Film

His darkest hours behind him, Kazuhiro Tsuji returns to Hollywood and Oscar glory

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

After two Academy Award nominations for his work doing makeup and hairstyling on the films “Click” (2006) and “Norbit” (2007), Kazuhiro Tsuji finally got his hands on an Oscar to call his own at last month’s ceremony.

The 48-year-old Kyoto native was recognized for the dazzling feat of turning Gary Oldman into British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for Joe Wright’s pulsating blockbuster “Darkest Hour.”

“I’d heard we’d probably win, so I wasn’t surprised by the announcement,” Tsuji tells The Japan Times, though he admits he still “spent the night worrying about (his) speech.”

Tsuji’s well-deserved prize almost didn’t happen, however. The hyper-realist sculptor had to be convinced to come out of retirement for the film and it took a request from Oldman himself — who’d said he would only do the film if Tsuji was on board.

“I’d had enough,” Tsuji says of Hollywood. “Dealing with actors and directors was difficult, and the hours were horrible. I was stress eating and the whole thing was damaging my physical and mental health.”

Despite a deep passion for his work, Tsuji felt he couldn’t continue with such a demanding lifestyle and, in his 40s, started considering other career paths.

“I’d created a portrait of (American special makeup effects artist) Dick Smith and realized that was more meaningful,” Tsuji says. “It was something I believed in as opposed to a diluted piece of work that people had demanded of me.

“I spoke to Dick a couple of years before his death (in 2014) about regrets. That was around the time I decided to make a change and focus on sculpturing.”

Smith (“The Godfather,” “The Exorcist”) was a hero of Tsuji’s for decades. It was his work that first piqued Tsuji’s interest in special effects makeup when the young artist came across photos in a copy of Fangoria magazine showing how Smith transformed actor Hal Holbrook into U.S. President Abraham Lincoln for a 1976 TV mini series. Tsuji attempted the same process on his own face and sent the results to Smith.

“I found Dick’s postal address and was surprised when he replied,” Tsuji says. “After corresponding for a while, he came to Japan to work on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film ‘Sweet Home’ and invited me on set to do makeup.”

Smith also helped Tsuji with his career in the United States. Both he and special effects designer Eddie Yang championed the young Japanese artist’s skills to multiple Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, who in turn sponsored Tsuji to work on the 1997 film “Men in Black.”

“I ended up working with Rick for over a decade,” Tsuji says. “Initially I found it difficult to adapt to the American working culture as people seemed a bit lazy and I was eager to improve everything. Subsequently, there were lots of arguments early on and I came across as this crazy Japanese workaholic.”

Tsuji became one of the most sought-after makeup artists in Hollywood and worked on numerous high-profile films such as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000), an experience that temporarily led to Tsuji seeing a therapist.

Since quitting the industry in 2012, he has created a number of realistic portrait sculptures of renowned figures such as Lincoln, and artists Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. With the freedom to choose his own projects, Tsuji had no desire to return to film.

That is, until Oldman reached out in 2016. The two had first met when Tsuji did a face cast of the actor for Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes” (in the end the role was given to Tim Roth following a pay dispute).

“I was surprised to get the message,” Tsuji says. “We arranged to meet, and he told me about Churchill, adding that he was only going to accept if I did the makeup. That was flattering to hear, so I asked for a week to think it over.”

Tsuji eventually agreed with a key provision — he’d be responsible for devising the look, but the daily on-set application had to be done by David Malinowski (chosen by Oldman) and Lucy Sibbick.

“They were two of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” Tsuji adds. “I was only on set at the beginning and then the odd time checking that things were going well.

“I decided to do it for two reasons. Firstly, it was a massive opportunity to create an important, historical person for a movie; something I’d wanted to do since I saw Dick’s creation of Lincoln. The second reason was Gary. There are very few actors in the world that have his ability to transform themselves into a totally distinctive character.”

It wasn’t the first time an actor had requested Tsuji. Joseph Gordon-Levitt needed to look like a young Bruce Willis for the 2012 movie “Looper” and felt there was only one man for the job.

“I initially refused because it seemed impossible,” Tsuji recalls. “Joe’s a good friend, though, and I felt if someone was going to mess up for him it should be me. I enjoyed the movie but wasn’t satisfied with the look.”

He was much happier with the way his Churchill turned out, especially given the enormity of the task. Transforming a lean, oval-faced Oldman into the inspirational prime minister, who saw himself as a mixture of a bulldog and a cherub, was never going to be easy.

Nervous about getting things wrong and destroying the movie, Tsuji prepared meticulously, beginning the process with a lifecast and body scan of Oldman. He then gathered photographs and watched numerous documentaries about Churchill, so he could gain a better understanding of the former prime minister’s appearance, mentality and skills.

“He’s often portrayed as a grumpy old man, whereas I saw someone with charm, humor and intelligence,” Tsuji explains. “Though subtle, I think you can see these characteristics in the makeup.”

It’s estimated that Oldman, now 60, spent more than 200 hours in the makeup chair as Malinowski and Sibbick applied prosthetics each day. The work was so convincing that the actor gasped in shock when he first saw himself as Churchill.

“People would stare at me because the makeup was so good that you could literally stand an inch from me and you couldn’t tell I was wearing any,” Oldman told Deadline.

While “Darkest Hour” missed out on the best picture accolade at the Academy Awards, Oldman picked up his first-ever Oscar for his masterful portrayal of the prime minister. Tsuji, Malinowski and Sibbick were equally deserving of the gold statue they received in the best makeup and hairstyling category.

“I was very proud to get the award. Obviously, having quit the industry I thought my chance had gone,” Tsuji says. “I remember Gary and I joking about how stupid we must have looked. I’d retired from film and he said he wouldn’t do anything with heavy makeup after ‘Hannibal,’ yet there we were.

The artist pauses and chuckles, “Then we vowed to call it quits if we both won Oscars! We’ll have to see how that turns out. I’m not interested in the film industry, but I would be prepared to do makeup again if it were meaningful for me, as was the case with Churchill.”

“Darkest Hour” (Japan title: “Winston Churchill: Hitler kara Sekai o Sukutta Otoko”) is now playing in cinemas nationwide.