On Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, hair and makeup designers Mia Neal, Sergio Lopez-Rivera and Matiki Anoff worked to transform Viola Davis into the titular Georgia singer known as the “Mother of the Blues,” capturing at the same time the essence of her world, and the racial dynamics of her era.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film finds the indomitable trailblazer at a recording session with her band in 1920s Chicago, clashing in studio—with both her white management, and a pushy young trumpeter named Levee (Chadwick Boseman)—over control of her work.
In educating themselves about the only real person depicted in Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle, hair department head Neal and Davis’s personal makeup artist, Lopez-Rivera, turned to a limited set of period photographs, before digging into Ma Rainey’s psychology, and her experience as a Black artist living through the ’20s.
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While Lopez-Rivera would pursue the heavy, sweaty greasepaint look that Rainey wore like armor, Neal built custom wigs for the character (including one made out of horsehair), also collaborating with makeup department head Matiki Anoff on looks for the members of her band, and an enormous set of background actors.
Below, Neal, Lopez-Rivera and Anoff reflect on the process of bringing their acclaimed musical drama to life, with very little prep time, also touching on artisans outside of their department who played key roles in elevating the film.
DEADLINE: Where did your work on this film start? What kind of research did you look at, to make sure you’d accurately represent both Rainey and her world?
SERGIO LOPEZ-RIVERA: For me, the first thing was trying to find images of Ma Rainey, to see if I could find inspiration. But none of the photographs that are available really spoke to me about how this woman felt about makeup or beauty.
So, one research was, who was this woman? And the other research was the world she lived in. You know, what was going on at the time, in the country? What was her level of freedom, in terms of women’s rights? As an African-American woman, what was available to her? What were the hurdles? All of that socioeconomic [background]. You know, what was her ability? What was her education? What is her psyche?
We’re talking about a Black woman in the 1920s who was gay, so there’s a lot of psychology in there, to provide us with enough material to create something visual.
MIA NEAL: When I got this call, I had two and a half weeks before we started filming. When we looked at the list of how many people were going to be in the background, I knew that I needed to show up with like a hundred wigs, because you just never know what you’ll get in background [casting].
So, in two and a half weeks, I am trying to build the wigs for the principal characters, and also come up with at least a hundred wigs for the background. I relied heavily on [costume designer] Ann Roth and the research that she had, and because I work in theater a lot, I also have a lot of research from the 1920s. The question is, what direction are we going in with this?
Ann has her own research team that she works with, when she’s taking on a project, and they found some information about Ma Rainey—that her performance wig was made out of horsehair. You know, there are only like seven photos that exist in the world of Ma Rainey, and so we thought, anything that you find—that you’ve read, or that you see on those photos—it’s important that you stick to that, and make it as authentic as possible. Ann and I agreed that her performance wig needed to be built out of horsehair, so I sourced some horse mane from Europe, had it flown in. I had no idea what I was getting, and it was covered in manure and lice eggs, because they literally cut it right off of the horse. You know, nothing active, because clearly, this thing had been stored somewhere for God knows how long.
The lace is so small that we used to ventilate with, because horsehair is nothing like human hair. It’s more like the end of a wire brush, so as I would tie individual knots to pull through, the manure would scrape off, the lice eggs, whatever. So, this was the first time that I had to build a wig with gloves on, cover everything in plastic, create a whole safe environment to work in—and because the hairs were so thick, I had to build the entire thing, one strand at a time.
I ended up boiling the wig, just to clean it, but I realized that that also softened the hairs—which was great because I used that later, in setting the wig—and one thing I realized through all of that was that Ma Rainey must’ve worn horsehair wigs because they have memory. Once you bake in that set, it stays. When you’re traveling as a Black woman in the 1920s, you can’t go get serviced in the neighborhood salon. But she had to keep up with the continuity of her show. She had to know that, “This is set, my hair is always done.” And it maintained itself.
So, that was her first wig. Then, the second is her “self” wig, and it’s built on European hair because she achieves those waves, like the women were wearing in the 1920s, that maybe her own kinky hair would not have been able to achieve. She slaps that wig on everyday, and it’s sort of like her fur, like her jewelry. It’s another item that gives her class and stature in society. You know, she has everything that everybody else has. She has access to it, she has money, and she’s worked for it. So, that’s the difference in her two wigs, and the research, and the psychology behind it all.
DEADLINE: From what I understand, Bette Davis’s makeup in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? ended up becoming a reference in crafting Ma’s looks. Tell us a bit about that, Sergio.
LOPEZ-RIVERA: That reference happened in the first or second day of filming, [as] I’m tweaking a bunch of things about her makeup. You feel [hesitant] when you’re painting somebody’s face this way. [But] that’s my idea of what the character would be, considering all of the things that we found out about Ma Rainey—the fact that she was a large woman, considered very unattractive, sweats profusely, especially during performances, all of these things…
The quality of a melting face was always part of my design, in terms of, how do I make this makeup look like she does it herself, as a matter of routine? [But] on day two, Viola was looking in the mirror while I was working and said, “You know what, Sergio? Think of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.”
That reference, I’m shocked to find out that so many people don’t even know what that movie is. [Laughs] It kind of breaks my heart. But when she gave me that note, it just spoke to her fearlessness, as a female in Hollywood. It was really important to her that none of us, including wardrobe, were trying to make her look pretty.
So, when she said that, my makeup was designed already by the freedom of the clown makeup quality, or the melting makeup quality. But she gave that to me, and I felt so free, creatively, which is such a rarity in this business—to know that you are not having to be careful of the vanity of the actor playing this character. It was an incredible moment for me, creatively.
DEADLINE: Can you elaborate on the ways in which you used makeup and other materials to help Davis transform into Ma Rainey?
LOPEZ-RIVERA: One of the first things was getting the gold teeth done for her, and erasing that super-famous smile that she has. Another thing I did that was a little more manipulative was erasing her own eyebrows, only to draw them back a little bit higher than her own eyebrows, at a specific angle that was typical of that era, and also super, pencil thin.
Her eyes are a very shiny black. That’s an old, old technique of rubbing a burnt cork, or a piece of coal, or grinding them into a fine powder, and then mixing them with a teeny, tiny bit of either animal fat or Vaseline to create a black cream. Then, just rubbing it on your eyelids, that was a really quick sort of 1920s [look], if you didn’t have access to the very limited cosmetics that [existed then]—which, of course, were almost never catering to people of color.
All of these things, from my point of view, needed to look like she did it—like she made that, and she wasn’t great at it. Then, you put it on a woman who’s having a really bad day, and is hot as hell, and all of these things are happening. So, I needed her [makeup] to have that jittery quality to it.
DEADLINE: I imagine there’s a real art to dealing with sweaty, greasy makeup on set, and maintaining continuity throughout the shoot. Was that challenging in the case of this film?
MATIKI ANOFF: Well, Sergio completely took care of Viola. Everybody else, pretty much, was our concern. It’s really scripted that Viola sweats, but at the same time, we’re shooting in a room with no air conditioner, with these musicians who are working, and arguing, and fighting, and all that. Everybody had to be sweaty, but not to the extent of Viola’s sweat, so it was a delicate balance to who was sweating more, and in which part of the scene.
LOPEZ-RIVERA: Every time they yelled cut, we had to go in there because of the maintenance. Because if you let it go for one take, and then they roll over to the next take without cutting, then that take is no longer good.
ANOFF: Then, also, [you need] to be mindful of the other departments. If I’m sweating everybody up haphazardly, with Mia’s wigs, we can’t lift the lace, so we have to be protective of that. We have to be protective of the wardrobe, so the sweat wasn’t completely drenching the wardrobe. Some of the sweat is glycerin-based; that can stain it a little bit. So, you have to be really, really careful and just so respectful of everybody else.
DEADLINE: Matiki and Mia, how did you handle the tent performance scene near the opening of the film? Was it challenging to design looks for all of the background actors involved?
ANOFF: Absolutely. Because to be honest, everybody essentially is a principal. You can’t have one aspect of contemporary, from a nail to an eyebrow. You know, a lot of women today are having this microblading, to make their eyebrows thicker. Well, that wasn’t the look of the day. We had up to 600 bg [background actors]. “This girl’s got acrylic nails, but we need the numbers. So, Ann, could they please have gloves in this scene?” Tattoo covering…Everybody’s got a friggin’ tattoo these days. They selected the dancers because of their dancing ability; they’re not selecting them because they don’t have dreadlocks, right? So, these are the things that you have to consider. Colman [Domingo], one of our male principals, had an ear piercing. Of course, the men of 1927 didn’t have that. So, all of these little, fine details that people don’t think about are so essential to the authenticity of a period piece.
NEAL: To speak about Ann Roth, one of the things about the way she does her fittings for the background is, she looks at every single person and has them walk for her, until she feels like she’s found their character. She may change their shoes. Then, she’ll say, “She looks like she just came from the grocery store. Give her a bag.” She just keeps going until she feels like she’s created a real person, for each and every one of the background people. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
LOPEZ-RIVERA: It’s an unbelievable process. It really is. I mean, I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and it still took my breath away. She gave directions to every single one of these people, even though we may, or may never see these people. You just don’t know.
NEAL: So, when that’s happening, you start doing that, as well. You make up a story for each and every last one of these people. So, one of the things with me is, I’m like, “We have to keep in mind, everyone did their own hair.” So, you can’t create scenes where everybody went into the salon. These are hard working, working-class people; we’re talking about Black people in the ’20s. What did they have access to? We’re talking about being in the country or being in Chicago. So, all of these elements have to be incorporated into the choices that we make.
ANOFF: Another factor [is], [with] how many background artists we had working, how many period haircuts did Tywan [Williams] do? Our bg are coming in 2020, so to make the hairstyles, and taking down the makeup, especially [for] that tent scene, and the way Tobias [A. Schliessler, cinematographer] lit that scene…I mean, it was like time travel. When you walked in there, you’re back in time.
LOPEZ-RIVERA: I remember walking that night into that set, before anybody was there. Mark Ricker, the production designer, is an unbelievable genius—and Tobias’s lighting, incredible.
NEAL: One of the things that’s tricky, more for makeup than for hair, is when you’re filming with Black people and white people in the same scene, usually someone is compromised. Like, either Black people look a little ashy, or the whites look washed out. It’s hard to make everyone look beautiful, or real, and Tobias accomplished it on a whole ’nother level, so effortlessly.
LOPEZ-RIVERA: A lot of period pieces are either gritty or overly beautiful, in this honey-colored light. But this movie was like the perfect marriage of those two elements. I’ll just say that our work is nothing without these people. Nothing. It’s worthless. I think Mia was actually a witness to this, but if you saw Ma Rainey’s show makeup under the fluorescent lights of the makeup trailer, you would swear that a three-year-old with a drinking problem did that makeup.
It’s really important to know how your work is going to be photographed, so that you can adjust it, if there’s any adjusting to do—and that show tent, God. I can still feel the goosebumps. I think all of us had a moment where we were like, “Oh my God. We’re doing something really special.” It was one of those rare moments, especially in film, where we felt that we were all doing the same, one thing, and it was a beautiful feeling.
I speak about trying to achieve emotion through makeup, but I think it’s the same with all these different departments. We’re trying to get to that emotional moment.