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‘True Detective’: Creating the Three Faces of Mahershala Ali’s Troubled Wayne Hays

"The Nutty Professor" and "Amadeus" were instrumental inspirations for the creation of the old age makeup for Ali's tour de force performance.

True Detective Season 3 Mahershala Ali bridge

Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

HBO

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It’s about time that two-time supporting actor Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (“Green Book” and “Moonlight”) got a lead role, and his troubled Arkansas cop, Wayne Hays, was a game-changer for Season 3’s “True Detective” on HBO.

The fact that Ali got to play Hays at three different stages of his life: his thirties, forties, and seventies, made it a more remarkable achievement as we got to witness the personal impact of the macabre murder mystery. The three faces of Hays became a study in hope, futility, and dementia as he is consumed by the case. And the masterful makeup and hair work aided in Ali’s powerful performance.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 4 Stephen Dorff Mahershala Ali

Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Beginning with his grandfather as a point of reference, Ali collaborated with makeup artists Debi Young and Mike Marino and hairstylist Lawrence Davis to create a unified look that suited him best. “He asked me to come do this project with him and we talked early on about the aging makeup,” said Young. “I told him I didn’t want it to look over-aged. The great thing is he had his grandfather and we spent a lot of time with his photographs to use as a model. In particular, when he was in this dementia stage, they wanted to show the problems in his marriage and being worried about the case…and that kind of breakdown of yourself when going through that kind of illness.”

Young wanted to keep the youthfulness in the actor’s skin, and applied grapeseed oil as a moisturizer. They decided that Hays, a Vietnam vet who was an expert tracker, didn’t age much between his thirties and forties (in the ’80s and ’90s). “I saw him as a free spirit before the case,” Young said, “but then we saw the stress on his face, so I did subtle highlights and shadows. Then, for the 1990s makeup, I did a touch more of a nasolabial fold and some more shadows. He’s married with children and has some more stress and then being stifled at work on the investigation.”

True Detective Season 3 Episode 8 Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

For the hair, Davis and Ali studied his grandfather and were also inspired by a photo of Sidney Poitier’s detective Virgil Tibbs from “In the Heat of the Night.” They applied it to the 1980s and went for a tapered hairstyle with a wig. For the ’90s, they discarded the wig and went with more of a military cut, which was shorter and slightly fuller on the sides, and weaved in some more gray. “I found the most interesting part was that he essentially stayed together with his look,” Davis said. “I thought it was important to keep the rhythm going with his hair as well.”

For the last stage of makeup for the character in his seventies, Marino applied strategic prosthetics that didn’t interfere with Ali’s appearance. He drew on Rick Baker’s influential work on “The Nutty Professor” for how old age makeup should be colored, and Dick Smith’s groundbreaking makeup for F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in “Amadeus.” “Dick had connected the old neck and cheeks together, and then he used minor pieces around the eye and forehead areas to keep a lot of F. Murray’s face and nose in the makeup, leaving lots of pieces of his face normal and then integrating them in,” he said. “That was really my approach with Ali. Rick built on what Dick had accomplished with silicon encapsulated pieces tinted toward the skin tone.”

“True Detective”

HBO

Marino, who’s also friends with Ali, discussed the look and aging process of his dark skin. The actor wanted to stay away from too many wrinkles or other softer, puffier signposts. Meanwhile, Young matched the foundation colors to the prosthetics, particularly around the nose and mouth. They wanted to show the breakdown of his mind but allow the actor to carry off the impact of memory loss in the way he moved his eyes.

“He wore nine prosthetics every day in his latest stage,” Marino said. “It was forehead and eye bags, corners of the outside of the eyes, inside of his eyes, the center of the brow, a furrow piece, and a neck that connected the cheeks.” Ali also had a predominantly gray wig that went over his short hair, but Davis avoided the typical look with no balding or receding hairline.

For Marino, the highlight of the elderly Ali was when he visits his former partner, played by Stephen Dorff (who required an extra prosthetic piece for his balding head), and asks him to rejoin the case. “The stars were aligned,” he said. “How often do you see heavily filmed, in closeup and natural light, prosthetic makeup on two guys in that are highly recognizable? It was a very emotional scene that had them in tears. This can’t look phony.”

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