“Find Your Happy Place”
While Chieffo was new to the process, Jones is, of course, a legend when it comes to playing the humanity of characters who don’t look human thanks to layers of latex. The actor has spent much of his three-decade-long career in makeup chairs, being transformed for films and TV shows including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and of course this year’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water.”
Chieffo said that Jones immediately took her under his wing when she told him, at the show’s first table read, that this would be her first time playing a role in prosthetics. “It was my first time meeting Doug, and of course, I knew of his incredible legacy,” she said. “He was just like, ‘Oh precious,’ and did his classic Doug putting-his-hand-on-my-cheek-with-love move.”
Over the course of the season, she said, Jones would check in on her and the other actors who were new to the experience. “He was always there to grab coffee. Ultimately, we were lucky enough to have some great scenes together by the end of the season — it was so great to work with him on so many levels.”
The advice Jones said he gives to newbies seems relatively simple: “Sit still, do as you’re told, and find your happy place.”
But it isn’t as simple as that. As he explained, “a normal human response to wearing a prosthetic makeup is fear and claustrophobia. And we all have to go through a lifecast where you’re under alginate and plaster, and while that’s setting, all you have is nose holes. It’s your only portal to the outside world.”
This is why MacKinnon will often keep a hand on his subject’s shoulder, which Jones said “helps a lot. Just so they know that someone’s around, and it will come off. And that’s the main thing. And when you’re glued into a makeup that’s encasing you, just remember, at the end of the day, it does come off!”
All About Efficiency
Of course, even getting the makeup off takes time. Because the process is so time-consuming, both the artists and the actors look for ways to simplify things; one solution, Jones said, is a relatively simple one: Rather than wear a bald cap to get into the Saru makeup, he shaves his head.
This allows MacKinnon to apply a sticky material called Skin Tite to Jones’ head, as opposed to the glue he would normally have to use. “At the end of the day, it basically comes off like a sock,” MacKinnon said. “It adheres all day, but it peels off.”
“It’s much faster than gluing it down inch-by-inch, and much faster to get it off,” Jones added. “But it means I can’t have hair.”
However, he does have the use of his hands. “The hands are not glued on at all,” he said. “It’s a glove that has been completely perfectly fitted here at the shop, that just slips on like an evening glove. They’re also made of silicone so they add great movement without buckling and without wrinkling too bad. It’s the most mobility I’ve ever had with hands ever in my life, on any character I’ve ever played with a hand prosthetic.”
The Saru design went through a number of iterations (including one with a dozen eyes that would have covered most of Jones’ head) before landing on a version that truly let Jones’s acting come through. But on the first day of filming, they did discover one necessary tweak.
“Saru’s nostrils are over here on my cheeks,” Jones said, pointing to the sides of his face. “So my own nose was then plugged completely up, no air could come or go. So I sounded extremely nasally on my first day of work, on set, and we were filming and we had to go back and ADR voice loop over that one day.”
MacKinnon’s solution? “He tunneled a couple of canals from my nostrils out to each of these nostrils on the cheeks, so I could actually breathe. It allowed things to get air in and out and it took the nasal sound down just a bit,” Jones said.
In general, the makeup process did change every day, at least for MacKinnon. “Not that you guys would ever see anything,” he said, “but I just find little ways of tweaking it where it goes on faster or it blends out quicker for me. Or how I set my station up differently every day is a time-saver. The faster I am with him, the faster and more time on set we have to shoot.”
In fact, over the course of the season, as MacKinnon refined the process to the point where, by the end of Season 1, it took the same amount of time to get Jones into character as it did to transform James Frain into Sarek. (Since Frain doesn’t shave his eyebrows, MacKinnon has to cover up his existing brow, then meticulously apply the new slanted eyebrows and Vulcan ears so they can hold up to the detail demanded of 4k cameras.)
“It Does Help a Lot”
MacKinnon made a point of saying, when it comes to Jones as an actor, “it’s about time that the Academy looks at him more. I feel sometimes he gets overlooked because he’s underneath the makeup. But his acting on this is brilliant. Just because he has the makeup on doesn’t mean he should be pushed aside. I mean, he’s putting it all in just like every actor is on a TV show.”
But Jones said the makeup does assist him with his performance. “When you see the transformation happening right before you with the mirror, right there, the visual does help you,” he said. “Finally, I’m Saru now, as opposed to this skinny guy from Indiana. It does help a lot.”
When he plays a human character, Jones said, he doesn’t practice anything in front of a mirror. “That takes you outside yourself, and you’re watching your performance from another perspective and you don’t want that. You want to live in it.”
But when he’s in prosthetics, it’s a necessary part of the process. “As a creature, you do want to have at least some time in the mirror to go ‘how does this respond to my expressions, my movement?’ Each creature is going to be different. Saru is rather responsive, because he’s silicone and it’s glued to every bit of my face. If anything, the eyebrows might be probably the least movement I have. So I know that if I want to do that, I just need to remember to turn up the volume on those expressions a little bit, to make it read. That’s when a mirror does become helpful.”
“I still don’t see Doug behind the makeup. I do look at him as the creature,” MacKinnon said. “So, to me, that makes me feel like I’ve done my job right. I lose Doug as a human and see him as the character.”
Meanwhile, being in full Klingon makeup every day kept Chieffo from using the bathroom with ease, using her phone, or eating anything other than smoothies (which she didn’t hate, to be clear: “they’re amazing vegan-based protein, very healthy, amazing nutritionist medicine”). But Chieffo made an effort to have the prosthetics be a tool for her, as opposed for a limitation. “It just helped me be in that limbo of not quite being Mary and not quite being L’Rell,” she said.
While this was her first time with the experience, she said that “I felt well suited for the idea of it. My training at Julliard was a very movement-based program, and a very voice and speech-based program, so we do a lot of mask work. There is a distinction between a prosthetic and a mask, which I also learned last year. But in that vein of seeing oneself as a different creature, seeing a different face and kind of letting your physical self manifest as a result of what you’re seeing — on the first camera test day, I looked in the mirror, and I was not myself. So I really leaned on what, visually, I was learning about the character.”
She was also learning new ways of expressing herself: “You really have to rely on movement so much, because you don’t get quite as much nuance in the face. I started developing this head tilt that felt appropriate because I had so much to move around. It felt like a great way to show I was listening or comprehending.”