Turning Julia Roberts into 1970s political wife Martha Mitchell for Starz series “Gaslit” called for a light touch from the hairstyling, makeup and effects team — unlike the heavy prosthetics and bald cap sported by co-star Sean Penn.
In the eight-part series, which comes to an end June 5, Penn is unrecognizable as Attorney General John Mitchell, while Roberts’ portrayal of his then-wife Martha, who would become a key player in bringing the Watergate scandal to light, relies on a combination of subtle touches.
For Oscar-winning special effects makeup artist Kazu Hiro, it was all about working with Penn to see what could and could not be done. Penn did not want to shave his head, so Hiro had a starting point knowing that would need to be covered. But Hiro had to find a balance so Penn could still have freedom in his performance. The transformation took about two and a half hours each day, longer than Roberts’ makeup for Martha Mitchell.
“We made a bodysuit because John Mitchell was much heavier,” explains Hiro, who also worked on Gary Oldman’s transformation into Winston Churchhill in “Darkest Hour.” His challenge was also in matching Penn’s skin tone to Mitchell’s. “The tricky part was his skin tone. Sean was darker, complexion-wise, and when I use silicone, I try not to paint so much, but his forehead was dark, so I had to cover that up.”
In one sequence, Hiro was tasked with de-aging Penn. “We brought in more hair and added that. We also painted him with a younger face without the age spots,” Hiro says.
But Penn’s transformation didn’t just need a bodysuit and bald cap, Hiro created a top of the head piece, cheek-pieces, and nose pieces of platinum silicone. “We put in the upper lip and chin piece. He had a neckpiece as well as a shoulder piece. That was so his posture would change.”
Hiro notes that one aspect of Penn’s shocking transformation that helped shift the actor’s appearance was his eyebrows. “Sean has interesting eyebrows, the tail part is trimmed, so I put a small piece to bring his brow down, and that changed everything,” says Hiro. That small addition distinguished Penn the actor from Mitchell. “By bringing the brow down and adding that element really changed the makeup,” he says.
When it came to Roberts, it was all about hair.
Martha Mitchell was a wealthy socialite, renowned for her big hairdos, but Roberts didn’t want to wear a lace front wig — one that has hairs individually hand-tied into a thin, nearly invisible material at the front of the hairline — so the actor’s head hairstylist Terrie Velazquez Owen worked with four wigs to help tell Martha’s story. “The front of her hair is [Roberts’], but when we’re getting those high bouffant hairstyles and updos, sometimes there’s like two pieces incorporated into three-quarter wigs,” Owen says.
Despite her wealth, Mitchell was a woman who did her own hair. “She was very outlandish with her hairstyles,” says Owen. The biggest help in creating the numerous looks was Mitchell’s appearance on Dinah Shore’s talk show: “She brought all her own wigs and she did a tutorial” on the show.
Owen used rollers from the 1950s to get the big curls she needed, as well as several brands of hairspray “that would depend on how strong I needed it to be,” she says. Her secret weapon: Oribe’s Swept Up Volume Powder Spray. “You spray that in at the base of any teasing or curls and it lasts all day,” Owens explains.
Getting Martha’s color right was also key. “She had varying shades of reddish-blonde, depending on which picture you looked at, because it was different in the early ’70s to what it was in the late ’60s,” Owen says.
Once Roberts’ hair was done, makeup artist Jean Black stepped in. “I knew she was wearing a bodysuit, so, I just wanted to help create something that would give her face a little bit more fullness,” says Black, who relied on contouring her cheeks and capturing silhouettes.
Completing the look was special effects makeup designer Yoichi Art Sakamoto, who created a dental prosthetic for Roberts. “That helped round her face out more,” says Owen, “because Julia has a more angular face compared to Martha.”
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