How Artisans Helped Oscar-Nominated Actresses Discover Their Characters

Jenelle Riley
·6-min read

When Glenn Close took on the role of Mamaw, the tough but tender grandmother to J.D. Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy,” one of her first calls was to an acclaimed makeup and prosthetics designer. “Team Mamaw started with Matthew Mungle, who had worked with me on ‘Albert Nobbs,’” says Close. “I did not want to see myself when I looked the mirror as Mamaw because I am so different from her in life. I wanted the audience to not see Glenn Close.”

Like Close herself, Mungle is nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film, along with makeup department head Eryn Krueger Mekash and hair department head Patricia Dehaney. Mungle knew he and Close had similar philosophies about prosthetics.

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“Glenn knows I will always come from the direction of not cover an actor’s face with prosthetics,” he says. “I believe it can inhibit their performance, especially if they are not familiar with wearing them. The joy for me comes from creating subtle prosthetic work to make people say, ‘I didn’t know they were wearing prosthetics.’ Glenn is a truly superb actress and makes the character come to life with her body and facial movements — prosthetics and make-up just enhances her performance.”

Close says Mungle’s work aided her in finding her character. “The prosthetics that Matthew fabricated are incredibly subtle and helped me lose myself in Mamaw,” says Close. “The hair and makeup team were brilliant — styling the wigs and adding tone and texture to my skin. There always came a thrilling moment, in the makeup trailer, when I would look up and say, ‘There she is.’ Glenn had disappeared. I couldn’t have asked for better collaborators and artists to help me transform into the character.”

Having played characters based on real people before, Close knew the challenge of working to resemble a real person without falling into certain traps.

“I wasn’t out to mimic Mamaw or make her into a caricature. My team’s goal was to capture her essence. I wanted my Mamaw to be physically and emotionally authentic — to honor the incredible spirit of the real Mamaw. I think we achieved a very credible version of the woman we saw in the pictures and videos that the Vance family shared with us. When some of her family visited the set and saw me as Mamaw, they had an instant emotional reaction to what they saw because it was so close to the woman they hold in their hearts. That was profoundly gratifying for me and Team Mamaw.”

Adds Mungle: “When creating any look-alike make-up, I think it is important to get the essence of the character and not try to go for an exact look-alike, that could fail.”

All actors understand that collaboration with artisans on a film is integral to their role and performance. Nothing can take viewers out of a film quicker than a bad wig or makeup. Instead, crafts such as costumes and hair and makeup should help enhance the portrayal, and help the artist.

Andra Day’s performance as blues legend Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” was a tall order — and the actor’s film debut. In addition to losing weight and cutting off her long tresses, Day worked with the hair and makeup team, specifically hairdresser Stacie Merriman, hair department head and wig designer Charles Gregory Ross and makeup department head Laini Thompson to land Holiday’s look.

“It was collaborative; we had all done a lot of research going into the production,” Day says. “When we got to set we spent a lot of time testing different things, getting feedback.”

She also worked with costume designer Paolo Nieddu on Holiday’s stunning gowns. Says Day, “Paolo and I collaborated and dove in deep when it came to the period. Paolo wanted to be very accurate to the period while also giving special attention to Billie’s innovative personal style. Not many people work as hard as he does. When it came time for fittings and first stepping into those gowns, it was magical.”

The overall transformation was “significant,” she says. “The hair and makeup felt authentic. Once I put on the gowns, it really allowed me to live in that space, to really embody Billie.”

Viola Davis, nominated for her turn in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” also had a talented team to help her transform into the 1920s singer, who was ahead of her time. Costume designer Ann Roth and hair and makeup team Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson all were Oscar nominated, as well.

Neal points out how the costumes greatly informed the character of Ma Rainey, who had access to things that people of color at the time weren’t supposed to have.

“This is a person who saw finger waves in the magazines on the white women and said, ‘I would like to have that also,’” Neal notes. “And she purchased a wig because her hair won’t make those waves. It’s all of those things so when you start to play with it psychologically like that, then you’re able to kind of build and fill in spaces that you can’t find.”

Lopez-Rivera adds that on the makeup side, you had to take into consideration the time and stature of each character. “There was not a lot accessible to women of color in the 1920s, makeup-wise,” Lopez-Rivera says. “You had to make do and she was used to doing this because she was constantly on the road.”

To become actor Marion Davies in “Mank,” Amanda Seyfried benefitted from the work of her fellow Oscar nominees: costume designer Trish Summerville, makeup department head Gigi Williams, hair department head Kimberley Spiteri and assistant head hairstylist Colleen LaBaff.

Recalls Seyfried: “I came on board pretty far along in their process so the decisions that were already made — as collaborative as everyone was — were incredible. I have so much respect for their designs and process. I had a good hand in helping finish the look with costume jewelry and accessories.”

Because the team was re-creating looks based on real people, Summerville says they were able to use photographs and footage, particularly of Davies.

“[We did] a lot of research between the films that she did and a lot of photographs because of her relationship with Hearst and being a starlet.”

One item that particularly inspired her was a coat with a silver mink fur collar. Because the film was shot in black-and-white, Summerville made the coat in a muted powder blue with a periwinkle wool crepe and painted the faux fur to give it more depth. Knowing Hearst frequently gifted Davies jewelry, Summerville found a large diamond brooch for the coat.

Ultimately, says Seyfried: “Every decision about Marion’s look was layered and well thought-out. It was as authentic as possible and made me feel like I was walking alongside her the whole time. I’ve never felt so transformed.”

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