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Interview: ‘One Night in Miami’ Makeup Department Head Scott Wheeler on Transforming Actors into Real-Life Icons

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Earlier this week, we featured a conversation with production designer Barry Robison about his exceptional staging of a legendary meeting between four famous Black men in the 1960s in One Night in Miami. An element of the film that might not be as noticeable but did catch the eye of Academy voters is its makeup and hairstyling, which earned a spot on the corresponding Oscar shortlist. Awards Radar had the chance to speak with makeup department head Scott Wheeler about the subtle but spectacular changes he made happen with hairstyling department head Nakoya Yancey, who was busy shooting and unable to join the chat.

Q: How familiar were you with each of these four protagonists before coming on to this project?

A: Extremely familiar. It was an amazing thing. I got an e-mail from production out of the blue. They basically cold-called me, asking if I’d be interested in working on a movie about Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X. My jaw dropped right on my computer. Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay in the movie before he changed his name, was my idol and still is. As a kid, it was a family thing. My dad, my brothers, and I went to go see all of his fights on closed-circuit TV. I saw him fight Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry in the early seventies, back when I was still single-digits old. So anything that had anything to do with him was an automatic. But I’m also a huge Sam Cooke fan. I love his music. And then Jim Brown, I actually got to meet him once. He’s a very important person to me. Even Malcolm X. He was a voice of reason that was considered radical at the time. These guys meant a lot to me, and I think for everyone else on this show, we were excited to do it, but then it was also like, oh my goodness, we are representing some really important American icons here. We have to get this right. We can’t mess this up. We didn’t use the word “mess” but yeah, it was our ongoing theme, don’t mess this up.

Q: How important was it to recreate the looks of the real people rather than tailor the looks to the actors’ features?

A: That was the goal. The goal was to suspend disbelief and make you believe that Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and Sam Cooke were in the room together. But there were certain limitations, being an independent film, we had a very distinct budget. Even more so was our scheduling. From the day I met with production and Regina to discuss how we were going to do it to the day we started shooting was just under three weeks. I had just under three weeks to meet the actors, see what I could do with out-of-kit makeup, take their lifecasts, run back to my shop, build prosthetics, test them, adjust them, retest them, and then start shooting. We had to make very critical decisions. Whenever you do prosthetics on a lead actor, if they’re looking like prosthetics, you’ve ruined your movie. We didn’t want to make this a movie about hair and makeup. It’s a movie about these characters. We were there to support that and not make it about us. The other thing is, because all four of them played together for an entire section of the movie which we shot first, they were in every day, all day, for the first three weeks. We had to be able to get them through hair and makeup in an hour and a half. None of this let’s do a four-hour complicated overlapping prosthetic makeup. I had to design looks and Nakoya had to design looks that we could do very efficiently. So we took all these different elements in our tests and figured out which ones made the biggest impact in creating the illusion and were the most time-effective. And then we pieced together our final designs through that process.

Q: What was the most complicated prosthetic that you’re proudest of?

A: I’ll tell you one experience I had. I read a review of One Night in Miami, and it was a glowing review. The first sentence was praise for the choice not to use prosthetics. They had a comments section, and I filled in a little comment, and said, I think that’s a compliment, but we did use prosthetics. I just signed off as the makeup department head. The writer’s response was really nice. He was like, wow, that’s surprising, I had no idea, nice work. In a way, that was our goal. We didn’t want anyone to see the technique. We wanted people to suspend disbelief and we absorbed in the content, which is what we were all working towards. To your question, I’m going to say that there are two of them. It was the two prosthetics. Jim Brown on Aldis Hodge and Sam Cooke on Leslie Odom Jr. The two of them were the most keen on going through a complete transformation. Eli and Kingsley wanted to not spend nearly as much time in the makeup chair. They were a little bit hesitant about prosthetics because they were afraid they may become a problem for them. Eli was worried he might accidentally rub them off, not being aware of them. Which worked out great, because we only had so much time, and it was great that we could limit them to simpler ones. To get to your question – Aldis had probably the most complicated one. He had a prosthetic on each nostril to change the shape of his nose. He had hand-laid eyebrows. He had dental plumpers that completely widened out his face. On top of that, there was shadow and highlight to really finish the look. Leslie had a full prosthetic nose, and we had this very strong theatrical highlight through his jaw and chin, with a shadow underneath it, to try to get his chin to look more like Sam Cooke’s. We had a chin for him, a prosthetic, but because he had the most complicated hair, that turned into a time crunch. We were not going to be able to do a chin, a nose, all the other things we had to do to him in an hour and a half. So we scarified the chin for that. Even so, with Leslie, we actually at one point were triple-teaming his makeup. Sabrina Castro would be applying his prosthetic nose, I’d be darting in between her arms with the airbrush doing the highlight and shadow to create his jaw, and Lufeng Qu would be on one side or the other side shaping and grooming his eyebrows. That was the Sam Cooke makeup. We were able to do the entire thing in twenty-five minutes, which gave Nakoya and Wayne Jolla the time they needed, because they were putting a full hairpiece on him that blended into his own hair, and then they were augmenting his hairline with AfroTech and reshaping, so they had quite a task on him as well to create the whole Sam Cooke look.

Q: Can you speak more about the hair for the other actors?

A: Certainly, yes. For Aldis, they reshaped his hairline to match Jim Brown, but they also tweaked it, which we did with Sam Cooke as well. The hairline itself was accurate, but it was moved a little to change the shape of their faces. They did this with trimming but also with adding AfroTech hair and blending it back into their own hair and retrimming their hairlines. They had to add a hairpiece to Eli to create the little Widow’s peak that Cassius Clay had at the time. Otherwise, they were able to use his own hair and shape it. For Malcolm X, that was a trim and dye job. It had to be carefully done because Kingsley has a fair amount of gray in his hair. When you’re dyeing hair that’s black and gray together, it’s very tricky. It can get really hot on the gray and really dark on the black. She’s better at describing it, but it was a very tricky dye job that she had to do. Part of the fun was that we did all this in-house. We weren’t sending them out to get dyed. I wasn’t sending the work out to get other people to make prosthetics for us. We were a team of four that created this from start to finish.

Q: Were the hair and makeup influenced by the colors of the motel room and the suits they were wearing? Did you have to take any special consideration because of those factors?

A: We actually didn’t. One of the things we did not want to do was change their complexions. A lot of that has to do with consideration of costumes. If you start covering people in makeup, it gets on costumes. These were very expensive costumes, some of them were one-of-a-kind, some of them were true vintage. We did not want to be a problem for them. It would have been an unsolvable problem. With our time crunch, not changing their complexions was one less thing to do. To get them through in an hour and a half, that was one choice that we made. It was up to Tami and everyone else to work with their natural look.

Q: Did you like working in this era?

A: The sixties are a fun time for makeup. It was a fun time for hair too. Nakoya and her team did an amazing job with no money whatsoever in creating well over a hundred hairdos for background. I don’t know how they did it. It was amazing. But even from a makeup standpoint, the sixties were a very glamorous time. When we were in the Copacabana, when we were doing Leslie’s wife in real life who was playing Sam’s wife, we got to do a really fun beauty period makeup on her. Nicolette, she was wonderful. It’s a fun time. It’s a real amazing thing for us to have all these wonderful elements. It’s a period piece, and it’s character work. We got to do likenesses, not just on those four, but on all these other secondary characters. Myron Cohen, Sonny Liston, Jackie Wilson, and a number of other people. We were doing these likeness makeups, and a lot of them were shoot-from-the-hip. The fellow who played Myron Cohen has a full head of hair. Myron Cohen had a bald head. So on the day I had to do a bald cap on him and then hand-lay the whole layer of short, chopped hair that Myron Cohen had. As soon as he stepped out of chair, the fellow playing Jules Podell, he’s bald. Jules Podell has a full head of hair. I had to pull out of my hair bags, find some hair to match, and hand-lay a full head of hair on him. That was the way we had to roll on this show.

Q: You’ve done a lot of science fiction, like Star Trek: First Contact, and other historical dramas set long in the past, like 300. Do you like working with photographs and video documentation of what you’re trying to create, or do you prefer the opportunity to design characters yourself?

A: I don’t have a favorite. What I love is the fact I get to do both. It’s amazing going from creating aliens to creating likenesses. It’s a very different artistic mindset, but it’s still the same craft. I love the versatility of the job.

Q: Nakoya worked with Regina before on If Beale Street Could Talk and Watchmen, but this was your first collaboration with her.

A: Yes, with everyone. Nobody on this production knew me. They gave me a cold call. I didn’t know the production existed. To think that they would drop a dream job on my lap like that just coincidentally, it was nice.

Q: Did she have any input on the work that you were doing?

A: Oh, absolutely. Regina – it’s her directorial debut. There’s a lot of pressure. When you consider the stakes of doing these kinds of makeups, if they don’t succeed, it kills your movie. She had so much more on her plate, but when it came to making directorial decisions, she was remarkably levelheaded. Ambitious, but reasonably cautious as well. She could not have walked that line any better. Very impressive. She’s a great director.

Q: Is there anything you want audiences to know about the hair and makeup process on this film?

A: I would want audiences to take a good look at Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, and Kingsley Ben-Adir when they’re not in makeup and hair and look at what we did to them. Aldis has this narrow, thin face, very angular, and Jim Brown is kind of a squared-off, blockhead guy. Often times, these transformations are really obvious because you have actors who have become household names. These four guys are going to be household names. They are brilliant actors, but they’re still young, up-and-coming actors, and they’re not quite as recognizable. The severity of transformation is often lost on people, because they don’t have that reference. I would love for people to look at before-and-afters, and see how much they’ve really changed for these parts.

One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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