When replicating real-life figures in a film, the artists charged with creating the likenesses always face a challenge – accurately recreating the visage of the actual person without losing the movie star wearing the makeup beneath layers of prosthetics. Black Mass was no exception to that reality, with star Johnny Depp playing gangster Whitey Bulger, a notable figure in the 1970s and beyond.
“I was with Johnny on a press tour,” said Depp’s longtime makeup artist Joel Harlow. “He wanted to look exactly like Bulger; production was looking for something else.”
Expectedly, filmmakers and producers became nervous that mass audiences would struggle to recognize Depp, an A-list movie star of the last 25 years, if heavy prosthetics were utilized to approximate Bulger’s appearance. Nonetheless, with Depp on board with Harlow’s plan, the two set out to create a 1:1 version. “We went through five different full prosthetic makeup tests,” Harlow explained. “One was a nose and a silicone forehead which encompassed his eyebrows and went two inches past the crown of his head to punch the eyebrows and wig into it.”
Out of two tests that were executed the same day, Harlow and Depp chose the version that they agreed should be attempted for the actual film. “There’s still enough of Johnny in there that the powers-that-be would be happy with it, and enough of Whitey that Johnny would be happy with it,” Harlow revealed. “I started doing it really fast. It started feeling like this is the version we really need to zero in on. I started taking more time. We had a couple of tests after that to hone it in to address some issues and what it needed to be in the film. We decided to proceed with test five.”
At first, Harlow designed the whole makeup which would later be enhanced with skills from hair department head Gloria Casny. Harlow knew from his experience on JJ Abrams’ Star Trek  that he needed to punch the eyebrows for the Bulger character into the silicone forehead appliance, so he called upon the talents of Khanh Trance, a wigmaker, hair puncher, and all-around hair expert. “She’s a workhorse,” Harlow offered. “Each one of those foreheads took about 22 hours to punch. Gloria takes the forehead with a partial wig in the back. She had to style each one of these to match the wig. We applied it every day. Including the test, there were 50 different foreheads.”
Harlow’s final test was enacted less than a week before Depp started shooting Black Mass. After he received the thumbs-up from production, he needed to fabricate the silicone appliances with precision. “We are dealing with 4-5 days,” he said. “Steve Buscaino [makeup lab supervisor] has always run my silicone pieces. We couldn’t afford a single reject. Once Steve ran them, and they were clean, they went to Khanh who punched them.”
In some circles, the concept of the “fake nose” is considered a quick fix to completing virtually any type of character makeup concept. With Johnny Depp, Harlow needed to sculpt and fabricate a very specific nose upon which the entire character’s look depended. “James Bulger has an almost delicate nose,” Harlow stated. “Even though Johnny has an artfully crafted nose, it wasn’t what Bulger’s was.”
Once Harlow got into a rhythm of applying then painting the prosthetics, he was able to complete the makeup in less than two hours. “That Irish light-skinned coloring that we wanted to convey was painted on him,” Harlow explained, as “the punching was done on an unpainted piece. I wanted to be able to match to him without any overlap or buildup of paint.”
To achieve the careful paint scheme on Depp, Harlow utilized Illustrator colors and his own airbrushable rubber mask grease colors. “If you airbrush too much with tattoo colors, it gives you a fragile film,” he said. “There’s minimal tattoo coloring. The lenses were the last thing to go in. Christina Patterson paints a lot of my contact lenses. She did several versions, changing [Depp] from brown to blue. It’s so easy to go too far; the blue can look vampiric. We did several different versions and intensities. [Bulger] did have really blue eyes. We backed it up a bit—very blue, but not quite as blue as the real guy.”
In addition to Depp, Harlow sculpted a full prosthetic makeup for Benedict Cumberbatch who played Billy Bulger, including full cheeks and a chin piece, a makeup applied on a regular basis by artist Richie Alonzo. Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks also wore a prosthetically-oriented makeup. Then, for a scene towards the end of the film when Whitey Bulger is arrested in Santa Monica in 2011, Harlow designed and fashioned a full old-age makeup for Depp with a white beard and mustache. To create the look, Harlow matched reference photos of the actual arrest. The look required a full head of hair, minus balding areas, punched into an appliance, and Harlow shaved Depp’s hair back since Bulger had a buzz cut by that point. After the intense effort to create that final look, camera only caught half of Depp’s face once, glimpsed briefly as an elevator door opened.
Nevertheless, speaking in retrospect, Harlow stated that Black Mass was duly rewarding though it involved substantial pressure to create something iconic with his star that was simultaneously respectful of the appearance of the original character. “You don’t want somebody to look at the makeup and be taken out of the story,” he said. “You want to enhance the story.”
Harlow’s work will next be seen in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond for which he created 54 separate alien races.
For Gloria Casny, she described her key task given the Whitey Bulger character as determining the least amount of hair punching into the forehead appliance that the full makeup would require. “An inch of punching, and the rest was a wig,” she said of the process blending punched hair with additional hair which needed to match the color of the real Bulger’s hair. “The percentage of gray was a process of testing. The hair was too dark; the hairline was too far back. Johnny’s shape of the head was totally different from Whitey’s.”
Casny’s first job on a daily basis was to prep Depp’s real hair. “Slick it back for Joel to start,” she said. “We did it together to get the piece on—cut pieces out of the back and secure the silicone piece onto his hair. I came back and put the wig on and blended it. I was usually sitting and cutting the hair to be blended into the wig. I had two wigs: one had more gray than the other – 1975 and 1985.”
Additionally, Casny was responsible for the hair and wigs for the other cast members. “Most of the men wore extensions, color and lace pieces, and half pieces,” she said of her various hair pieces. “We covered up the gray and thinning hair, and as they aged, took it away. It was all subtle. The whole movie was men. I had three wigs for Sienna Miller through 2011 – she was totally cut out. In the Miami scene, you see her kissing Whitey once.”
Of the project, Casny, whose career began in full creating some 15 daily aliens on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, pointed to her Black Mass star’s involvement in the character as one of the keys to its success. “He’s knows what he wants,” she said. “He was very into having this makeup – he wanted this character.”