Navi as Michael Jackson in Searching for Neverland

Geneva Nash Morgan (make-up department head) met many challenges developing the history specific make-up for Michael Jackson’s character in the new Lifetime biopic: Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland. Re-creating the face of the famous popstar comes with a certain amount of pressure. However, Nash Morgan and her team rose to the occasion and rolled with the punches.

The movie, released on May 29, sheds light on Jackson’s family dynamics as well as uncovers hidden drama that ensued during the last few years of his life. It is based on the best-selling book Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, told through the eyes of Jackson’s bodyguards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard.

“This show is about a well-documented slice in recent history,” says Nash Morgan. “A lot of the looks for these people can be Googled. So, I felt that we had to find hues close to identical (including skin tones, face shapes, eyebrow shapes and regional make-up styles) to capture the person we were imitating. I did not want anyone to try to guess at who was on the screen.”

Navi, the actor who played the late icon, is a longtime MJ impersonator. Nash Morgan says that Navi had a sense of the look, which proved helpful, although there was a lot of refinement necessary for HD filming.

Navi’s face, neck, chest and arms were painted daily. It took three hours a day to apply the look using airbrush, contour and stripping techniques. Nash Morgan and key make-up artist Sue Laprelle worked out the placement of the vitiligo (a disease that causes the loss of skin color in blotches) and tattoos based on photographs and worked solely with paint and powder. No prosthetics were used, as the production’s budget didn’t allow for it.

Time restrictions further challenged the make-up team, leaving them no time to test the make-ups. Nash Morgan says, “The [make-up artists] knew that and were cool enough to understand.” She went on to explain that she would set the looks on all the characters and “then pass the puff to the staff.”

Scenes were shot in enormous estates and homes throughout the Santa Clarita, Malibu and Los Angeles area. One shot was filmed in the Glendale Galleria, where April Chaney (3rd make-up artist on the film) recalls fans being confused, believing Navi was truly MJ.

Nash Morgan says the team did their best to capture key features of each character. She did a wash of color to shift skin color and used highlights and shadow to morph the actors into the characters they were portraying. “In some cases,” recalls Nash Morgan, “the changes were so different we had to spatter with ink washes to blend in the changes. Like with the Randy Jackson character, his skin tone was taupe/yellow and we had to shift him to golden orange. [The actor] kindly let us shave his head and we painted his fresh baldpate and added key details to bring ‘Randy’ into focus.

Navi as Michael Jackson in Searching for Neverland

“We did the same with all the Jackson family. Joe Jackson was also a challenge. Thank goodness we had Richard Lawson, a seasoned thespian playing the role. We had to tweeze his eyebrows into a high arch and shave his bushy mustache into a thin pencil shape. Richard also helped us by getting his own green contacts. … I was very happy with the look. Katherine Jackson [played by Starletta DuPois] was also a challenge. I had to change her facial structure with paint and then drop on Ms. Jackson’s specific make-up look. This was the process we did with all of the doppelgangers in the show.”

Watch this short clip on the making of the movie: