Get a Behind the Scenes Look at Movie Tricks

Find out how Hollywood turns one actor into another in films like Looper.

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In Rian Johnson’s upcoming sci-fi film Looper (opening September 28), Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a put-upon working stiff whose job it is perform sub rosa assassinations on criminals who have been sent to him from the future. What better way to hide a body than to hide it in the past where it will have decomposed by the time anyone in the present knows their gone? Gordon-Levitt’s character is taken aback, however, when he learns he has to assassinate an older version of himself, played by Bruce Willis.

While that does sound pretty dang cool, my first thought was probably similar to yours: Joseph Gordon-Levitt will grow up to be Bruce Willis? The two look nothing alike. Especially given the fact that we’ve been watching Willis since he was about Gordon-Levitt’s age. As such, the filmmakers have bothered to, in subtle ways, alter Gordon-Levitt’s face so that he could, conceivably, look like a young Bruce Willis. Most notably, his eyes and eyebrows look different. He hardly looks like himself.

This is not the first time an actor has been transformed into another person, of course. Hollywood has a long tradition of age makeup and complicated ever-advancing makeup technologies. And while we look to something like, say The Wolf Man or Planet of the Apes for exemplars of the craft, far more impressive (and indeed, often winning more Academy Awards) are the makeup jobs that change a person rather than creating a new species. Not to belittle ape men, but actually creating the infinite minutiae of the human face seems like a bigger challenge. Moreso when you have to make one face look like another existing face.

How do they do it? Well, here’s a brief look at some of the technicals of the makeup trade. This may not make you an expert, but it may have you looking at the movies in a slightly different way.

The eyes. When you see an actor, it’s likely you’ll spend most of your time looking at their eyes. And while you can’t change the shape of an actor’s skull with makeup, you can change their eyes, and I’m not just talking about colored contact lenses. Take a look at Gordon-Levitt’s face in Looper, and what will stand out the most are probably his eyebrows. They were shaped and shaved and plucked and painted to look more like Willis’. What’s more, Willis has a differently-shaped brow, requiring either layers of paint, or a small prosthesis. One can also change the shape of one’s eye sockets with latex prosthetics, although that technique is typically only used when making creature makeup.

The shape of the face. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a square jaw and long neck. Willis, in contrast, has a rounder face and a thicker neck. Willis also has a small mouth, while Gordon-Levitt has a wider smile. By using a thick layer of makeup (and, no doubt, through no small amount of facial acting) Gordon-Levitt’s face was given Willis’ larger cheeks. Prosthetic strips would also have to be glued to Gordon-Levitt’s jaw and neck, subtly altering his face. This is a subtle balance. You want one actor to look like another, but not to the point where you can no longer see any of the original actor. It’s possible to make Eddie Murphy look like an old Jewish white man, but that’s a special effect, and not intended to see the subtlety of Murphy’s performance. Add some, but not too much. As such, Gordon-Levitt’s lips and nose were left pretty much alone for Looper. An actor, after all, needs their lips to emote and to speak, so it would be unwise to cover their lips with a prosthetic. Better to allow the actor to add that subtle physicality to their performance.

Hairline. Bruce Willis had a high hairline, even in his early 30s. And while it may seem elementary to give someone the right haircut, it’s actually a very subtle process. A haircut does not a character make. Look at JGL’s hair. It’s his hair, but it’s not his haircut. Bald wigs are pretty common in the Hollywood makeup box, and haircuts even more so. 

Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by TriStar Pictures.