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Interview: ‘The First Lady’ Makeup Team on What it Took to Get the Right Look for the Show

When The First Lady was released earlier this year, it was captivating with the way it brought different time periods of American history back to life. Impressive performances were delivered to give us a glimpse into the lives of former First Ladies of the United States Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt, who were played by Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson, respectively.

Awards Radar had the opportunity to speak to Emmy nominees Carol Rasheed, head of the makeup department for the show, Chauntelle Langston and Milene Melendez, who were key makeup artists for the project. They provided insight into how they adapted to every time period portrayed in the series as a team, in a process that involved plenty of research and understanding of the culture from each time.

Awards Radar: How did you collaborate together to design the look for each time period?

Carol Rasheed: That, right there, was a lot of work between myself and these two ladies right here (Langston and Melendez). A lot of research went into the entire process. I did research, Milene did research and Chauntelle did research. We also had Makenzie (Love), our PA, who did a lot of research, too. It was a very collaborative effort for us all to be able to pull all these images.

The great thing about this particular show was that a lot of information was out there because we’re dealing with historical people that have already been there before us (Ford and Roosevelt), and then Michelle Obama is still around. So, tons of research went into this whole process.

AR: Chauntelle and Milene, during this research process, what were the key focus points that determined the right look for a time period?

Milene Melendez: For me, the key thing was to get as much accuracy in the research as possible. A lot of what you find on Google isn’t labeled. You have to do a lot of detective work to authenticate what period they’re actually from. They may be labeled incorrectly, or they may have the wrong year, timeframe or people. You have to do a lot of cross verification to make sure that what you have is correct.

I think that (research) was the first thing that we started doing when I spoke to Carol. Trying to pull as much information as we could based on who was going to be portrayed in the script, even before we were involved in the official prep for the show.

AR: Did you get to work with the three leading ladies during the development of the show?

CR: I absolutely did get an opportunity to work with each personal (makeup artist) that was there. I think we spent more time with Valli O’Reilly, who was Michelle Pfeiffer’s personal for Betty Ford. She was on the same trailer, with us.

And speaking about the leading characters, as well, we had younger versions of each Lady that we had to make sure would translate from the young version to the older version. In the case of Betty Ford, we would have to make sure that the eye colors were the same. The casting department did their thing in regards to finding people that structurally could pull off the part and pull off the look, as well. But definitely, we had to have conversations in regards to translating the young to the older.

AR: As a makeup team, what do you look out for when portraying a young person, and later portraying their older counterpart?

CR: Let’s use Barack Obama, for example. Milene took care of the younger version of Barack Obama, as well as the older one, in the series.

MM: For young Barack, we fortunately didn’t have to do a ton to him. He already had a general resemblance to what Barack Obama looked like when he was young. The only major change we did with him was changing the placing of his mole. He has a mole on a very similar spot as Barack Obama, but not the right one. It was covering that and adding another mole and making sure that was cohesive with the older version of Barack Obama, which is played by O-T Fagbenle. With him, we did the works. We did a whole bunch of stuff to him.

Chauntelle Langston: For young Michelle, it was somewhat the same. We had to study Michelle Obama as a young person growing into her older age. We stopped around her wedding time. But we studied her looks from when she was in college to when she met Barack and so forth. That was pretty fun because we got a chance to play with some colors and natural looks. Because she wore more natural looks when she was younger. Her biggest transition was, of course, when her family was in office. It was fun.

AR: Milene, speaking about the older Barack Obama, could you talk about the prosthetics that were involved in his look and makeup?

MM: Barack Obama is known for having his larger ears that portrude in a certain way. His (The actor portraying him) ears are smaller in comparison. He did have full ear prosthetics. We also added the appropriate moles to him, and then there was some aging. O-T’s skin is flawless. He has beautiful skin which is great if you’re trying to make someone look younger, but not so great if you’re trying to make them look older. So I added a little bit of freckles and moles and a little bit of discoloration that happens as you age. With Barack Obama, the weight of office took a toll on him and it aged him a little bit prematurely.

That was the approach we took with O-T and he was wonderful with the process. He was actually very into it. He also wore custom teeth that had Carol made for him to make sure his teeth lined up with Obama’s. I think that helped him be very aware of how he spoke. He was very of it in general, but I think that helped him as well, having the awareness of his mouth and how he moved it with the different teeth in there. But he was amazing with the whole process, which can be pretty uncomfortable.

AR: Chauntelle, Michelle Obama has always looked wonderful but, as previously mentioned, there was a significant transition between before becoming the First Lady, and after that. Could you elaborate on this transition and how it regarded her look?

CL: With the younger version, we were able to collaborate on how she saw her character and the references we found during research. The two of us collaborated to create this beautiful transition.

CR: Sergio López-Rivera was Viola Davis’ personal, and specifically for her character, teeth were made and also many, many hairstyles were explored and used. As you know, Michelle Obama’s brows went through seasons and changes. And Sergio was responsible for all of that as well.

AR: What can you tell about a character from their makeup? How does it convey storytelling?

CR: There are so many nuances in the development of a character, specifically in terms of makeup. For The First Lady, just coming up with the look of the show. Our director, Susanne (Bier) had a lot to do with that, the costume design, and of course with what the makeup would look like. The director conveys what they want and it is up to us to make it a flow through each (makeup department) block.

The main thread was that it was a stylized makeup throughout all three blocks of the show. In terms of developing the characters, it was consistent with people looking like they did themselves. I think that sometimes, with makeup, if you go overboard, it can be distracting for the audience. And you want them to pay attention to the performances. We allow the opportunity for the actor to not only look the part, but also help them act the part, too. You don’t ever want the makeup to distract from the performance, and I think we pulled that off pretty well here.

AR: Carol, what would you say to young people who would like to get involved in the industry as makeup artists?

CR: Be ready to work long hours and continue to educate yourself. It’s so important to stay educated, you never stop learning. And don’t ever give up, because it is a hard industry. There are so many twists and turns with it and you just have to be willing to go the road. The only thing that I could say is that this is a never ending learning.

AR: Chauntelle, what was the difference between working on a project as Girls5eva, which involved a modern look, and The First Lady, which takes place in different time periods?

CL: This one was totally different because we’re dealing a group of actors who can have a say in all of their looks, and we collaborate closely with them without being officially their personal. It was fun because everything about this show was elaborate. Women, and their voices are elaborate. You use every muscle in your body to give them big makeup and big ideas every day.

The First Lady is available to stream on Showtime, Paramount+ and Prime Video.


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Written by Diego Peralta

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