By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterTake a moment to think of Winston Churchill. The image now in your mind may not resemble Gary Oldman, yet the British actor convincingly portrays the iconic prime minister in the movie “Darkest Hour.” Oldman has said he wouldn’t have done the movie without the help of brilliant Japanese makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji.
Tsuji recently spoke with The Japan News about his work, which has earned him an Academy Award nomination for best hair and makeup. The Oscar nod is one of six for “Darkest Hour,” including a best actor nomination for Oldman.
The movie, opening in Japan on March 30 with the title “Winston Churchill: Hitler kara Sekai o Sukutta Otoko” (Winston Churchill: The man who saved the world from Hitler), portrays Churchill’s tumultuous debut at the helm of the British government in 1940.
The makeup was a challenge. Churchill’s eyes were more widely spaced than Oldman’s, his head was rounder, and his hair was very thin and fine.
“Even if one thing is missing, it will reduce the likeness,” Tsuji said. “But there is a limitation to what I can do on Gary’s face. What I mean is, I cannot just keep piling up stuff on his face; that will make it look like a mask ... The acting has to show through, and his movements have to show through, and everything like the twitching of the eyes has to be filmed. It’s subtle acting.”
He clearly succeeded. On Feb. 18, Tsuji and Oldman each won British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for their “Darkest Hour” work.
Tsuji brought strong credentials to the project. He already had one BAFTA to his name for turning Jim Carrey into the furry green title character of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000). He also had Oscar nominations for “Click” (2006), an Adam Sandler film in which a family ages through several decades, and “Norbit” (2007), in which Eddie Murphy played multiple characters.
Tsuji’s makeup career began when, as a teenager living in Kyoto, he was impressed by the way makeup artist Dick Smith — best known for “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist” — turned actor Hal Holbrook into Abraham Lincoln for a 1980s TV miniseries. Tsuji wrote a letter to Smith, who wrote back and became his mentor. He even got Tsuji a job when Smith came to Japan to work on the 1989 horror film “Sweet Home.”
Tsuji eventually moved to the United States, racking up Hollywood credits on films including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Looper,” and Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes.”
Yet the film industry was not to Tsuji’s liking. “I felt like I was wasting my time,” he said. He quit Hollywood several years ago for a more fulfilling life as an independent artist, making hyperrealistic busts of artists such as Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo.
Tsuji said he began to think about returning to the movie business when Oldman said he wouldn’t do “Darkest Hour” unless Tsuji was in charge of the makeup.
It is often joked that all babies look like Winston Churchill. So it is appropriate that part of Tsuji’s makeup design was a wig made of European baby hair mixed with angora on a base of fine English lace.
No border between wig and forehead — which Tsuji left unscarred to give Oldman a greater range of expression — can be seen in the film.
“If the wig is made by a bad wigmaker, they tend to make the hairline so clear ... like someone has a carpet on their head. You don’t want that,” Tsuji said.
“Churchill was really a lively person, very active even at his age and even with his body weight. Gary really wanted to express that,” Tsuji said. This meant getting the jowly portion of his face just right, so his neck stretches, wrinkles and twists in a natural way as the actor looks around.
“If there are [possible facial] expressions from zero to 100, if I sculpt zero, it’s hard [for the actor] to go to 100. And if I sculpt 100, it’s hard to go to zero. So I have to find a good middle point to put on the face, or it won’t move naturally,” Tsuji said.
Such movements have become more natural since makeup appliances shifted from latex to silicone, a move Tsuji pioneered earlier in his career while working with makeup legend Rick Baker on “Men in Black.”
Tsuji’s work didn’t stop at the chin. He also crafted a fat suit to give Oldman a Churchillian physique.
The makeup he designed was applied on set each day by David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick, who share the Oscar nomination with him.
In Tokyo recently, Tsuji showed his techniques to students at Amazing School JUR, an institute for aspiring makeup artists. Working on a model, Tsuji turned one half of the man’s face into a vision of his elderly future self. He applied new silicone skin, sprayed on different colors with numerous passes of an airbrush, and painted veins and age spots with a brush. He even popped in a large contact lens to give the model an older-looking eye.
So delicate was Tsuji’s touch, no line could be seen between the wrinkled “old” side of the model’s face and his real-life younger side.
Tsuji spent about five hours on the project but told students that they should finish “within two hours-plus” at a shooting site. “When you do a test makeup, you should take notes on how much time you spend in each stage,” he said. “If you keep records, you can answer about how much you need to fix it when something happens.”