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Interview: Hair and Makeup Team on Wigs, Details, and Authenticity in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): (L to R) Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Glynn Turman as Toldeo. Cr. David Lee / Netflix

Earlier this week, we featured a conversation with production designer Marc Ricker about his amazing work creating the world of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Another key factor in mimicking the 1920s and giving off an authentic feel is the hair and makeup team, which earned a deserved place on the corresponding Oscar shortlist in that category. Awards Radar had the chance to speak with hair department head Mia Neal, makeup department head Matiki Anoff, and Sergio Lopez-Rivera, who was in charge of personal makeup for star Viola Davis, about this truly ambitious and exhaustive undertaking.

Q: What attracted you to this project?

Mia Neal: Ann Roth and George C. Wolfe, who I work with a lot, the both of them brought me on to the project. I was super excited. I do a lot of theater, so that theater-to-movie transition, I was super excited about doing that. I also love doing period pieces, so the combination of all of that was just unbelievable.

Sergio Lopez-Rivera: I was working already with Viola on the TV series How to Get Away with Murder. She told me about this movie and it sounded amazing, and the rest is history.

Matiki Anoff: I found out about the project when I was doing Fences. When it ended, Denzel announced that he was going to do all of the August Wilson catalog, and the next one would be Ma Rainey.

Q: What did you know of Ma Rainey and this era, and what surprised you most in your research?

Mia: Crazy enough, when I was in grade school, I did have a teacher that made us doing all this extensive research. I kept saying I didn’t know who Ma Rainey was, because I didn’t really remember a lot of what she told us, but I wish I could find the information she had given us. She had gone down the list of all of these forgotten-about Black artists during that era. She would drill us on it test-wise. Her name was Ms. McKinney, and she was a music teacher at our school. I didn’t remember the information that Ms. McKinney had given us, so I’d never bring it up, because it’s a shame that I don’t remember rit. But I had actually heard Ma Rainey’s name from kindergarten all the way through sixth grade, and the fact that I did not retain any of that information is shame on me. That was that. None of it was in our schoolbooks. She put together the tests and everything on her own because she knew it was important for us to have that information. That being said, when I started to do the research on Ma Rainey, you can hardly find anything as far as photographs, which is normally what I would lean to as a hairstylist. I think there are seven photos, I found two. So you just go off the descriptions that people wrote about her.

Sergio: I didn’t know anything about this woman. I didn’t know who she was, and I remember thinking when I heard the title, I needed to see it written down. I wasn’t sure what those words were. I started doing my research right away. The same thing as Mia, you ran out of information really fast. And so it was just the information that we had, the few photographs that we found. There is one photograph in particular that gave me the idea about her relationship with makeup, the only close-up she has where you can see that she has gold teeth. The rest came from the script, and filling in the blanks with stories. But doing the research in a more general way. The first thing to do is to establish what history was doing at that time. What was it like to be a Black woman in the 1920s? What was it that was available to her in terms of skin care and cosmetics? How much money did she have? What was her education? Things like that help you create a foundation to build a character on. With all of that, plus the descriptions by August Wilson and the contemporaries that wrote about her in books, we just created this character.

Matiki: I had actually heard of Ma Rainey even before Denzel had announced it. HBO did a show on Bessie Smith where Queen Latifah played her. Ma Rainey was a character in that. I had heard about her just throughout the years. I didn’t know that much about her but I had certainly heard about her. I knew the song was very, very famous in the 1920s. It was a really huge song, much more in white America. They used to do the Charleston and the Black Bottom.

Q: Let’s talk about wigs. This was a very extensive process. What went into it and what proved most difficult about creating them?

Mia: Ann Roth, the costume designer, through her research, discovered that Ma Rainey wore horse hair wigs. She challenged me with recreating that. So I sourced some horse hair, and when it arrived, I mean, I had never worked with horse hair, so I didn’t know what to expect. From what showed up, they tie string from the top of the horse hair to the bottom and then they just cut it off. It had manure, it had lice eggs. It comes pretty raw. Luckily, it had been stored away somewhere for god knows how long. It was so caked on, I literally had to peel it apart just to separate the hairs. Horse hair is nothing like human hair. It’s very wiry, very thick. The lace that is used to ventilate the wigs, normally with human hair you can fit three or four hairs through the holes at one time. But because the horse hair is so thick and wiry, the Ma Rainey wig is actually one strand at a time. It’s all single-strand, the wig, because I could only fit one hair at a time. It was so crazy, I had to boil it. It was just so much. I didn’t even know at that point while building if it would hold a set. Will I even be able to use this when I’m finished? Because it was nothing like human hair. But, crazy enough, it actually held a set miraculously, so much so that it really didn’t need to be reset, and it gave me an understanding as to why Ma Rainey and other people wore horse hair wigs. It’s like today’s synthetic wigs. You buy it into a set, and it stays like that. Once you set it, it’s done. You don’t have to go back over it. Whether it’s heat or humidity or whatever. Being a woman of color traveling in the 1920s, I imagine she couldn’t just walk into a salon in every town that she showed up in and receive service, so that wig was probably instrumental in keeping up with her show continuity. The other wigs – there ended up being over a hundred wigs. We came overly prepared, my assistant Leah and I. I had called casting, and casting said, listen, we can’t find people that are union, there are two other things shooting here in Pittsburgh. Pretty much everyone that we have, this is going to be their first time on camera. I was like, oh! I knew that they were going to show up very camera-ready for this 1927 picture where they’re supposed to be laborers. I was like, okay, no, we have to come up with a ton of wigs. So that’s what we did.

Q: You mentioned the makeup and what was available in the 1920s. After discovering the products you might be able to use, what informed the approach you took?

Sergio: It’s amazing how many steps your brain takes in terms of discovering something or attaching yourself to an idea. One of the first original things and the only cue I was taking from the original Ma Rainey, the only eight by ten headshot of her where she has her headband on, if you look closely, there are multiple copies of the picture where some are more detailed than others because of the resolution, you can see that the shape of her actual eyes was more almond-shaped, a little more elongated, and smaller. With a liner, she would do this very fast, probably, one thick line on the top and one thick line on the bottom. Instead of respecting the straight line of her natural eye shape, she would dip it. She would draw it in a rounder way. That’s a very subtle thing, but what tells me is that she’s trying to go with the trends of the time, which is to have big round eyes, and a small mouth, and these perfectly-groomed, pencil-thin-shaped eyebrows. It just gave me this notion that this woman, this was something that was important to her. She would have been on trend with what was going on. The trend of what was going on was exposed to her by white women, not Black women, really, because there were not a lot of cosmetics designed for Black women. And the Black women that you might see somewhere, like on a magazine, were very light-skinned Black women. I took the psychology of her wanting to look like the beauty standards of that time and applied it to herself with her own set of challenges. If you read some of the contemporaries that wrote about her, they describe her greasepaint face and how much she sweats. They described her as the ugliest woman in show business, a very cruel description. But all of these things informed the emotional response that I needed to create for the audience. The makeup is designed in a way that speaks to the struggle, that speaks to the heat, that speaks to the tensions of that time. You can see for a brief moment when she is coming down the stairs in the hotel room, the first time we see her outside of the stage, that her makeup is applied in a much neater way. It’s like, okay, that’s the best version of her makeup, and from that point forward, the makeup just dissolves and starts to melt and run off, all the way to the end of the movie.

Q: Matiki and Sergio, you’ve both worked with Viola extensively in the past. Was this a more complicated makeup and hair process than she’s used to?

Sergio: She just showed up for it. She wanted to do this, she wanted to play. In fact, I was getting a little creative with it and I was already doing something that was pretty shocking to see, but she kept pushing me. She was like, yeah, we can go further and take this all the way. It was really funny. To see that makeup done in person and to just finish the makeup and see her with the wig on and she’s looking at herself in the mirror in the trailer, and then just says thank you and gets up and leaves the trailer. As if it’s the most normal thing to look this way. When we do it day after day, that makeup became pretty quick. It was probably a forty-five-minute process. And all the sweat and everything, I would wait until we were on set to apply that. The gold teeth were just pop-ons.

Matiki: In terms of the rest of the cast, after we saw how Ma was appearing and to what level, we kind of adjusted everything so that it all blended around her. Once again, we were informed by the incredible Ann Roth. Although Ma Rainey was a real character, the rest of the cast were fictional. We had to create backstories, makeup-wise for each character. Especially with Dussie, Ann brilliantly faded her dress. You can see that this was just a country girl who got lucky, and she was going to make the most of every minute. She wasn’t a polished character, and that had to be displayed in the makeup. We couldn’t have her looking beautiful and perfectly groomed. She was a little off in all areas, from her floppy hat which looked a bit old and misshapen, to her dress, which was fading, so the makeup had to complement that.

Q: They’re not quite as interesting, but what about the men?

Matiki: I think the men are wonderfully interesting! My feeling, and I think as a group we felt this, was that Colman’s character was definitely the unofficial band leader. He was Ma’s right-hand man. We had to make him just a little bit more snazzy. It’s not detectable, but we actually lined his eyes a bit. He had lots of tattoos that of course had to be covered. He had ear piercings that had to plugged out. You can’t let any little thing throw you out of the era. Those things are obviously paramount. He was just a little bit more polished than the rest of the guys. Dusan was the most country bumpkin. He was the one who played Ma’s nephew. We made him a little fresher and green-looking, not so cleanly-shaved. He had a little bit of hair, we didn’t add it but darkened it. He just didn’t have that city polish, let’s put it that way.

Sergio: When you have different designers and different makeup/hair/wardrobe people, we are designing characters that have to live in the same world. It has to be a cohesive design in that way, collaborating of course with Ann Roth and the rest of our own team. I didn’t really know until I started to apply it how far I was going to take the Ma Rainey makeup. For these guys to adjust on a dime was amazing. This makeup couldn’t have survived without sending the wrong message.

Matiki: Absolutely.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know about the film?

Mia: I mean, I could go on and on about the wigs. It’s funny, I feel like we all played this psychological game throughout this. There wasn’t that much prep time, and there wasn’t that much information on Ma. You don’t want to do anything that’s incorrect, but you also have to fill in all the blanks or else it comes off as fake. If you don’t complete the story, people will pick up on that and they can feel that. You can’t just put or pick things because they’re pretty or they complement that actor. You really have to stay in character of who you’re trying to create and the choices that person would have made. Like Ma’s wig, I chose to make it out of European hair. This was her everyday wig. When I saw these costumes that Ann was putting together, these were beautiful dresses that she clearly had made for her. This was a woman who wore a fur coat in the summertime. This was a woman who put on all her jewelry. When you start looking at all of those choices, this is a person who says, if I want it, I’m going to have it. I’m not following any social norms or any of that. Just what every I want, I’m going to get it. She has a husband; she has a girlfriend. This woman has no boundaries, she just doesn’t follow the rules, which is fantastic and I love that about her. I figure this is a woman who looked in a magazine and said, I like that hairstyle, on a European woman, and her own kinky hair won’t achieve it, so she said I’m going to buy a wig of European hair and wear this European hairstyle. It’s those little choices you make. It was said that Ma Rainey wears wigs, so it was important to me that the audience knew she wore a wig. But it needed to look like an expensive wig. Those little choices aren’t written anywhere but you have to fill in the blanks and complete the story.

Sergio: We talk about what we do in terms of period authenticity, which was really important to all of us. Each of us as a group did an enormous amount of research. Just as important as knowing what you’re putting on is knowing what you take away. You have to erase the fact that you’re making this film in the twenty-first century. Teeth that are too white, or skin that is too smooth, or eyebrows that are shaped in a way that wasn’t typical of the period. All of that removal of the evidence of the current time is just as important as being authentic. When you do both, you make a movie that you can watch thirty years from now and it will still read true. My husband and I re-watched Chinatown last night with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. I hadn’t seen it since the nineties. That movie was done so well, so period correct, that you can watch it today, and there’s not a lot of seventies about it. It’s not just what you’re putting on, it’s also what you’re erasing.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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