The Oscar-winning make-up artist reflects on his amazing career so far and reveals a few tricks of his trade.
One of the most sought after make-up artists in Hollywood, John Caglione Jr honed his craft working with the original cast of Saturday Night Live, before going to work on some of the most famous faces in Tinseltown. Winning an Oscar for Dick Tracy, he has since made Chaplin age, created corpses for The Departed, battered and bruised The Hurricane and, despite the master criminal’s claims to the contrary, it was Johnny who gave the Joker his scars. He joined LWLies recently to discuss his career as art.
LWLies: What initially drew you towards becoming a make-up artist and where did you learn your art?
Caglione Jnr: Early on, what drew me to becoming a make-up artist were Chaplin films and silent films. Also, at this time I found a copy of 'Famous Monsters of Filmland' magazine in my brother’s room, where I read about Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce, the make-up wiz who created the original Frankenstein and Wolfman make-ups on the early Universal Pictures.
I believe your brother was one of your first test subjects, which had mixed results...
Yes, my older brother was one of my first experiments in mold-making and life-casting. I was twelve and he was maybe twenty. I used dental stone on his face to make a cast, but I didn’t know it goes up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit when it sets. I almost baked him! The stuff was like granite and my father just couldn’t chisel it off. Luckily I’d stuck straws up his nostrils to enable him to breathe, so we took him to the emergency room where they tore it off, taking his eyebrows and moustache with it! I’ve learned a lot since then...
Which make-up artists have influenced and inspired you?
Jack Pierce, Lon Chaney, George Bau, Jack Dawn, John Chambers, Rick Baker, and most of all for me Dick Smith. What Les Paul was to the electric guitar, Dick Smith is to special make-up. Dick is a pioneer, innovator and a singular artist. Every prosthetic make-up artist in the business today is reaching for Dick’s passion and style, I know I am.
You worked on Saturday Night Live from 1976 to 1982 with the original cast, which included Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, receiving an Emmy nomination for your work. What was it like working with such talented comedians at such a young age?
I got the job with the original SNL cast members in 1976 straight out of High School. I’m 90 per cent self-taught. I was 18 when I started at NBC TV in NY. I’m a proud protégé of Dick Smith who recommended me to NBC and gave me my start. Working with that cast was incredible and a bit scary because I was so young but I learned on the job how a live TV show worked. I had to hit the ground running, exhilarating!
Working with director Warren Beatty on Dick Tracy you created an unforgettable gallery of rogues and won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Make-Up. Can you share some memories from the production?
There are so many memorable moments about Dick Tracy. For example, when Warren Beatty would come to the lab in LA and just hang out with me while I was sculpting. He would just make phone calls and hang out with us. He really took a chance on me bringing me out from NY. He could have picked any of the big make-up people in Hollywood. Warren gave me my big break and the rest is history! Another memorable moment was meeting Chester Gould’s daughter Jean, it was a thrill for me to hear her say that her father would have loved seeing his characters come to life… He’d be proud.
Michael Mann is awesome to work under. He made me work harder and do my research. For instance, on Heat all the crime scenes had to be forensically accurate, even down to the scorching and tattooing around the bullet wounds. Attention to detail is working all the time around Michael Mann, he makes you better.
The art of the make-up artist particularly demands attention when required to age an actor in a film, which you did with great success with Bette Midler in For the Boys and Robert Downey Jr in Chaplin. Is it a difficult process?
I have to say, old age make-up is the hardest of all make-up illusions because we see older people on the street every day. It’s not like a fantasy make-up job. When I aged Bette Midler, it was tough for many reasons but one was her face was very smooth and it really didn’t give me anything to go on sculpturally. The other is that everyone knows in their mind’s eye what Bette looks like, so change one line on that famous face and I’m a nervous wreck already!
You have worked as the personal make-up artist for Al Pacino and Russell Crowe on a number of diverse films. Do make-up artists often forge strong working relationships with individual actors?
Yes they do. I have been very fortunate to have great working relationships with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. There are other strong make-up artist and actor relationships too, like Rick Baker and Eddie Murphy, Alan Apone and Samuel L Jackson. There is also Phil Rhodes who was with Marlon Brando, Dick Smith with Dustin Hoffman and so on…
For Mona Lisa Smile you had to recreate the look of the 1950s. Does make-up have its own history and must a make-up artist have a sound knowledge of this to be successful?
Mona Lisa Smile was a fun job for me in recreating the 1950s looks for Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Marcia Gay Harden. For me, I enjoy all aspects of make-up whether it’s beauty and corrective, prosthetics and special FX or creative. Yes, you must have sound knowledge of make-up history and what came before and I also use my knowledge of the great artists who have inspired and educated me through their craft.
You were Heath Ledger’s personal make-up artist on The Dark Knight. Can you describe what it was like working with Ledger and director Christopher Nolan on re-interpreting the iconic villain The Joker?
I loved working with Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan. Working with Heath on the Joker make-up was a wonderful experience. He was such an inspiration to me while we were filming because he taught me how not to worry so much and to relax and have fun while working on a big movie. Here was Heath, the centrepiece of one of the biggest blockbusters, riding his skateboard to set, hanging out with us off camera, giving big hugs to us all. Just having a good time. And delivering a masterpiece of a performance at the same time, which for me was amazing to witness!
Where will audiences next be able to see your work?
You can see my work on the The Smurfs where I was dept. head and supervised and applied the Gargamel make-up to Hank Azaria. Just finished Brett Ratner’s crime-comedy Tower Heist and I’m starting another job with Al Pacino, who is playing Phil Spector in a HBO movie written and directed by David Mamet.
You are to be exiled on a desert island and can take a film containing your favourite make-up work to watch. Which would you choose?
What advice would you offer to someone considering film make-up as a profession?
The best advice I could give an aspiring make-up artist would be to go to college to study Art History and Theory, then follow your heart and see where it takes you.