Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with prosthetics designer Göran Lundström about the few weeks he had to secure Jared Leto’s radical transformation in House of Gucci.
Facial transformations can basically go one of two ways. You can force a new face atop an old face, or you can exaggerate the face you have to uncover an emotional truth. For House of Gucci, there was discussion and dispute when it came to reshaping Jared Leto into cousin Paolo. The person they initially tasked with designing the prosthetics was not working out, so the actor personally got Göran Lundström on the phone. After the impromptu interview, the Swedish makeup effects geek propelled himself into his lab. He had three weeks to design something Leto and director Ridley Scott would approve.
As performed by Leto, Paolo Gucci is a screaming, exposed nerve. To bury him in latex would sever his connectivity with the character. The actor could not disappear, but the audience could not recognize Leto from their numerous other cinematic encounters with him either. And, oh, yeah, Leto rejected the idea of shaving his head. He’s got a long, sumptuously flowing mane, and Paolo is quite bald. Three weeks, Lundström. Make it work.
And make it work, he did.
Collaborating with wigmaker and hairstylist AnnaCarin Lock, Lundström concocted a method to suppress Leto’s real hair so they could construct Paolo’s receding dome above. On day one, it looked one way; on day two, another. They tinkered continuously, letting worry give way to necessity. This is the job.
“You don’t really want to think about all the problems you can run into,” says Lundström. “You do it automatically. Then, you go like, ‘If I’m going to say yes to this, let’s not think about difficulties. Let’s try to figure out what I can do. But, of course, it’s not ideal to get the job that late. So, I had no time, no warning.”
With weeks instead of months, Lundström leaned into his talent and craft. He had to trust that he had the skill to accomplish what the film demanded. He convinced Jared Leto that he would pull Paolo from the actor’s physical structure. He wouldn’t pile on; he would sculpt.
“You have to trust your gut instincts,” he says. “You have to go with something you believe in. It’s a matter of not second-guessing yourself. The main thing I did with this one was try not to create Paolo Gucci. I tried to create a new person. We looked at the real Paolo Gucci, and I took some inspiration from him.”
House of Gucci is not Dick Tracy. Lundström did not create Pruneface, Flattop, and the gang. He stayed away from Leto’s eyes, maintaining the actor’s connection to the audience. Restraint is critical to creation. Do less; apply less.
“The good thing is that Jared has a very chiseled jawline,” says Lundström. “It’s very sharp, and he has a thin neck. Paolo didn’t really have a jawline. He was not fat, but he didn’t have that jawline. He had that extra flabby bit under his chin. I was like, ‘Okay, what can I do to change Jared? I can take away that jawline.’ Then it’s not going to be Jared anymore. We really didn’t do much more.”
Leto’s hair became the largest hurdle to cross. Compacting it beneath the typical bald cap would not work. Invention was required.
“Jared turned 50 last year,” Lundström explains. “He doesn’t have anything physically that says that he’s 50. He looks so young. His hair is so thick. His hair was so long. I’ve never seen a man with that much hair. When I got the job, I saw him on Zoom, but normally, you would meet the actor, you get to touch their hair. And you would go, ‘Okay, this is going to be a problem.’ And then, I met him on the first day, and I went like, ‘Oh, I knew his hair was long, but I didn’t know it was this thick. Where do we hide this hair?'”
Lundström designed a three-piece silicone bald cap. Underneath, he inserted Leto’s hair into a balloon that looked something like a condom, and it held the mane down. The silicone bald cap, in three stages, is extremely flexible, and it also suppresses any lumpiness caused by Leto’s actual hair below.
“I didn’t know where his hairline was,” he says, “because I never met him. I did everything based on a scan, which is also really rare. I did the bald cap in three parts. I did the temples separately so I could move them along and fit over his hairline. Then, the top part goes where it should sit, hiding the hair. We changed that every day. We did makeup, the hair, every day.”
During the design process, during those first three weeks before shooting, Lundström never discovered an ah-ha moment. He merely reached a place where they could start. Solving the problem of Jared Leto’s hair was an ongoing activity.
“The way we rolled up the hair,” he continues, “when AnnaCarin did it, it looked different. She tried to figure out how to get the silhouette to look as best as possible. I remember on the first day; she would keep saying to me, ‘I don’t like the silhouette. Oh, I don’t like it. Don’t show him from the side.’ Then, the next day, she changed it. But that’s what we do. For this job, it was basically not figuring everything out from the beginning, but doing it while we were filming.”
Jared Leto’s instruction to Lundström was that he did not want to recognize himself in the mirror. He needed access to the outside world, unburdened from a latex coffin, but Paolo also demanded mutation.
“That’s a really rare one,” says Lundström. “Most of the time, producers and directors want to see the actor, but this was all driven by Jared. If you do Coming 2 America, the whole concept is to put these famous actors in makeup, so they could play other characters, and we know about it. But the audience is not supposed to know there’s any prosthetics in House of Gucci.”
The audience’s focus should remain exclusively on Paolo as a person. Lundström’s application should be the furthest thing from their minds. That’s not necessarily the case for other jobs like Colin Farrell‘s Penguin, as seen in The Batman, another character Lundström recently completed alongside designer Michael Marino.
“People don’t expect not to recognize Colin,” he says. “But it’s also a fantasy movie. It’s still a comic book movie, so you have some leeway there. He’s supposed to look not a hundred percent believable. He’s supposed to look like a grand character, a larger-than-life character. That helps a little bit, even if it is a really good makeup. It still helps that you don’t have to make it believable, that people want it to look really cool, and I think that coolness is something we’re struggling with as makeup artists.”
Göran Lundström delights in his occupation the way many fans do as they consume it. When his attention is laser-focused, and he’s finding solutions to impossible problems, it’s easy for him to get lost in the artistry. The pride takes over, and wonder clouds his vision. Shedding the warm sensation that takes over is a legitimate challenge.
“We make art in a way that we admire it ourselves,” he says. “We do it until we’re happy with it. Sometimes that shines through, and it looks unreal, but it can be really pretty, though. I find that difficult.”
Recalling those three weeks after receiving Jared Leto’s phone call, Lundström doesn’t marvel at the speed at which he produced Paolo Gucci’s design. It’s merely proof that he can deliver on a dime. It’s another example to help shed the doubts that inevitably bubble up throughout a career.
“When you start questioning yourself,” says Lundström, “you foresee the issues that can come along. I know from experience there are always issues, always things that are not going to work the way you want them to. Once you start thinking like that, it just brings you down. If I start comparing myself to others or thinking, ‘What are people going to think about this makeup?’ That’s just a recipe for failure. You can’t think like that. That’s stage fright. I try not to think like that at all. It’s really hard.”
Göran Lundström makes people into other people. Preserving humanity is the mission no matter the job, but with each new one comes complications and difficulties. As long as he strives through indecision, the solutions always present themselves. And with them, so do more jobs. He just keeps working.
House of Gucci is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.