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Makeup Artists Talk Challenges of ‘Cloud Atlas’: Multiple Characters, Movie Stars Hanks & Berry, Yellowface & Political Correctness

Makeup Artists Talk Challenges of 'Cloud Atlas': Multiple Characters, Movie Stars Hanks & Berry, Yellowface & Political Correctness

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have starred in a combined 88 films, so when tasked to transform two of Hollywood’s most familiar faces, “Cloud Atlas’” hair, make-up and prosthetics designers Jeremy Woodhead and Daniel Parker had only one place to start: the nose.

“The nose is one of the easiest little make-up tricks,” says Woodhead. “It’s one of the least mobile areas of the face and it’s relatively easy to make it look real because the nose doesn’t flex and move in the way that cheeks or jaws or foreheads do. You can change the balance of a face considerably even by a 10% change in the size of the nose.” And so Halle Berry slipped into a broad and tattooed nose to play an 1849 slave, a Roman nose for restless 1931 housewife Jocasta, and even a casually pierced nose to stroll through a present-day party scene as an Indian beauty in a sari, while Tom Hanks disguised himself with a series of bulbous, broken and crooked honkers. But even noses have their perils.

“When an actor’s wearing prosthetics on his skin, he’s going to sweat even more and that poses a problem,” says Woodhead. The worst case scenario is total facial collapse. “We were out with Tom Hanks on a boat and there’s a scene where he takes his glasses off. It go so hot that the inside of the prosthetics melted, so when he took the glasses off, the nose came with them—that was not my favorite moment on the film, I have to say.”

Still, even with their supply of false noses, wigs, and teeth, there was a limit to Woodhead and Parker’s make-up masquerade. With a reported $102 million budget riding on ‘Cloud Atlas,’ Warner Bros. and their directors Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski knew that they needed the recognizable star power of Hanks and Berry in their marketing. Which, as Parker explains, put the two designers in a complicated position.  

“You’re being asked, ‘We want you to disguise Tom Hanks, but people must still realize that it’s Tom Hanks,’” says Parker. And not everyone agreed on where that line was drawn. Hugh Grant’s Kona war chief—a nightmarish concoction of a bald cap, mohawk, radiation burns, body tattoos, body paint, and blood—had to be scaled back in order to be at least slightly recognizable as the dapper Brit, and even less flagrantly fantastic designs were sometimes almost too effective.

“When Tom Hanks was playing Dermot Hoggins, the Irish gangster who writes the book in contemporary time, he had a broken nose, balding head, massive scars, but he still looked like Tom Hanks as far as I was concerned,” says Parker. “Then on set at this party scene, Tom [Tykwer],  said, ‘All those people who were standing around Tom, can you please go back to the same positions where you were?’ They all looked at him and said, ‘Tom Hanks was here?’”

“To hang the picture on these big names, it was sort of agreed that there would be one part for each of them that would be much as they are,” adds Woodhead. “You had to give all of the characters a unique identity, but not suppress the actors’ faces with the make-up. It was a bit of a balancing act.” Luisa Rey, Halle Berry’s centerpiece role as a 1970’s investigate reporter, and her post-collapse semi-primitive Meronym, were set aside to be her identifiable faces, while despite the ragged robes and face tattoos, Tom Hanks’ futurist Zachry was the two-time Oscar winner’s most recognizable hero. Though, as Woodhead admits, “The old age make-up in that section takes him further from the Tom that he is now to the Tom he may well be in 40 or 50 years time.” Minus the disfiguring scar, hopefully.  

“It suits me to work by the seat of my pants,” says Parker, of the short six weeks prep time he and Woodhead were given to create nearly 100 individual looks for their leading characters—plus the extras. “It got my heart pumping, my blood rushing, and my head into gear thinking, ‘How are we going to do this?’”

To start off their brainstorming, Parker (who designed Tykwer’s three segments) and Woodhead (who designed the Wachowskis’) met in Berlin and divided up defining details like hair and eye color so that there would be no visual overlap between their six segments. “We had to,” says Woodhead. “We worked out what we were doing to who so that we didn’t have two blonde Tom Hanks—’I’ll do a redhead here, you can have a sandy one, and I’ll have a brown one there.’”

They also plunged into their imagination to fully conceive of their six different time periods. For example, to play the futuristic Meronym, Halle Berry’s swollen cranium and network of wires was more than just a riff on Japan’s ghastly “bagelhead” trend. Rather, Woodhead thought deeply about how people of her era might communicate.

“What I was trying to do with those is anticipate that not that far into the future, we won’t have cameras, we won’t have mobile phones—everything will be implanted under the skin. So all those little wires under the skin are to suggest that we’ve evolved and no longer need those handheld devices because everything is activated by brain impulses,” says Woodhead. If audiences don’t pick up on the science behind her disfigurement, he’s still content to have seized upon the motivation behind it. “The film is full of little details like that that aren’t explained.”

But with two units, multiple shooting cities, and a merciless schedule (“It was a crash-bang-wallop of a film,” sighs Woodhead), it was impossible to prepare for everything—especially last minute casting decisions.
“Ben Whishaw appeared in the Sonmi story as a cameo and I didn’t know until the day before, so it was a mad scrap trying to find prosthetics which fit him and worked,” says Woodhead. “Susan Sarandon flew in just for a week of filming and we didn’t get a chance to live-cast her until she got there. The day after she arrived she had to go on set as a little Indian man. No prosthetics at all had been prepared, so I had to raid the drawer and find various bits and pieces I could put together to change her gender and change her ethnicity.”

Changing genders—like, say, turning Hugo Weaving into the wicked Nurse Noakes—is much more detailed than slapping on long hair and lipstick. Slight differences in head shape and neck size unconsciously register as feminine and masculine, forcing the make-up artists to transform their actors’ bone structure with prosthetics.

“It’s very subtle, but if you were to walk down the street and saw a man dressed as a woman, you’d think ‘That’s a very masculine-looking woman,’” explains Parker, “A man’s skull is basically more Neanderthal—the brow is much more pronounced.” And so Weaving settled into the make-up chair where Parker did several test runs before finally hitting upon the right way to soften his features.

In fact, throughout the film, Weaving spent more time undergoing facial prosthetics than most of the rest of the cast for one reason: his distinctively wide eyes.

“The eyes are the one thing you cannot change,” says Woodman, “At the end of the day, the actors still have to see and move their eyes.” So instead of changing the eyes themselves, the two designers hit upon the idea of tweaking the proportions of the face in order to make his eyes look different. “Old Georgie for instance [Weavings’ post-apoloclypse Devil], because Hugo’s so wide-eyed, I expanded the width of his forehead to make his eyes look smaller and meaner. And the Korean eyelids [in the Sonmi segment] again reduced the size of his eyes, so he’d look different.”  

Those eyelids have caused controversy, of course, with Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, criticizing Woodman and Parker for believing that to turn Caucasian and black actors into Korean, “They only had to change their eyes, not their facial structure and complexion.” Accusations of “yellowface” have hit Hollywood ever since 1935, when Luise Rainer won an Oscar for playing the Chinese heroine of “The Good Earth.” Did “Cloud Atlas’” three directors and two designers know they were walking into a cultural minefield?

“We were very aware of that, of course,” insists Woodman. He says it’s important to recognize that these characters are living over 130 years from now in 2144 Neo Seoul. “What we anticipated was that in the future, countries and states would become more homogenized, so it wouldn’t be absolutely necessary for anybody to be 100 percent any ethnicity. It could be a genetic mishmash of many cultures, so we didn’t feel that it would be treading on Asiatic toes too much by turning Europeans into Asians.”

And, as Woodman adds, “Cloud Atlas’” fluid approach to race flows both ways.

“We do it the other way around when Doona Bae plays the Irish wife in the first story, and when Xun Zhou plays Tom Hanks’ sister in the future. It’s a two-way street, so we really felt we weren’t being politically incorrect. We were just mixing it all up in the way that the story suggests: that we are all connected, no matter how different we are.”

The actors were onboard for the risk—even the risk to their vanity.  

“There’s no make-up artist who could possibly say no to this job—and no actor, either,” says Parker. “When I turned Xun Zhou, one of the most famously beautiful women in China, into a young man. I said, ‘What do you think of it?’ She said, ‘I think it’s horrible. I hate it. But oh my god, I love it, too.’”

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