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Interview: Talking ‘Emancipation’ With Head of Hair Department Andrea ‘Mona’ Bowman

Apple

Awards Radar had a recent opportunity to speak to Andrea ‘Mona’ Bowman, the hair department head of Apple TV+’s Emancipation, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Will Smith. Emancipation made the shortlist in the Hair and Makeup category for the 95th Academy Awards. Bowman researched period specific hairstyles to accurately capture the time period and to tell the story of Peter’s (Will Smith) journey to freedom.

Emancipation is a story based on the images released in 1863 known as “whipped Peter”. The picture of a black slave known as Gordon went viral, showcasing the cruelty of slavery and helping the anti-slavery movement come to fruition. The film is centered on Peter as he flees the slavers who whipped him within an inch of his life, heading north hoping to find safety. 

In the interview Bowman shared a part of her creative process, discussing her research, some of the techniques she used to combat the Louisiana summer heat, and how she entered the industry. 

Awards Radar: All right. Good afternoon, Andrea. I’m going to be talking to you about your hair styling this past year. And before we hop into it, I want to ask, how are you doing today?

Andrea ‘Mona’ Bowman: I’m great. How are you?

Awards Radar: I’m doing pretty good. I saw in the bio that you’ve been given the nickname ‘Mona’. May I ask where that comes from?

Bowman: Oh, my name was supposed to be Ramona Andrea. But my mom dropped it and kept it as a nickname.

Awards Radar: That’s awesome. I saw that you’ve worked on a lot of high-profile film and TV projects. What are some of the differences between working on film and television and what draws you to this industry?

Bowman: Actually, I kind of fell into it. I always had a love of TV and films. I started being interested in performing and everything at the age of three and always loved characters. I was wanting to be an actress when I was young and wanted to pursue it. But you know, life tends to send you down a different path. And I started doing hair by default as a hobby and ended up getting my license trying to inspire my cousin to do hair and then ended up taking it upon myself because of what the lady told me that I could possibly make as a as a hairstylist. My entire view shifted from seeing hairstyling as something cute, to an actual career.  They say when you’re self employed, you’re doing what you like as a job and getting paid for it and control your own hours. So, I fell into it. But then Hurricane Katrina came and knocked the TV and film from New Orleans up to the Shreveport area where I was from and I met a guy in my pastor’s house, and he offered me an opportunity. He said it was going to be a chance of a lifetime. And then I accepted and 16 years later, here I am. I got into TV and film.

Awards Radar: No, that’s awesome. It’s so strange how life takes you on different winding journeys, how you think you’re going to one place, and then moments later, you’re not. And instead, you’re pursuing a career in an industry you didn’t think was ever profitable. And it’s suddenly been 16 years.

In the past couple years, you’ve worked on a ton of high-profile projects, including the recently shortlisted for the Academy Awards Emancipation from Apple TV+, ABCs Women of the Movement, Young Rock Season 3, Just Mercy, True Detective Season Three, HBOs Watchman so many more. Would you be willing to share with me some favorite memories from each of these different projects you’ve worked on?

Bowman: The funny thing is that I’ve had a great experience on all of these shows. I’ve become family with the crew and the cast. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had more great experiences than others. I’ve worked with awesome actors and actresses that have left a mark on me. On Just Mercy, I met Jamie Foxx, and saw his loving, funny self. Being able to be in his presence, and him being who he was, was memorable. And then you see him shift and go into that serious role as well. And then there was Michael B. Jordan, who is such a sweetheart.

On Emancipation, Will Smith was just wonderful; a very compassionate, loving individual. I was sharing on another interview about that scene in the film where people are pushed into the pit.  Those were real people in there and they were background artists that was bumped up to a certain position to do that row, which was $1,000 pay rate increase. It was 115 degree weather, and they were out there all day long. And at the end of the day, being the compassionate person that he is, Will paid them as well. Every person that was in that pit got an additional $1,000.  Just to be in that presence, to see that type of heart towards people that work, was a blessing.

On Watchman I met Regina King. And oh my God, just one of the most honest, hardworking people I’ve met. And I also met Jean Smart on Watchmen, and I still text her to this day.  Like I’ve had some great bonds, working and outside of work because of the type of compassion and relationships that form when you’re the type that pour out into people. And it’s always given back, so I can talk all day of the different experiences of having that connection with different people.

Even the background artists that had a great experience because I tried to go with the best foot forward into work every day still inbox me. In treating people how they should be treated, respected and loved and showing concern and being thoughtful of the process of creating the different characters, and making people feel comfortable being themselves and being these characters, I form bonds with everyone, and its wonderful.

Awards Radar: That’s so awesome to hear. Do you prefer working on films and longer production times like that? Or do you prefer working on the TV side?

Bowman: I prefer both. It doesn’t really matter. For instance, you have films like Emancipation, were it felt like a TV show because the shoot went from three and a half months to seven and a half months. And Watchmen was supposed to be just six months in and ended up shooting for almost over a year. Like Lovecraft Country, we ended up going over a year. For Respect, we end up going over the shooting schedule. So, to me it’s just getting the project done. It’s not about how long it is. Once I accept the job, it’s about making sure that it’s done seamlessly and authentically and committing to that process all the way to the end.

Awards Radar: Speaking of authenticity, let’s start talking about Emancipation. Because that is the big film. In reading the bios that gets sent to us to prepare for the interview, it mentions you did a lot of research into getting authentic hairstyles for both Confederate and Union soldiers. What was your creative process for creating the hairstyles?

Bowman: When I got the call in February that I was the shortlist of the job, I took it immediately because it was one I really wanted to be done. I’ve known of Peter story for years before I even got this project. So I was really heavily elated to even be considered even be thought of to have the job. When I was offered it, I was like, “Oh, yes, I’m ready. Let’s do it.” And immediately, again, went right into research with the photos.

And at that point in history, photography was still developing as an artform. It was being brought to the forefront of public perception. That’s how we even got the picture of Peter, and it was the first “viral” photo that ever hit across the world at that point. So there is lots of photos from that time period to use as reference material. And I am still deleting photos right now, I still have over 3000 photos in my phone of just different types of people from the Confederate, the Union, from African American slaves, and from the catchers.

I Googled Louisiana slaves, slaves from Georgia, all these different aspects and loops, because when they were being traded, they could have been traded from Georgia. I wanted to get every angle, every aspect from the top to the bottom, so that every cast member was perceived as real people, because Peter is a real person.

So we’re I wanted to be authentic to where we’re portraying his story correctly, and bring real people from these photos to life. And I was telling somebody the other day, my mom told me, she said, looking at the film, it was like I was watching a picture movie. She said she was so drawn into it. The story was taking me with it because it just seems so real, as I felt like I was there. And that was everybody across the board, from the director on down, with the intent to make sure that it was authentic, and that we portray these people correctly.

So I looked at pictures, I watched documentaries, from Abraham Lincoln to just Googling Emancipation Proclamation. I was looking for different things just to be able to get these different shapes and ideas of what people look like, even with the head wraps, and I Googled different slave owners, slave catchers, all these different things. Because when you see them on the porch, you would see the different type of hairstyles, which were French, inspired from the costume designer, and the director came with wanting to bring that heavily French inspired Louisiana culture to the film.

And I wanted to make sure that when you watch that you can see the class level of the people that were working in the house versus the one that was working in the fields. So those levels of research are very intentional and very in depth. The director Antoine, and the costume designer is Francine Jamison-Tanchuck and I, we all put in really intentional work and side by side collaborating to make sure that when you watch this, you’re just watching a seamless process.

Awards Radar: Talking about seamless processes, what techniques and visual styles did you use to capture these characters? In the bio it mentions various shearing techniques, and making sure wigs stay on at 115 degrees. What other techniques did you use?  

Bowman:  Yes, I did develop a lot of different pinning techniques and I had to come up with them because of the environmental challenges associated with the film. The hair had to withstand dirt from the explosions, the dirt from running, and it had to withstand the effects of the heat of a Louisiana summer; the sweat from the natural oils that your body produced. Glue doesn’t care about those factors. Glue will say “look, I am over. It is five o’clock. I’ve been here since two o’clock. I’m done.”

But my team Jorge Benitez, Christie Caudle, Daina Daigle, they were my core group, and we are so grateful for modern technology, We were able to use QTAKE so we could be really hands on and right there when the hair would be shuffled by the sweat or the heat or the dirt.We had portable blow dryers, portable fans, all these different things on hand with our different types of glue. But more so we did more pinning, I think I bought so many boxes of hair pins and body pains to be able to pin in certain techniques, because a lot of those young kids came with natural hair that was out to here.

*Bowman raises her hands above her head, gesturing to the height of the hair of the cast.*

Bowman: That doesn’t read the period because 98% of those people were malnourished, they didn’t have product to really grow their hair out to the level of what you know that you would see. In that historical period, you wouldn’t see all this beautiful natural hair blowing in the wind. And of course, they don’t want to cut their hair down for the film. So, we would have to go in and I taught them some techniques with cross paneling and securing hair using the ends of the natural hair and going back over. And all that works pays off when you see it, as it gives a great shape showing the actual authentic self of that period.

Awards Radar: Yes, that’s awesome. I want to build on that slightly more. How do you keep hair healthy when you’re trying to recreate a period that isn’t healthy for most of these African Americans?

Bowman: And that’s the other part, we had to make sure that at the end of the day, everything was taken down so that the actor could be themselves again once they leave. We must be knowledgeable about the products we use to protect their hair, and to prevent the hair from being damaged. If hair breaks off, that puts the actor in a compromised position, where they don’t want us to do their hair because their hair fell out. And so, it’s all about being knowledgeable of products and knowing textures of hair.

I’m a natural hair girl, I love to get into natural hair and make sure that it’s conditioned and all taken care of. At the end of the night, I would make sure that my team was there to be able to cleanse, condition and treat every actor across the board. We did a lot of processing, of making sure that their hair was taken care of, so when they left, they felt comfortable and able to go home, rest, and come back the next day. And then we would do it all over again.

Awards Radar: For sure. Building on this a little bit more, it seems in the past three years that there’s been more and more attention paid to the different requirements needed for other cultures and protecting hair and taking care of it. And this industry that largely has been dominated by the white male has had to expand more. How has that impacted you? How do you feel about it?

Bowman: I’m very happy that it’s been brought to the forefront because as actors, they’re humans as well. I think what helped pave the way for me, I did salon work for 20 years. I always advise those that are trying to get into the industry, to do at least two years of Salon. It’ll change your mindset. It will build up concern and understanding of hair to be able to take care of people here outside of just making them into a character as well.

But I really love the awareness of this topic because I’ve been on shows where I’ve seen hair being misused because of lack of knowledge, and to see this change in real time is inspiring. I had to be trained across the board, because my mother is a teacher 32 years, and she told me if you’re going to do anything you always go above and beyond for yourself. If you’re going to call yourself a hairstylist, I need you to know everything from the front to the back. So I know every texture, it doesn’t matter what your skin complexion is, because from Louisiana, there, I have cousins that are darker than me and hairs straighter than any Caucasian man, then I have a son with green eyes. And I’m fairly light skinned as you are. But his hair is a four seat. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is; it’s all about texture.  When you learn texture, texture is what sets the bar and will teach you what to do, and what not to do to hair. And knowledge is the key. And I’m grateful that they’re finally backing and listening to those needs.

Because for a lot of African American males in the past, they wouldn’t have been treated properly. They would have to go outside and get their hair cut by different barbers because they didn’t allow as many barbers inside of this type of industry. But it’s fundamental that they are in this industry because there is an intense detail that a barber can bring to a haircut, versus somebody that just does hair. It’s all about knowledge. And everybody that is a hairstylist is not necessarily a barber, and there’s some barbers that can do hairstyling as well. So knowing across the board for me, I learned it all. I learned every technique, I may not even use it onset, but I’m always learning. Because I always want to know because things are always changing. Oh, what is this for? Let me see if I can use it on this one. Let me try this one. When you push yourself to learn, you will grow to the next level and be prepared for anything. In this industry they’re making us be prepared and knowledgeable, which only makes us stronger. I’m very happy that this is happening because it was very neglected.

Awards Radar: You sound like you just strive for excellence in everything you do. And I’m hopeful for Emancipation’s awards prospects, especially considering that you guys have been shortlisted for best hair and makeup. It’s stellar work. That was all the questions I had prepared for you today. If there’s anything you want to impart with the people, what would you like them to know?

Bowman: I would like them to know that knowledge is the key. Endurance is power. And knowing yourself is major.

Awards Radar: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Andrea. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day. 

You can watch Emancipation now on Apple TV+.

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Written by benjaminwiebe

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