How to Get Away With Making Viola Davis 'Disappear': Ma Rainey's Hair and Makeup Leads Talk Transformation

If you haven't seen the Netflix-produced adaptation of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, you're missing out on a moment in black history - both past and recent. While the title is reminiscent of one of the great blues singers from almost a century ago, what is already considered to be one of the piece's seminal interpretations shows the almost otherworldly talents of some of the greatest actors of their respective generations: Viola Davis, Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman among them - and at the center of it all was Chadwick Boseman, who was electrified on screen in his last performance.
Know Your Worth: Viola Davis is every black woman in Ma Rainey's black bum
While much can and should be said about Boseman's emotional transformation into the talented but tormented trumpeter Levee, Viola Davis' equally dramatic transformation into the real-life Ma Rainey has rightly started a conversation of its own. Davis was determined to embody the blues pioneer. He was gaining weight and wearing padding for the role, a choice she discussed in her August cover story for Vanity Fair and said clearly:
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“She was 300 pounds. In Hollywood that's a lot ... Everyone wants to be pretty, so they'll say, oh, I don't want to be £ 300, can we just ignore that? In my opinion - no. If they say she weighs 300 pounds, you have to be 300 pounds or you won't honor them. "
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, co-star Colman described Domingo Davis's hair and makeup as "sometimes ... grotesque, but it's absolutely beautiful". As her longtime personal makeup artist (and Shondaland veteran) Sergio Lopez-Rivera explains, Davis' own beauty has been masked at the insistence of the actress herself.
"Anyone can tell you that Viola Davis is a dream to work with, and that's the truth," Lopez-Rivera told The Glow Up via email. “As a real character actress, she leaves her vanity at home. She is fully in the process of becoming her character. She is fearless. In fact, it was Viola who sensed my reluctance to take this makeup as far as possible, and she said to me, "Sergio, just think about [Bette Davis] the movie What Happened to Baby Jane?"
As an old movie buff, it was an instruction he could leave behind. But as Lopez-Rivera went on to explain, the makeup design for Ma Rainey was created with several specific goals: "1) To 'make Viola Davis disappear'," he said, noting, "The golden teeth Ma Rainey wore, were absolutely essential to erasing Viola's iconic smile. 2) Convey Ma's efforts to hide her lack of conventional beauty, and 3) Look like it's melting her face, which would hopefully provide the tragic look of a disappearing doll.
"I had to do this makeup 'emotional' and self-applied, which is why Coleman's description is perfect: grotesque and beautiful," he added.
Turning one icon into another naturally involved extensive research, which Lopez-Rivera found in Sandra Lieb's biography Mother of the Blues: A Study by Ma Rainey, another recommendation by Davis.
"I had a lot to learn about the beauty industry during that time and what was and was available for women in color, which was very little," he said. "While the cosmetics industry was thriving, almost no product was suitable for women with color."
Lopez-Rivera, who mimicked Rainey's grease-painted look this century, had ample opportunity and called on Iman, MAC, and Pat McGrath to "change the game" by providing shades suitable for black skin. "All of the products I've used at Viola / Ma are products you might find at Sephora or department stores today, but I played with the application to give the makeup a 'nervous' DIY feel" he explained. His "Star Items"? Black woman Danessa Myrick's Colorfix cream eyeshadow and glaze, which he used to "get the" melting tar quality "of [Ma Rainey's] eye ​​makeup," while Blinc's ultra-thin liquid eyeliner helped him do this , “To create almost microscopic eyebrow hairs around Ma's drawn-in eyebrows. “To create the" doll-like "rosy cheeks and the appearance of hyperpigmentation, he relied on a Broadway and Hollywood staple, a cream colored Ben Nye color wheel.
The real magic, however, was in the application, noted Lopez-Rivera. “I've decided to put my makeup brushes away and just use my fingers. The result is cloudy and melting, which served the character of Ma Rainey wonderfully ... That's why I call this make-up "emotional" because the application contains a tragic element that reflects the efforts that Ma had to make to look and feel to feel respected, ”he explained. "The makeup helps the audience bond with their vulnerability - at least that's my hope."
Working closely with Lopez-Rivera, Matiki Anoff, head of the makeup department (Fences, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Wiz Live!), Faced the monumental task, not just Ma, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and the band, but the entire cast of the production as envisioned by award-winning director George C. Wolfe and costume designer Ann Roth.
"In terms of my research, I felt that our goal was to successfully restore the 1927 Chicago, prioritizing class and race differences, without these factors putting too much strain or overly impressing the fabric of the scenes," explained Anoff in her email to The Glow Up. “The collective visions of [Wolfe and Roth] were more about the emotions of each character, what they were up to and how they held their place on celluloid. They also wanted to create an atmosphere that is full of authenticity, grain, and sweat.
"The biggest factor I would say is that Ma Rainey had to sweat everyone," Anoff said. "George and Ann both wanted everyone to sweat, and that was really the challenge of getting everyone balanced with their sweat levels - with the exception of Dussie, who was mimicking how she was going to improve her life. She really is the only character who doesn't sweat. The establishment owners are sweating because they can't get Ma to behave. The band sweats because they play or fight. [Ma's nephew] New Year's Eve is sweating because he has a stutter, but Ma sweated over them all, ”she added.
Further details to consider? "De-modernizing the talent ... People were cast for their talent, especially the dancers, so we didn't know who was coming in and had to be prepared for anything," Anoff continued, listing piercings and micro-sounding brows, tattoos , Gel and acrylic nails were among the challenges she and key makeup artist Carl Fullerton (co-producer Denzel Washington's personal artist) faced along with a team of 20 makeup artists led by background makeup supervisor Debi Young (Watchmen, Queen Sugar, True Detective).
"You can't make a historical film without these kinds of staff," Anoff said, and later added, "You are nothing without your team, and you are only as good as your team, and my team has come to play, and they played hard. " ... you are phenomenal. We finish each other's sentences and that makes for a great crew behind the scenes. So we achieved everything so successfully and I am eternally grateful to you. "
"Every single person is a main character in a historical play," explained Anoff, noting nuances such as the distinction of the country cast composition, which they described as "much stripped down just because they had no access at the time." "From that of the" city ladies "who should look" more glamorous and fair-skinned ".
The Drama Desk's award-winning head of the hair division, Mia Neal (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Top Five; Broadway's Shuffle Along and A Raisin in the Sun) made similar accolades when she worked with key hair stylist Leah Loukas and an intentionally tiny one Team built around 100 wigs (to maintain styling continuity). "We had country girls who were workers with more structured and processed hair, some of them in role sets," Neal said. "When we see city girls, they're much more sophisticated. You see that in their full aesthetic ... There's a drastic difference in what they've had access to, and you can see that in their hair."
The process, which was incredibly complete in two and a half weeks, involved texturing wigs made from European hair by dipping them with stirring straws before cutting and styling them into a variety of 1920s styles and silhouettes. Others were handmade - including one that required two wigs to be combined to hide a dancer's long dreadlocks. At the same time, barber Tywan Williams (Power, BlacKkKlansman, You Must Have It) did all 400 haircuts for men except the main band itself, often during the cast.
"He stuck with the equipment because it was so specific," explained Neal. "It was important that he be present at the costume set to make sure we could do this person's hair by 1927."
To facilitate Davis' transformation into Ma Rainey, Neal, in collaboration with Ann Roth, relied on materials and techniques that were authentic to both the time and the woman herself.
"We followed the photos and research of her and the descriptions people had given her," said Neal. "This is a woman bigger than life, a strange woman in 1927. There is something about her that will stand out regardless. It is about being authentic with the descriptions we have of Ma Rainey , and Viola did an excellent job making all of these elements around her real. "
These elements included wearing a "show" wig made of horsehair (as Rainey usually wore) as well as a second personal wig made of European hair that better reflects Ma's own richness and shine. "She'll have the furs, the jewelry, the gold teeth, the ring, and a pretty young thing on her arm. And she'll have the waves in her hair, like the white women in the magazines, so that wig with her personality." Stature helps in society, ”remarked Neal.
With the horsehair, however, came a quick learning curve; Neal stated that “through the trial, she found out why Ma Rainey wore a horsehair wig - horsehair has a memory like a synthetic wig. Once you set it up there is no need to reset it and it will keep its shape. Since she was out, she needed a wig that was ready for the show. At the time, not all salons would serve colored people, so this was the best option for Ma. "
Instead of the heavy fat and pomades of the time, Neal relied on hair gels and oils to give Ma's wigs more control on set. What she couldn't have foreseen, however, was that the Etsy-sourced horsehair would arrive covered in dung and lice, resulting in a tedious wig build. "I had to boil it several times to wash that out," she said with a shudder, and added, "It wasn't like human hair either - it was more like a wire brush ... the strands were so thick that only one could fit through the tip at a time so the entire wig was single stranded. "
If these imperceptible details gave immeasurable depth to the 94 minutes of richly rendered cinema that was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, so did the predominantly black hair and makeup department responsible for bringing her vision to life. While Wilson's play is a fiction (not a Rainey biopic as some have mistakenly assumed), some of the very real issues it struggles with are representation and creative control - especially whether black talent on and off the screen is equally valued will. While Anoff and Neal give Roth, Wolfe and producers Washington and Todd Black (along with Dany Wolf and Executive Producer Constanza Romero) the option to run their respective departments, Neal says Netflix "single-handedly changed the game."
"I don't know if they set out to do it, but they did," she said. "The way the movie has always gone, everything has to go through a studio to be approved ... so they have these strict boundaries that are made by people who don't look like us." As a result, these stories are often told with so many filters that we are no longer.
"Netflix really is the first platform that has recognized and respected the fact that we are all artists and gives us the resources we need to create," she continued. "We can tell meaningful stories."
"Netflix shows that people of all colors like black stories as long as it's a good story," Anoff said before adding, "This was a love affair."
In this article
Viola Davis
Ma Rainey

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