By Solvej Schou
October 30, 2012 at 01:00 PM EDT
Reiner Bajo

Halle Berry as an old, wrinkled Korean man? You read that right. The youthfully smooth-skinned actress is transformed into that and more in Cloud Atlas, which hit theaters last Friday.

Berry may be considered one of the most gorgeous women in the world, but in the epic sci-fi movie by siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix), and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), she literally becomes six different characters that bypass ethnic and gender lines. While watching the movie, you do a “Where’s Waldo” double take, spotting the Oscar winner as German-Jewish woman Jocasta Ayrs in 1936 or in 2144 as older Korean man Dr. Ovid, with a wispy mustache and a strange, protruding eye piece embedded into his face.

Berry, herself born to a black father and a white mother, scared the hell out of her then 3-year-old daughter Nahla while filming in character as Dr. Ovid.

“The real test was that my daughter saw all of my costumes, and loved them, but one day, when I came up to her as Dr. Ovid, she looked at the guy, and thought he was probably weird, because of his eye thing,” Berry told EW. “Then when I said, ‘Hi sweetheart,’ she had an out of body experience. I swear I saw her little spirit leave her body and go to Cleveland. She’s still not over it. It was so terrifying for her, to hear my voice coming out of that man.”

The focus throughout the transformation process was believability — the audience had to truly feel Berry was a Korean man, a German-Jewish woman, and other characters. The actress worked intensely with costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud (Albert Nobbs) and hair and makeup artist Daniel Parker (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) on the film’s three storylines directed by Tykwer, and with costume designer Kym Barrett (The Matrix trilogy, The Amazing Spider-Man) and hair and makeup artist Jeremy Woodhead (V for Vendetta, The Lord of the Rings films) on the three storylines directed by the Wachowskis. “It’s much more difficult to be subtle than to be obvious. With older age makeup, you really need to do it with a light hand,” said Woodhead. Added Parker, “Jeremy and I have the same philosophy to makeup, that do as much as possible with as little as possible.”

Another complication was that Berry had accidentally broken her foot during the first few days of shooting in Spain, and dealt with pain while running around as the different characters. “Halle’s a great subject to work on. She enjoys the makeup to inhabit her character,” said Woodhead. “Even with all the discomfort she was going through, it was necessary to the story of each character. There was no vanity. There was no, ‘I want to look beautiful.’”

In the 1849 plot line, Berry plays a heavily tattooed enslaved older woman on a tobacco plantation, who only looks up briefly. In the 1936 storyline, she’s Ayrs, complete with a prosthetic nose, light skin and blonde hair, a languidly clothed trophy wife unhappily married to a composer played by Jim Broadbent. In 1973, she stars as investigative journalist Luisa Rey, with a fluffy ‘70s shag wig and retro clothes, but no prosthetics. In the 2012 storyline, she only appears briefly as an attractive modern-day Indian woman at a party wearing a red sari, locking eyes with Tom Hanks’ character, a writer. In the 2144 segment set in futuristic Neo Seoul, she radically transforms into Dr. Ovid, totally unrecognizable. In 2346, she plays Meronym, a beautifully futuristic emissary on post-apocalyptic Earth clothed in a body suit and hailing from an advanced group of humans called Prescients, and attempting to communicate with her people via wires snaking through her hair and face.

“I had six weeks to prep [the makeup], before we started shooting, last year. Normally one would have two to three months prep, minimum,” said Parker. “It was make it work, or don’t. We made it work. We were doing tests right until 10 days before the end of shooting. It was very chaotic.”

Halle as an enslaved tribeswoman

Even though it was a small part with no lines, Berry felt a sense of spiritual kinship with the enslaved character, given her own family history (Berry’s great-great-grandmother was a slave). “At one time, the character was supposed to be a he, and then we decided that no, she should be a he,” Berry said.

A prosthetic neckpiece and cheeks were applied to Berry’s face. Once those were on, and covered with makeup, a the team added a layer of swirling “tattoos” to mimic those seen on characters later in the movie, in the most futuristic yet heavily tribal 2346 segment, and on wallpaper in 2144’s Neo Seoul, to tie the film together. “The shapes are Maori, mixed with Polynesian,” Woodhead said. “We put the [short grey] wig on, and that aged Halle even more, and lenses, to take the life out of her eyes, with cataracts.” Her makeup would take about four hours, Berry said.

The main actors in the movie, from Berry to Tom Hanks, Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon, were all outfitted in custom-made costumes. As the enslaved tribeswoman, Halle wears a cape that looks black and fibrous. “I wanted to give Halle some kind of clothing that could be manufactured at a kind of mobile loom,” Barrett said.

The makeup artists and costume designers also threw in the color green throughout the film as a way to create continuity. “We didn’t know how they [the filmmakers] would cut all the segments together,” said Barrett. “We had to come up with a basic color scheme, so which ever way the scenes would be put together, they weren’t too jarring. There was a subconscious visual continuance through time.”

Halle as Jocasta Ayrs

As Jocasta Ayrs, Berry went through the most time intensive transformation out of the six characters. Her “little pug nose,” Berry said, was replaced by a wider prosthetic one to look like a German-Jewish woman in the 1930s, and her light brown skin lightened to a honey shade. Getting the right color of Caucasian skin tone was especially hard. “There’s many levels of it, and hues of it, and undertones that have to be there, or it’s just flat,” said Berry, adding that makeup artist Parker “worked and worked, and we made four or five tests. It was like an eight-hour makeup because of the lightening of the skin. It had to be real.”

Berry, in the movie, does look utterly different, but believable as a white woman. “The nose went through several transformations, to the point that I wanted this to be so subtle, yet so elegant, and a European nose.” said Parker. “Then the wig was made to measure for her, specific with the color, kept very warm. Everything was there to help us believe she was European. Halle was also completely convincing with her accent.”

As for Jocasta’s sleek gowns – a black one sports revealing shoulder cutouts and a thin, black belt with gold accents – costume designer Gayraud drew inspiration from Swedish Marlene Dietrich lookalike Ingrid Thulin in 1969’s The Damned, plus iconic ‘30s German actresses such as Dietrich. “We wanted a long silhouette, very aristocratic, stylish, pure, without any extravaganza,” said Gayraud. “Our plan was to design an elegant character simply sophisticated with lovely accessories. I found in Paris original fabrics and we cut her dresses in.” The gowns, thankfully, easily covered Berry’s foot cast, said Gayraud.

Halle as journalist Luisa Rey

Berry, already a fan of ‘70s clothes and shoes, only wore a realistically wavy brown wig, and no prosthetics, to play the role of an investigative journalist uncovering corruption at a power plant. “I have a pair of jeans that came just under my boobs, which let me know I’m in another era, because that’s so not where we are today,” she said, laughing. “The shoes I had to wear were really vintage shoes that just made you feel different. You knew that somehow it was a different time.” Her turtlenecks also hover high around her neck.

Gayraud looked to ‘70s-era actresses Sally Field and Jane Fonda, and based Berry’s original costumes on vintage finds. “It’s a mix of corduroy suits, ethnic pieces, simply casual,” he said. Because of Berry’s broken foot, and all the pants Luisa Rey wears, he had to open up the sides of her trousers. “The big deal was the shoes,” said Gayraud. “She had very high hills [to climb] so the shoemaker made a special ‘trompe l’œil’ [an art-based optical illusion] platform” for wide shots and the original pair for close-up shots. “But at the end it’s incredible how Halle arrived to walk and made the illusion,” he said.

Halle as an Indian woman 

Even for a mere moment of a character such as Berry’s unnamed, silent red sari-wearing Indian woman in a segment set at a party in 2012, makeup tests were required, and an emotionally felt made-up backstory, said Berry. “If you haven’t thought about what it is you’re saying [through just your eyes], then you can betray that sense of feeling,” she said. As the woman, Berry sports a nose piercing and a long brown wig with long, eye-skimming bangs. The sari was improvised over a day in the film’s costume workshop, said Gayraud.

“This was very much a cameo role, a small part. She also did have somebody doing her makeup, Sian Richards, and he was completely responsible for that,” said Parker. “The actors would say to the directors, ‘I want to be in this part of the film. Could you write me in?’ You had to think of these things off the cuff, in this instance. Suddenly, you’ll see Jim Broadbent as a hippie buying a book in a shop, which was enormous fun. Both Jeremy and I had to deal with these quick changes, which was a challenge, but a fun challenge.”

Halle as Dr. Ovid

More than any other part of the film, Berry is just plain unrecognizable as older Korean man Dr. Ovid, who removes the neck shackle from a conscripted clone worker played by Korean actress Doona Bae in Neo Seoul. Berry especially loved playing the role, but hated Dr. Ovid’s teeth, which she called “just horrific” (“Like one of my greatest fears is that my teeth are going to fall out, or I’m going to have to get fake teeth, or implants, or veneers,” she moaned).

Dr. Ovid’s spotted, aged male skin and patchy black facial hair obviously look nothing like Berry. The part was filmed later than the others, Woodhead said, so there wasn’t time for a makeup test, which was incredibly nerve-wracking. It would take six hours to layer on all the prosthetics, and do Berry’s coloring.

“We really pushed the boat out, and it didn’t need to look like Halle. She was made to look like a man, about 80-years-old,” said Woodhead. “It’s quite an extreme makeup. It’s a multi piece prosthetic with hair, and I wanted it to have a motorized eyepiece built into the prosthetic. She just sat in the chair and giggled. The more of Halle we took away, the more she loved it. It transformed a beautiful young woman like Halle into an older Korean man.”

Berry wore a green smock and pants, and a rubbery white apron, all feeding into Dr. Ovid’s backstory of working within a political resistance setting, maybe in an old veterinary repurposed office, said Barrett. “He’s probably a vet by day. His underground job is this,” she said. “If he’s splayed with blood, he can run back upstairs to his job.”

The makeup, the prosthetics, the clothes, also helped Berry wipe clean the way she as a woman acted and moved, the way she thought about herself. She also worked with a dialect coach to lower the register of her voice and adopt a Korean accent, even though she spoke English as Dr. Ovid.

“Just being a man, there was a certain different carriage to my body, a different gate I walked with. Even though I didn’t walk in the movie, I had it all figured out,” Berry said. “I just tried to get in touch with the masculinity within me, and try to bring that forward. Men have that too [femininity]. We’re all masculine and feminine.”

Halle as Meronym

As almost angelic emissary Meronym, playing opposite Tom Hanks as primitive tattooed leader Zachry, Berry moved around in skintight white and wires looping through her hair and face, despite her broken foot. Still, she spent a lot of time constructing her character to appear almost supernatural.

“The way it was explained to me by Tom and Lana and Andy was that there was this regal-ness about this woman, and she had to feel otherworldly,” Berry said. “It was trying to find the balance of being this high priestess, but making her powerful and real and palpable.”

To emphasize Meronym’s sophisticated status next to Hanks, the difference between them, their cultures, Woodhead wanted to show through prosthetics a modernized evolution of the way humans communicate. The segment’s time period is devoid of cell phones.

“All the stuff on Halle’s face are under the skin communication devices. The Meronym level of implant is an evolution from the Neo Seoul story,” said Woodhead. “With her hair, there are metallic wires that run through it, connected to dispatching information and communication. I had a whole library of shapes and wires and motifs made and molded for me.” But Berry still looked lovely, like herself, Woodhead said.

Barrett extended the wires and implants makeup concept into Berry’s costume, with little transmitter-like devices woven into the body suit to suggest being able to track Meronym’s heartbeat and respiration. Barrett philosophized a whole reasoning for the outfit, which was made of a stretch kind of pleather material, and made tightly over Berry’s own body form.

“When it’s cold, the fibers would contract to keep you warmer, and if it’s warm, they could open up to keep you cooler. It would be an evolution from now,” said Barrett. “And it’s also a sun repellant, and the sun is killing them [Meronym’s people the Prescients], so white is better than black. The perforations in the jacket are the same as Zachry’s tattoos.”

As for Berry’s broken foot? The costume was custom made to accommodate.

“We had to make a special body suit that zipped from the ankle to the thigh, so she could fit her cast underneath,” said Barrett. “She really was a trooper, since she had to wriggle into it. … She had to be carried up a hill by two burly guys.”

For more film news Follow @solvej_schou

Read more:

Movie Talk with Owen & Lisa: ‘Cloud Atlas’ ‘wants to be a mind-bender’

‘Cloud Atlas’: The biggest changes from the book to the movie

Toronto Film Festival: ‘Cloud Atlas’ premiere lands an emotional standing ovation for cast, including Halle Berry, Tom Hanks

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  • 164 minutes
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