When Sarah Paulson began work as Linda Tripp in the FX series “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” she knew there was one physical attribute that was the key to unlocking her transformation into the civil servant who set the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in motion. “Linda had very unique teeth,” Paulson said. “The way she talked made her mouth over-accentuated and her teeth were exposed when she talked.” Determined to get every detail right in her performance, Paulson asked the “Impeachment” prosthetics team who was the best teeth person in the business. Their answer: Yoichi “Art” Sakamoto.
Sakamoto is not a household name, but even the most casual TV or movie fan is familiar with his designs. He helped turn Colin Farrell into The Penguin for “The Batman” and Will Smith into Richard Williams in “King Richard.” He also worked with Julia Roberts on “Gaslit” and Jared Leto in “WeCrashed,” two shows that, like “Impeachment,” required meticulous research in order to recreate real public figures onscreen.
In a nearly 30-year career, the dental prosthetic designer has worked on nearly 100 productions and become a valued partner of actors like Nicole Kidman and Patricia Arquette — the latter of whom thanked Sakamoto in her Golden Globes acceptance speech for “Escape at Dannemora.” Yet while those who work with Sakamoto — not just actors but collaborators like special effects makeup artist Kazu Hiro — often get awards recognition, the subtlety of his craft and its invisible integration with performance are often overlooked.
The delicacy of Sakamoto’s approach is on full display in “WeCrashed.” Leto is unrecognizable, even though he’s playing a person — WeWork founder Adam Neumann — who’s a close match to the Oscar winner in terms of body type, age, hair, and the other noticeable physical characteristics normally associated with an actor’s transformation. Sakamoto’s dental prosthetics alter the shape of Leto’s face, just as the appliances he designed for “Gaslit” turn Roberts into Watergate whistleblower Martha Mitchell by pushing her cheeks outward. Not that Sakamoto isn’t capable of more outrageous effects when the project requires it: His recent credits also include the dental prosthetics for multiple characters played by Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in “Coming 2 America.”
What connects all of these projects is Sakamoto’s scrupulous attention to character and story. “Teeth can show a character’s personal history and journey,” he said, “so when I design dental prosthetics I consider age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, religion, where they’re from and the time period of the story.” In Sakamoto’s hands, teeth can be as expressive of character and backstory as costumes or production design, and it’s been this way ever since his breakthrough work with Charlize Theron on her Oscar-winning performance in “Monster.”
“Art is a true artist,” Theron said. “The way he looks at the finest details — he’s so quiet, so pensive, so thoughtful. He is truly one of the most incredible people I have ever met in my life.”
In the video below, watch how Sakamoto helped Sarah Paulson transform into Linda Tripp and Will Smith into an Oscar-winner.
Sakamoto grew up in Tokyo, where he fell in love with drawing, painting, and sculpture as well as with American movies like “The Magnificent Seven” — but he never thought of going into the film industry. After high school he went to work at a dental laboratory in Vienna before returning to Japan to attend dental college and get his degree; when he graduated and the time came to find a job, he moved to Santa Monica, California — not to be near the film industry but because he loved surfing. Sakamoto worked as a dental technician a few blocks from the ocean and went there every day after work, an idyllic experience for the young surfer.
When his dental laboratory moved inland to Koreatown, Sakamoto’s enthusiasm quickly declined, and the fact that he wasn’t expressing himself creatively grew frustrating. Determined to get into a more artistic line of work, he quit the lab and took a series of internships and odd jobs at various special effects houses; his dream was to get into miniatures and matte paintings, but as he said, “Even then that was a dying business.” At the end of 1993 he got a job working for special effects makeup legend Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studios; there he spent the next five years working as part of the effects crew on films like “The Nutty Professor,” “Men in Black,” and “The Devil’s Advocate.”
No one at Cinovation knew about Sakamoto’s past life as a dental technician until the crew was on location for “Mighty Joe Young” in Hawaii and Sakamoto made some fake teeth to put in his mouth as a joke. When Baker saw the teeth he asked where they came from, and was surprised to learn they were fabricated by Sakamoto in his hotel room in about 15 minutes. “Can you make teeth for me?” Baker asked — and from that point forward, Sakamoto was Cinovation’s dental prosthetics specialist. He created teeth for dozens of major releases until the studio’s closure in 2014, including “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” and “The Wolfman.”
courtesy of Yoichi Art Sakamoto
When Sakamoto reunited with “Mighty Joe Young” star Charlize Theron for Patty Jenkins’ 2003 masterpiece “Monster,” it would be a collaboration that altered both the artisan and actress’ careers forever. In the role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron used every internal and external tool at her disposal to vanish into the character. Makeup artist Toni “Toni G” Garavaglia brought Sakamoto onto the project, and they collaborated closely with Theron, meeting in her kitchen to scour photos of Wuornos and figure out an approach. “Art really figured out a way to not just mimic the teeth that Aileen had,” Theron said, “but to build something for my mouth to help with the expressions. It was invaluable.” She considered Sakamoto to be an essential partner in the creation of the character, along with Jenkins and Garavaglia. “We all built this thing together,” she said. “I can’t imagine playing Aileen without having the tools that everybody brought to the experience.”
With Theron winning the Oscar, “Monster” was a stunning freelance debut for Sakamoto. It was also the first time Sakamoto dealt directly with an actor as well as the director and producers. He enjoyed the close collaboration and the way it allowed him to take a deep dive into the character, establishing a way of working that he has continued to refine and that has made Sakamoto a trusted collaborator for actors in need of drastic physical transformations. “He has a very particular attention to detail that’s important, because when you’re doing an extreme transformation you can very easily risk it becoming a caricature,” Paulson said.
Getting the teeth right on “Impeachment” became especially important once it was decided that Paulson’s transformation would be limited to a prosthetic nose and neck, and Sakamoto made her practice teeth early on so that she could get used to them while working with dialect and movement coaches. From that point forward there were frequent adjustments and multiple conversations in which Paulson bombarded Sakamoto with questions. “He wasn’t bothered by my constant, ‘Art, is there a way to do this?’” Paulson said. “It was just as important to him to get it right.”
Sakamoto said he welcomed it all. “I like that way of working because it forces me to push myself,” he said, adding that cutting corners is never an option on any job. “Once the movie is released or the TV show airs, I can’t touch up, so I have to give my all to each project.” On “Gaslit,” when Sakamoto was asked to create a chipped tooth for Julia Roberts, the makeup artists were surprised by the number of questions he had. “I need to know how she got the chipped tooth, if she fell and on what side. Did somebody punch her, and are they right-handed or left-handed? Then after that did she go to a dentist or not? All of these things are important to know if I’m going to get it right.”
courtesy of Yoichi Art Sakamoto; Craig Blankenhorn/FX
Michelle Williams, who worked with Sakamoto to create her Emmy-winning portrayal of musical theater icon Gwen Verdon in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon,” said “working with Art was as integral as working with a dance instructor.” Williams called Sakamoto personally after she realized how important dental prosthetics would be to the part. “It was clear to me immediately that a subtle shift in teeth would change my look completely.” After experimenting with other teeth applications and not getting the results she wanted, Williams was referred to Sakamoto by makeup artist Angela Levin. “After seeing his work and hearing what he could do, [FX] approved him and off he flew to meet us in Queens at the soundstages where we were prepping,” she said.
Once Sakamoto arrived on set, Williams was thrilled to discover that he possessed even more photos of Verdon than she did. “I knew I was in the presence of a sensitive and meticulous artist,” she said. “He had photos of Gwen in every size and at every angle, in order to capture each nuance. We worked together as he crafted and refined, and we watched as the teeth brought Gwen’s face into view. Not only did it change my smile, it changed my profile and even my face shape to be more like hers. I simply couldn’t have played this role without him.”
Sakamoto added that creating dental prosthetics isn’t just about what looks right — it has to feel right to the actor, and they have to be able to act comfortably with the teeth in their mouth. “Dental appliances directly affect the actor’s speech, so it’s my responsibility to create them without distracting from the actor’s performance. In an ideal situation, dental prosthetics instantly encourage an actor to become someone else.”
This was certainly the case for Paulson on “Impeachment.” “Anytime you can look in the mirror and not see yourself it’s really helpful,” she said. “The final thing I did every day when they were ready to shoot was put the teeth in, and I would hear that click and it was the last step in terms of feeling like I was her. It was always a really, really powerful moment.” —Jim Hemphill