Bradley Cooper had a problem. The Oscar-nominated actor was gearing up to play Leonard Bernstein, the musical genius behind “West Side Story” and “Candide” and one of the driving cultural forces of the 20th century. Except, Cooper looked nothing like the distinctive composer and conductor.
Enter Guillermo del Toro. The two men discussed Cooper’s predicament on the set of del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” which the actor starred in while working to get “Maestro,” his look at the private life of Bernstein, off the ground. Cooper confessed that he needed to be transformed, and according to del Toro, only one person was right for the job: Kazu Hiro. The Oscar-winning makeup artist had used his gift for prosthetics to transform Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill in “The Darkest Hour.” When Cooper sent Hiro a text asking if he was interested, he jumped at the chance.
More from Variety
Still, the task was daunting: Hiro was required to make Cooper as believable as Bernstein at various points in his life: as a 25-year-old composer stepping on the Carnegie Hall stage for the first time and a wistful, elderly man sitting at a piano conducting one of his last interviews.
And some choices — specifically the decision to give Cooper a prodigious prosthetic nose — have been criticized as antisemitic (Bernstein was Jewish; Cooper is not). After the first images surfaced, Cooper faced a social media backlash. In turn, Bernstein’s daughters issued a statement saying, “It happens to be true that Leonard Bern- stein had a nice, big nose. Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would be fine with it as well.”
Hiro agrees. “We wanted the look to be as authentic as possible,” he explains. “He’s iconic and people know what he looks like. As with any movie, we put an actor in a costume, and we build sets to make audiences believe the story, and makeup is a part of that.” And the artist insists that the goal was to help Cooper shape-shift convincingly: “We respect Lenny and his look. He’s so handsome and talented and an amazing composer and conductor. And when we listen to his music, we think of how he conducted, so it was important to make Bradley as close as possible to Lenny.”
Cooper’s makeup transformation process consisted of multiple stages. One of the first looks, in which Cooper plays a youthful Bernstein, took about two and a half hours to achieve, and involved applying lip and chin pieces along with the prosthetic nose.
“We changed Bradley’s ear shape,” Hiro says. “Bradley had mentioned that Lenny has a distinct voice, and he wanted me to make nose plugs to change the way his voice sounded. “I made ones that pushed out his nose wing. We gave him a face-lift around the temples that would pull the eyes out and jawline to make them younger.”
As Bernstein aged, the makeup became more intense.Hiro added cheek and neck, earlobe prosthetics. He applied a bald cap. and later stage, he added stipple around Cooper’s eyes to create wrinkles and a forehead prosthetic was added. The final scenes, just before Bernstein’s death in 1989, required five hours of makeup and masking. Hiro created a full-body suit, along with prosthetics for the eyes, nose, lips, neck, shoulders and hands.
Hiro recalls Cooper’s dedication as both actor and director on “Maestro.” Because he was juggling so many responsibilities, Cooper would get to set before the crew to begin the metamorphosis into Bernstein. By the time everyone arrived to start shooting, “[Cooper] would be out there in full makeup ready to go.”
For Hiro, nothing can top his work on “Maestro.” “I told Bradley that after this, I could retire,” he says. “This is everything I’ve wanted to do in the movie industry.”
Listen to Hiro discuss his process on Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast.
Best of Variety