When it comes to creating the faces of his crazy and fanciful characters, Mr Johnny Depp turns to one man, and one man only: Academy Award winning make-up artist Joel Harlow.
Joel Harlow answers the phone and we ask if it’s a good time to talk. “Of course, I’m just working on the next Star Trek movie,” he casually responds. Harlow creates fantasy for a living: he pushes the imagination to its limits and transforms characters from words on a script to the most incredible creations seen on screen. While working on Star Trek (or collaborating with Johnny Depp, or winning an Academy Award) would bowl most people over, it is simply an ordinary day in the life of Joel Harlow. So, in short, yes, now is a good time to talk.
Harlow’s prolific filmography includes some of the most visually exciting productions of recent years, but it all started with the 1933 version of King Kong, which his father showed him at a young age. The movie triggered a lifetime obsession with science fiction, fantasy and horror films and would determine Harlow’s future career. “Watching that film is what started me on this path,” he states, “although I didn’t know what the path was for a long time.” After realising that sculpting characters, monsters and creatures was his passion, Harlow moved to LA to cut his teeth at a studio called XFX, where “working in the trenches” was the greatest tuition that he could have had.
The trajectory of the career of a make-up artist in 1986 versus 2015 is very different. On the changes in the industry, Harlow muses: “There are a lot of people whom I see turned out from schools today who have this delusion that they want to go to Hollywood and make a grab for some sort of celebrity by becoming a make-up artist.” This is not so surprising, as make-up artists seem to be the social media sidekicks du jour – just look at a celebrity on Instagram and you will be hard pressed to find one who doesn’t tag their make-up artist. “As a professional, that’s not what I want to see,” Harlow continues. “The reason I got in to this industry is passion… It’s a pretty special career when you get into it and you have to give it your all.”
While developing a character, Harlow begins with the script, but input comes from all directions – actor, director, producer and wardrobe – as well as from books (particularly the work of H. P. Lovecraft), films and music. He recalls the process of building his favourite character, Bootstrap Bill (from Pirates of the Caribbean). “As I’m getting closer and the pieces are going on, I feel that I have to hurry and race against myself, like an anxiety,” he explains. “The character is really a part of me. I put so much of myself into my work that it’s difficult to separate from it.” Bootstrap Bill took three people four hours to assemble each day – patience and passion are a must for this career. Harlow experiences the transformation with the actor, sometimes having to ease him or her into the idea that they won’t recognise themselves. There are some exceptions though: “I love it when an actor embraces the character transformation. That’s when you know you have an ally.”
Harlow’s greatest and most loyal ally is undoubtedly Johnny Depp. The pair met on the first Pirates film and, since then, Depp has requested Harlow on each of his films. “No matter what happens in my career,” he reflects, “it’s because of him and because he gave me the opportunity.” The creative pinnacle of this relationship so far earned Harlow an Academy Award nomination (he previously won an Oscar for Star Trek). “Hands down, my favourite piece of work was The Lone Ranger,” he says. “I surround myself with a team who love this work, so we were able to go above and beyond.” Such is Harlow’s influence that he was even able to create an entire scene of characters that didn’t exist in the original script: “I told Gore [Verbinski, the director] that we had created these special characters and he said, ‘Tell me when I’ve got a ringer and I’ll put a camera on it!’”
Harlow’s journey began as a wide eyed little boy watching King Kong, and he now has an Academy Award, the admiration of A-list stars and some of the most memorable films of the past decade under his belt, but what makes him happy? “Working. Pretty much anything I think of I can create, so if I have gotten to that point, then I owe it to myself, and this gift, to create.”