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In J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio undergoes one of the most dramatic physical changes of his career, spending six to seven hours a day in makeup. Transforming him into J. Edgar Hoover — seen from his mid-20s into his 70s — required a trunkful of prosthetics including fake teeth, a bald cap, a device to reshape one nostril, latex body pads, colored contacts and layers of silicone applied to the actor’s face.
“Leo’s been subjected to some very long makeups by me in the past, but this film is his most challenging,” says Sian Grigg, the actor’s makeup artist since 1997’s Titanic, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 for her work with DiCaprio on The Aviator. DiCaprio’s transformation wasn’t a huge stretch for the scenes where Hoover is seen in his youth. “Their facial structure is similar because Hoover still had quite a fine jaw at that time,” she says.
Surprisingly, DiCaprio was able to use one of the prosthetics he wore to his advantage. Fangs FX (which has done teeth for the Harry Potter films) made upper and lower dental appliances with ceramic plumpers to push out his mouth. The uppers and lowers were for old Hoover, and “Leo asked to wear the lower one for the younger scenes. I think it helped him change his speech,” says Grigg. Because Clint Eastwood doesn’t like monitors or playbacks on the set, an attentive director of photography was essential. “Tom Stern, the cinematographer, let me know whenever there was something that needed our attention. There was no CGI needed on any of Leo’s makeup; that’s staggering in this day and age.”
Grigg is now in Australia doing DiCaprio’s makeup for The Great Gatsby. No latex aging this time. But she’s over the moon about his J. Edgar transformation. “Leo’s performance brings the makeup to life. Layers of prosthetics are like acting with a paper bag on your face and Leo had to learn to exaggerate his expressions so they would show through the appliances. I really believed he was old. And I stuck it on his face.”
When it came to the clothes for the film, a big conundrum for BAFTA-nominated costume designer Deborah Hopper (Changeling) was DiCaprio’s padding. Grigg applied molded latex on his body so that it felt like his own flesh. He wore a small amount of padding as young Hoover, but the fat suit was enlarged and included latex arm pieces as he aged. Given Hoover’s increasingly portly physique, it’s hard to think of him as a fashion plate. But think again. Hopper’s intense research revealed that Hoover and his protege, Clyde Tolson, were keenly aware of — one might say obsessed with — their images. “Hoover and Tolson were extremely meticulous about their appearances,” says Hopper. “They wore pocket squares, watch fobs, ties, tie tacks and cuff links, and Hoover was very particular about his hats.”
In the film, Tolson, played by Armie Hammer, brings Hoover to his tailor at Garfinckel’s department store to be fitted for his first double-breasted suit, just as Tolson did in real life. DiCaprio wears 80 suits, several custom-made from vintage fabrics. Rather than crafting a similar number of pairs of shoes, Hopper trimmed her expenses by buying classic wing tips, lace-ups and spectators — which pass for period footwear — from Wisconsin-based shoe company Stacy Adams.
The designer — who also oversaw costumes for more than 3,000 extras and 130 speaking roles — used color palettes for each decade to help the viewer keep track of the time from the ’60s to the ’20s and ’30s and back again. The ’20s feature brown, nubby-textured suits. In the ’30s, the dark navy and gray wool suits are showier, some with bold stripes and textures. In the ’60s, sleeker suits come in smooth solids like charcoal, navy and brown.
“Having worked with Clint for so long, I also know that he prefers a muted palette,” says Hopper, who was with the director on Mystic River, Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby. As Hopper sees it, the film, in addition to being a fascinating American political drama, is an “American men’s fashion history.”
THE REAL HOOVER
J. Edgar Hoover was known for his bulldog jaw, which is why DiCaprio wore dental appliances to push out the lower part of his face. According to Grigg, he also had terrible teeth. “He didn’t like to show them,” she says. “I only saw one bit of footage where you could see his teeth, and they were dreadful. He had them all replaced in his 30s and wore dentures the rest of his life.”
DICAPRIO AS J. EDGAR
The Hair: For the older Hoover, DiCaprio wore a full silicone bald cap, with individual hairs punched in. Then a toupee was glued on top and the two were blended together.
The Eyes: The actor wore two pairs of contact lenses, one on top of the other. Brown contacts were overlaid with lenses that yellowed and aged the whites of his eyes.
The Skin: Ultra-soft silicone appliances were applied all over the actor’s face. “The fact that they are so soft makes them hard to apply. They are like pieces of Jello, but they enable the face to move like real skin,” says makeup artist Sian Grigg.
The Nose: Because one side of Hoover’s nose protruded (the result of an infected boil when he was young), Grigg inserted a circular augmenter in one of DiCaprio’s nostrils to make it look slightly off-kilter.
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