The essence of Freddie

Jan Sewell on Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee and the make-up for Bohemian Rhapsody

by Jennie Kermode

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody Photo: 21st Century Fox

Winning this year’s Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Bohemian Rhapsody has been getting a lot of attention, its appeal clearly extending beyond the hard core of passionate Queen fans. One of the things for which it has been praised is make-up and hairstyling, which helped it to recreate the appearance of the band in their youth, carry them convincingly through the years and ensure that their stage performances dazzled as they should. Jan Sewell, who led the team responsible, told us about working with Oscar-nominated actor Rami Malek, capturing the essence of Freddie Mercury, and getting the approval of Brian May.

“I was working on a film called Tomb Raider with the producer Graham King, and he started talking about this project,” she tells me, by way of explaining how she came on board with the film. “I spoke with him a couple of times about it and I didn’t for one minute think he was offering it to me – until he did! Which was extremely exciting because he’s utterly brilliant to work with. He’s very involved, very supportive, and I like his films.”

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury Photo: 21st Century Fox

Was she a Queen fan before that?

“I knew Queen and I liked a lot of their records but I wasn’t like a massive fan. Of course I completely am now. I’m a total fan. I didn’t know all their music. I mean, I knew Bohemian Rhapsody, but I didn’t know all the other stuff, I didn’t know that they’d sung quite a country song, so the film has completely opened all that our to me. I think their music’s amazing.”

Make-up and hairstyling work isn’t very well understood by people outside the industry. Where did she begin, and how did she strike a balance between recreating the appearance of well-known figures and developing her own creative interpretation?

“I think it’s really important to do lots of small, subtle things to show big changes,” she says. “Obviously everybody knows what Freddie looked like. We know the colour of his hair, we know he wore a moustache, we know he had quite prominent teeth and I think all those things needed to be done and it was important they be done but I wanted them to all be subtle stuff because it was about finding the essence of Freddie to allow Rami to then bring his Freddie to it. I think if you start thinking about covering people in make-up and things, I don’t think that’s the way to go. I found out that Rami had already been practising with teeth for some months before I was on board, which I though was very exciting because I knew then he’d be absolutely up for everything.

“His input was massive as well. I knew that we would have to have small prosthetics on him but I wasn’t initially, in the beginning, quite sure what. I work with a fantastic prosthetic designer, Mark Coulier, and we both agreed that Rami would probably need a nose. We talked about cheek pieces which we didn’t do, but there were lots of things and when we did our first test, it was massively successful, albeit that we went on to refine it. We did definitely get the look almost the first time.”

Gwilym Lee as Brian May
Gwilym Lee as Brian May Photo: 21st Century Fox

How did she work with the actors to create the right looks but give them room to do what they needed to do with their faces?

“Always, the actor has a massive input, and so they should. I can pull lots of photographs and references but, you know, in this case Rami had been kind of living and watching stuff on Freddie was before me and he brought loads of information on the way he spoke and the way he was and how flamboyant he was, and it’s really important to bring all that in. Every time I tried a new wig – I had six wigs made for Rami – every time we put it on his head and we started to cut, he was really involved in it. He would see how we would work with it and we could see him thinking ‘Oh, this would be for this concert,’ you know? It’s a delight working with an actor like Rami who wants to be involved because that makes me do better work.”

Everyone who has seen the film has been amazed by how closely Gwilym Lee resembles Brian May.

“Gwilym as well – it’s all the boys, really – Gwilym had done so much research as well. Brian May is famous for his wonderful curly hair so we knew we had to do that and we were again referencing pictures. He did keep his hair fairly similar but it did go shorter and it did go a little big longer, so I had two or three wigs made for Gwilym. But also, what I wanted to do – because we see the boys initially when they’re quite young, sort of 19, 20, 21, and then we see them 15 years later – so I did use little ageing pieces to do really fine lines round their eyes, really subtle stuff, and accentuate the nose to mouth line. So when we first saw them, which was the first thing we shot, which is Live Aid, they had to look like they were late thirties and then I was able to take them, timewise, backwards.

“I think Brian May noticed that because when he first saw Gwilym with his wig on and his outfit, he moved a couple of curls across on his forehead and he did actually comment on the fact that there were these little lines and I did say to him ‘Brian, I’ve got to make Gwilym look 15 years younger.’ And he said ‘Oh, right, I get it.’ So that was a nice moment.”

Bohemian Rhapsody poster
Bohemian Rhapsody poster

Freddie was known for his own creativity with make-up. Was it a challenge adding those extra layers on top of the make-up used to establish the character?

“It wasn’t a challenge. It enhanced everything. Because Freddie went through his glam rock period and the more we used that on Rami, the better he looked because, you know, he couldn’t have put on all those amazing glittery leotards without the make-up to go with it, and we made the hair bigger. And there was this thing where we would paint just one hand’s fingernails black and not the other, just for the simple reason that he was right handed and could only paint one hand properly. I mean there are all these little details and it’s so brilliant to see them. Adding the make-up was great... Putting lashes on Rami, that was fun, because he’d never worn those before.” She laughs.

I ask about the concert scenes, many of which she tells me were filmed in a single week as they went about re-enacting a world tour. “There are certain make-ups that we know have more stayability,” she explains, detailing how the make-up was designed to remain in place even under stage lights when the actors were being very physical. Touch-ups between takes ensured that everything continued to look the way it was supposed to.

What about Freddie’s illness? Partly due to its limited timeframe, the film makes little mention of HIV or AIDS, so Jan’s work is important to hinting at the problems Freddie is starting to experience in its later scenes.

“It was on purpose that the film should end at Live Aid and Freddie hadn’t been diagnosed at that point. It was before it was particularly visible. But there is a section in the film where he’s gone off to Germany, and it’s just before he came back, and I definitely gave him a more sort of broken down, paler look, because I was aware that he was ill at that point, plus we wanted to get across that he maybe had been not looking after himself, so I did want to show it a little bit there. The director and the producer did want Rami to have that look so we put it in that little section and that was just before he came back to reconnect with the band for Live Aid.”

How does she feel about the praise her team has received?

“I’ve had a few other make-up people say how much they like the look, which is always lovely, when people who know the details like what you do,” she says. “It is a whole team effort. The film was nominated for a Critics Choice Award and that’s extremely exciting for all of us.”

One of the problems with awards is that the voters – and people watching the ceremonies – often seem to focus on make-up that’s flashy and dramatic at the expense of the subtler stuff. Isn’t make-up a little like music, in that sometimes when it goes unnoticed that’s precisely because it’s doing its job well?

“Yes, I am of that school,” she agrees. “I mean, I do love good prosthetic work. Last year’s win for Darkest Hour, that work was phenomenal. But I like it when people don’t really know what you’ve done. They know you’ve done something but I love it that they’re not sure. To me that is a win.”

She has recently finished doing the make-up for Wonder Woman 1984, “which was a fantastic film to work on.” Now, she says, she’s taking a bit of time off. “But there’s a couple of things coming my way which are very exciting and I’m looking forward to that.”

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