Makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera had the tall task of transforming Viola Davis into the audacious blues singer Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” With shiny black eyeshadow, thin eyebrows and gold teeth, the stunning makeup work just earned Lopez-Rivera his first Oscar nomination, alongside hairstylists Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson. “I feel like I’ve been preparing my whole life for a period movie,” says Lopez-Rivera in an exclusive new interview for Gold Derby. “Ma Rainey’s character was an incredibly fun character to design for, given all the markers, all the psychology, all the social, historical facts of that time.” Watch the video interview above.
While Lopez-Rivera and the hair and makeup team could look to the “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stage show for reference, it was not an easy research process overall given the scarcity of real-life footage of the singer. “We had to fill in a lot of blanks, story-wise,” he reveals. “We wanted to get into the psychology of why did Ma wear a horsehair wig when she was performing or why would she be described by her contemporaries as the ugliest woman in show business?” Considering the lack of proper cosmetic products for Black women in the 1920s, Rainey had to figure things out for herself, with her vaudeville experience having some influence on her overall presentation.
Davis was instrumental in helping Lopez-Rivera find the courage to really go there with her character, telling him at one point in the process, “Please don’t try to make me pretty.” She encouraged him to think of Bette Davis and her excessively theatrical makeup in the 1962 classic “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” The character of Ma Rainey “required an actress to be very fearless and very comfortable with this,” observes Lopez-Rivera. “She gave me that final little push and it set me free.”
Lopez-Rivera and his team were thrilled to earn the Oscar nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, after a nerve-wracking leadup of anticipation. He likens the experience of becoming an Oscar nominee to being jet-lagged and feeling the symptoms of it while also hearing news you never expected to hear. “I made a screeching loud sound I believe only dolphins could hear,” he quips, of hearing of his nomination that morning. “I didn’t really come back to the ground for 48 hours.”
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