It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the key role make-up plays in Genius. An original National Geographic series, each season, Genius tells the story of one of the greatest minds in history. Season One’s subject was Albert Einstein. Realistically re-creating one of the more recognizable figures of the 20th century is a daunting task in and of itself. That the script also featured such historical figures as Eleanor Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Franz Kafka and Fritz Haber increased the degree of difficulty.
Davina Lamont, who designed the make-up and hair, says she was lured to the job by series co-creator Ken Biller. Having worked with him on the TV series Legends, she knew he was a good storyteller. When she learned the details of Genius, she wanted in.
“To make an Einstein—you never get that kind of opportunity. At least I certainly don’t,” says Lamont. “There were a number of people that I had to make look like the actual people of the era. Then there was creating the looks of the eras, 1890s through 1950s. It was very hard for me to say no.”
Based in New Zealand, Lamont credits include King Kong, Krampus, Chappie, The Legend of Zorro and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The challenges of Genius were different from her usual efforts in many ways.
“I do a lot of prosthetics and effects—they’re more gore, war—stuff like that. It’s easy to do gory. You just sort of bloody it,” Lamont explains. “Here the make-ups had to be more delicate and thought out. Everybody has a preconceived idea of what Einstein looked like … J. Edgar Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt. I had to take the actors and make them as real as I possibly could. Skin tones, for example … you can’t get away with too much color. It was going minimal. I believe we pulled it off.”
The Television Academy agrees. On July 13, she received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Makeup for a Limited Series or Movie (Non-Prosthetic). Colleague Tash Lees received a nomination for Outstanding Hairstyling for a Limited Series or Movie.
Lamont credits her team for the show’s success: Lees, make-up and hair artists Kate Starr and Fae Hammond, prosthetics designer Goran Lundstrom, prosthetics artist Sangeet Prabhaker and crowd supervisor Adela Robova.
Genius had some tricky transformations. Turning Richard Topol into the distinguished Nobel prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber required prosthetics and a complete bald cap. The older version of J. Edgar Hoover kept T. R. Knight in the make-up chair for over four hours as five prosthetic pieces were applied. “The only thing that wasn’t covered was his nose,” says Lamont. “T.R. Knight is kind of thin-featured. We had to do what we call a ‘fat make-up’ on him. J. Edgar Hoover was quite a large man.”
But, of course, Einstein was the priority. As the storyline spanned seven decades, two actors portrayed him. Johnny Flynn was up first, playing the physicist from age 16 through his mid-30s. Geoffrey Rush took it from there. Though Lamont drew on many resources, she found Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: The Life of a Genius to be the most valuable. It contains photos she didn’t see anywhere else.
For the teen version of Einstein, Lamont used Flynn’s own hair, coloring it daily. “Obviously with the younger Einstein, there are not too many pictures of him,” she says. “So, we took some liberties as to where I thought it should be until we started to wig the show.”
When it was time to take Einstein into his 20s, Lamont added a mustache and wig to get Flynn closer to Einstein’s wild hair look. “They made a big impact,” continues Lamont. “I remember him looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Finally, I’m starting to feel like Einstein.’”
As Einstein fell ill at that age, prosthetic pieces were added around Flynn’s eyes and cheeks to make him look more pallid. Lamont started adding touches of gray to his wig and mustache.
When Rush first stepped into the role, Lamont explains that it was initially just the wig, mustache and eyebrows. “Apart from that, the only thing we really had to do was smooth out his skin as much as we could,” Lamont continues. “We added tape to pull his skin back underneath the wig.”
Prosthetics around the eyes and cheeks duplicated the sickly look created for Flynn. When it was time to take the scientist into his twilight years, a forehead prosthetic piece that stretched from below his brow to the top of his head was added. The wig was placed over it.
In total, nine Einstein wigs were created. London wig manufacturer Alex Rouse created them all. “The fits were perfect,” says Lamont. “Once you get a wig that brilliant on somebody’s head, you have no issues whatsoever.”
Lamont felt that less would be more when it came to the wig’s lived-in, flyaway look. “I’d put zero products in his hair. We wanted it to be as unkempt as possible,” she continues. “We basically gave Geoffrey’s wig only a little spritz of water. That was it.”
Lamont printed out a series of reference photos and kept them handy. She wrote the year on each. “Geoffrey and I were constantly looking at them. He had a lot of input,” she remembers. “He was always saying to me, ‘I want to make sure my hair has the halo effect. Make sure it’s fat and wild.’”
Lamont adds that Rush would pause for a moment after she finished to stare at himself in the mirror. If he didn’t like what he saw, he wouldn’t move from the chair. “I like actors like that because it pushes you to do your job,” she says. “When he left the room, he looked like the picture we were using that day. There are actors that would just get up and leave, not be happy and not say anything. I appreciate that Geoffrey is as straight up as I am.”
In total, Genius received 10 Emmy nominations, including one for Rush. It’s no surprise that a second season is planned. National Geographic recently announced that its subject will be Spanish painter Pablo Picasso.
“They’ve given me a bit of insight as to who he might come in contact with. I’m pulling references on Coco Chanel,” hints Lamont. “I’m excited. I can’t wait to see who will play the younger and older Picasso. This is going to be fantastic.”
See the complete list of make-up and hairstyling Emmy nominees here.