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How to turn Christian Bale into Dick Cheney

Vice’s Oscar winning makeup designer explains how he transformed the Best Actor nominee into the former VP.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

One of the most eerily accurate on-screen metamorphoses that took place last year has to be Christian Bale shape-shifting into Dick Cheney for Vice. Vanity Fair called it “the actor’s most haunting transformation yet.”

Movie makeup vet Greg Cannom was the head of the team behind the magic, and his work earned him an Oscar this year. The makeup designer has previously won Oscars for his work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Dracula. He’s even won a technical Oscar for inventing a special kind of silicone used in movie prosthetics. For Vice, he worked with a team of sculptors, makeup artists, and hair and wig stylists to transform Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who plays Lynne Cheney, and then age them from their 20s up to their 70s. Cannom had to create looks for about six different Dick and Lynne Cheneys through the ages. “It was very rough on [Bale], but he never complained and he really was so happy with the way the makeup turned out, and he had a lot of fun with that character and doing it,” Cannom says.

Read on for Cannom’s take on the beauty of Bale’s prosthetic neck rolls, the unexpected role of K-Y Jelly, how to cover up “hair stumps” on a bald head, the decline of the special effects makeup artist, and how creating “Old Rose” for the movie Titanic taught him about using aging makeup to its best effect.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Prosthetic makeup department head Chris Gallagher, actor Christian Bale, and makeup designer Greg Cannom on the set of the movie Vice.
Christian Bale spent hours every day in the makeup chair in order to resemble Dick Cheney.
Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures

What was the process you went through in the beginning, when you heard they wanted to turn Christian Bale into Dick Cheney?

I was just like, “I have no idea. We have to do tests. That’s the only way we’ll know what’s possible.” I got Christian and took his face cast, and then from that, I had about two weeks to create test makeup, which isn’t very long at all, but we rushed it and it turned out pretty good, which green-lit the film. [Director Adam McKay] had had no clue, and [Bale] had never worn appliances before, so he was very leery of them.

Throughout the film, he’s always wearing nose appliances, tiny little pieces to fill in his nose on the side. It’s a bit dented. And a chin to cover up his cleft chin. When we were filming, the first thing we shot was the on-the-river shots and that’s when we said, “Boy, it really needs a back-of-the-neck appliance, a little fatter in the back of the neck with the rolls and everything,” and so we added that in.

But I really was very happy that people were saying to me that they started watching the film and they know it’s Christian, but then they totally forget it’s him, which is what Christian really liked.

How do you make it all look realistic?

In the old days, when we sculpted foam appliances, you would oversculpt a little bit on the jowl area and chin, jawline, because it would shrink a bit, so you’d lose some of that. But now, in silicone, with the weight of it pulling down, you have to undersculpt the jowls on the chin and jawline because the weight of it pulls it down and you’ll add too much to it. So it’s really complicated. You really have to know what you’re doing.

Christian Bale at the Vice premiere in Berlin, February 2019.
Christian Bale at the Vice premiere in Berlin, February 2019.
Isa Foltin/WireImage/Getty

Old age is the hardest thing to do. It’s very difficult to make actors look like themselves as they age, but this was different. This was more like Mrs. Doubtfire, where I took Robin Williams’s face and completely undid everything on Robin’s face to make another character. I was really trying to get Cheney’s look into his face, and [Bale has] got a long, narrow face, so that’s why I was so worried about it. But we sculpted it fatter and it moves beautifully in the film when he rolls his neck over his collar. It just beautifully folds over his collar.

How long, on average each day, would Christian Bale be in the chair getting this face put on from start to finish?

It depends on the age. If he was 65 or 75 or so, it took about four hours a day with the wig and the hands. You have to think of all that stuff. And then, as he got younger, 35 would take about two-and-a-half hours. A lot of times there would be two looks in one day because of the locations and the way they were jumping around. So we’d have to take him out of the one age makeup and put him in a completely different age makeup, which was crazy.

I read that he was shaving his hair every day and bleaching his eyebrows. Tell me a little bit about what he had to do to prep and what kind of makeup you used.

Every day he would come in and shave his head first, and then apply the wigs. Then we would have to make it up with an acrylic adhesive paint called MelPax Paint. You can have this bluish-black color showing through from his hair stumps. We had to use two or three colors to get his head matching his healthy skin color, and then on top of that we would add makeup and they would apply the wig.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams as Dick and Lynne Cheney in Vice.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams as Dick and Lynne Cheney in Vice.
Annapurna Pictures

Then we used PPI, Premiere Products Illustrator, which was invented for covering tattoos. It’s very opaque, and we use an airbrush and splatter that on, and then I go over it with my makeup, which is a rubber mask grease makeup, which we used to use in the old days, that was created by William Tuttle in the ’70s. He was a famous makeup artist, and when he was like 90, he said, “I can’t make it anymore,” because he personally made it himself. And I just said, “Well, what am I going to do? Can I buy it from you?” And he said, “Keep my name going.” And he gave me all the formulas, and I worked on it for 10 years to improve it. I still use it.

And then how do you get all that stuff off at the end of a day of shooting?

At the end of the day, we use removers that are specially made to remove all these special adhesives, and we just have to take our time. It takes usually about 40 minutes or so, and we use a special remover on the top of his head to break it down. We let it sit for 20 minutes while we take off the face, slowly removing the appliances, and then clean his face up, and use hot, wet, moist towels at the end. Then we use a moisturizer called Edap, which works really nice on the skin, repairing it. We use it on everybody.

Is there anything in your kit that you think people would be surprised that you use, that you wouldn’t expect a makeup artist to have?

Well, probably K-Y Jelly. We put it on a sponge and we dab it on at the very end to give the skin a little shine. Or if he’s a little sweaty, we blotch it on.

Did you have any disasters during shooting, with the appliances or makeup?

We had many appliances made in advance in case something happened, so we didn’t have any disasters with [Bale]. The only disaster I had was with Amy Adams. I tried to do the look of Lynne Cheney when she had her facelift — it was a very severe facelift. I tried doing a look like that on Amy and she looked like a burn victim. She has a very strong jaw and the appliances just didn’t work well on her face.

Amy Adams attends the EE British Academy Film Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, London, February 2019.
Gary Mitchell/LightRocket/Getty Images

[To age her], I used a silicone neck piece on her called a wattle, a small piece, but it gives some shape to the neck. Then I used old-age stipple on her face, which is a latex product that has gelatin in it, and then you stretch her skin, and you do like three coats of old-age stipple, you powder it so it doesn’t stick to itself and it creates all these wrinkles.

How much do these prosthetics and makeup cost?

I can’t really go into that, but every film’s different, every budget’s different. Sometimes, I really want to work on a film. Like this film. I was very reasonable with my price because I didn’t know if it was possible to turn Christian into Cheney. I just didn’t know. I did this film very reasonably, and it’s fine, and I made good money, but it wasn’t what I’m used to from back in the day. And Oscar’s a pretty cool thing to get close to!

Are makeup and hair departments, do you think, getting less budget because of retouching capabilities and CGI now?

I don’t think it’s the CGI aspect of it as much as people don’t want to spend any money on makeup anymore. That’s why [veteran special effects makeup artist] Rick Baker got out of the business, because it just was getting too difficult to do the kind of films he did. Everybody’s so cheap. That’s why I didn’t think I’d ever work again. I hadn’t worked in a couple of years, but this film came up and it worked out very nicely and it was a decent budget. Now, I’m getting a lot of film offers.

Christian was very supportive of me. He said, “Whatever you want, I want them to give you.” So we got all the wigs, which are very expensive. We had no problem getting everything we needed for this film and that’s why it looked so good. But it’s all changed. It’s very sad.

People call me up and if they want old-age makeup, I say, “Fine. It’s going to cost this much.” And they usually go to someone else and it looks horrible and I’ll tell that production person at the time, “Excuse me, but you’re going to get what you pay for.”

I know you did the makeup for “Old Rose” [played by Gloria Stuart] in Titanic. This is a favorite character of so many people, so I’m wondering if you have any anecdotes about working with her.

She was so fantastic and we became friends. She was hoping to live to the opening of the film the next year and she lived to be 15 years older than that. The stories she had to tell me about the ’30s and all the actors were just wonderful. Titanic was where I really learned how to do old-age stipple makeup, when I wrinkled her up. She wasn’t too happy about that. She has this big comeback, and yet I wrinkled the hell out of her face to make her 101 years old. At the time she was 85.

Do you have anything else you want to mention about the looks you did on Christian and Amy?

Christian had so much to do with the makeup and pushing me and pushing me. It was pretty funny, but I love it because I’d rather have input, especially from the person that has to wear it. A lot of actors could care less, and he really had a lot to do with it and he was brilliant and he never got upset once. A lot of actors lose it during shooting with all that time in the chair. To get to sit in the trailer while we were doing the makeup all those days and to watch him doing the research and the tapes of Cheney and practicing in the mirror with the voice and getting the character down, it was just fascinating.

And Amy Adams was great. She’d sing to us every day. She has a beautiful voice and she would sing and it was such a pleasure working with all these people. I was very sad when it ended, very sad.

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