Make-up designer Joel Harlow has worked with Johnny Depp on at least 10 films, creating such characters as the irreverent pirate Jack Sparrow in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, as the young and aged Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and as the colorful Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. But the transformation of Depp into mobster Whitey Bulger in Warner Bros.’ weekend opener Black Mass shows the excellence of Harlow’s craft that is sure to have audiences doing a double take.
In a keen and detailed collaboration, Depp and Harlow (and his team) have created a Boston mafia boss whose psychopathy eminates from unflinching piercing blue eyes, stained teeth and eerie smile with an Irish complexion that gives little hint of the actor.
“Typically when we start a project, especially when we start an extreme transformation, we talk about what elements make-up wise we want to bring to the character,” said Harlow. “Initially, he wanted to look exactly like (James) ‘Whitey’ Bulger. So we did five different tests.” They started with full prosthetics and then began scaling back little by little. “We got to where we both felt it was the perfect combination of ‘Whitey’ Bulger and Johnny.” It was Depp who thought about changing the eye color and to the hue that it became. “There is something in the eyes that speaks of a darkness and that’s what we were trying to achieve.”
It was down to the wire — five days before principal photography was to begin — before Depp decided he was actually going to do the film. Why? Because he wanted to become Bulger in the way he envisioned. “Johnny is very much an advocate of make-up and finding the character in any way he can whether it is costume, props or make-up,” said Harlow. “He saw a ‘Whitey’ Bulger in his head and he wanted to do it in that way. We didn’t finalize the look until five days before principal photography. We did a test with this look and it worked.”
But achieving the look of the boss of the sociopathic Winter Hill Gang took time — 22 hours to be exact. Every hair on his Irish head — and that includes eyebrows — had to be plugged one at a time and by hand.
“The movie hinged on the make-up being believable. When you zoom in close, you don’t want to see lace, so we punched the hair into the silicone so it looked like it was coming out of the skin. He’s got a prosthetic that goes from his cheeks and the bottom of his nose to the middle of his head. His eyebrows were covered so they are false eyebrows,” said Harlow. “Each hair was individually punched into the prosthetic each time before it was put on. There were about 45 forehead pieces that needed to be done … and each took 22 hours to do.”
Who took the painstaking time to do this? Make-up effects hair artist Khanh Trance who used human hair and punched through every … single … strand. “Khanh was a workhorse and this would not have happened without her,” said Harlow.
Every day Depp worked, the team needed a new prosthetic and because it took so long to do each piece, they found themselves only two or three prosthetics ahead of the shooting schedule.
Harlow gave credit to so many people in their department that we couldn’t keep up with the names, but the head of the hair department, Gloria Pasqua Casny, cut the pieces and styled them, Harlow applied the prosthetics and Ken Niederbaumer was the key make-up artist. Lab supervisor and make-up artist Steve Buscaino was running all the prosthetics.
Together, the team, led by Harlow and Niederbaumer, were able to make up Depp in about two hours, but it didn’t stop there. Co-star Benedict Cumberbatch was also in prosthetics in every single frame of the film as they had to puff out his cheeks to make him appear heavier. His make-up took about the same amount of time as Depp’s did — two hours. Richie Alonzo did Cumberbatch’s make-up.
“It’s like with every film I do, you’re only as good as the people you have around you because nobody could do this work themselves. If I didn’t have the artistry and skill of the make-up and hair team that we had, we wouldn’t have come close to achieving the look that we were were able to. We were very pleased with the outcome.”