It’s one thing to mentally prepare to play a character in a movie or a play. It’s another thing to physically transform yourself in order to better identify with the role. Some transformations are only skin deep; extensive makeup or prosthetics may be sufficient to pull of the necessary look. Other transformations are more involved; many actors may take part in weeks, if not months, of preparations for a role. This can include intense training, specialized diets, and exhaustive exercise routines. The end result of an actor going through such a transformation is not only a more accurate visual resemblance, but also a confidence or familiarity with that character’s actions, skills, or demeanor.
One such transformation that an actor may go through for a role is to appear older than they are in real life. This happens most often when a film tells a story that intersects a character’s life at different times. Often these types of stories feature the character growing older over time, and so a character must visually age. Sometimes different actors may be used to portray the character at different stages in their life, but at others it is common to use the same actor and make them age through the use of makeup, prosthetics, and CGI. Below is a look at a few such roles, and in each case we’ll look at how the actor completed the change to appear older, and how effective their performance was for each respective film.
Helena Bonham Carter in Big Fish
Helena Bonham Carter is frequently cast in Tim Burton’s films because she used to be married to the director. In Big Fish, Carter didn’t have one role – she had three. She played the character Jenny, who is an old friend of the main character’s father, Edward. Jenny’s friendship with Edward is shown in a flashback. Later, Edward’s son meets Jenny in the present day, and so she is older. Carter pulled off the look thanks to some makeup and different hair styling. Carter’s third role in the film also required the actress to age. That role was to play a witch, for which Carter underwent 5 hours of prosthetics and makeup. The film was well received and went on to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Film.
David Bowie in The Hunger
The Hunger tells the story of a vampire and her partner, John Blaylock. Blaylock, portrayed by Bowie, was born human and then bitten to transform into a vampire. The film takes place 200 years after Blaylock was bitten, and he finds that he is suddenly aging very rapidly. The effects of being a vampire do allow him to live indefinitely, but his youth only stays with him for a certain period of time. In the film, Blaylock’s rapid aging required the use of a lot of prosthetics and makeup. Bowie said he had relied on his mime training in order to articulate the character’s increasingly elderly state since the prosthetics prevented the camera from seeing his facial expressions clearly. To this day, the special effects used in this film to make Bowie age hold up surprisingly well. Unfortunately, the film itself left critics and audiences scratching their heads because despite a fantastic opening scene and the performance by Bowie, it is rather boring. Regardless, the film has achieved cult-like status today.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather
The Godfather was based on Mario Puzo’s fictional novel by the same name. The novel focuses on the Corleone mafia family, of which Vito Corleone is the patriarch. In Puzo’s book, Vito is born in 1891, and is depicted in the first Godfather film during the years 1945-1955. During this time, Vito would have been 54 to 64 years old. Marlon Brando was hired to portray the character, but was aged with makeup and prosthetics in order to visually create the correct look. Famously, Brando stuffed kleenex into his cheeks in order to make his face look more ragged and provide the necessary vocal quality. At the time that The Godfather was released, Brando was 48 years old. The film would go on to win Best Picture, and Brando was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor, although he refused it.
Max von Sydow in The Exorcist
Sydow’s performance in The Exorcist is one of those performances where people may not recognize that the actor was in fact wearing heavy makeup. Sydow plays the elderly priest Father Lankester Merrin, who studies an ancient demon and is called to assist with an exorcism. At the time the film was released, Sydow was 44 years old, but Father Merrin was supposedly 74 years old. Credit for the impeccable transformation goes to veteran makeup artist Dick Smith, who was responsible for a few of the other transformations on this list. Smith’s work was so convincing that Sydow said that he was typecast as an elderly character in the years following – casting directors simply didn’t realize that he wasn’t that old. An older actor was not used to portray the character because there is a flashback at the beginning of the film showing the character as a younger man. The director did not want to have two different people playing the same character – he thought it wouldn’t be as convincing. The Exorcist would be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and Sydow would receive a nomination for best supporting actor at the Golden Globes.
Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
The second vampire flick, and second Francis Ford Coppola film (oddly enough) on this list makes heavy use of makeup and prosthetics to create several different looks for its titular character. At the beginning of the film, Dracula appears as a younger man, and the reason behind his transformation is shown. Centuries later, he appears in his most human formas the famous character. Gary Oldman was 34 years old at the time, but his makeup, hairstyle, and prosthetics made him appear as an old man. The makeup artists made sure to create his appearance in a way that would seem just beyond human as connotation towards his dark powers. Later in the film, he is transformed into a bat, a wolf, and a demon. With each transformation, the makeup team tried to maintain the same facial structure so that Oldman wouldn’t get lost in the special effects. The film would go on to win Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup.
Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man
Little Big Man is another film where the main character is shown as a young man and an old man, and both parts are played by the same actor. In this case, the actor was Dustin Hoffman. The films starts in present times and depicts the main character Jack as an 121 year old man. Jack is retelling his life story to a historian, and the film flashes backward in time to depict those events. For most of the film, Hoffman portrays Jack at approximately the same age as the actor. For the eldery scenes, Hoffman is in heavy makeup with prosthetics. Dick Smith (see The Exorcist above) was responsible for the look, and this film marked the first use of false eyelids that could blink along with the actor. Hoffman reportedly screamed at the top of his lungs in his dressing room before each filming session in order to create the character’s raspy voice.
Jo Van Fleet in Wild River
Wild River takes place during the Great Depression and tells the story of a man who is sent to convince an elderly woman to sell her property because it will be flooded once a dam is built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. That eldery woman is portrayed by Jo Van Fleet. Van Fleet was 45 years old at the time, and yet her character is supposed to be twice as old. To pull off the look, Van Fleet had to endure 5 hours of makeup and hair styling everyday before filming. They added wrinkles and age spots to her face, and lightened and disheveled her hair to make it white. The result was an incredible transformation in a time before realistic prosthetics. Jo Van Fleet’s performance is even more amazing when you consider the fact that the actor who portrayed her character’s son was actually 16 years older than Van Fleet herself.
Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America
Once Upon a Time in America was Sergio Leone’s magnum opus as well as his swan song. It is an epic gangster movie that retells the story of a group of characters over many decades. The main character is nicknamed “Noodles” and is portrayed by Robert De Niro. The film’s narration is told from the perspective of an older Noodles looking back at his life of crime. Although younger actors were used to portray Noodles as a kid in the 1920’s, De Niro portrays the character from 1932 onward until the “present day” of the movie, which is 1968. Makeup is used to age De Niro through these 36 years. Leone’s original cut of the film was a two-parter with each part being more than 3 hours long. Distributors ended up cutting a majority of the footage to create a 2 hour version that was originally released in American cinemas. The editing of that version of the film made it largely incomprehensible, and as such it was a flop in theaters. In recent times, there has been renewed interest in the more complete versions of the film, and as such it has been reconsidered as a masterpiece. Many critics have applauded the film’s proficient use of makeup, which convincingly aged not only De Niro but several of the other actors as well, especially given Leone’s obsession with close-up shots.
Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Tom Wilson, and Crispin Glover in Back to the Future
In Back to the Future, main character Marty McFly travels back in time from 1985 to 1955. In 1955, he meets his parents who are his own age, as well as the younger version of his father’s boss, as well as the man who invented the time machine. For the 1955 scenes, which consist of a majority of the films’ run time, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover, who play Marty’s parents, are acting similar to their own age. In 1985, the film uses makeup and prosthetics to make them look older. For Doc Brown, the same is true, but there are no prosthetics for the older Doc Brown – the filmmakers simply whitened his hair and used some makeup to make him seem older. Of course, Back to the Future was a huge box office hit in theaters and to this day remains very popular. Part of the reason it is such a fun film is because of how it shows change over time and the impacts of change on future events. In the sequel, Michael J. Fox would get to join his costars in their use of makeup and prosthetics as he would not only depict an older version of himself, but also his future children as teenagers.