By Vanessa Rose Price | Department Head Hair & Jorjee Douglass | Department Head Make-Up
All Photos: Beth Dubber/Hulu
It was a unique challenge to prep and shoot a project in which the story was unfolding in real time. During preparation for Hulu’s The Dropout, the main characters, Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, were in their pre-trial phases. When make-up artist Jorjee Douglass invited me to collaborate with her, the show was presented to have a very straightforward vibe. As with most jobs, this show grew and expanded. My first instinct regarding Holmes’ hair was to find the proper balance of frizz. I had previously seen HBO’s documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, so I was familiar with her look and the startup of Theranos. I was about to learn what had actually transpired. Hulu’s story begins with a teenage Elizabeth in high school and follows her through her many career transgressions up to her depositions. In order to match characters’ real-life looks while block shooting, I quickly found that I would need a wig topper. I began the whole process by reaching out to Rob Pickens from Wigmaker Associates and asked him to custom-build the perfect piece for Amanda. The essential topper would be utilized until we arrived at a comfortable place with continuity to color her own hair. The greatest challenge I faced during our minimal prep was how to transform Seyfried’s gorgeously dense, healthy hair into the frazzled hasty bun that is Holmes’ signature look, as well as ensure that all the other character recreations had the same realistic sensibility. This journey outside of our comfort zones was a very welcomed learning experience.
Our showrunner, Elizabeth Meriwether, had a vision of simplicity. I felt it important to reinforce the concept that we were doing looks akin to “Julia Roberts’ portrayal of Erin Brockovich, not Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. The sheer size of this limited series demanded a very streamlined process to achieve our many real-life transformations, often working simultaneously alongside make-up. It was also a priority to find the balance between the recognizable faces of our well-known actors with our delicate representational applications. William H. Macy elevated the expectations greatly. He, like most of the actors, had ideas to elevate his look, thus allowing him confidence in appearance. It was very important for these looks to be respectfully representational of the real-life persons they were emulating. With our block shooting time frame in mind, it quickly became evident that personalized bald caps and a wig were needed for Macy. We were able to have another wig customized by Rob Pickens. The wig was styled, adhered in place and maintained daily by myself and Nani Casillas. Collaborating on such an intimate application during a pandemic needed to be precise and required a lot of trust for a group of people that performed beautifully. The work really reflects the teamwork involved.
The telling of a story through hair has always been my favorite thing to do. This story allowed us to depict time and emotion while following a complicated real-life story. The real Elizabeth Holmes is an extremely layered, complicated human being and we did not have any access to her, so it was necessary for us to design her backstory a bit. I imagined that she would have never been bothered to do her hair, or that she wanted to do her hair but didn’t have the knowledge. I felt as though she adopted behaviors that she believed would help her be perceived as a business professional. This included her overall style and her hair as well. I think she followed social cues to appear as though she was putting herself together but actually didn’t really know how to execute her desired appearance. I assumed this is why her bun was never really neat or hair was never really brushed. Elizabeth slept in her office. She slept on the floor or on the couch in a sleeping bag. She couldn’t be bothered to style her hair but she knew that powerful women look put together. She adopted a daily disguise, the black turtleneck, a simple clothing choice stolen from the infamous Steve Jobs, then hastily applied red lipstick and topped with a messy bun. She even changed her voice. She was personally perceived very much like her business, from afar she tried to present a refined exterior but the closer you got, the more you saw the hasty, incomplete attempt to look the part of CEO and act the part of a successful empire.
Amanda Seyfried’s transformation was absolutely impressive to witness. When she revealed her voice transition, it was clear we were going to see something special. Amanda is an excellent collaborator. She really trusted Jorjee and myself. She authorized full reign of her hair to me, allowing me to cut and color as needed. I thinned out her natural hair by cutting channels and disconnected layers. On a daily basis, I would need to create the frizz using a combination of dry shampoo and salt spray. The Sam Villa texture iron became my best friend. We focused the iron on her ends. I tied it all together into the signature bun for her iconic turtleneck look.
One of my favorite hair moments is when we follow Elizabeth Holmes to her dorm at Stanford after she was sexually assaulted at a party. The camera follows behind her showing a disheveled half braid with a couple twigs placed in it. The hair was actually given the opportunity to express the atrocities off screen. It was subtle but what it achieved was very powerful.
I was able to exercise my hair-coloring skills quite a bit on this show. My favorite example was with Sunny Balwani, played by Naveen Andrews. I had him grow out his natural grays, which I would paint over and uncover based on what was needed in the shooting schedule. Something similar was also utilized on Rochelle Gibbons, played by Kate Burton. However, in this case, I lightened and darkened her hair to show passage of time, also exposing and covering her roots with the use of temporary color.
Aside from the obvious challenges of recreating authentic looks, we were faced with the additional issue of intimate applications during a pandemic. This show really required use of all of our skills. acquired through the years. It allowed my team to showcase our abilities which enabled our amazing actors to confidently collaborate with us. It was crucial for me to reinforce that trust works both ways. I am so grateful for the experience and the growth this arduous show provided my team and myself. Opportunities like this don’t present themselves as often as you think which might be good because the amount of energy needed to properly achieve a show of this caliber is absolutely immense. That being said, when do we start the next one?
I couldn’t have done this project without the help of my Local 706 family: Christi Cagle, Alyn Topper, Nani Casillas, Jorjee Douglass, Gillian Whitlock, James Freitas, Robin Glaser, Robert Matthews, Tania Kahale, Sam Wade, Rheanne Garcia, Lauren McKeever, Lesley Poling, Monte Haught, Gina Deangelis, Tiphanie Baum, Cheryl Marks, Ryan Burrell, Lynnae Duley, Aracely Reyes, Natasha Holderman, Pavy Olivarez, Tamar Izakelian, Stephanie Rives, Vanessa Zamora, Brooks Stenstrom, Misa Aikawa, Roz Music, and Cassie Lyons. •
When I first accepted the opportunity to department head Hulu’s new series The Dropout, I was excited for the challenge. I had seen the documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley and was fascinated by this story, especially as it continued to be covered by the podcast (The Dropout) and the media leading up to and during Elizabeth Holmes’ trial.
Make-up plays an unusual and unexpected role in The Dropout, especially when it came to Elizabeth Holmes. Watching the documentary and other interviews, I noticed how inconsistent her make-up was from one appearance to another. Unsurprisingly, make-up did not appear to be Elizabeth’s priority; I couldn’t picture her shopping at Sephora or reading the latest make-up influencer’s advice. It doesn’t seem that make-up was a beauty ritual she enjoyed, but rather, a necessary tool she would use. I imagined that her seemingly sudden interest in beauty make-up was directly related to her need to beguile potential investors and lead her company as an iconic and recognizable character. The more funding Elizabeth could garner, the closer she would get to reaching her goal: a successful CEO with a multi-billion-dollar company. She wore her Steve Jobs-like black uniform, adding a bold red lip with a smokey eye. This look was rarely executed properly, except when done by professionals for various magazine covers (Fortune, Forbes, Inc., etc.).
When it came to the reality of using this look on a day-to-day basis, Elizabeth was determined, but she certainly wasn’t polished. I imagined she would stay up all night working and and wake up with half of her make-up wiped off, haphazardly reapplying more in the morning for a meeting. Amanda Seyfried played her brilliantly and let me make her look like crap sometimes—no easy task. I would give her clumpy mascara on one eye and not on the other as if she slept it off. Then I would make it look like she had grabbed whatever she could find available, from a desk drawer, her car, or her assistant’s make-up bag. She was far from skilled at make-up but she made a diligent effort to stay in this look.
In the show, my main goal was to give Amanda Seyfried a look that was very close to who we thought the real Elizabeth was: a young college student who quickly became a successful CEO and founder of a multi-billion-dollar company. Amanda was open to collaborating and was also very generous to work with. She made it easy to be there for her, to instinctively know what was needed visually, and when to push the manic make-up looks, but also when to let the continuity fail for the sake of the performance. I was a little worried that I was making more work for myself continuity-wise but if you ask any of my coworkers, they would tell you that I choose performance over continuity whenever possible. I like to say continuity shmantinuity! I just don’t believe make-up has to match exactly. Meaning it’s easy to match if using the same color palette and staying within the lines of one’s eyes and lips. I found that I had to chase after and match, and flip flop, back-and-forth on set, with quick setups pit crew style for some very long days!
As for the rest of the cast, some actors wanted to give a nod to the real person and others wanted to dive deep into the physical DNA of their character. In particular, William H. Macy’s portrayal of Richard Fuisz required some heavy lifting. Luckily, we had the amazing Vance Hartwell to deliver a brilliantly executed balding look. We did not have enough time to fit him for a custom bald cap so we had no choice but to use a Krylon Glatzan cap. Vance really worked some magic with a cool technique using Opsite tape so he could do a half cap then airbrushed an unbelievably realistic sun-damaged alcoholic-type skin tone. Alexis Williams filled in for Vance one day and matched it perfectly.
Since the cast of this show was pretty large, creating the best make-up team for the project was a huge priority. Coming back to work after the high anxiety of two years of a pandemic put so much into perspective for me. Let’s make art and have fun while we do it. Let’s surrender to the idea that some days will be long and very, very hard but let’s always have a great time while we do it.
I asked Gillian Whitlock to key with me. I told production that she would need to be titled as a co-department head because taking on jobs these days that now have 2nd units in multiple locations, means you basically need a coordinator/supervisor. We are doing more and expecting more from our key than just keeping a continuity book. In today’s new normal, Gillian and I had to cross-check every move, clear new hires with COVID Compliance, coordinate our location and accounting needs.
Gillian was amazing at taking charge and following through while also working with and caring for our male lead Naveen Andrews, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Our whole team felt like it was the best of! James Freitas took care of Laurie Metcalf, Stephen Fry, Anne Archer, and a million more. Robin Glaser had Elizabeth Marvel, Kate Burton, Michaela Watkins. Cassie Lyons took care of Kirkwood Smith, Michael Ironside, LisaGay Hamilton and Camryn Mi-young Kim. The famous Roz Music day played with us, as well and basically ran 2nd unit with Cassie Lyons for much of our Wall Street Journal content.
Other artists that day played and offered their talents were Misa House, Nicole Hawkyard, Margaux Lancaster, Jacklyn Evens, Ellen Vieira, and Jenni Clark Keys to name a few. These artists are who made this show work. This team of amazing people who instinctively know how to guide each actor toward their goal of making a real person come to life on the TV screen. It’s awesome when you have a great community of humans working on the same goal and having such positive vibes and we definitely achieved that on The Dropout! •