Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Cr. David Lee / Netflix
Sergio Lopez-Rivera created the make-up for Viola Davis in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Mia Neal provided the wigs and hair style for the film. Both are exceptionally proud of the work they did and how their work contributed to Davis disappearing into this role. They also are impressed with how things are changing for the film industry and the doors this desperately needed change are opening for new ideas and performances. They were also super nice about an certain interviewer’s shoddy Zoom connection.
Awards Daily: What was the experience like working with Viola Davis in creating this look?
Sergio Lopez-Rivera: For me, I’ve worked with Viola for six seasons on How to Get Away with Murder, so we have a really close relationship. She fully trusted me to take on this role. So, in terms of what I needed to do, my challenges were very clear. I needed to make Viola Davis, the person that everyone knows, disappear without using prosthetics. That was a challenge in and of itself. One of the most effective things was giving her the gold teeth. I think seeing Viola’s iconic smile was important. The other thing I needed to do was to get out of my comfort zone and go for a makeup that I can’t even imagine, in any other circumstances the best makeup would be acceptable. I think on day two my design was there, but Viola was sensing my hesitation in taking this makeup as far as it needed to go. I think that we are all trained to handle the vanity of an actor in a certain way, to nudge instead of push, and so Viola sensing that hesitation and looking in the mirror she said to me, ‘Sergio, just think of Betty Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ And I thought that was the most brilliant little push that I needed.
What that told me was this woman is fearless, I can’t take this far enough, there’s no possible mistake that I can make. She is willing to go, she is in all the way. For me, her encouragement to go as far as possible really set me free. Then, the challenges of the makeup itself and making Viola disappear without prosthetics, that was more of a technical thing to make you feel very emotional. I wanted this makeup to fit on her face in an obvious way but also to provide you with some information about her own vulnerability. My goal was this makeup would connect the audience to the vulnerability of Ma Rainey, because she is not going to tell you about her vulnerability. It is something that you have to feel without her doing anything or talking about it in any way.
Mia Neal: This was my first time working with Viola, and it was incredible. We had two wardrobe fittings. The first was in New York with Ann Roth where we just laid out the fabric and George (C. Wolfe) actually came, and it’s unheard of for a director to show up for measurements. But he is that involved, and the beautiful relationship he has with his projects and how much he puts into it that he came just for the sizing. So Ann had invited me to that so I could do head wraps, and what I noticed about Viola immediately was how detailed she was in creating this character, and how every piece that was going on her body had to tell a story. So it was important to have a backstory for every single item that was on her. Ann had done extensive research and found out about Ma Rainey wearing horse hair wigs. Which, of course, I have no horse hair wigs. [All laughing] There was so little information or photos. I think there are only seven photos of her that exist in the world. So any information we found out we found it important that we do it. It’s not like we had a thousand things to sort through and we got to choose. If that was facts we needed to stick to the facts.
We decided that she would have two wigs, one would be her show wig and one her self wig. The show wig had to be made of horsehair because her own wig was made of that and that itself was a challenge. I ordered these manes of hair and when they showed up, I assumed that horse hair was similar to human hair. It is nothing like human hair at all. It is like a wire brush you could use to clean a tub or sink, like it’s made of steel or something. It was also covered in manure and lice eggs when I got it, and you can’t just wash that off because it’s sort of baked on there. So I ended up having to boil the wig like a hundred times. I had to cover myself when I built it. I wore gloves, because I don’t want to contaminate myself and everything around me. So that was interesting. It was also interesting to realize why Ma Rainey must have worn a horse hair wig, because it has memory. Once I boiled it and rolled it and set it and it held that set, so I can imagine being a woman of color in the twenties, traveling. You can’t just walk into any salon and be serviced. So you needed your show ready to go on you, and that’s why she wore the horse hair wig, because it held that shape like a synthetic wig would today.
So her second wig, her self wig, was made of European hair on purpose. It was like her furs, her jewelry, and everything else, I’m going to have what all the other ladies have. It shows her stature, and the level of society that she has reached. It was like, I can’t accomplish this look with my own hair because it is too kinky, but I can have the same wave as the European women have in the magazines. It is Ma Rainey, creating this persona for herself in this life that she didn’t come from originally. So it was important that every single item on Ma had a story, that was the thing we discussed from the first fitting, so we weren’t just trying to randomly duplicate photos or what people did during that time. Every piece of clothing, every piece of jewelry, everything she has on, there is a story behind it and why she chose those things and that is also what I went with with the hair.
AD: Well, it succeeded because when I first saw the trailer, I knew that was Viola Davis but I did not recognize her right away. So personally, I think you guys did a great job.
SLR: Thank you.
MN: You know what is really funny? Sergio is probably, like, don’t tell that story, but the day of the tent scene (Sergio laughs)… First of all, the chemistry was amazing between all of us, we had fun making this movie. Viola was there for the scene and there was Jamika Wilson (hair stylist). Sergio and I would style the wigs and turn them over to Jamika to put the wig on Viola and maintain that look throughout the day. So I would not see the finished product. But this day of the tent scene, we had been building up to this, and this is going to be the first time we are going to see the horse hair wig, and see her in her full performance makeup. So I had gone to background people that day, I turned over the wig, did my people in the trailer and now I am racing over to make certain the background wigs fit. Because (Matiki) Anoff looks at every single background person. She makes them walk for her when she fits them, she adds pieces that way, it is something you never see, someone literally fitting six hundred people and watching each one walk. So it was imperative that I get over to the background and make sure that my people are right before they do their Anoff lineup. Then Sergio comes in and says ‘Mia, I want to show you the picture,’ and I’m, like, ‘Okay, let’s see.’ So he showed me this picture.
SLR: Of Viola’s face.
MN: Right. First of all, it was spectacular and it was one of those faces where we’re either they’re going to get it, or we’re going to get it. I was like, are they going to love it, or should I bring my purse to set?
SLR: What Mia is saying, which is true, is that Ma Rainey’s performance makeup when in person looks grotesque. Actually, at best it looks grotesque, and at worst it looks like a drunk five-year-old did it with finger painting. So we were just joking about how we were going to get fired on this movie today. [Laughing]
MN: We went way too far, and I just hoped that they would see it because this is what we’ve been talking about.
SLR: Then we stepped in to film some of the only tent scene, which ended up being the opening of the movie. This is why it’s so important to have that community between departments because when we saw a Viola or as we saw Ma Rainey in her burgundy gown and the ostrich feather fan on stage everybody’s jaw dropped. We had been filming a few weeks by then but we understood at that moment we were doing something special.
MN: Totally. Every time I think about the tent scene I get chills.
SLR: Me too.
MN: It’s beautiful.
AD: Sergio, in every image and visual I’ve seen Viola always seems to have a gleam on her face like sweat. It really stood out. What was behind that choice and how did you create that look?
SLR: So, that’s a great question. It’s actually one of the very few morsels of information that we have is a matter of fact about Ma Rainey. She was a heavy woman and she was constantly sweating, profusely sweating all the time, but especially when she performed, She was just known for that. As a matter of fact one of her contemporaries in some sort of biography was quoted as saying that “when she sweated through her greasepaint, and then the lights of the theater would hit her skin, she looked like she was golden.” Like she was dipped in gold, and I love that description. So “sweat” was my middle name during this entire shoot. It’s an element that creates this incredible texture, but it can get away from you and because there’s different elements, like there is oil, there is gel, there is water, there’s all these different elements for sweat to last this long. It’s an element that it has to be constantly maintained.
So I used a very old technique we learned in makeup school called stippling with very porous sponges that you dip it very lightly on a glycerin-based gel, then you just tap the point of her face or anywhere else you want any actual physical bead of sweat. The rest was literally just misting with water and playing with the movement. The way she looks when she first shows up in the movie in the hotel and she’s going down the stairs into the lobby, she is as put together as we will see her for the rest of the movie. It all goes downhill from there, because it’s July in Chicago, she is wearing a velvet gown, a fur collar, gloves, a hat, her wig. All of these things—the sweat was absolutely inevitable. I loved actually having to do it because it really helped me in that element of emotionality of the makeup like a tragic jittery blur doll and, without the sweat, it would have been harder to convey that emotion.
AD: Mia, I read there were over a hundred handmade wigs and four hundred haircuts. What went into all of that?
MN: So, Leah Loukas is a wig designer, she does a lot of Broadway stuff, and we have been friends for years and we always help each other out, like, hey, do you have a wig like this? I need this for… So when I got this project we only had two and a half weeks to prepare for it so I needed someone who was very fast at making wigs and also had a nice stock of wigs themselves. So, between the two of us, for the majority of our stock it wasn’t natural African-American textured hair, it was more European hair or straight hair. So first we went through our stock and decided to perm as many of our wigs as we could so we could turn them into kinky hair. Then we started building. Of course the first wig I built was Viola’s wig. Leah built Dussie Mae’s wig.
So, in condensing the story, we showed up two and a half weeks later with about sixty wigs, and it was in the first two weeks of filming where we would go back to this hotel conference room that they had set up for us as our wig studio and we made about forty more wigs there. We came up with some quick ways for building wigs, and ventilated them in areas that people could see. Basically, we just wanted to be prepared because you never know who is going to show up for background. Nowadays even if you have natural hair but you use conditioner everyday your hair is a different texture than what it was during that time. Especially for the tent scene we’re talking about 1920s black laborers, that creates a whole other element for hair. Nobody’s going to the salon so we need to be able to create natural, very kinky hair and I wasn’t guaranteed that people were going to show up with that in the background. Nowadays people have dreadlocks, they have hair dyes, they have relaxers, they have blown their hair out so we just want to make sure that for every single person that came through that we were able to have a wig for them if necessary. So we definitely accomplished that goal.
So as far as the hair cuts go, when Ann was doing her costume fittings, I had a guy there, Tywan Williams, who cut every single person there. He would call and send me photos of every single person there and give me info like okay, this person has dreads on the top, and I’d say, see if they have a hat to hide that and see if the person is willing to cut the sides down, so they have that 1920s bowl cut on the side and we can hide the dreads on the top. So we worked all that through with all the people in there. There were, like, four hundred people that he cut himself. It was intense but we had to have that level of control over the esthetic whether we were going to see them or not. We don’t know, but we need to really sell it.
SLR: I have to say something that Matiki (Anoff), the department head makeup artist, always says, and I loved when she said this, because it’s really hard to explain or to understand it, but when you are shooting a period movie, every single person, every single actor, no matter who it is, number one on the call sheet, or number three hundred seventy five on the call sheet, every single person is a main character. Meaning they require the same amount of care or grooming as a lead actor because that is how you get swallowed up by a period. I just love that thing that Matiki says, it’s a really good point.
MN: It is, everyone is a principal, because they need to sell it and nothing they bring to the table from 2018 or 2019 can be there.
AD: So, not to jinx anything, but there is already a lot of awards buzz for the makeup of this movie. How are you guys mentally preparing for that?
SLR: Okay, very quickly: not at all, not even close. [Laughing]
SLR: Let me just say this, I am from Spain and I have loved movies my whole life, I used to stay up late and watch the Academy Awards when I was little. Movies are responsible for me leaving Spain and moving to Los Angeles and even just Mia and I talking about this as something that might one day happen is enough to blow my mind. It is such an honor that someone recognized at some point that what we were doing was artful. And it is not just us I think there is this communion of departments that happens every once in awhile, like so infrequently—the set designer, the cinematographer, the costume designer, the wigs, the makeup—everybody’s work comes together telling you the exact same story, everybody’s work is speaking from the same viewpoint. That happens so infrequently, when it does happen it elevates everybody’s work. So I just think it’s so fun to talk to you about even the remote possibility of this happening. We are so proud of what we did.
MN: I agree with that 100%. I think when we were making the film it felt so magical everyday. To hear that people are looking at it like that, I just feel like the magic we were trying to make is transcending out to the audience, and that feels amazing. So, like, I did not make that up in my head, not just what I’m creating but what I’m experiencing. When we were in that fitting with Viola turning into Ma Rainey, with the clothing she started walking and talking differently. I had never seen an actor literally change in front of my eyes like that. She kept walking until she got the walk, even the way she sat she started sitting legs open, and I was kind of freaked. At one point I said to Sergio, because when we were filming she was so good in the beginning, and I said to him, “You may want to call that show you all are doing after this, and let them know she’s going to need a minute to get out of this.” She’s supposed to leave here on Friday and film How to Get Away with Murder on Wednesday.
SLR: My gosh, and that’s what we had to do. I believe that’s exactly what we had to do. We left on Friday and we were back in LA on Monday being Annalise Keating again.
MN: Like I said, you need to tell them that she is not coming back!
SLR: Let me tell you something to look out for when you are watching the movie. In the middle of the drama there’s a very quiet scene between Viola and Colman Domingo, who plays Cutler, and it is almost a whisper conversation. It’s the moment that you realize that Ma is just this other human being that she doesn’t want everyone else to see. She drops down her guard and speaks to a close friend in absolute confidence, speaking from her heart. I’m telling you I’ve seen this movie three times, including last night, and I play a game in my head looking at this scene looking at this actress. She is a friend of mine at this point, I know her so well, and I know all her movements and mannerisms, and I’m looking at Viola being Ma Rainey in that scene and I cannot find her, I cannot find Viola Davis, in those two scenes specifically. I’m looking for, oh, yeah, her smile I recognize, or the things she does with her hand that I recognize. None of it is there, she was gone, and for me it was really powerful to see that we all contributed to her disappearance.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave us with?
MN: I think I will say one thing, and I’ve been saying this a lot, and I was actually saying it before I worked on this project. A big thumbs up to Netflix, and I don’t know if Netflix realizes it but they kind of single-handedly changed the game. What I mean by that is, there was a formula for making films, the studio has to approve things and a lot of the content that we received throughout the years in film has been filtered through so many people that a lot of times the story gets lost. Because people don’t want to take chances, and there is a lot of money on the line. The thing about Netflix is the content is prepaid, so the thing about being prepaid is that their challenge is to get great content, their challenge is not if people are going to go to the theaters and pay for that content.
Since people have already paid for it, what I’m experiencing now as a viewer is that I am able to watch stories being told that I know have not been filtered through. I’m watching global content I never had access to before, and they are giving people proper budgets to make these things. That changes the game, not just for people of color but just for artists. Other networks and studios are scrambling to keep up with it. Everything that resisted evolution is extinct now. That is the reality. Netflix came in and booted out Blockbuster and now we’re watching these other networks have to redesign what they are doing to keep up with what is happening now. I have friends now that only have Netflix and they’ve canceled cable.
SLR: That is what we did.
MN: I don’t think we would be watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the form it is right now if Netflix didn’t exist.
SLR: I agree with that, you are totally right. I don’t think this movie would have had the opportunity or this story wouldn’t have had the opportunity or the platform, or the exposure, or have been celebrated as it is.
MN: It had the exposure and now you wonder what else is Netflix going to put out there. And what are other networks going to have to come up with now to match what Netflix is doing. It changed the game for everybody.
SLR: To be able to celebrate a part of our history that was so painful for some people and to be able to expose that to millions of people around the world it’s almost like being in a history class. I think we all, everybody, the entire world, will be better by learning about culture and the differences that make us all unique, where we come from. I think they are doing an amazing job.
MN: My African friends are getting content and I am blown away, I really am. I am so appreciative not just as a person working in film but as a person who loves watching film.