×

‘Darkest Hour’ Makeup Artist Left Retirement to Turn Gary Oldman Into Winston Churchill

The Oscar buzz surrounding Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill has been deafening since “Darkest Hour” hit the festival circuit last August, and he’s already racked up the lion’s share of this season’s accolades.

But when Oldman first met with producers and director Joe Wright for the Focus Features movie, he was open about his concerns. “I said to them, ‘We’re not talking about the elephant in the room, which is that I don’t look anything like Churchill,’” Oldman recalls. “I don’t know how this is going to be done, but if there’s one man who has even a remote chance of pulling this off, that’s Kazuhiro Tsuji.”

Makeup artist Tsuji had established himself as something of a miracle worker, having transformed Jim Carrey into the Grinch and helped Joseph Gordon-Levitt resemble a young Bruce Willis in “Looper.” There was only one problem: Tsuji had been retired from the business for several years, choosing to focus on his work as a sculptor — primarily oversize, realistic renditions of famous faces such as Abraham Lincoln, artist Frida Kahlo and his mentor, makeup legend Dick Smith.

Oldman and Tsuji had never made a film together, but they came close: They met when Tsuji did a face cast of the actor for Tim Burton’s 2001 “Planet of the Apes”; the role was ultimately played by Tim Roth. Still, Oldman remained a fan of Tsuji’s work as both a makeup artist and a sculptor, and sent the artist a plea via email. “He told me he would do this film if I said yes,” says Tsuji, adding with a laugh, “It wasn’t threatening; it was very nice.”

Nevertheless, Tsuji was hesitant. He had not enjoyed his time in the film business; he notes that after “The Grinch,” he had gone into therapy. “I had made a promise to myself to leave the business, and I felt like I would be going back on that promise,” he admits. “At the same time, I’d never really had the opportunity to work on a great movie with a great actor in a serious story.” Ultimately, he says, “It was kind of a dream project, so I had to do it.”

Asked if he was ever worried he might not be able to turn Oldman into Churchill, Tsuji doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, of course,” he allows. Six months of makeuptesting ensued. “Likeness makeup is almost impossible to pull off because everybody looks different,” Tsuji explains. “If the two people have proportions that are close, it’s easier. But these two are totally different. So I had to figure out the best balance to make him look like Churchill, but not [like he’s] wearing a mask.”

Meticulous detail was paid to the complexion, with Tsuji painting every mark and blotch by hand. The wig was made from hair not just from adults but from babies, to ensure the thin, wispy look. Oldman would ultimately spend four hours daily in the makeup chair, where David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick oversaw the application. Removing the prosthetics took an hour at the end of the day.

The final product is so flawless, Oldman says, that he’s had to convince people it actually is makeup and he didn’t pack on pounds for the part. Tsuji has received his third Academy Award nomination, and Oldman cautions Tsuji that his retirement might not last long: “I’ve already spoken to some people who want to give you a call,” he says.

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Advanced Imaging Society Honors 10 Women

    AIS Honors 10 Women in Tech

    Celebrating 10 years of achievement in entertainment technology, the Advanced Imaging Society today named 10 female industry innovators who will receive the organization’s 2019 Distinguished Leadership Awards at the its 10th annual Entertainment Technology Awards ceremony on October 28 in Beverly Hills. The individuals were selected by an awards committee for being significant “entertainment industry [...]

  • Will Smith Gemini Man Special Effects

    How the 'Gemini Man' VFX Team Digitally Created a Younger Version of Will Smith

    More human than human — yes, that’s a “Blade Runner” reference — yet it sounds like an unattainable standard when it comes to creating believable, photorealistic, digital human characters. But the visual effects team on Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” set its sights on something even more difficult: creating a digital version of young Will Smith [...]

  • Jest to Impress Cartoon Network Virtual

    New In-House VR Program Helps Cartoon Network Artists Add a Virtual Dimension

    Teams of animators and artists from across Cartoon Network’s numerous properties are getting the chance to expand into virtual reality storytelling via the company’s pilot program, Journeys VR. The work of the first three teams — including experiences based on action, nature and comedy — was unveiled to global audiences Oct. 1 on Steam and [...]

  • Frozen 2

    How the 'Frozen II' Artists Created Believable Emotion Through Animation

    “The more believable you can make the character [look], the more people believe how [it’s] feeling,” says Tony Smeed, who, with Becky Bresee, shared the challenge of heading animation on Disney’s highly anticipated “Frozen II.” “Emotion comes from inside and manifests itself into actions and facial expressions. Anything beyond that is movement for the sake [...]

  • Lucy in the Sky BTS

    'Lucy in the Sky' DP Shifts Frame to Show Inner Turmoil of Natalie Portman's Astronaut

    What drew cinematographer Polly Morgan to “Lucy in the Sky” was how Noah Hawley’s script so clearly illuminated the emotional breakdown of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in a way that felt very insular: The visual cues were on the page — and conveyed an unusual approach to charting the character’s journey. “When things fall [...]

  • NICKI LEDERMAN and JOAQUIN PHOENIX Joker

    How Makeup, Hair and Costume Team Gave 'Joker' a New Look for Origin Story

    “We’re not in the superhero world,” says Nicki Ledermann, makeup head on Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which reimagines the iconic comic book villain’s origin in an acclaimed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. “This story is treated as real life, and that’s what made the project so interesting.” In this most recent take on Batman’s nemesis — a [...]

  • Exceptional Minds VFX Autism Training

    VES Honoree Susan Zwerman Trains People on the Autism Spectrum for Film, TV Jobs

    Most of those who have earned the honor of VES Fellow in the past decade have been recognized by the Visual Effects Society for on-screen innovation. But this year’s honoree, Susan Zwerman, is equally distinguished by her off-screen accomplishments. Zwerman is the studio executive producer for Exceptional Minds, a visual effects and animation school for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content