JoJo Williams, who led the makeup and hair department on the entire Small Axe series, shares stories about working with Steve McQueen and fitting hundreds of wigs.
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Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking Small Axe anthology series, which aired on the BBC late last year (and on Amazon Prime outside of the UK), retold key moments in recent Black British history. Each of the five episodes — Mangrove; Lovers Rock; Red, White and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education — takes place sometime in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and focuses on characters in London’s West Indian community. Mangrove, Red, White and Blue, and Alex Wheatle were based on true stories, but even the fictional Lovers Rock and Education draw heavily on McQueen’s own memories of his childhood, or the memories of his family.
Bringing this rich, underexplored history to life alongside McQueen was makeup and hair designer JoJo Williams, who was one of the few crew members who worked on all five episodes. She’s partly to thank (alongside the casting directors and costume designers) for how uncannily similar the actors look to the real life people they’re portraying, especially in Mangrove. Her attention to detail had people calling her up after watching the films to excitedly share, “Oh my God, I remember doing that with my hair!” She also helped ensure that a wide variety of Black hair was displayed in both the lead and background actors, something we so rarely see in British productions.
Williams, who has done extensive work on British TV (Broadchurch, Doctor Foster) and film (Blinded by the Light, Yardie), and is the personal stylist to Hollywood stars Idris Elba and Daniel Kaluuya, spoke to me over the phone about working on Small Axe. She had plenty of stories to share about collaborating with Steve McQueen, sourcing and fitting hundreds of wigs, and the whirlwind of designing five individual stories in a row.
Seventh Row (7R): When did you first see the finished versions of the Small Axe films?
JoJo Williams: Because of Covid, we didn’t get cast and crew screenings, which we usually would, so I’m watching it every week with the public. I just saw Education, and it was a tearjerker. I’d seen Mangrove when it was at the BFI London Film Festival. They live-streamed it, but I couldn’t work my computer so I had to watch it on my phone. Then, I watched it on the TV when it came out.
7R: What has it been like seeing the finished versions?
JoJo Williams: It’s like doing it all over again. It’s really emotional. When I watched Education the other night, I just had a huge sense of relief afterwards like when we finished shooting. It was such a huge effort from everybody to get these films off the ground in such a short period of time.
7R: How did you get involved with Small Axe?
JoJo Williams: I’d heard about it, and obviously, I was like, “I want to do that job! Dream job!” It had gone out to another designer, and my agent had put me forward for it, but it went to someone who had a BAFTA. They turned it down, and then it went to someone else. I was out in the States filming with Idris [Elba], and [I couldn’t do it because] they wanted to see someone ASAP. Then that other person didn’t take it because it was kind of a small budget. Then I landed in London the next day and my agent was like, “It’s still on the cards!” I’d literally landed and went straight in for an interview. They offered it, and it just felt right. I do a lot of work with darker skin tones and afro hair. They are such important stories, and working with Steve obviously… I was just so, so happy when I got it.
7R: What were your first conversations with Steve like? Did you have much time before shooting began?
JoJo Williams: We went straight into Mangrove; I had literally weeks. That’s [Mangrove is based on] a true story, so we started referencing stuff straight away. I had conversations with Steve and the producers about the real characters. We wanted to get the looks as close to the real people as possible. The casting, I thought, was fantastic. Have you seen pictures of the real Mangrove Nine?
7R: I’ve seen a few. It’s really well cast.
JoJo Williams: Yeah, Malachi [Kirby] especially looked so much like Darcus [Howe]. We worked from real footage, whatever we could find on video of the real people. We didn’t get the cast until probably a week before we shot.
I wanted it to look as authentic as possible, and in the UK, you can’t find afro hair wigs. A lot of them are synthetic. So I sourced real afro hair wigs from all over the world, which was a massive challenge to do in the budget I had. Synthetic wigs just look so generic, and I wanted to show different curl patterns and different hair textures and get them as close to the real people as I could.
7R: Since you had so little prep time, was it a case of prepping for each film one by one?
JoJo Williams: Yeah. Usually, when you do a six-part drama or a series, you have one cast. And that’s it. In Mangrove, for example, we would get the 16 main cast ready, out of the chair, and then on to set, as well as 50 supporting artists. It would be a huge call in the morning.They’d go to set, and I’d stay in the makeup trailer with my supervisor and get the next wave of actors from that episode.
And then, at the tail of that episode, I started speaking with Steve [about the next episode, Lovers Rock], because we shot that right after [Mangrove]. I’d be running to set while shooting Mangrove to Steve about ideas for Lovers Rock, or we’d have a quick meeting here and there. And then, suddenly, the next wave of people would start coming in from a different era and a different film. That’s kind of how it went throughout.
When we were filming Lovers Rock, there was a house party going on in one house, and I was in another house where we were with episode five characters doing seven-to- eight hour fittings a day. So it was just a constant flow of shooting and prepping at the same time, which was intense. You’d be like, what era is this?
7R: What order were they shot in?
JoJo Williams: Episode one and two was Mangrove and Lovers Rock, and then we did Alex Wheatle. That was all shot in London. Then, we went up to Wolverhampton in the Midlands and shot John Boyega’s episode, Red, White and Blue. We shot Education last.
7R: What was the timeframe for all of those?
JoJo Williams: I think we did a six-week shoot for Mangrove, [which was] the longest shoot. Lovers Rock, I think we did in three weeks, and Education was about 3 weeks. They were all around that length. We did have a break in between [Alex Wheatle and Red, White and Blue] to do a bit of prep before we moved up to Wolverhampton. It was full on!
I had different teams, sometimes. I had three different supervisors. A lot of people didn’t want to come up to Wolverhampton. I did the whole thing, but my team did change throughout, which was quite tough.
7R: What was putting your team together like? Were any of them on the project before you joined, or did you bring them together yourself?
JoJo Williams: No, I brought them all on. My supervisor Natasha [Nikolic] on Mangrove and Lovers Rock, she’s got a lot of experience in film. I needed super strong supervisors, and a really strong crowd supervisor, as well, because we had thousands of supporting artists. 95% of the people you see on screen had wigs on. It was a huge undertaking.
Obviously, I have a lot of diversity on my team. I’ve pushed for that throughout my career; it’s normal, for me. I needed people that had afro hair experience and wig experience.
Makeup was quite natural for a lot of [the films], although Lovers Rock had a bit more makeup.
7R: What was the research process like?
JoJo Williams: For the [films based on] true stories, we got as many real images and videos as we could. We watched films like Pressure (1976) by Horace Ové, which is about the Windrush generation, and films like Babylon (Franco Rosso, 1980), which was about the Brixton Riots.
There’s also a place in Brixton called the Black Cultural Archive which was a massive help for myself and the costume [department]. We got loads of images from different West Indian communities through different eras.
There were also great books, like Black Britain [by Paul Gilroy], and there’s a fantastic book called Lovers Rock by John Goto, which Steve and I absolutely loved. It’s basically a whole book of portraits of people he shot in a studio, in a house party like the one in Lovers Rock. He’d got them into a room and took pictures.
7R: You said that 95% of the people we see are wearing wigs. Was that just because hair has changed so much since then?
JoJo Williams: Absolutely. Obviously, you’ve got the late ‘60s and early’ 70s in Mangrove, and the early ‘80s with Lovers Rock, so we’re still feeling the ‘70s period, but we’re showing kids experimenting with pressing their hair, wearing certain hair accessories, or trying new makeup styles.
Lovers Rock was a really fun episode because we could do more experimenting. Steve and Shabier [Kirchner], the DP, really wanted to see different hair textures and styles, and the sheen on Black skin. Martha’s [the main character played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn] dress, that metallic purple that [costume designer] Jacqueline [Durran] made is stunning, so I kind of wanted to reflect that in the makeup look, as well.
7R: Could you talk a bit more about Steve McQueen as a collaborator? How hands on is he? I imagine he was pretty busy prepping five films.
JoJo Williams: I don’t know how he did it. He is amazing. He’s the most amazing director I’ve ever worked with. He has an eye for every department, and he’s incredibly detailed.
We got into a groove quite early on, which was incredible because it was such a big job. I knew what he liked and what he didn’t like early on. I could just go for it. Then, it was just a case of having a meeting with him if we had the time, or I’d go to set with pictures and ideas. He’d say, “That’s great!” or “That’s good, but could we tweak it.” It was a real partnership. It was lovely.
7R: What does the physical element of your prep look like? Do you make lookbooks or mood boards?
JoJo Williams: When we’ve got time, yes. We do lookbooks. We go through each character. Lovers Rock was the fictional one, and, to a point, Education was, too. [Unlike the other three,] they weren’t based on true stories. But a lot of the people in those episodes were [based on] people Steve knew.
With the guy at the door in Lovers Rock, I had the actor and came up with this idea with Jacqueline, but when Steve saw him, he was like, “No, no, no, he was a trad. I remember he had dreads.” And then, he tells you this story about this person. A lot of it was in his head, and it was really cool to bring to life people he’d actually known.
Even Education, I think, was based on his own experiences. I remember working on [Sharlene Whyte], who plays the mum. He’d [Steve would] be like, “My mum always had this tone on her lips.” So there were all these little details he remembered.
Jacqueline and I had fittings for part of Lovers Rock after we finished Mangrove. I think we had a week or two there. It was the first time I’d done fittings with a costume designer, because, usually, you’d do costume and makeup in different places. We were in the same building. Actors would come in, and I would put the wigs on, and she would put the costume on. We’d have the whole character there and then. It was a really cool collaboration.
7R: Could you tell me a bit more about your collaboration with Jacqueline, whom I’m a huge fan of, and with the other costume designers who worked on the different episodes?
JoJo Williams: She’s amazing. All of the designers were fantastic. We had Lisa Duncan, first of all [on Mangrove]. Going into Mangrove, we had so little prep time, it was like, “Hi! Ok, go, go, go!” She was prepping in a different location. I’d get pictures over. She’s fabulous, as well.
Jacqueline came on for Lovers Rock and Alex Wheatle. Like I said, it was just such a great experience for me having the costume designer at the same time and place, and for the actors, as well. When you do an actor’s hair and makeup, you can really see when they love it and feel that character, because you can see it in their face. It was a double whammy with Jacqueline there, as well. We had Sinéad [Kidao] come on [as costume designer] at the end for the last two episodes, in Wolverhampton, and that was similar actually because she wasn’t too far away. Sinéad’s fantastic, as well.
7R: Did you have much time to discuss with the actors how their characters were going to look?
JoJo Williams: On Mangrove, we did. The actors were also very conscious of the fact that we had to make them look like the people, especially Letitia [Wright who played Altheia Jones-LeCointe] and [Malachi Kirby who played Darcus Howe]. We wanted to get those really spot on, so we had a lot of input from them.
Lovers Rock was a very young cast. I think they were just so happy and excited to be part of a Steve McQueen film. Those were designed very much by me and Steve, because he knew those characters. They did have input, of course; it’s always a collaborative process with the actors. I might have an idea, the director might have an idea, and the producer might have an idea, but if the actor’s not comfortable, I won’t go ahead. Otherwise, they’re never going to feel that character.
7R: Did you have much of a collaboration with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner?
JoJo Williams: Shabier had all the camera tests input. We layered on a lot of facial hair [onto the characters]. It was great to work with him if something didn’t work wig-wise. He knew the amount of wigs we had, so he was very good at getting the angles right, and the lighting he used is just phenomenal. He is phenomenal.
7R: The whole show looks gorgeous.
JoJo Williams: Isn’t it, just stunning. It just blew me away. He’s amazing.
7R: When you have so many extras in a film, how do you approach bulk designing so they don’t all look the same, and so they all feel like real individuals, within the time constraints you had?
JoJo Williams: We work out the situation those people are going to be in, a bit of their backstory, and where they’re from. We do loads and loads of mood boards with research on that era and situation. I have a very strong team for supporting artists, and I had to work closely with the costume designers.
Steve is so detailed with the supporting artists, as well, so every single supporting artist came in for a fitting. All the pictures [from each fitting] would then go for Steve’s approval, and any ones that didn’t work would come back to me and costumes.
7R: I suppose the sheer number of supporting actors would have been the biggest challenge on either Mangrove or Lovers Rock?
JoJo Williams: Mangrove was tough just because of the scale of it. Lovers Rock, we all thought, “Oh Lovers Rock will be fine. It’s all in one day, no continuity.” But it was tough. It was a really high energy shoot, which you feel in the film. That was more stressful than I thought. Because they’re [the actors are] kids, as well, with a lot of energy. It was just a high energy few weeks.
7R: I guessed that one would have been fun to design because the way those characters are dressed and made up is so expressive.
JoJo Williams: It’s a coming-of-age story, isn’t it. I’ve had so many calls about that episode actually, especially about nostalgia, people going, “Oh my God, I remember doing that with my hair! I remember those dresses!” Even my mum was like, “I remember that!”
7R: How did you approach designing the main character, Martha, in that episode?
JoJo Williams: We came across the book Lovers Rock by John Goto, and you see her hair style throughout that book: the kind of pressed, flicked up look that was on trend [at the time]. Steve loved the idea of that.
Amarah, who plays Martha, has the thickest hair on the planet, I think. She has this beautiful, thick, thick hair, which was a real challenge to get under a wig. Sometimes, with afro hair, you don’t want to use it if it’s raining or it’s damp. Afro hair will react to damp. We wanted to use a wig because her own hair might change between scenes and ruin the continuity. To stop shooting and re-press it wouldn’t have worked. That was tough getting under a wig.
Actually, a lot of the actors had dreadlocks throughout the whole series, so that was a huge challenge, to get dreadlocks under wigs without noticing. We had to do two wigs on a couple of the ladies who had long locs. A lot of the guys had faded sides on their hair and dreads on the top which was a huge challenge to get under the wigs.
7R: Black hair is something that our culture has, and still does, politicise. I imagine that that was a consideration when designing the hair of the characters in Small Axe, several of whom are very politically engaged. How did that inform your approach?
JoJo Williams: We were keeping to true stories and true looks throughout most of it, really. Although in Education, with the two ladies who find out that Kingsley [the young main character played by Kenyah Sandy] is in the wrong school [and help him find a better, alternative education through the organisation they run], I thought we’d keep them with short afros. But Steve was like, for Naomi’s [Ackie] character, “No, she had straightened, European hair.”
I was excited to do this project because it’s an opportunity to show natural afro hair in its best light. Like you say, there’s a lot of history with afro hair, especially with women, so it was lovely in Lovers Rock to show women’s different approaches to their hair, and then with the activists, their afros and their natural hair. I’m always very keen, if I get an actor with afro hair, to show their natural hair.
7R: How did you approach styling John Boyega in Red, White and Blue?
JoJo Williams: For John, Steve and I agreed on his look, and we did reference Leroy Logan [the real man that Boyega plays] actually. But once we’d agreed on the look, and I’d got a wig made, actually, he was the only character someone else did. He brought his own makeup artist, so she did him.
7R: Alex Wheatle is very much about a character, Alex, discovering his heritage and finding himself, and it has the longest timespan of all the films. How did those aspects of the story inform your approach?
JoJo Williams: With Sheyi [Cole], who plays Alex, we needed to show him as a younger kid in the home, in the very white background he’d grown up with, so his hair didn’t really have style. He didn’t really know what to do with it. And then, he goes to Brixton and discovers his heritage and meets his friend who’s very into fashion.
With those three boys especially, I wanted them to have kind of a similar hairstyle, the blowout, which was on trend in the ‘80s. When you have a group of friends at that age, you all kind of look and dress the same. Also, Sheyi’s got incredible skin, so you could really make him look much younger. Then, we just layered on more facial hair as time went on. The continuity was back and forth!
7R: Could you tell me a bit more about designing Education? There are so many memorable characters in that one.
JoJo Williams: Lovely film. I think Steve based the parents on his parents. And obviously, the lady with the European hair. But we had really good fun with the school teachers: the guy playing the guitar, the not very nice lady. It was really fun, actually, because we got to do some white characters. Prior to that, there weren’t many. In that period, there were a lot of moustaches and sideburns, lots of different styles.
With the scene in the community hall and all the [parents discussing their children’s education], that was an interesting fitting. Most of those were supporting artists. We’d done the fitting with wigs and costumes, and they all looked great, and then Sinéad had a load of hats of that period come in.
There are a lot of older West Indian women who would have a handbag and a heavy jacket and a hat. But the hats wouldn’t go over any of the wigs, and we were like, “No!” So we had to quickly think of a different plan. Instead of wigs, we used bundles of afro hair that we’d cut and attach to the supporting artists’ heads, and sew or pin it in underneath the hats. It looked like hair, but it wasn’t actually a wig.
7R: I was going to ask what the most challenging film to work on was but I suppose it was Mangrove?
JoJo Williams: For me, I think it was.
7R: I imagine that might also be because it was the first one you worked on.
JoJo Williams: Exactly. It was the first one, and it’s iconic people. I remember Darcus; I know his son. I know the kids of Frank Crichlow. To me and for the actors, it was super important to get it right. And there were so many supporting actors. The whole thing was challenging, but that one was probably the most.
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