The makeup designer details her research of the origin story of one of the most influential rap groups of all time.
If you are not familiar with the rise of the legendary rap members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Hulu’s complex and compelling Wu-Tang: An American Saga is a great place to start. Not only is the acting grounded and the direction strong, but the actors all bear a striking resemblance to the musicians they portray thanks to makeup designer Kaela Dobson.
Even though the dramatization focuses on a crew of men, Dobson had her work cut out for her. Not only was she in charge of laying facial hair and creating looks, but she had to design and create the grills worn by several members of the cast. Covering up tattoos on actors was also a challenge that led to Dobson and her team to think on the fly and make adjustments.
It’s impressive to see how much Dobson and her team were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. When you do a biopic or a story about a real group of people, there are many struggles to get every detail correctly and make sure nothing is missed. The execution of the makeup is done so well that you never have to worry about it taking you out of the story–it only enhances the idea that you are watching these boys become the men they are supposed to be.
Awards Daily TV: What drew you to this series? Was it just the story, or was there something else that got you interested?
Kaela Dobson: When I heard about it, I thought that the idea of doing a 90’s show was really awesome, and when I found out more about the Wu-Tang Clan in general, I knew it would be a really fun, stylized show. I really wanted to be part of it. Watching their doc, Of Mics and Men, and the origin and how they became a group was so interesting. I don’t think a lot of people know about it. I wanted to be able to be a small part of telling their origin stories.
AD: The first two episodes aren’t always about the music. It was surprising to me how much they delve into the lives of these people. Music is always there, yes, but it doesn’t begin to transition to their music until around Episode 3.
KD: It’s crazy, because no one thinks that before they were this huge rap group that they were drug dealers and living in the projects. They weren’t even out there trying to rap yet.
AD: You’ve done a lot of shows with large ensemble casts like Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and The Night Of. Do you think that practice helped you with the prep for Wu-Tang? I feel like this project is deceptively huge.
KD: Coming into this, I admit that I was a bit nervous, because on paper it looked easy. I thought it would be easier because it was all men and there were only two leading women—it won’t be too crazy. From a makeup standpoint, I didn’t think it would be too difficult, but when we started going into the research and all the stuff we needed to prep—like the tattoo cover, and the facial hair, and the grills—it felt like the biggest show that I department-headed. It was scary but we broke it down little by little. We had a great team, so that made it better. It was intimidating, for sure. When we started The Defenders, we had four superheroes, all the villains, all the stunt doubles. Having experience with something like that really helped me with preparing.
AD: Tell me about how much research you had to do.
KD: We had two weeks to prep the show.
AD: Wait—you only had two weeks?
KD: Yeah, we were hired very last minute, so we had interviewed and they ended up hiring me right before filming. I talked with RZA and having him there was great. He lived it, so he knew what everyone was supposed to look like. We had pictures from all of them back in the day to use as references. Even though these characters are famous and there are pictures of them from the 90’s, there are not pictures of them before they were famous. We had to go off of what they had in the offices, and it wasn’t a lot. There were a lot of questions that we needed to answer. Once we got to camera tests, people would tell us if something was off or needed to be adjusted. I remember once RZA had a note about Ghostface’s eyebrows. He was like, ‘Something about his eyebrows needs to be more Ghostface” so I’d go back into those pictures and then I could see how they needed to be more defined. More than anything, having RZA there was the best research I could do.
AD: I can imagine you’d want to take advantage of something who was right there.
KD: For the first couple days, I was asking other people involved, and they had different opinions or it was very vague. I thought, let me just ask RZA. He would give me more details than anyone, and I knew that he was the person that I needed to go to.
AD: I wanted to ask about the grills for Jah Son and ODB, because it never came to mind that a makeup designer would have to recreate those. Was that a new thing for you?
KD: Absolutely. When it comes to teeth, we use what we call a dental appliance. A good example is Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street with those fake looking, veneer teeth. When it’s in the actor’s mouth, it sort of becomes a grey area because it’s in the actor’s mouth. We always do teeth painting and dental appliances and all those things, so instead of them being considered jewelry, they asked us to do it. It made sense. Every day, we are dealing with their faces and their bodies, so we were ready to do it. We were thinking of doing a dental appliance—sort of like a denture—but painted to look like a grill. When I looked into it, it turned out to be more expensive, and, in my opinion, it didn’t look as good as doing a real grill. Randomly enough, my husband is fascinated with grills. He gave me some references when I was trying to figure out the go-to person in New York City, and I ended up coming across Popular Jewelry. When I looked into them, I discovered they designed a grill for Cappadonna when he was a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
AD: It was meant to be!
KD: It was the place to go. I got so lucky. When I figured out what the design should be, I went to them and spoke with a guy named Kevin and he was amazing. He helped me design everything, and he ran all the grills after he brought in the actors to make molds and did fittings. We were down to the wire, because we didn’t have a lot of time. I learned a ton about grills, and now I’m the grillmaster.
AD: When you look at the pictures of T.J. Atoms as ODB, you can see how the grill changes how he holds his face.
KD: T.J. embodied him so much, and people who watch the show tell us how much they like him and how good he is. ODB actually had pretty crooked teeth, so we opted doing a dental appliance to make his teeth more crooked and put a grill on top of that. Because of the time and the amount of shit we had to do, we ended up not doing it. We did alter the grill to give more character to his mouth. It’s more jagged at the bottom, and it gives him a more crooked teeth look without actually giving him crooked teeth. We designed that grill with ODB’s teeth and mouth in mind. They actually say ‘Ason’ in them. You will never see it, because he’s always talking. But the letters A-S-O-N are etched into them.
AD: And that has to help him build his character. We can’t see it, but he knows it’s there.
KD: Yes, he loves them.
AD: I can imagine.
KD: He kept asking if he could take them home.
AD: I saw a really cool picture of you covering up Dave East’s tattoos. What was the reaction when you realized you had to cover him because he’s…covered in tattoos.
KD: The funny thing was production came to me, and they were freaking out after he was cast. They were really nervous and asking what we could to do, and I thought, ‘Let me look him up. It can’t be that bad.’ And then I saw pictures of him (laughs). They were really nervous, and we actually tried a few different methods. We tried a cream makeup that we thought looked a little bit more like skin, and that was what we originally started with—we did about two days of filming. We realized quickly that with the rapping and the heavy winter gear, it wasn’t going to work, because as he started rapping, he was sweating and the makeup wasn’t holding up as good as we needed it to. We were constantly touching him up. We had to be really conscious about not getting any makeup on the clothes. Some of them are vintage, 90’s, borrowed clothes that our designer, Marci [Rodgers], had sourced. So we couldn’t have any of the makeup rubbing off on the clothes, and the makeup was rubbing off on the collar. We had to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way that we could do all this and make it bulletproof, but look good on camera and not look too heavy.
Because Method Man is the ‘pretty one’ of the group anyways, we could get away with having a more flawless look on him anyway, without him looking like a statue. We tried airbrushing, and there was a period of trial and error with different sealers and how to do everything to look good but also stay. It was a two-person makeup, and I could never have done it all by myself.
AD: I could never even tell that he was that covered in tattoos. I didn’t know that until I saw the before and after pictures, and you can’t clock it while you’re watching the episodes. I saw pictures of you working on him before I started the episodes, and I thought you were adding tattoos onto his body and not the opposite.
KD: Thank you! It was a lot of work, and I think it paid off. Dave is a pleasure to work with.
AD: You had to work on a lot of men for the show, but I kept noticing the makeup on the women as well. In Episode 4, Shurrie has some great scenes with her aunt. They’re even playing with makeup in some scenes. Zolee Griggs has such an open, beautiful face, and I was curious about getting to play with more feminine makeup when the show is so driven by masculinity.
KD: It was so refreshing when the ladies were on set because it is such a men-dominated show. They would bring a different energy to the trailer. Zolee and Erika [Alexander] were so wonderful to work with. When we did the camera test with Zolee, I ended up doing a look that was a little more ‘done’ and when RZA saw her he didn’t think she should have been so made up. She’s the woman of the house, she’s taking care of everything, she’s busy with homework. We wanted her to feel soft and youthful so with her face, I wanted to accentuate her strong features without making her feel like she was wearing a lot of makeup. I had to ride that line for a while. When we got to the scene where her aunt gives her the makeover, I thought that we could have a little fun with it. It was cool to keep that same feel of her character, but make her more mature and be more glam. We pulled a lot of inspiration from Salt-N-Pepa, and I think her hair was my biggest inspiration. There were so many ideas that we came up with off the cuff, and I drew a lot of inspiration from that. Her hairstyle was so much fun. I didn’t want her to feel drag-y.
AD: The 90’s weren’t that long ago, but you can identify specifics when you see it. You can see the influences and the hair. It helps with enhancing the time period.
KD: Absolutely. The makeup back then was really natural. They didn’t wear as much as you would think, and when people did, it was a statement. Makeup right now is so influenced from the 90’s and everything is going back to that. It’s almost as if it’s not even that period since it’s so current.