The first time makeup, hair and prosthetics designer Jan Sewell met Rami Malek while prepping for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” she spent a lot of time studying his face. But she was also gauging how far the actor was willing to go to look like Freddie Mercury, the iconic rock star he plays in the Queen biopic from Fox, which opens in theaters Nov. 2.
“Some actors love makeup, and some actors are not so keen. He was totally up for everything, and I loved that,” says Sewell, whose credits include “The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl” and “Tomb Raider.”
One of her first priorities was to commission teeth specialist Chris Lyons of Fangs FX to craft prosthetic teeth resembling those of the late singer. Initially, she instructed Lyons to replicate the size of Mercury’s actual teeth, but they overwhelmed Malek’s face. After some experimenting, they found a scaled-down version that worked. “If we had truly done the teeth the size that Freddie had them, I think it would have been distracting,” Sewell says.
While Malek has a strong jawline like Mercury, “the top half of his face isn’t very Freddie,” Sewell explains. “Rami’s eyes are much bigger than Freddie’s, a little wider apart, and his nose isn’t quite the same shape.”
Sewell also worked with FX pro Mark Coulier to create an artificial nose to enhance Malek’s transformation. “The prosthetic nose actually pulled Rami’s eyes together, and then I put a lot of makeup in the corners of his eyes, which also helped bring his eyes in,” she says.
Each morning it took about two hours to do the makeup, apply the prosthetic nose and fit Malek’s wigs, made by hairpiece specialist Alex Rouse. “Even when the character has the short hair, it was a wig,” Sewell says. “I’m sure everybody thought it was Rami’s own hair, but it was a wig, because he turned up with ‘Mr. Robot’ hair,” she adds, referring to the USA Network series in which Malek continues to star.
“We were thrown in the deep end,” Sewell says of the sink-or-swim shoot, pointing out that Queen’s famous 1985 Live Aid concert performance was the first part of the film to be shot, and she was concerned with how Malek’s fake mustache was going to hold up when he was singing and sweating. “Every time they said cut, I would run in to check it,” she says. “It really expands.”
Thankfully, the mustache — actually, mustaches, because Sewell had “loads of them made, and I would clean and tone them every night,” she says — held up well.
While Sewell used her skills to transform Malek’s appearance, she credits him with selling the performance by finding Mercury’s essence. “You can cover people in prosthetics, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about. You need to find the right actor, and it’s the actor who takes it further. The moment Rami stepped onstage [at the Live Aid re-creation] I just thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s going to carry it; this is going to work. This is so going to work!”