Created by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs in the serialized novel Tarzan of the Apes more than a century ago, the character of Tarzan has been a mainstay of American cinema nearly as long, with countless actors from Johnny Weissmuller to Buster Crabbe taking on the iconic role, with varying degrees of success.
The latest big screen re-telling of Burroughs’ jungle hero is The Legend of Tarzan, with Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) in the eponymous role. Directed by David Yates (the Harry Potter series), and shot at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in the U.K., the film also stars Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Jim Broadbent and Djimon Hounsou; and Margot Robbie as Jane.
The new film starts in Victorian London, where Tarzan (aka John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke) has finally acclimated himself to big-city life when he’s invited back to his former jungle home in the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he’s actually the pawn in a deadly plan masterminded by the Belgian Captain Leon Rom (Waltz).
For make-up/hair designer Fae Hammond, the initial challenge was creating a look for Skarsgård’s Tarzan. “It was interesting doing the initial tests on him,” Hammond recalls, “because we wanted him to look heavily scarred, and there are also a lot of flashbacks, so we see him younger and older and a bit older still, and his hair length was changing all the time. We had lots of tests for hair length.
“When anyone makes a new Tarzan film, they always think, ‘Right, we’re going to change Tarzan and make him different!’ but in fact everyone generally ends up coming back to a similar Tarzan, although in this film, we kept the tan off. I think when you put a tan anywhere near Alexander Skarsgård, he looks like a gay icon. He really needs the paleness and British-ness of him to look better, so that was interesting. This Tarzan isn’t a great hunk of a man; he’s much more pale and quiet, and Alexander actually plays the character as someone more troubled and reserved.
“As I said, Alexander was heavily scarred everywhere, with lots of enormous, old wounds, so I had a team of three looking after him every day. They were amazing and quick, and within a few days, they could do that make-up with their eyes closed.”
As for Skarsgård’s co-star, “We also had the lovely Margot Robbie as Jane,” Hammond continues, “who’s quite beautiful, but David Yates … wanted everything to look quite real, so Margot was constantly covered in scratches, and even though she’s a beautiful woman throughout the film, she gets dragged through a hedge backwards at one point, and we certainly don’t hesitate in showing that.”
A big chunk of the movie takes place in Africa, which meant Hammond and her team devoted lots of time to creating various tribal looks. “We had lots of tribal make-ups, including a great deal of scarification and some wonderful skin tones for the different tribes,” she says. “The film opens on a tribe that’s covered in a chalky white base that knits into the scenery they’re living in, so it’s like a chameleon effect, where they change with the color of the rock, so that was fun to do.
Photos courtesy of Fae Hammond
“We did quite a lot of work, including a whole sequence where we did a load of different tribes, but that seems to have hit the editing-room floor,” she adds, “so it just became the main two tribes, which is the red and scarified tribe that raised Tarzan and another very gray and warlike tribe.
“Kirstin Chalmers came up with a brilliant idea for [the] red tribe, where she invented head pieces and hair that we made ourselves, which was all done in black sheep’s wool. We were able to come up with some fantastic shapes and fabulous stuff, so that went very well.”
Although The Legend of Tarzan may not necessarily be the most make-up intensive film Hammond has worked on in recent months, she’s pleased with her team’s work nonetheless. “It still blows me away what everybody was able to do,” she says. “The film is set in the 1890s, so there was a lot to do. It’s the first live-action Tarzan in a long while, and I think it will be interesting to see if there is an audience for such an old story. And David has made it look very beautiful and extraordinary, so I’ll be interested to see how it turns out.”