“The best step you can take as an actor or actress is not worrying about what you look like, and going into the character instead,” says Matthew Mungle, who created prosthetic makeup design and prosthetics for Glenn Close’s transformation into the nearly unrecognizable Mamaw Vance for “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Mungle, who worked with Close on “Albert Nobbs,” got a call from her in March 2019 telling him that she had secured her next role and required his help. Close sent him a photo of the real Mamaw Vance, a fierce hillbilly who plays a central role in raising her grandson. Mamaw’s life has been marked by poverty and family dysfunction, without time or money for skin care or hair products, so her look is rough around the edges.
Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, which bows Nov. 24 on Netflix, follows J.D., played by Gabriel Basso, who comes from a working-class Ohio family. His mother, portrayed by Amy Adams, is a drug addict, and young J.D. winds up in Mamaw’s care before eventually leaving Ohio to attend Yale University.
“All I think I need is a little nose tip,” Mungle says Close told him, though he says he wasn’t planning to go over the top with her look, which needed to be realistic. “I never want to do excessive prosthetics,” he notes. “I’m a subtle makeup artist.”
He pulled Close’s 2011 head cast from “Albert Nobbs” and went to work on sculpting full ears and a full nose.
Mungle flew to New York for a test fitting session with Close. She had a wig and glasses on hand that were similar to what Mamaw would wear, and Howard was able to meet with them. Mungle remembers: “As soon as Ron walked in, she had the full makeup on and was in character. He said, ‘You’re Mamaw.’”
The pieces needed to fit perfectly, so Mungle took a new cast of her nose and ears. “When I took the nose cast, I made sure she could breathe out of her mouth so I could get all of the detail of the inside of her nose, which helped me in sculpting it around and under the nostril,” he says. One giveaway that a character is using prosthetics, particularly with 4K technology, Mungle explains, is when prosthetics stop before the edge of the nostrils. He wanted to get under the nostrils to ensure there would be no telltale signs.
With the film shooting in hot, humid climates in Georgia and Ohio, the prosthetics artist used gelatin for the ears and crafted the nose from silicone latex. “The ears don’t sweat,” he notes, which would melt gelatin, while the nose had to be made from silicone to be resistantto perspiration and natural oils. Mungle guesses he made 21 sets of ears and noses, because a new set had to be made for every day of the shoot.
He credits makeup department head Eryn Krueger Mekash for applying the prosthetics perfectly. Mekash says each transformation took an hour and 20 minutes. “Glenn’s application started in wig prep with Patti Dehaney, our amazing department head of hair. Jamie Hess, my assistant department head, applied the right ear, and I applied the left. While Jamie painted Glenn’s hands, I started to apply the nose. As soon as I got the nose glued down, I painted Glenn’s prosthetics and face with PPI Skin Illustrators and Greg Cannom’s Tuttle cream makeup, adding age spots, blotchiness, freckles, ruddiness, veins, as well as a scrub of light brown eyeliner and mascara and a bluish pink-tinted lip balm.”
Adds Mekash, “We were in a time crunch because I also did Amy Adams’ makeup, which included small character prosthetics.”
While the wig, glasses and prosthetics were a part of Close’s incredible transformation, Mungle stresses that ultimately the performance rested on the actor. “She used her facial expressions and held her body and her face to become Mamaw,” he says.
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