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Movie Interviews

The Man Who Helps Johnny Depp Put His Face On

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 11:49 am

When Joel Harlow started his career, he was perfectly happy sleeping on the floor — as long as he was making monsters. He was doing what he always wanted: working as a makeup artist.

Years later, Harlow is no longer using peanut butter for monster touch-ups (yes, that happened). He's worked with actor Johnny Depp on about a dozen films with some rather makeup-heavy characters.

The first time Joel Harlow did Depp's makeup was for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. For that film, released in 2003, Depp played pirate Jack Sparrow. Most recently, the two worked together on The Lone Ranger, for which Harlow headed the makeup department. For this film, Depp plays Tonto, a Native American with white and black face paint and a dead crow perched on his head.

Harlow spoke with Rebecca Sheir, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, about Depp's transformations.


Interview Highlights

On whether Depp has spent more time in the makeup chair than any other actor in Hollywood

"I'd say that's probably pretty accurate. One of the things that I appreciate about Johnny is he doesn't shy away from makeup, even extreme makeup or prosthetic makeup. It's basically a philosophy of whatever it takes to create the character."

On working with Depp

"It's very collaborative. He's very fluent in the art of makeup. He could probably do the job himself; I'm just fortunate enough that he has me doing it. But when we're creating a character, it's very collaborative."

On creating the look for Tonto in The Lone Ranger

"We were filming The Rum Diary in Puerto Rico, and I was pulling images for this carnival sequence. ... One of the images was a copy of this Kirby Sattler painting, I Am Crow, which is basically that [Tonto] look: It's sort of the white war paint with the black stripes. And he pulled that aside and he said, 'Let's hold on to this because this might be a good look for Tonto.' At which time I said, 'You know, do you want to test it? I can start sculpturing nose, prosthetics, whatever we need. Get wigs made, build the bird, and we can put this thing together and take some photos.' And that's ultimately what we did on a weekend. And based on those pictures, that's sort of what re-sparked getting this film made."

On any apprehension in turning Depp into a Native American character

"He has Native American blood in him, you know, and he's an actor. ... Creating a character, I mean, you can't worry about offending people because what we're doing is fantasy. So no, I wasn't worried about offending anybody. I just wanted to deliver, as an artist, the best version of this character, from my end, that I possibly could. And I think we achieved that."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

It's Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE LONE RANGER")

ARMIE HAMMER: (as John Reid) You want me to wear a mask?

JOHNNY DEPP: (as Tonto) The men you seek think you are dead, Kemosabe. Better if you stay that way.

SHEIR: "The Lone Ranger" opened this weekend, featuring a heavily made-up Johnny Depp as Tonto, replete with war paint and a dead crow as a headdress. And when you consider some of Johnny Depp's past film roles, like Edward Scissorhands and Willy Wonka, could it be he's the actor who's logged the most time in a makeup chair in Hollywood?

JOEL HARLOW: I'd say that's probably pretty accurate.

SHEIR: That's makeup artist Joel Harlow, one of Depp's frequent collaborators. They met on the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie.

HARLOW: And I've worked with him on every Pirate film since then.

SHEIR: As well as "Alice in Wonderland"...

HARLOW: "Dark Shadows"...

SHEIR: "The Tourist"...

HARLOW: "The Rum Diary"...

SHEIR: And of course their latest partnership...

HARLOW: "Lone Ranger."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE LONE RANGER")

DEPP: (as Tonto) Justice is what I seek, Kemosabe.

SHEIR: Joel Harlow's worked with plenty of other actors too, but he says a partnership like this one comes from a place of respect.

HARLOW: One of the things that I appreciate about Johnny is he doesn't shy away from makeup, you know, even extreme makeup or prosthetic makeup. It's basically a philosophy of whatever it takes to create the character.

SHEIR: How would you describe the relationship between the makeup artist and the actor? I would imagine things get rather - rather intimate.

HARLOW: Well, I mean, I can only speak about our relationship, but it is. It's very collaborative. He's very fluent in the art of makeup. He could probably do the job himself; I'm just fortunate enough that he has me doing it. But when we're creating a character, it's very collaborative.

SHEIR: Well, as I understand it, Johnny Depp had a definite idea of how he wanted Tonto to look in this new reboot of the "Lone Ranger" franchise. How did you two go about partnering up on achieving that look?

HARLOW: Yeah. That went back to - we were filming "The Rum Diary" in Puerto Rico, and I was pulling images for this carnival sequence. And I had them sitting in the trailer so when he came in, he saw these images sitting out. And one of these images was a copy of this Kirby Sattler painting "I Am Crow," which is basically that look: It's sort of the white, you know, war paint with the black stripes. And he pulled that aside and he said let's hold onto this because this might be a good look for Tonto. At which time I said, well, you know, do you want to test it? I can start sculpturing nose, prosthetics, whatever we need, get wigs made, build the bird, you know, and we can put this thing together and take some photos. And that's ultimately what we did on a weekend. And based on those pictures, that's sort of what re-sparked getting this film made.

SHEIR: Did you have any apprehension, though, about turning what's basically a white guy into a Native American, knowing it was bound to offend someone?

HARLOW: Well, he's not a white guy, though. I mean, he has Native American blood in him, you know. And he's an actor, you know, creating a character. I mean, you can't worry about offending people because what we're doing is fantasy. So, no, I mean, I wasn't worried about offending anybody. I just wanted to deliver, as an artist, the best version of this character, you know, from my end, that I possibly could. And I think we achieved that.

SHEIR: Looking back at your years in Hollywood, you have a long list of accomplishments. Any favorite stories from the biz that stand out in your mind?

HARLOW: You know, I do a little teaching every now and then and one that I kind of tell my students is one of the first films I was working on in Florida, I had sculpted these arms for this preacher that was like, you know, it was like a melting guy. And the arms came up to maybe mid-forearm. Me thinking that, OK, he's going to be wearing a long-sleeved shirt. Turns out he's in a tank top. And these things stop. They don't blend off. You know, it's an incomplete illusion. But fortunately, they were sculpted to look kind of like peanut butter and jelly. So, I ran over to craft service and grabbed, you know, some of the peanut butter and jelly and smeared it on him and, you know, we got the shot. And it ended up working.

SHEIR: Please tell me what movie that was. I want to add it to my Netflix queue.

HARLOW: I don't even think it's out. I don't think it was even released. I was just so excited to be making monsters and creating characters. No matter I was, like, sleeping on a floor in a warehouse in Florida and, you know, it's a thousand degrees. But it's, like, we didn't care. We were making monsters. We're doing what we wanted to do, what we always wanted to do, so.

SHEIR: Living the dream.

HARLOW: Yeah, living the dream. I have a different dream now.

SHEIR: You have a different dream.

HARLOW: Doesn't involve sleeping on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: Joel Harlow is the makeup department head for "The Lone Ranger," which opened this weekend. He's worked with Johnny Depp on about a dozen films over the years, including the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. Joel Harlow, thanks so much.

HARLOW: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.