Coming 2 America is a movie that, in one scene, features the most glamorous royals in Africa rocking braids and fades, locs and Afro puffs and, in the very next scene, Eddie Murphy as an old Jewish man named Saul.
That is a testament to the range of the film's makeup and hair departments. Mike Marino of Prosthetic Renaissance is the character makeup designer responsible for transforming Murphy and Arsenio Hall into barbershop oldheads, an unholy reverend and the lead singer of Sexual Chocolate. Meanwhile, Carla Farmer is the hair department head, and Stacey Morris is Murphy's personal barber and hair department co-head. Together, they are Oscar nominees for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling.
"It's prosthetics that have never really been quite as real before. It's hairstyles that have never really been seen before. It is really a celebration of makeup and hair on every facet," Marino tells A.frame. (Fun fact: Farmer and Morris also worked on Best Picture nominee King Richard, while Marino tested character makeup on Will Smith, though he ultimately went without prosthetics.)
Below, Marino reveals secrets of his transformative prosthetic work, while Farmer and Morris break down the inspirations behind the movie's 'dos.
A.frame: Mike, how much were you able to directly build on Rick Baker's makeup from the first film, and in what way did you need to start from scratch on these characters?
Mike Marino: All of it is from scratch in a sense, because Rick was doing this in 1987 or something, and Eddie and Arsenio were really, really young. So, all the things that Rick built are fit to them in their 20s. Eddie's hair was different and Arsenio's hair was different, and all of the designs of the makeups had to go on top of these really super skinny guys and their hair and all that. In fact, the Saul character has this very kind of diamond shaped look, where the top part of his head is a little heavier than the bottom. That was because Eddie's hair was underneath.
In this particular case, not only did we look at Rick Baker's entire mapped out wrinkle patterns on every makeup, we had to account for the fact that Eddie has a different face now. He still looks amazing, but his face is different and his hair is gone. So, we had to actually sculpt our headpiece for the Saul character much bigger and thicker because his hair was gone. Normally we would keep [the prosthetics] super thin, but we actually beefed them up because we had to match the original film's proportions. Rick Baker's makeups were essential in mapping out what we did on all the characters -- except for the Baba character on Arsenio Hall, which is a totally original character. Baba was one of the many original characters and the only one that made it into the final cut. We had many other makeups we did on Eddie and Arsenio.
How did you approach creating Baba? And what does it mean to you to have your own Mike Marino creation living alongside these other characters in the legacy of Coming to America?
Marino: It was a real crazy thing, because I've never really copied anyone's work before. Rick Baker was my idol and these makeups are iconic and everybody knows them, so, it was intimidating to approach that. Because, if you mess it up, everybody in our particular industry -- and all the fans that know it -- are going to say, "Well, that sucked. You ruined it." For the new character, we just went for it based on Eddie's ideas of the Baba character. He had an idea to [make him] look like a witchdoctor from a 1980s TV series called Shaka Zulu. He wanted to pay homage to that particular character, who was this really creepy dude with these glowing red eyeballs. We did a realistic version of that character on Arsenio, and it just became like a real-life Muppet. He was this goofy thing with no teeth and it was just so fun to do.
After all of your work, do you remember the day you got Eddie into full prosthetics as Saul or Clarence or Randy Watson for the first time and saw that character come to life?
Marino: In fact, we had no tests on Eddie. Eddie said, "Why do we have to do tests? We already know what they look like. So, forget it. We'll just film it." I said, "Oh, shit!" Because you always need to do a test to work out the bugs. But we were so thorough in building all this stuff that we got lucky, because the first time we put him in the makeup, we filmed it. The first time we see Saul, that's our makeup test. It was definitely nerve-racking. Not only are you duplicating, like, the most iconic makeup in the world, you're doing it on Eddie Murphy, who's this total genius. But it worked out. We had a lot of fun. And Eddie was so good in the chairs, to just sit there and to be patient.
With the hair, what inspiration did you take from the original Coming to America?
Carla Farmer: We both drew a lot from the past, because it meant so much to us. The feeling it gave us as young African-American women, it gave us pride. So, we wanted to be able to do that again. Stacey and I are both fortunate to have worked with Robert Stevenson, who did the original, so, this was also giving homage to the people that helped us get to where we are. Those images that they created weren't celebrated in the same way they're being celebrated with us, so it's an amazing moment in history and a privilege to be able to be chosen to be those people. There's been so many beautiful Black images done over the years, and for the first time in 93 years last year, there were two African-American women who were nominated, and this year it's another two African-American women.
This movie is big and fantastical and stylized, but it's also rooted in a specific place and in a specific culture. Beyond looking back to that first film, what sort of research was entailed on this?
Stacey Morris: It's immense. After we read the script, we start trying to develop a mood and a feeling and a look of what we want to do. We draw inspiration from everywhere. We research images and colors and landscapes and different things. This movie is amazing, because we go back to the '80s in New York, and we're in this fantasy land in Africa, and we kind of can make it whatever we want. So, anything that gives us inspiration to try to create these images, then we go to it.
As far as Wesley Snipes, I drew from East African culture in Rwanda. The Tutsi tribe wore a style called Amasunzu, and I saw these styles and I was like, "Man, this is amazing! How can we put this in the movie?" Wesley was the best character to put that on. I took that style and created my own look with that styling. The inspiration comes from wherever you can find it. If it's in a book or if it's on the internet or you're looking at images on social media platforms, wherever you can find it.
Farmer: I was drawn to the Afro-Punk movement. It's a subculture that's not really celebrated or known, and I drew a lot of research from that. I love their imagery. I love the power. I love the fact that they can take simple things and create beautiful works of art with their hair. I drew a lot from that culture. And the punk movement started with African Americans. People don't know that, but that's where it started.
This is all of your first Oscar nomination. What does it mean to be recognized in this way and on this film?
Marino: Man, I made it to the Bake Off a bunch of times over the years, but this is the first nomination. And it couldn't be a better film. The original was one of my favorite films of all time, and, without that film, I wouldn't even be here. I come from a lineage of Dick Smith, who did The Exorcist and The Godfather and trained Rick Baker, and he also mentored me. So, it's this lineage of generosity. I feel honored to be in that lineage of people. And Coming 2 America is just, like, the coolest movie for me. I grew up idolizing Eddie and Arsenio. So, I couldn't have asked for more. It's just the greatest thing.
Morris: I feel the same way. Our work is forever at this point, and being nominated and being acknowledged is the most indelible moment of my career. And then being a part of Oscar history now -- we are the second Black hairstylists that have ever been nominated in 94 years -- that's amazing. It's amazing for us as a people, and to be a part in that movement in this way is amazing.
Farmer: There were people like Robert Stevenson, Erma Kent, Leonard Drake, Julia Walker and Mr. Kenneth Walker that gave the world beautiful Black images that were never celebrated or recognized. And I just want to make sure people know that, because they were who they were is the reason why I'm who I am. These people really opened their lives to me, their knowledge to me, and helped me become the person and the artist that I am today.
It takes a village to pull something like this off. Who are some of the unsung heroes from each of your teams that made this possible?
Morris: Most of the stuff in the film was not custom stuff that we had someone make. It was literally hands-on, do it yourself. Carla was exceptional at making pieces and constructing [looks] herself. Most of the looks that you see, you can't just go buy it somewhere, you know? You have to make it. But I want to shout out Justin Stafford, he ventilated some of the wigs that were made in the film. Victor [Paz] and Crystal Woodford and Naveesa Nixon were instrumental in the film.
Farmer: Dennis Bailey and Felicia Abiola-Okanlawon, who were both Leslie's personal hair and makeup people. Vera Steimberg, that's Eddie's personal makeup artist.
Morris: The team was enormous. It took so many people to make it come true.
Marino: And that was their crew. My crew is an enormous amount of people. I had something like 35-40 people involved in the prosthetics department, from mold makers and seamers and body costumers and all these things. Mike Fontaine and Göran Lundström did prosthetics makeup. Diana Choi made all the aging wigs and hairpieces for our characters. Art Sakamoto built all the teeth. Crystal Jurado and Trent Taft, the silicone guy who's making all those pieces. It's so many people. And Charisse [M. Hewitt], who's Eddie's producer and is so, so vital to this whole equation. She put all of us together. And then, you have Ruth Carter's amazing costumes, which highlight all the hair and makeup, and make everyone's work look better. It's this genius group of people put together. It's really just a celebration of what we do.