Rick Baker
INF Photo

My inner 10-year-old is over the moon. I’ve got a phone call with Rick Baker, the makeup virtuoso who’s spent the last four decades turning actors into beasts.

Baker’s the guy who transformed David Naughton into a slavering wolf in An American Werewolf in London, turned Jim Carrey into a furry green fiend for Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and let Martin Landau inhabit the cadaverous form of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. He’s long been Eddie Murphy’s go-to guy for total body transformations, working with the actor on both Nutty Professor films, Life and Norbit. And he’s designed the creature suits for all three of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black movies, which is why we’re talking now: Men in Black 3 arrives on disc this week.

“What’s fun about a Men in Black movie is [that] Barry considers me to be a collaborator and actually wants my input,” he says. “He knows that I have some good ideas, and considers that part of my job – not just to be a guy who sticks makeup on somebody, but actually conceptualizes things and thinks about them.”

In Men in Black 3, Baker’s key prosthetic triumph is turning Jemaine Clement, flubby-faced star of Flight of the Conchords, into a massive, nihilistic alien called Boris the Animal. Other than Clement’s Kiwi accent and the curl of his mouth, there’s not much left of the guy.

“I did want to make him unrecognizable,” Baker admits over the phone from Los Angeles. “I don’t think that Jemaine in real life looks anything like this intimidating biker from space – and in makeup, he was intimidating, you know?”

He pauses. “A lot of the women on the set were saying ‘He’s really sexy like that,’” Baker laughs. “Even though he’s got goggles that are shoved into his head.”

Yeah, speaking of that. Boris is a pretty extreme design, with the goggles fused into his face and the little monster that lives inside his hand. But Baker swears the whole thing is designed with performance in mind.

“I mean, the last thing I want to do is to make it impossible for the actor to act, you know?” he says, laughing. “I think any actor that I work with benefits from the fact that I know what it’s like on the other side. I started [by] making myself up, had the experience of actually putting this stuff on my own face, and I think my designs reflect that.”

Baker’s particularly happy about how Boris turned out, as he’s had more of a hand than usual in the character’s creation.

“There was a character in the script originally who was called Yaz, who was a virus, and came to Earth to eat people,” Baker explains. “But there were a lot of things that I just didn’t think made sense. And I kinda said, ‘This doesn’t make sense to me, and I think this would be better,’ and I pitched the idea, my concept of what I thought Boris was, and why he was the way he was. That’s one of the first things I did, was reconceptualize that character.”

I can’t pass up the chance to ask Baker about his work on Joe Johnston’s 2010 remake of The Wolfman, which was supposed to relaunch the classic Universal monster through the magic of practical makeup effects. Benicio del Toro willingly subjected himself to hours of prosthetic work to play the eponymous monster, and Baker – who won his first Academy Award for his work on John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London – was excited about the chance to make one more old-school beast.

“Benicio really wanted the Jack Pierce makeup [for] Lon Chaney Jr, on his face – and I said, ‘I kinda do, too – I just want to amp it up a little bit.’ I didn’t think totally copying that makeup would be accepted,” Baker says. “But yeah, we both went in on that film with a real love for this sort of material, and we kinda bonded over that,” he laughs.

Baker’s work is fantastic – it earned him his seventh and most recent Oscar – though we don’t see nearly as much of it as we should, thanks to post-production editorial decisions that turned the film into an amped-up mess. And it turns out the makeup wasn’t the only thing that was lost in the shuffle.

“The sets were really cool,” Baker says. “That’s one of the fun things about doing a film like that – you’re, like, time-traveling. To be in these cool sets – or even cool locations with hundreds of extras in period costumes and stuff, like the Gypsy camp on the moors – that’s one of the really fun things about the film business.

“And it is true, [for] the people that are behind the scenes, creative people who work so hard on the most minute details – so many times, you’re sitting in the audience, you never see that,” he chuckles. “But we care about all we do, you know?”

Men in Black 3 is released on Blu-ray and DVD Friday, November 30.