Two-time Emmy winning hair stylist Lawrence Davis is known from his work on a variety of notable films and television series such as J. Edgar, Bessie, Green Book, Watchmen, True Detective, Lovecraft Country, and The Underground Railroad. Now, his work can be seen in the new Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson. Davis has worked with Hudson for several years, and was tasked with creating different hairstyles across the multiple decades that the film is set in. On top of relying on his own heavy research, Lawrence was pleased to have the Franklin family on set as well, ensuring that Aretha’s character was portrayed as authentically as possible.
Davis also served as the hair department head on the critically-acclaimed HBO original limited series Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, Julianne Nicholson, and Evan Peters. For his work, Davis has received his fourth Primetime Emmy nomination this year for Outstanding Contemporary Hairstyling.
We spoke to Davis about his work on both of these projects:
Max: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Lawrence. So I want to start at the beginning of Respect because I know that you’ve worked with Jennifer going on 15 years now, if I’m not mistaken. So you’ve worked with her for so long, and I know she probably came to you needing your help once again, to help her transform into this iconic music legend. What was your initial reaction when she came to you, wanting you to work with her on this?
Lawrence: You know, it’s interesting, we knew that it was coming up and we discussed it a little bit, but not necessarily in detail. And, ironically, once the customer was hired he asked around and I was referred to him by another hairstylist in New York. That’s how I got the initial call, but she and I had discussed it early on. We hadn’t confirmed anything, but we had discussed it and, you know, we just went on because the dates were really up in the air. So that’s how it really happened.
Max: I want to ask about your working relationship with Jennifer. You’ve worked with her for so long now where you’ve helped her with event appearances. Was there a difference at all in your working relationship with her as you were working with her this time on a film project?
Lawrence: It was because normally what I’ve done for Jennifer has always been in the music world and in the editorial world but this was my big film with her. So it was a bit of a different approach. Of course there was research that I had to do and lots of things that I had to do like put together a team for the entire movie. So it was a different approach for me. But she kind of laid back and trusted the process and allowed me to do what I needed to do.
Max: If you could delve a little bit into the research you had to do in studying Aretha’s hairstyles over the years. Since I know that this isn’t just a real life story, but a story that takes place with Jennifer over the course of over 20 years of Aretha’s adult life, covering multiple different time eras of hairstyles. Can you talk about the research you had to do?
Lawrence: Because the story starts when Aretha was 11 years old, I had to go back and study. The film looks at people in the late forties and fifties because she was a child then. Not only did I have to study the looks of adults but I had to study the looks of children back then to just have an authentic look period for the movie. So my research started from the mid fifties all the way through the seventies. I was able to pull amazing pictures online through Pinterest and through other websites and even through Getty images and things like that of Aretha throughout her career. So I wanted everything to be as authentic as possible. So I matched as much as I could with her costumes. Then I just always take this walk through what I call my feel-good walk. I’d take a walk through the costumes department and I’d take a walk through the art department on every project that I worked on just to get a feel for where I am and where they are. And when I get to these departments, I see exactly what I have on their walls. So I knew that I’m on point when I get there. It’s like the icing on the cake for me.
Max: Was there a hairstyle of a certain era in the film that you found particularly challenging?
Lawrence: I would say the toggle fonts were challenging to do because I definitely wanted Jennifer to be comfortable wearing them while she was performing. I made sure those wigs were extremely fitted and that they were very comfortable because in some of the looks that Aretha wore there were actually about two or three wigs on her head. And some of the wigs that Jennifer wore I had to build them out a bit more. So there was extra hair added for the fullness and for the actual silhouettes that really give you that vintage period look.
Max: And speaking about the number of wigs, I believe I read somewhere that you had 85 to 95 weeks prepped. Is that correct?
Lawrence: Absolutely. Those wigs are all over the trailer everywhere you look, the high countertop. There were wigs in every particular place. And there were about two or three shelves where I had all of Aretha’s performance wigs because I wanted to get all those things done ahead of time because that’s not something you can do while filming. You maybe can do one or two or tweak one or two there, but for those performance wigs, I have them on the shelf ready to go early on before we started filming,
Max: What was it like working with the director Liesl Tommy?
Lawrence: Working with Liesl Tommy was amazing. I definitely listened because I wanted to make sure that I brought forth exactly what she wanted to bring forth. So I had to have an ear for what Lisa was wanting. All those higher terminologies may have been different from mine, as far as the hairstyles are concerned, but once I got a feel for what she was doing and the type of story she was telling, we were all on the same page. And if there was something that needed to be tweaked, I was definitely glad to do it so that we got the total look together.
Max: I want to switch gears because we are currently in the midst of Emmy season and you’re currently an Emmy nominee. This is your fourth Primetime Emmy nomination, which is for the critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown. I’d love to know what it was like working on this project. Had you worked with Brad Inglesby or Craig Zobel before?
Lawrence: No. I had not but working on Mare of Easttown was really a great experience, but it was a challenging one because it was my first job back during COVID. We had to wear protective gear every day and wanted to make sure that we weren’t exposed to anything, though HBO was kind and they really took good care of us. But the hair itself presented challenges as well, because it was a show that was not about glamour. In my field, we are trained to make people look glamorous and to build characters. And these characters were working class folks and there was nothing glamorous about Easttown. It was just a city of working-class folks who are on the grind all the time. So there was that fine line between learning to step away and create that bed hair that came through as the authentic people of Easttown. So there was that one hand on the left that was fixing my hair and the other hand on the right, I was messing her up in my mind. I had to make myself step away because there’s a fine line between going too far with it. So I was just making myself stop in the middle of the hairstyle and saying, that’s it. And it became a very good and authentic look and it helped tell that story very well.
Max: Yeah. And I love how you said that, because I know that in your prior work you’ve done so much period work. I feel like, for a period, the hair is so emphasized and pops out since they’re styles from back in the day. But working on something like Mare of Easttown where it’s contemporary and the hair just looks more subtle, is that even more challenging in a way to work on contemporary styles versus period styles?
Lawrence: It is in a way, because although contemporary, it’s still specific. It’s this little town in Pennsylvania where they’re just working class folks and they’re not trying to be glamorous. They’re just trying to make it through the day. No one has time to get their hair colored or touched up. No one has time to do the perfect curl. And even with Helen who played Mare’s mom, she looked like she was laying on the couch every single day. That was hard to do. Actually, it’s hard to do actually, because you, like I said, in my mind, I want to beautify her and make her glamorous or make her look really good, but our character didn’t call for that. So knowing when to say, okay, this is messy enough, but yet it’s presentable enough for this character and step away. So there were challenges, but I would definitely say once you learn the rhythm of the show and learn the costumes, the setting, you know when you’re there.
Max: Mare of Easttown boasts such a stellar cast led by Kate Winslet, but also including Jean Smart, Julianne Nicholson, and Evan Peters among others. What was it like working with these actors?
Lawrence: They were amazing. I had worked with Jean on Watchmen. So for me, her character was totally different from the FBI detective that she played on Watchmen. So seeing her in another light was actually entertaining for me. Although I did her every day, just seeing her bring forth his character was a good experience for me. And it was very entertaining. The other characters, I did them also, and they were all just so into what they did. It’s one thing to work on a show when everybody wants to be there. And even in the midst of COVID, everybody made it through and everybody wanted to be there and want to be back to work. So it was a joy to work with these people every single day.
Max: Well, congratulations on your fourth Primetime Emmy nomination for your work on the series! I love to touch on a couple of upcoming projects you have. The first I want to touch on is the upcoming Showtime series The First Lady which I’m sure will be your most diverse array of hairstyles yet. The cast includes Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt. So that covers a lot of areas in time. It certainly sounds like a challenge. Tell us what it’s been like working on this project and what we have to expect.
Lawrence: I have to say The First Lady was one of my hardest jobs. It was the most challenging because of the amount of characters that we had and the amount of actors that we had coming through the trailer. It was one of those jobs where I would have to set the looks and send them on. I wasn’t able to go to the set because every single day we had new actors coming through and the looks had to be set. So it was one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had in my career. It was, but I did the entire first block and it turned out really, really beautiful. It was a lot of research, lots and lots of wigs again. But that period is one of my favorite periods, the 1930s, which was young Betty Ford through the seventies with the Ford family. So dealing with young Betty in the 1930s, and then moving forward with Betty Ford’s career and family life took us about three time periods in that entire first block. So it was one of the most difficult jobs that I’ve ever done.
Max: And then one other upcoming project that’s just as exciting is what I think you just wrapped filming earlier this month in Boston for if I’m not mistaken, the sci fi Netflix film The Mothership, starring Halle Berry. What was it like working with Halle and what do we have to expect from your work?
Lawrence: That was a pretty easy one compared to The First Lady because it was contemporary in the present day. It was a welcome project because it was just like, if I can say it was the vacation of the projects. It was very, very hair. Science fiction, of course. So the entire story took place in three days. So there weren’t a lot of hair changes, everything was free flowing and natural. So it was the vacation of all projects. But you’ll see that early next year, I think. It’s about a family member who goes missing and his wife and children try to find him. Come to find out there’s a secret extraterrestrial life that he lived, and they have to go far and wide to find him and get him back to his normal life.
Max: That’s exciting. Are there any other projects you’re currently working on or about to work on soon that we have to look forward to?
Lawrence: Yes, I’m presently in New Orleans right now and I’m excited about this one because it’s a Dateline podcast, which is really popular. It’s called The Thing About Pam. And that is a murder mystery about a woman by the name of Pam Hough who almost got away with murder twice. Renee Zellweger is playing that character and it’s a six episode limited series based on the true crime story.
Max: That’s so exciting. I’m very much looking forward to that. Well, Lawrence, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I think between Respect, your Emmy nomination for Mare of Easttown, along with your upcoming projects The First Lady, The Mothership, and The Thing About Pam, you’ve definitely been having a great year. So congratulations on everything.
Lawrence: Thank you so much, Max! I appreciate you having me.