‘Shallow Hal’ Fat Suit Not Just Skin-Deep
Audiences have come to expect the outrageous from the Farrelly brothers, the directing duo behind the gross-out gags of “There’s Something About Mary.” But their new comedy, “Shallow Hal,” offers perhaps the most shocking sight of all: famously svelte Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow emoting while encased in a fat suit.
In the 20th Century Fox film, which opens Friday, the looks-obsessed title character, played by “High Fidelity’s” Jack Black, receives the ability to see women’s exteriors reflect their inner beauty. Thus he sees Paltrow’s good-hearted Rosemary as the actress’ 120-pound self, while others see Rosemary in all her 350-pound girth.
The challenge of making Paltrow recognizable through the prosthetic makeup, wig and layers of foam and spandex fell to makeup-effects designer Tony Gardner. “No one had really taken a woman in a [fat] suit this far before,” Gardner says.
Beginning with a body cast of Paltrow, the makeup effects team took three months to perfect the heavy makeup and construct her form-fitting suit, which actually weighed only about 25 pounds. Working on someone as thin as Paltrow was a plus, because her body formed a very solid, non-flabby understructure. The makeup was more difficult because Gardner had to preserve her most distinctive facial features, her cheekbones and jawline.
“It’s a weird Catch-22,” Gardner says, “because you need for people to see her enough to know that it’s her, but you need to bury her in it successfully enough so that it moves realistically.”
Paltrow’s suit needed to be designed for mobility as well as form; ultimately, Gardner had multiple suits built at his Los Angeles shop to simulate how weight shifted when she was sitting, standing and running. The suits were built in pieces: an upper body that zips up the spine and a lower half, from the 48-inch waist to the kneecaps, that zips up the front like a pair of pants. In addition, there were separate pieces for each calf and gloves for her hands made of silicone. (The prostheses were built by Artist’s Asylum.)The first time Paltrow saw herself in the full suit and makeup, at a test in a New York hotel room before filming began, she was overwhelmed. “I had a thousand emotions. I was laughing and crying, and I was shocked and loved it,” she says. “It was very intense.”
She quickly found she had to adjust her posture and pace. Her arms didn’t hang at her sides anymore and, with the added mass between her thighs, Paltrow had to learn to walk differently. Says Gardner, “It was hilarious because the movement she was making versus the mass that she had didn’t go together at all.”
“I had no sense of where I ended,” Paltrow says. “Being in the suit, it’s like you have to create body language; fat dictates your body language. So once I found the center of gravity in the suit and didn’t knock things over, then I had the physicality of it.”
To see if she looked believable, Gardner asked Paltrow if she would go down the restaurant in the lobby and order a drink. No one recognized her.
“Besides the excess weight, we’d done her to look unattractive also,” he says. “We sent her down to the bar with one of the wardrobe assistants, whose name is Michelle, and Michelle was all decked out and had her hair slicked back. Michelle is a very attractive woman, so she and Gwyneth go down together, and Gwyneth’s 350 pounds, wearing a black-and-white Christmas-print Hawaiian shirt, black tights and slippers.”
For Paltrow it was an eye-opening experience. When the two walked up to the bar, the bartender half-smiled at her and then focused all his attention on Michelle.
“No one would even look at me,” Paltrow says. “If I was walking by a table, you know how naturally you just glance up. But people would see that I was heavy in their peripheral vision and not look, because I think they assume that’s the polite thing to do. It was incredibly isolating and really lonely and sad.”
It was an experience Paltrow thinks others should have. “I didn’t expect it to feel so upsetting,” she says. “I thought the whole thing would be funny, and then as soon as I put it on, I thought, well, you know, this isn’t all funny.”
The reaction to Paltrow from the film’s crew, however, was completely the opposite. For most of the shoot, when she was made up as herself, people on the crew were intimidated by her celebrity and beauty.
It was “a very interesting sociological experiment watching her on set,” says co-director Peter Farrelly. “When she had the suit on, she couldn’t shake the crew. Suddenly people were not as nervous, and it was fascinating to me.”
The prosthetic makeup and wig took more than two hours to apply each day for the two weeks that Paltrow was filmed in the suit. Every makeup piece was destroyed in the removal process, so Gardner had to have several backup sets on hand for each day.
“They basically Krazy-Glue it to your face,” Paltrow says of the face piece. “It takes an hour to get it off, and it just feels like your head is wrapped in Saran Wrap and then covered in something very heavy. So it’s very claustrophobic.”
Not to mention hot. Though the Farrellys originally discussed shooting in the fall or up north, they wanted a location with reliably sunny weather. They picked Charlotte, N.C., which became sweltering in the last weeks of the shoot in June, exactly when Paltrow had to wear the suit.
Up until the 1996 remake of “The Nutty Professor” with Eddie Murphy, Gardner says, “I think fat suits were just looked at as a lot simpler, more functional, like padding. And then with ‘The Nutty Professor,’ Rick Baker took the technology for creature suits and adapted that to the fat suit so that there was more of an anatomical sense of mobility,” setting the standard for Gardner.
Fat suits seem to be in vogue this year.
Julia Roberts sports one briefly in “America’s Sweethearts,” and Martin Short wears one as faux celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick on the Comedy Central series “Primetime Glick.” Courteney Cox Arquette occasionally dons one for flashback scenes on “Friends,” and the Damon Wayans sitcom “My Wife and Kids” recently had an episode with the whole family suited up.
Why so many suits? Gardner believes they allow comic actors to let loose by inhabiting a character who looks as different from them as possible: “I noticed that even when we did Gwyneth’s makeup on a test double that, no matter how strait-laced the person was, when they were completely covered in the makeup and the costume and the hair, it was like some of them seemed to feel like they could get away with murder.”
In “Shallow Hal,” though, Paltrow doesn’t engage in much physical comedy, in or out of the suit, which isn’t really seen until the film’s last 15 minutes.
In fact, the film for the most part eschews the gross-out humor for which the Farrellys are known.
Overweight people’s groups expressed concern that “Shallow Hal” would be a string of fat jokes. The Farrellys have been quick to screen the film to assuage fears.
“We have nothing to hide,” Farrelly says. “This movie’s heart is in the right place.”
Says Gardner, “Pete and Bob described it as a valentine to anyone who’s overweight or considered unattractive by other people.”
Farrelly, who is married and has two small children, says, “You’ve got to realize that if you fall in love with a particular person and you do marry them and you spend your life with them, they’re not going to look like that in 40 years. So you better be in love with the thing inside.”