The Man Who Helps Johnny Depp Put His Face On


When Joel Harlow started his career, he was perfectly happy sleeping on the floor — as long as he was making monsters. He was doing what he always wanted: working as a makeup artist.

Joel Harlow has worked with Johnny Depp for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.


Years later, Harlow is no longer using peanut butter for monster touch-ups (yes, that happened). He’s worked with actor Johnny Depp on about a dozen films with some rather makeup-heavy characters.

The first time Joel Harlow did Depp’s makeup was for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. For that film, released in 2003, Depp played pirate Jack Sparrow. Most recently, the two worked together on The Lone Ranger, for which Harlow headed the makeup department. For this film, Depp plays Tonto, a Native American with white and black face paint and a dead crow perched on his head.

Harlow spoke with Rebecca Sheir, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, about Depp’s transformations.

On whether Depp has spent more time in the makeup chair than any other actor in Hollywood

“I’d say that’s probably pretty accurate. One of the things that I appreciate about Johnny is he doesn’t shy away from makeup, even extreme makeup or prosthetic makeup. It’s basically a philosophy of whatever it takes to create the character.”

On working with Depp

“It’s very collaborative. He’s very fluent in the art of makeup. He could probably do the job himself; I’m just fortunate enough that he has me doing it. But when we’re creating a character, it’s very collaborative.”

On creating the look for Tonto in The Lone Ranger

“We were filming The Rum Diary in Puerto Rico, and I was pulling images for this carnival sequence. … One of the images was a copy of this Kirby Sattler painting, I Am Crow, which is basically that [Tonto] look: It’s sort of the white war paint with the black stripes. And he pulled that aside and he said, ‘Let’s hold on to this because this might be a good look for Tonto.’ At which time I said, ‘You know, do you want to test it? I can start sculpturing nose, prosthetics, whatever we need. Get wigs made, build the bird, and we can put this thing together and take some photos.’ And that’s ultimately what we did on a weekend. And based on those pictures, that’s sort of what re-sparked getting this film made.”

On any apprehension in turning Depp into a Native American character

“He has Native American blood in him, you know, and he’s an actor. … Creating a character, I mean, you can’t worry about offending people because what we’re doing is fantasy. So no, I wasn’t worried about offending anybody. I just wanted to deliver, as an artist, the best version of this character, from my end, that I possibly could. And I think we achieved that.”