Veteran hair stylist Robert L. Stevenson has a clipping of a piece of fan art called “The Evolution of Samuel L. Jackson’s Hair.” He’s very proud of it—a tribute to the many different styles he helped the actor create over 14 years of big-screen collaboration. “He was losing his hair at one point and said, ‘If I just shaved it all off could we still create looks with wigs?’ ” says Stevenson. “I said, ‘Sam, we can basically do anything with wigs.’ That’s when we started getting into it.”
Jackson is only the most recent of Stevenson’s regular clients in a career that stretches back to the 1970s. He styled the likes of Richard Pryor, Angela Bassett and Eddie Murphy after landing his first job in movies at Universal Studios under make-up head Nick Marcelino. So it’s little wonder Stevenson has reached a level at which filmmakers and actors continue to seek his counsel, even though he claims he’s hung up his scissors. “I retired in 2008, but the calls keep coming,” he laughs.
The latest was from director Tate Taylor, who tapped Stevenson to consult on the many wigs that were being created for the James Brown biopic Get On Up. “He brought me on because I knew a little more about James Brown’s style than even he did,” Stevenson says of their first meeting. “James Brown was a pretty incredible man, and I remember seeing him when I was a teenager, back in ’62. His shows were like the circus coming to town and we’d save all our money just to go to them.”
Working on the film was no small task—in the broad span of time the film covers, there are as many as 15 different hairdos. “That was the kind of man James Brown was,” Stevenson explains. “He would always be out in front of everything, and for us to do it right we had to research everything we could find.”
Stevenson and the film’s hair and make-up team poured through an extraordinary archive of books, photographs and films, matching dates with scenes in the script to work out which look Brown would be wearing at any one time. “I knew how to do a lot of those hairdos, because my uncle and cousin used to have what they called a ‘processing shop,’ where they’d curl guys’ hair and perm ’em up with the latest styles.”
It took about a month, start to finish, to create and style just one of the wigs, which cost between $2,000 and $4,000. To keep costs down, some wigs would be restyled after being shot out. Given the size of Brown’s band and the number of peripheral characters, there were upwards of dozens of wigs in play during certain scenes.
“It was a real help that James Brown’s grandson was there to guide us,” says Stevenson. “He made sure we were on point and weren’t just throwing stuff in there. He’d say, ‘Oh, my grandfather would never wear (his hair) like that.’ ”
Stevenson has been coaxed out of retirement once more since Get On Up wrapped, consulting on a film about New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden. “It just keeps on rolling, you know, and I just keep rolling with it,” he says. But this is definitely the last: “I’m retired!”
Well, unless Jackson calls again. “I told him any time he wants me to help he should call me. He said he’s waiting for something really big.”