The Making of an Empire

by Daniel Curet | Journeyman Hair Stylist

I’m here with the fantastic make-up and hair team from Empire, make-up artist Beverly Jo Pryor and hair stylist Melissa (Missy) Forney, currently in Los Angeles working on Inner City, a film with Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell and many others. These two gals have been working together so long (on films like Hidden Figures and Selma) that they practically finish each other’s sentences throughout our interview.

OK … pretend I’ve been living under a rock for the past few years and never heard of Empire. Tell me, from a make-up and hair point of view, what is the show about?

Missy: It’s about a family that started out with Cookie and Lucious Lyon getting together, having kids, selling drugs and turning the business into a hip-hop Empire, a recording label that eventually ends up representing all types of singers and any type of music.

Which means that you both get to create a lot of different looks on a lot of different characters.

Bev Jo: Yes and along with that comes all the scandals that take us through all the stages of flashbacks from their childhood love affair to when the children were little and Cookie had to serve 17 years in jail for selling drugs and now she is out and back to claim her place in the company and with all of the people in the music scene around them.

Well, that must be a hair and make-up challenge making them look that young?

Bev Jo: You know, we have young actors playing them when necessary. Taraji looks so young, however, sometimes it was a make-up and hair challenge time-wise for us to bring Cookie in-and-out of those flashbacks and into a current-day look on a tight schedule. I usually try to keep the make-up changes minimal to lips and eyes depending on what she is wearing. It is a team effort. It is very important that everyone, including the background actors, look the part. The show runner, Sanaa Hamri, is very hands-on and has to approve everything. We all work together. Without the team, none of this stuff could work. We have so many principal actors to take care of.

Is Cookie the creation of the make-up, hair and costumes?

Missy: On the pilot, we did a flashback using a Mary J. Blige blonde bob wig, then switched her to a ponytail. We might have changed her four times in a day. That is what Cookie is all about. I only use wigs for her now. I have 3-4 wigs prepped and ready to go at all times. And now that we have scenes with a teen named Laritha (Cookie’s real name) and her family members, we have even more wigs to prep. A wig application usually takes me 15-20 minutes.

Bev Jo: The costume designer usually shows us in advance what he has in mind and along with Taraji’s input, we co-created this character that has now become a trending icon featured in magazines and department store collections.

What has been your favorite Cookie look?

Missy: I like all of Cookie’s hair looks but the one I really like right now is a long straight wig parted in the middle that she works the heck out of. We have nicknames for the wigs. The costume designer will now request them by names like the Marilyn Monroe or the Cher.

Terrence Howard, Taraji-P. Henson, Trai-Byers, Bryshere Gray and-Jussie Smollet

How is Terrence to work with?

Missy: Terrence is great. I did King of the World and The Best Man Holiday with him when we were in our 20s. He’s an amazing and interesting guy. He does the role. He plays that Lucious role. Terrence likes to wear an old school ‘conched’ look and sometimes changes his mind in a heartbeat and it won’t match continuity, but we always make it work and they write certain things into the scripts to make it work. We even used conditioner in a scene to make it look like he was relaxing his hair. He would say, “I still like my perm.” He would decide he wants to cut his hair short and we would have no choice but to pull a wig out or he would want cornrows for a scene or this other wig with a little (what I called a doo-doo bug) ponytail in the back. I took a lace Afro-wig and relaxed it to create that one. No one knew he was wearing a wig!

Bev Jo: He loves us and we just know how to work with him. I’ve worked with him before though not quite as long as Missy has. Sometimes he won’t want to wear any make-up and I would say, “well, OK, go on then with your bad self!” and Missy will say,  “Terrence, your eyes are looking a little puffy … don’t be like that” and he’ll come back and say, “BJ give me the patches … and make me camera-ready.” He’s a big teddy bear. They’re all like my kids. I’m their Mama BJ. I just love them. I have known most of them for a very long time and the ones I just met I feel like I’ve known for a long time as well. We work 18-20 hours a day. We go in with all our energy and we are ready to work. I’m so humbled and grateful to be able to make a living doing something I love. I raised my kids doing two or three jobs at any given time.

Taraji has taken you both on a few movies, tell me about her?

Missy: We met her during hurricane Katrina. She played Forest Whitaker’s wife on a basketball movie. Then Bev Jo did Think Like a Man and I did the sequel, Think Like a Man Too, so she knew us when we came to Empire.

Bev Jo: I did a few other films before with her as well. I started the show taking care of her and now I have one of my keys dedicated to her so I can run the department and concentrate on Terrence.

So you guys have known each other a long time…

Missy and Bev Jo: Mmmhhhmmm!!!

Missy: I met BJ years ago on a movie called Beautiful, which got me into Local 706. All of a sudden, we ended up working on a lot of stuff together but this is the first project we have been together as a team. It’s been so amazing and calming to have her.

Bev Jo: We make a good team! She calms me too … It’s a great balance. (They both giggle.)

How did you get in the union?

Bev Jo: It took me 10 years to get in the union. I was the commercial queen in Chicago. I did all the Burrell advertising, Amtrak, Michael Jordan, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s ads. I also worked for the airlines. I would go back-and-forth to LA. I tried to get on with different agencies like Cloutier and my résumé just wasn’t good enough for them at the time. One thing led to another. I kept working on commercial after commercial. I finally had enough days that qualified me for the 60/60/60 days over a three-year period of time. One day I got a letter from Contract Services and Local 706 congratulating me. I was so excited, I screamed. Ten years was a long haul and I made it! Cindy Reese gave me my first break to the film world which is how I got Mo’ Money. Now Missy and I are both represented by Susan Wright at the Criterion Group Agency.

You gals recently got nominated for our Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild Award and also won the Hollywood Beauty Award.

Bev Jo: Oh, we had so much fun! It was really great.

Missy: It was really special. Octavia Spencer gave me my award. How great is that? I was so emotional. I cried through my speech. Sterfon Demings was there and helped me get through it. I thanked God and wished my father could have been there, may he rest in peace. My mother also couldn’t attend because she has dementia. Bev Jo’s mom had dementia and that is something else we share. I was so overwhelmed because you just never know. I’m a girl that started in Texas doing hair in the kitchen. My older sister Pamela Thompson was an instructor at beauty school and said, “You need to go to beauty school.” She was my instructor and she was tough on me. One day, this woman came into the salon and no one wanted to do her and I took care of her. She turned out to be a producer that hired me to do a miniseries. I thought I knew what I was doing when I went in there. I didn’t know. I had to learn everything like the right way to put on an Indian stunt wig that better not fall off. I got so much help from people like Joani Yarbrough, Kelly Nelson, Bridget Cook, Medusah (who also helped me get in Local 706), Pierce Austin, Camille Friend, Sterfon Demings and JoAnn Stafford-Chaney. I could go on and on. I’ve learned so much from these people and I’ve taken it to where I am now.

Are you guys going to submit for an Emmy? Which episode?

Bev Jo: Heck yeah!

Missy: Yes, we are! It is an episode titled “The Unkindest Cut” (Episode 8). We called it Black Magic! There was a lot of work put into it. It had tons and tons of principal actors, dancers, models and background actors that all had to be created from scratch. We don’t have a lot of additional hair stylists or hair and make-up swing stylists working with us. We only have our keys, my barber and a swing stylist. Sometimes I’m at video village creating and dealing with wigs while watching the monitors. (Editor’s note: Chicago’s contract allows for “swing” artists and barbers; Local 706’s does not.)

Bev Jo: We created so many looks! We had a group of models we had to make look like mannequins without eyebrows or lashes and a pale lip color to make them all look the same. We had another group of dancers that had to look very ethnic and colorful. Glitter was used everywhere. We shopped at African stores for decorative supplies. It was fun and hectic, you have to see it! We made it happen! I like to create on the spot. I want to give a shout-out to our team; for make-up, my keys Eric Pagdin and Ashunta Sheriff; for hair, Missy’s key Theresa Fleming, her barbers, Nolan and Al Payne; and our swing make-up and hair gals, Denise Wynbrandt and Selena Miller. From day one, we hit the ground running!

So … give me some of your make-up tips?

Bev Jo: My most favorite make-ups are natural beauty (that doesn’t look like a lot of make-up has been used) and period make-ups. Making people naturally beautiful is one of the hardest things to achieve. I always like to talk to the actors and make them feel like they are part of the process. We have to boost up their egos and make them feel happy. That is part of our jobs. We have a lot of people to please (directors and producers). It is the way we talk and interact with them. We make them feel beautiful so that when they walk out of the trailer, they are feeling great and ready to work. I usually start out matching the skin tone by blending 2-3 bases because everyone’s undertones are different. I do all the additional corrective applications and contour sparingly following the bone structure usually using a cream contour, then layer a cream color blush, then set everything with a translucent powder. I’ll finish with a powder contour and color blush in the same color family just to bump it up. For the eyes, after all the corrective work is done and set with powder, I prefer to use powder shadows in light and dark color tones to highlight and contour eyes’ natural shape followed by a “smudged: eyeliner pencil, individual lashes as needed and mascara to complete.”

Missy: The way BJ does a make-up, she can “beat” a face down! I’ll look over and sigh, wow B! She has taught me so much stuff (and I’m not a make-up artist). I’ve learned so much from this woman.

What was the most outstanding hair?

Missy: I made a dreaded wig and a braided wig for two of the dancers and of course, there were a lot of Afros. Nessa is wearing a long curled and styled wig. Hakeem is also wearing a little wiglet I had to make to match. At the season break, he had cut his hair short for another film and we had to start the season in continuity.

What was one of your favorite make-ups?

Bev Jo: I love the boo-boo kitty look on Anika.

Why should your peers vote for “The Unkindest Cut”?

Missy: CREATIVITY! We pulled a lot of things outta our ___s! To me, this is where we show our skills.

Bev Jo: We gave them variety. We had fun and it looks amazing! This is why I love Empire. It gives us the opportunity at times to showcase our creativity—nominations, awards or not!

Give me a shameless product-line plug?

Bev Jo: I use anything and everything of course, a shout-out to MAC, Make Up For Ever, L’Oreal and Ardell lashes but I like no-name brands I find in stores and online too because I’m into things that work for what I need. I like at least something out of every line. It doesn’t have to be a big-brand name. There are things in my kit I’ve had for years like YSL glitter, William Tuttle and Shinto palettes that still work. I don’t need a whole lot, I can create out of a little box. I give my thanks to everyone that makes whatever I can use. I’m always learning, I’m always asking people and sharing tricks but when in doubt, I go back to what I know. I like to incorporate what I learn from peers. I’m always seeking. I’m also always in tune to each actor’s needs individually. I like to see what they bring in their little bags.

Missy: I use Oribe, Kenra, ORS, Alterna Caviar, Miracle 7, SheaMoisture (which the boys love on their hair). As for tools, I love Vodana irons and T3. I test a lot of irons. I stay up on my education. I go to hair shows and take classes.

Do you prefer using an oven or electric irons?

Missy: I grew up using Marcel irons on the stove in the kitchen with the fire. I now use electric irons, which are less intimidating to the actors, but sometimes you just need that oven on all types of hair, not just African-American hair. You just need to know how to control the heat.

Do you have a can of Sterno in your kit in case of a power outage like they teach us?

Missy: Yes I do! I also have butane irons, which fell out of favor and are now coming back. I have a few things in my kit like foam rollers and Lottabody in case you gotta roll that hair up and sit ’em in the sun.

Any challenges with the weather in Chicago?

Bev Jo: Lord yes … when it’s hot and they’re sweating, we have to have fans even onstage.

Missy: The cool weather helps me.

Do you have anymore inspirational advice to share?

Bev Jo: Never let your dreams die and the world is your backyard.

Missy: Follow your dreams regardless of your field.

Bev Jo: Did we do all right?

The love these two artists express for their craft is palpable. They are genuinely interested in the work and caring for their actors. They love Local 706 and really wish to extend their gratitude to all those artists that have helped them along the way and on the show specifically.

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