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

Cloud Atlas

Current Status
In Season
164 minutes
Wide Release Date
Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Tom Hanks
Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Warner Bros.

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.”

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