Loving hair stylist Kenneth Walker boasts an accomplished resume, working closely with Denzel Washington from Ricochet to American Gangster. But in speaking with Walker about Jeff Nichols’ latest, depicting the beautiful and historic love story between Richard and Mildred Loving, it’s clear that his connection to the project is as personal and profound as they come. Growing up in the era depicted in the film, Walker vividly recalls his first exposure to prejudice… as well as the hairstyle worn by Mildred, which his own mother and grandmother wore. Below, Walker discusses his admiration for Jeff Nichols, his relationship with actors and the moment in which Joel Edgerton became a blonde.
When did the story of the Lovings originally come to your attention?
This came many years ago. See, I’m from that era. I was in high school during that time. My mom was very into news, as were my grandparents. They were talking about this couple, the Lovings. I remember that so well. We listened to the radio, and newspapers, and had a little tiny TV. In high school, there were a lot of young people that were interested in what was going on in the world at that time. I just happened to be one of them. It caught my interest. But then I wasn’t really surprised, because when I started high school, they were hanging black dummies on the flagpole because it was a white school.
That was my first exposure to prejudice and different kinds of people, because I grew up in Watts. Watts was different from South Central LA. Watts was a community of families, and we had Hispanic, black, white, Japanese. We had an array of colors there at that time, and we were all connected. We were friends, we ate together, talked together, went to school together. So, it was something that I needed to be a part of.
You’ve worked with stars like Denzel Washington and an assortment of acclaimed directors—what stood out to you about Jeff Nichols in the making of this film?
Jeff Nichols was such a knowing person, knowing what he wanted, what he expected of his actors. He established a line of communication with all of the departments, letting them know what he wanted. This was a very low-key film, and we were fortunate to have the documentary of the Lovings, so to replicate that was what he wanted. He wanted to see Mildred come alive on the screen. And Ruth Negga, she wanted Mildred to come alive on the screen. I know this may sound silly to you, but there were many days that we worked, and I felt Mildred’s presence on that trailer. We would talk about it because we would come up with hairstyles without even looking, and they were so Mildred, you know? If you look at those scenes of them on the couch, that’s one big thing where she’s laying in her lap. They have put two of those pictures together, you almost can’t tell which is which, except for the fact that one is in color and one is in black and white.
Quite naturally, I’m looking at things other people don’t look at. But when they reversed the Supreme Court decision in 1968, and they were sitting in that office, in that room, that was Mildred Loving sitting there, real Mildred Loving. And Joel [Edgerton] translated into Richard, because Joel’s hair is basically black, or dark brown. To make it more blonde as was Richard’s, that was a feat unto itself, but we did get it done and it looks on camera like it was his hair.
What was your experience that moment—that bleaching of the hair—with Edgerton?
He was such a gentle soul and secure in who he was, as was Ruth. When you find secure people, they trust you when they see that you know basically what you’re doing, and you explain to them that it will be a process to get him actually almost to white hair, and then tone it into a nice blonde.
Jeff and the cameraman, Adam [Stone], they were both like, “Wow”. We were testing it as we were doing it—this was before we started shooting. We would see orange or red or something ugly in it. I would see it as well, but it’s nothing like having a camera and the way they light it. We didn’t do HD, we did film. So film, you’re figuring out your stock and what you’re working with, so it’s another whole process. Film, I think, is the most beautiful thing in the world.
After about a week, I hit it. The color was spot on and he was able to not have to use a permanent toner on his hair. I was toning his hair every morning with a temporary toner, which would adhere to and last all day, but when he went home and he washed it out, when he came back in the next day, his hair was bright again. But in doing that, I was able to save him from having peroxide and all those chemicals put back in his hair every time after I bleached him and then had to tone him. Rather than put another something with a chemical in it, I just used the temporary color and it worked beautifully.
Jeff was so amazing, but Joel was just the gentleman of gentlemen. We had fun, we talked, and then watching them in the morning come on the trailer, we’d make a big pot of beautiful coffee with beautiful coffee cups, no plastic, no Styrofoam, none of that. I kept peppermints on my station and everybody would come in—I mean, every actor. We had a camaraderie that was unique unto itself.
Are actors always so willing to take part in that kind of physical transformation, with the time it requires? I’d imagine it could be logistically challenging to keep changing looks from one film to the next.
It only becomes complicated when there are too many opinions of what it should be.
The actors definitely should have some input on how they feel, what they have studied and what they have about who this character is, where he came from and what have you. The final analysis is, it’s the vision of the director, because Mr. Nichols wrote this himself.
I’ve worked with a lot of actresses. Not so many men that have an issue, because I’ve done wigs on men and what have you. Women, they have another ego. See, when you can let your guard down and know that this woman was a countrywoman, she was not trying to be pretty. He was attracted to what he saw in her in in the country.
Their love was so deep, just the way they looked at each other. It’s animated on the screen. It was bigger than life, without a word being said. My favorite thing is when the attorneys ask, when they didn’t want to go to court, “Is there anything you’d like us to say to the Supreme Court?” He just looked at them and said, “Yes, I love my wife.”
That’s one of those lines which almost feels written, but is so beautiful with the knowledge that it was taken verbatim.
That’s the real deal. I have been inundated with calls of people talking about this film. The actors, the looks that they saw, how the makeup was done beautifully and simply. It wasn’t over the top, and it was just a joy.
How did your work in hair integrate with the work done by the makeup department, and other key artists involved?
Let’s go to the beginning of this film in Richmond, Virginia. You see her running through there to tell her sisters that she’s pregnant, and she’s very country. Her hair is not done, really. She’s just excited. They hug and love and talk to each other. Then, after they get married, and that horrendous thing that happens to them in jail, they have to move to DC—that was like another whole transition because makeup, wardrobe, and myself, we kept her very plain and he was just a country guy, just going to work, laying his cement, doing what he did, making a living for what was to be a big family.
When they moved to the city and then she was pregnant with her first child, that whole scene where when she was getting ready to deliver and she’s like “I wanted your mother to deliver this child.” That is mind boggling to me. That was so beautiful. They get in their car. She puts that scarf on and then, I was dealing with the scarf, even though it’s a wardrobe thing, but he had a distinct pattern in that scarf, and every time we would shoot that scene or re-do it, it might be the next day we’d shoot some more. I would have to keep that scarf on so that that design was exactly in the same spot.
Then, when they moved to the city, after she had her first child, that’s when I cut her hair. You could see a definite shorter version of her. She was in house dresses and stuff, old country house dresses in Richmond. When she cuts to D.C., her wardrobe changes, if you notice. Her makeup was very simple then. You might have seen a touch of lips or something a little different. Nothing dramatic. She didn’t look made up, and she didn’t look overdressed, and her hair was simple for her to deal with.
My mother and my grandmother wore those same hairstyles. I knew that period really well. Being in high school during that time and watching the ‘60s was a whole ‘nother era. [Mildred] became not chic, but more, I’ll say, for lack of a better word, citified. She was more of a city girl, but the country was her roots. She could not stand being in the city, especially after her child was hit by that car. It was over. We’re going back to Virginia.