Coming off a stellar year, with the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise and the stupefying box office draw of Deadpool, Oscar-winning makeup artist Bill Corso has gone All the Way at this year’s Emmys, securing two of the HBO film’s eight total nominations for prosthetic and non-prosthetic makeup. An adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s Broadway play, which led Bryan Cranston to a Tony Award in 2014, the film stars Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson, who assumes the mantle of the U.S. presidency in the wake of the JFK assassination and boldly pursues the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act.
Working previously with Cranston on Godzilla and John Carter, Corso first met the actor in a fated encounter many years prior. “Truth be told, I’ve known Bryan since I was 15 years old,” Corso laughs. “He was one of the first professional actors I ever met, when I was a young fledgling wanting to be a makeup artist one day.”
With All the Way, Corso realized his goal of collaborating with director Jay Roach—after a missed connection on a prior project—while checking off a few additional boxes in the process. “I love clean character makeups, and I’d never done a president,” Corso shares. “It’s one of those things that every makeup artist wants to do.”
Anyone familiar with Corso’s work knows him as both master craftsman and magician—an artist that has assisted the biggest and brightest stars in disappearing into the role. Working closely over the years with the likes of Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, Corso won an Oscar in 2005 for his transformation of Carrey in A Series of Unfortunate Events, taking his third nomination last year for his stunning work in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. “One of my specialties is I’m pretty good at pre-vizing and designing a look. Having done this many times and transformed an actor pretty dramatically, I’ve been through every conversation,” Corso says. “I’ve been through the ‘We don’t want to cover up the actor and lose the actor;’ I’ve been through Foxcatcher where I don’t want to recognize the actor. [Laughs] I’ve been through every conversation, so I know all the beats that we’re going to go through.”
Given Roach’s desire to keep the camera tight on Johnson’s mug, the pre-viz master’s mission was to transcend the oversized earlobes of the Broadway LBJ without suffocating Cranston in latex. “Nobody wants to be the guy who’s completely covered in rubber,” Corso explains. “It takes people out of the movie. I don’t want to be that guy.” Sitting down with Cranston, Corso presented the actor with five options. And slowly but surely, the makeup designer built his masterpiece, upon the face of one of the industry’s greatest talents.
What is seen on screen is the result of an exercise in minimalism, a ‘less is more’ methodology Corso attributes to lessons learned from a mentor—seven-time Oscar winner Rick Baker. On Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, “[Baker] designed this beautiful, elaborate makeup on Martin Landau for Bela Lugosi, and then he just started taking things off. What little can we get away with that still gets to the idea of Bela Lugosi?” Corso says. “And what you end up with is just genius.” Amazingly, in contrast to reports from makeup artists of similar accomplishment, the application of makeup and hair to Cranston was a mere 90 minute process.
Arriving on set to the sight of LBJ incarnate, Cranston’s co-stars rushed to Corso with their own makeup requests, presenting the makeup designer with a bit of a dilemma. “We had discussed this with HBO—there’s not a lot of money, we’re not going to do big prosthetic things on everybody. It wasn’t necessary,” he recalls. “It was just Bryan we were thinking about. Even the discussion with Anthony Mackie—no amount of prosthetics is going to make Anthony Mackie look like Martin Luther King.”
Eventually, though, Corso caved, delivering options to alter the appearance of several other key cast members—most notably, Bradley Whitford, who adopted Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s heavy eyelids. “Steven Spielberg came to the set, because Steven produced it, and he was commenting on, ‘Oh, I love Bryan; Bryan looks so great,’” Corso shares. “I’ve known Steven for many years, and I go, ‘Well have you seen Bradley?’” Producing a photograph of Whitford for the producer, Spielberg was shocked. “He’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I don’t even recognize him. That’s my favorite makeup,’” the makeup designer recalls with delight. “It was really neat.”
When it comes to awards shows and the categorization of his art form, Corso is surely not alone this year as he scratches his head. “If you look at that [prosthetics] category, Bryan stands there against The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. All these giant, big, elaborate monster suits and costumes,” he laughs. “And it’s like, is this quite fair? I don’t understand.”