In Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman puts in one of his remarkable transformations yet, living so confidently behind his pounds of prosthetics that you forget he’s wearing any at all. While Churchill would be a challenging and rewarding role for the British actor, he wasn’t necessarily the role the actor was born to play—after all, Oldman bore little resemblance to the former Prime Minister, and had turned down the role once before. But it was this lack of resemblance that necessitated the help of a true artist, through whom Oldman could be lost.
For Oldman, there was one individual without whom he wouldn’t have taken on the film at all: makeup wiz Kazuhiro Tsuji. Meeting Tsuji on 2001’s Planet of the Apes for a character he didn’t end up playing, it was Tsuji’s life-like fine art pieces that would cement Oldman’s impression of the makeup designer.
“You needed not only a makeup artist, but an artist as well,” Oldman told Deadline recently, speaking to Tsuji’s qualifications for the job, which involved fitting Oldman in Churchill’s jowls in such a way that would enable his performance without distraction. “Because of those huge, realistic sculptures Kazu does, he looks at bone structure and anatomy. In my mind, Kazuhiro Tsuji was the only makeup artist who could pull it off.”
There was a catch, though—after nearly 20 years spent looking to retire from the film industry in favor of a quieter life as a fine art sculptor, Tsuji had finally done it. To get Darkest Hour made, Oldman would have to lure the makeup designer back to a world he thought he had left in the past.
You retired from film industry work several years ago. What was it about Darkest Hour that drew you back in?
I had left and started to do fine art, and one day, Gary sent me an email. “Okay, there’s a show. I want to work with you, and if you cannot do this, I not going to take this show.” So I replied, “Okay. I need some time to think about it.” Because in my mind, I made up my mind to leave the film industry and make a life in fine art, and if I went back to the film industry, I felt like I was cheating my life.
But I started to realize that the first big inspiration to be a makeup artist was one makeup done by Dick Smith—turning Hal Holbrook into Lincoln. That really inspired me, and that’s why I started this whole thing. I was thinking, “This is the once-in-a-lifetime dream job I was waiting for, my whole career in the film industry, and I never had the opportunity.” I also felt like I could pay back the people who supported me while I was in film industry, so I decided to take this job.
I’m not so interested in monsters and creatures. I’m really interested in human characters, and more realistic character makeup. Sometimes I’m asked to work on that kind of project, and I’ll do my best to offer what I can do. The first time I worked with Guillermo was the first Hellboy. I was part of the design team for that. But my main focus is humans.
Why did del Toro come to you for the creature’s eyes specifically?
For Hellboy, I designed the hairstyle and color scheme for the makeup. I also painted a contact lens for Ron Perlman and made eyes for Abe Sapien. Guillermo really loved the eyes I made, and considered me the best person to make eyes in the industry, so that’s why he came to me to make eyes for that.
Was the prospect of transforming Gary Oldman into Churchill daunting, given fundamental structural differences in their faces?
Yes, I realized how different they are. Sometimes I do a Photoshop design to show the director and producer, “Okay, this is how it would turn out to be.” But I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t want to kill the possibility by showing a two-dimensional drawing. I wanted to do a test first and actually see it in person, because I knew the limitations of this makeup. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t create an exact likeness of Churchill on Gary because their proportions are so different.
I thought the best way to figure it out was actually doing makeup on Gary and figuring out a good balance—what would make everybody happy. Also, Gary is a good age. If I put [prosthetics] on young people, the skin can hold up and move well. But as people get older, the skin gets so soft that if we put the piece on, it doesn’t move with the skin.
So we needed to find out what could be done without covering up the great subtle emotion and expression he does. Because if I put pieces up to his eyes, if he twitched his eyes, it wouldn’t show in the film. I didn’t want to cover that. Figuring out a good balance is the hardest part, I think.
Starting out, did you spend a lot of time examining photos of Oldman and Churchill? What is your way of absorbing a person’s features?
The first step to it was taking Gary’s lifecast, and I took a lot of photograph of him in different expressions. Then, I gathered up images and any film left of Winston Churchill. I started comparing both faces, [evaluating] the differences, and I started to sculpt Churchill’s face onto Gary’s head cast, trying to figure out what could be done.
We were not creating a mask that looks like Churchill. You had to work with Gary’s face, so I couldn’t cover everything up, and had to understand the mechanism of the makeup, and also what would look that best in the film—what was wanted by the director, and by Gary. The first step was doing three different looks—heavy, and medium, and light. A month later, we did two more to decide where to go, and the fifth test, the makeup was good. Basically, that was the final decision.
Churchill was in an accident once in New York—he got hit by a taxi, and he had a big scar on his forehead. We had a piece made for that, too, but we decided not to use it because it wasn’t so important. If I put a piece of makeup on his forehead, it would kind of diffuse his expressions.
You’ve had to innovate with materials you’ve used in the past, as on Men in Black. What materials were used for Oldman’s prosthetics, and was that the case here?
When I was working on Men in Black, that was around the time people were trying to use translucent material for the skin. Before that, the common material was foam latex. With latex, it’s like a sponge. It doesn’t look like a skin—we have to paint it to make it look like skin. Everybody was figuring out, and I was one of them. I figured out how to use breast implant gels, and use that as an appliance to put on skin. That was one kind of innovation I was trying to figuring out. From there, everything started to improve—silicone—and became much easier to work with. Of course, every time I do makeup, I try to do something different and improve what was done before.
Oldman required a new wig every 10 days, and you implemented baby hair for these. How did you go about making them?
Churchill was a ginger when he was young, and as he got older, his hair became almost all white, with a hint of blonde and ginger. Also, his hair wasn’t that thick, and usually when people construct a wig, they put enough hair to cover up the construction underneath. But if they do that, the wig itself becomes too thick.
Churchill had a really thin section and a bald spot on the top of the head, and I wanted to recreate it. I was talking with wig makers, Bob Kretschmer and Diana Choi. We had to use a fine wig, and also we had to make a foundation for the wig—we used a fine lace that had to be invisible.
We got European baby hair, which is really limited and expensive, and also mixed with Angora hair. The difficult part with baby hair is that it’s so hard to match the color because every source is coming from different babies. The amount is so small, so we have to mix them together to match. But making five different wigs, and constantly making it the same, was almost impossible, because it was done by hand, one by one.
We had Lucy Sibbick on set, who was applying makeup with David Malinowski, and adjusting the color and trim, compared to the one she has on set. I design wigs and dress wigs for my design, but I’m not doing the hairdressing every day. But that kind of worked out good, because I could jump in and do something different and more realistic, not considering the [conventional protocol]. That was one of the innovations in this makeup, too, I think.
How long would it take on an average day to apply the Churchill makeup?
It makeup took about 3 hours and 15 minutes, plus or minus. That’s quite a good time, because it’s a complex makeup, and it had to be done really nicely, because we had so many close-ups and nowhere to hide. The wig shows a full hairline, and appliances had to blend into Gary’s skin really well, so he would move right. We knew that there was no way to do post-production touch-up, because we didn’t have enough budget to do that. Application had to be perfect so they wouldn’t have to do anything afterwards. That’s a really difficult makeup.
How many copies of these prosthetics were made?
You would have one model for it, and then every day, you would have to kind of start from scratch. If the piece is used once, it will be trashed. We had probably over 60 sets of facial appliances to apply on Gary.
It seems as though you’ve found an ideal way to work, finding space to continue designing without needing to be on set. Do you plan on continuing to work in Hollywood, given the same arrangement?
I still enjoy doing makeup design, so if there’s a good opportunity, I would like to do it. But my main focus is to keep doing portrait sculptures. I don’t have any intention to go back to the film industry full-time.