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Making Johnny Depp look like Whitey Bulger

Joel Harlow knows how to create monsters from makeup — and not just the fantasy-fiction kind.

Now that trailers for the Whitey Bulger movie “Black Mass” have rolled out, Harlow’s latest work is on full display. Footage shows Johnny Depp transformed into the notorious Irish mobster — capacious forehead, receding hairline and all.

“The hairpiece looks beautiful,” said Joe Fordham, associate editor of Cinefex, a quarterly journal that reports on special and visual effects.

Fordham, who is based in Riverside, Calif., and has covered Harlow’s career for years, said the artist built a stellar reputation with his deep knowledge of materials (chemicals, foams, and silicones) as well as his skill at navigating artistic temperaments.


“He works right in the face of people all of the time,” Fordham said. “It requires good people management.”

Harlow has a longstanding partnership with Depp, counting two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, “Dark Shadows,” and “The Lone Ranger” among his projects. (Also on his CV: “Inception” and quite a few episodes of “Mad Men.”)

Some of Harlow’s most impressive work came on J.J. Abrams’s 2009 “Star Trek” reboot for which he won an Oscar. He was also nominated for his makeup work in “The Lone Ranger.”

But working on fictional characters is different than creating a likeness of someone as well-known as Bulger.

“To subtly age an actor in a realistic way is something that many would greatly aspire to, but it’s really hard to do,” said Fordham, comparing Harlow’s talent to the pioneering Dick Smith, whose credits include “Taxi Driver” and “The Godfather.”

“The tricky thing is that you don’t want to overdo it,” Fordham said, of re-creating a 50-year-old Bulger. “You don’t want to look like a guy with a lot of rubber stuck on his face. You have to get a semblance and if he’s well-known, it’s very difficult. It’s a real tightrope.”


Related coverage:

Meet the cast of the local Whitey Bulger movie

‘Black Mass’ films in Dorchester

Double-takes abound as Bulger movie films in Cambridge

Jill Radsken can be reached at jill.radsken@gmail.com.