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Xun Zhou may not be a known name in the United States, but in China she's seriously huge: a doe-eyed, high cheek-boned beauty with statuesque charm. That's what makes her three very different characters and looks in centuries-spanning sci-fi film Cloud Atlas – from a blue-eyed tribal woman in 2346 and a bob-haired clone in 2144 to a male hotel manager in 1973 – all the more striking.
Zhou, in her Western film debut, stars alongside a slew of famous American faces – Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon among them – playing multiple roles in the movie, which opened on Friday. Makeup artist Daniel Parker (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud (Albert Nobbs), and makeup artist Jeremy Woodhead (V for Vendetta, The Lord of the Rings films), and costume designer Kym Barrett (The Matrix, The Amazing Spider-Man) worked in teams to create the actress' looks for the film, which stretches six plotlines and 500 years. EW spoke exclusively to Woodhead, Parker and Barrett, and with Gayraud and Zhou by email, on Zhou's radical transformations, and what it was like for her to take on the features of a European woman, and a man.
"The great challenge is not to have it look like makeup, but to have a delicate touch," said Woodhead. "To believe it, as not just 'that's black makeup, or white makeup.' For the cameos, people have to accept it right there and then."
Zhou as Rose
In the plotline based in the futuristic yet tribal year of 2346, Zhou plays Rose, the sister-in-law of Zachry (Tom Hanks). A stranger to their gritty encampment, Meronym (Halle Berry), saves Rose's daughter after she's attacked by an animal. "For Rose, I become a white, Caucasian woman. After the makeup, I think my features resemble[d] some Columbians I'd seen before, exotic enough to the Chinese eye," said Zhou.
Shifting Zhou's face and ethnicity, however, was a challenge, Woodhead said. "We made her eyes blue, like Tom's. She wore blue lenses. There was a prosthetic forehead and nose," he said. "Asians have a flat eyelid. I created a false crease in the end of the prosthetic, to create a more European eye. There were tribal tattoos to be done. They were all over her body, all over her legs and her arms, and that was quite complicated to do. Finally, we put all her own Chinese hair away. She still looked kind of Asian, until we put a curly wig on her. She called all her friends in, and said, 'I'm white! I'm white!'"
As for the character's woven clothes, Barrett used a color that complemented Zhou's altered face and eyes. "I put her in yellow, because in some ways she's a heroine, and holds a kind of special place, and is the hearth of the family," Barrett said. "Every costume she has is a golden yellow… like a sunrise. She was very pretty, anyway. She was easy."
Zhou as Yoona-939
As a "fabricant" – a genetically engineered clone restaurant worker/slave in New Seoul in 2144 – Zhou takes on the part of independently-minded Yoona-939, who urges fellow clone Sonmi-451 (Korean actress Doona Bae) to rebel against their rigid lives. The clone women sport a hyper Mod vibe, with almost identical Vidal Sassoon style bobbed hairstyles and sexy white go-go dresses. The fast food place where they work is bright and neon, an over-the-top urban wasteland.
"Yoona is a waitress clone with a strip of dyed hair," said Zhou. "Personally I don't like a strip of dyed hair and would try my best to cut it off. This for me could be an act of self-awareness. While playing Yoona, I was imagining how a human being with feelings could endure the dumbing world [of Neo Seoul] and keep herself together."
Woodhead designed the wigs Zhou, Bae and the other clones wore to look very '60s, but in a futuristic way, while the makeup was designed to play up Zhou's natural beauty. About 120 wigs were made for all the women, he said. "As I was taking the wig off [of the actress], the crown got higher and higher, and I thought, 'That's better!' I made bubble wrap domes to put under the crown," he said. "We tried to unify Xun's makeup and wigs with the other clones. All the clones have the same wigs, but with different streaks. There were subtle differences in their costumes, in blue, in pink. So we coordinated the streaks with the costumes."
While Zhou doesn't have a lot of lines, she's very expressive with her face, especially her eyes. Barrett wanted to emphasize the subtle differences between Zhou and Bae, though they're supposed to look essentially the same. "When Xun plays Yoona, she's very aristocratic, defiantly aristocratic, and you see her side by side with Sonmi, who's softer. I wanted to give them a really graphic, simple silhouette. In the end, Jeremy gave them the wigs for a similar reason. It's not until you look at their face that you see that they're different."
Zhou's costume, complete with a deceptively decorative gold neck shackle, underscore how Yoona and her fellow clones are completely objectified and interchangeable. It's a frightening future.
"People usually look at their bottoms and legs. That's why we chose that body-revealing, retro, doll-like look. Everyone's who's a danger to them is always looking at their bodies," said Barrett. "We wanted them to look like gift-wrapped cheap candy, disposable. It infantilizes things. Girls look like dolls. Food looks like toys. Everything is not worth anything, including a human."
Zhou as Talbot/Hotel manager
Though the audience only gets a fleeting glimpse of Zhou as a male hotel manager in the plotline set in 1973, the actress is transformed so completely, she's almost unrecognizable. It was a welcome, if strange, change for the actress.
"I play a guy as a hotel manager, which I've never done before and [it was] kind of fun for me to try," said Zhou, whose Chinese film roles highlight her prettiness. "The guy is timid in mood and awkward in gait. The makeup artists have me grow [a] beard and all that. [It made] me laugh looking at myself in the mirror."
How do you cover the body and features of a gorgeous actress realistically to make her into a believably gawky hotel employee? As Gayraud noted, Zhou immersed herself in the character. "It was like a joke for her to jump into this mustard '70s uniform, with a little mustache," he said. "We used very flat shoes… reduced her lovely silhouette to a sticky guy."
Added makeup artist Parker, "It was a question of 'What can you do to this incredibly beautiful woman to make her look male?' It was done with a wig, to get that '70s look." Parker also enlarged Zhou's eyebrows with tiny flecks of paint, making them bigger, deeper, less delicate.
"I gave her these moles, and roughened up her skin with paint," Parker said. "Both Jeremy and I are artists, painters and sculptors. At the end, I asked her, 'What do you think?' She said, 'I think it's horrible, but it's bloody brilliant!' She's not used to being unglamoured. Like Halle, she took it on board, and played with it. It was great to work with her."
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