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Oscar-nominated makeup genius Kazu Hiro comes full circle with ‘Maestro’

Hiro first honed his craft in Japan, teaching himself how to change the contours of a face by trial and error. (AFP)
Hiro first honed his craft in Japan, teaching himself how to change the contours of a face by trial and error. (AFP)
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03 Mar 2024 03:03:26 GMT9
03 Mar 2024 03:03:26 GMT9

LOS ANGELES: When Kazu Hiro first started experimenting with makeup as a teenager in the 1980s, one face leapt out at him from books and magazines he saw in shops: legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Four decades later, the two-time Oscar winner has come full circle with “Maestro,” in which he transformed Bradley Cooper into the towering musical great.

And the makeup effects artist has another Academy Award in his sights.

“Leonard Bernstein was a big inspiration when I was a kid,” Hiro told AFP in an interview.

“Every time I create a human face, I need a reference photograph. And at that time, there was no internet,” the 54-year-old explained. “So I had to go to a bookstore.”

And the face he saw over and over was Bernstein’s. In the 1980s, the internationally acclaimed conductor had a packed concert schedule, along with teaching and composing.

Shortly after that, the Kyoto native saw Bernstein in a documentary on Japanese television.

“I was really inspired by what he was talking about,” Hiro said. “I thought, you know, ‘Someday, I want to work on a film about Leonard Bernstein.'”

Then in 2020, he got a call from Cooper, who directed, co-starred, and starred in “Maestro,” which offers a look at Bernstein’s life through the lens of his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).

“It’s really a passion project,” Hiro said. “Bradley and me love Leonard Bernstein so much.”

Hiro first honed his craft in Japan, teaching himself how to change the contours of a face by trial and error.

He moved to the United States in the 1990s, and ultimately became one of the most sought-after makeup artists in Hollywood.

Hiro has worked on dozens of films with A-list stars, including “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” transforming Jim Carrey into the beloved Dr. Seuss character, and “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” with Eddie Murphy.

But after earning two Oscar nominations—for “Norbit,” again starring Murphy, and “Click,” with Adam Sandler— Hiro walked away, “retiring” in 2012, and vowing to dedicate the next phase of his career to sculpture.

However, Tinseltown soon lured him back.

He transformed Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for “Darkest Hour” (2017), a feat that earned him his first Oscar.

Two years later, he earned another golden statuette for “Bombshell,” in which Charlize Theron morphed into television journalist Megyn Kelly.

Working with Cooper was a no-brainer, given his emotional connection to the subject matter.

When Cooper and Hiro first met in 2020, they talked about how to bring Bernstein to life, and effectively represent the nearly 50-year span the film covers.

The makeup artist divided the movie into five phases: from having to make Cooper, now 49, look younger, to progressively aging him.

Preproduction lasted longer than expected — in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also because of the project’s complexity.

Transforming Cooper into a young Bernstein took two and a half hours. The middle stage required three hours, and the final stage meant the actor was in the chair for about five hours “because he had to be covered from head to toe,” Hiro said.

“We are both kind of perfectionists,” Hiro said. “He conjured Leonard Bernstein from inside out.”

But that artistic feat brought other challenges.

When Netflix released the film’s first trailer last year, there was sharp criticism about Cooper’s use of a large prosthetic nose, with some saying the depiction of the Jewish maestro reflected anti-Semitic tropes.

Bernstein’s children Jamie, Alexander and Nina rallied to the movie’s defense, saying they were “perfectly fine” with the decision and adding: “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose.”

Hiro admits it was a “difficult” moment.

“I was really confused about it,” the artist said. “It took me a while to [digest it].”

“We had so much respect for Leonard Bernstein. And he happened to have that nose.”

Beyond the social media furor, many people who had known Bernstein told Hiro that his countless hours of analyzing features had paid off: that Cooper looked “exactly like Lenny.”

“That kind of proves that our goal was accomplished,” he said — a fact that seems confirmed by Hiro’s Oscar nomination, his fifth.

The artist and his team are the favorites to win the award for achievement in makeup and hairstyling at the Oscars gala on March 10, over teams from “Poor Things,” “Oppenheimer,” “The Society of the Snow” and “Golda.”


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