some of the traditional obligations, such as excessive weight gain, and therefore to have faster access to their characters. Marlon Brando, using a mouthpiece in The Godfather to draw his Don Corleone timbre into this crowded register was to do a rudimentary version of the same thing.

In the language of the method, it is a question of moving from “the art of representing” to “the art of experimenting”. Of course, it’s debatable whether what the actors then experience is the reality of the character or simply an inner emotion they use to animate them. But that didn’t really matter in the past; in fact, this fusion of personalities was precisely what the big stars relied on, especially if they bore little resemblance to the real-life characters they played. It was the searing convergence of inner essences, the star personality aligning with the personality traits of the subject, that mattered. Henry Fonda wasn’t exactly an Abraham Lincoln look-alike, but the air of pared-back idealism synced with Young Mr. Lincoln.

Makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who turned Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly and Gary Oldman into Churchill.
Makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who turned Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly and Gary Oldman into Churchill. Photography: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Unlocking the inner chamber of the psyche is where the action is; something Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There knew well when it cast six different actors, not necessarily of the same gender or race, to play the musician. As the singer once said, “I contain multitudes.” If you had to name one artist who is a particularly skilled bottler of gasoline, it would be Andy Serkis. In his remarkable blue-screen feats as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films and the chimp Caesar in the Rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, he had to capture the animus first, before the CGI – perhaps the ultimate form of prostheses – were then applied in post-production. But his work shows how prostheses, whether physical or digital, can be much more than a hollow shell.

With Fraser squarely in the running for next year’s Oscars, and Cooper presumably hoping for the same in 2024, a layer of silicone could settle the next two Best Actor awards. In this prosthetic push, performers and makeup artists, whether working indoors or outdoors, are always in pursuit of one wisp: to close the gap with reality. Perhaps Tsuji, the master craftsman, feels the burden the most: “I always feel defeated, because I try to imitate nature but I can never be that perfect.” I want my work to be invisible.

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